Global Vessels

After a day or so of a ship being beached in the Suez Canal, blocking all other traffic from passing through, the broadcast news began to do the sort of vaguely connected interviews TV does best. Cameras and reporters searched Britain for the owners of businesses whose goods were currently on the Ever Given (the unfortunate vessel) or held up because it was stuck.

These people were then asked what it was like to be in such a strange position and being connected to something so out of the ordinary. And they, almost to a man, seemed both a little put out and rather confused. Everyone interviewed said that although they had been held up, their goods could probably wait, but that — given the ways of the world — they felt for those expecting medical necessities or perishables by cargo ship.

Each day the ship was grounded cost the global economy something in the region of £7 billion as queues of other transports piled up either side of the canal. Other ships bet that the canal would be closed for time they could not spare, prompting a mass of ships from either side to attempt their intended journeys by the old route of traversing the Cape of Good Hope.

When the Ever Given was freed there was rejoicing from the Canal Authority; they and others had expected weeks of tailback, billions of pounds of losses. All from a single accident which although possible — the canal is long and not easy to navigate — was hardly expected. ‘We managed to refloat the ship in record time. If such a crisis had occurred anywhere else in the world, it would have taken three months to be solved’, Osama Rabie, the head of the Suez Canal Authority, said. To take him at his word, what now looks like a minor incident could have been significantly worse.

Daily life and the world economy rely on shipping; yet only periodically does something snarl the system up enough to merit broad attention. This may attest to impressive cohesion in what is a cumbersome business, more dependent on fair winds and calm seas than lines of work where those terms are metaphorical. But it may also indicate entitlement and expectation among those who are dependent on the regular movement of cargo, but not aware of its more parlous aspects.

Regular users of ship tracking websites were treated to a series of pitiful spectacles in 2018 as ships desperately attempted to deliver their cargoes amid the disruption American and Chinese tariffs wrought to international trade. The Peak Pegasus, which carried 70,000 tonnes of American soya beans, at first streaked across the Pacific in August 2018 in the hope of arriving in China before tariffs were imposed.

But once tariffs came into force, scotching this rush, it floated around the ocean desultorily for almost a month before arriving in port, like a guest who fears he may be unwelcome hesitating for a moment upon the doorstep.

Force as well as economics can show up the somewhat rackety way goods and resources are still transported. Iranian naval vessels periodically threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf to all traffic, which would be a not insignificant challenge to the world’s supply of oil (of which a fifth travels through the strait) and natural gas. This is mainly posturing each time it is proposed, but prompts worried coverage every time nonetheless.

When Iran threatened individual tankers with boarding and internment in 2019, it fell to British naval vessels including HMS Montrose to warn off the interlopers and keep the shipping lanes open.

An international naval mission patrols the waters around Somalia for the same reason — to prevent the Horn of Africa’s pirates from seeing too many enticing and unguarded targets among the merchant shipping. Cargo ships are large and heavy. They are barely guarded, with crew sizes kept to a cost-effective minimum. Undefended, they would make easy marks for hijacking and hostage-taking.

In the South China Sea, interference with commercial vessels is an increasing fact of life. China has built a large navy and amassed a collection of hundreds of ‘fishing vessels’ to enforce its territorial claims, something which worries the Philippines to the point of seeking international arbitration and trying to scare these ships off with military flybys.

All of these examples prove something this modern Suez crisis also attests: that international trade, for all its pretence of seamlessness and regularity, is built upon the simultaneous operation of any number of moving parts, the unwelcome action of hostile forces notwithstanding.

For all the sophistication of the modern information economy, the stuff upon which international trade is built is a good deal cruder. As this week has shown, the successful running of world trade just as often relies upon packing things into standardised containers, placing them upon unwieldy behemoths of the sea, and trusting that enough will go well that they safely reach their intended destination.

This piece was originally published at The Critic.

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