Like a ship circumnavigating the globe
«Everything flows», an insight which dates back to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, certainly applies to the movement of international trade. Maritime centres originated in the Middle East and thence moved to Asia via Europe and the USA. Will the westward transition continue?
Various waterborne means of transport have facilitated trade since the dawn of human history, and ships have been used to carry all types of goods since ancient times. Over the millennia, global trade flows have undergone increasingly rapid transformation, and in the meantime the maritime industry has become a thoroughly international business.
In this context it is particularly fascinating to look at maritime developments in an economic and political context. Conversely, shipping, as one of the most important drivers behind growth in international trade, also has a large impact on the overall economy.
As an essential aspect of globalisation, international transport is one of the main reasons behind the transition undergone by the world’s economy from a national system to a closely intermeshed network. The transport business has thus always taken it for granted that the global perspective is the only way of looking at the business world.
Asia dominates the top ten
Europe has traditionally played a vital role in the maritime sector. Time-honoured trading centres such as Hamburg and London were long regarded as the unchallenged focal points of the maritime world. But conditions have been changing over the past century.
Today, nine of the world’s ten busiest ports in terms of cargo throughput are in China. Shanghai once again led the field last year, although the industry’s number two, Singapore, has repeatedly given it a good run for its money.
Parallel to this trend there is a shift in companies’ business locations along the entire logistics and maritime services chain. A key factor behind this trend is the relocation of the manufacturing industry, in particular to China.
Although this mass migration of companies has slowed considerably, logistics firms, as well as providers of all kinds of services to the transport industry, are still swarming eastward. The Southeast Asian country Singapore, for example, has welcomed an uninterrupted flood of companies arriving from overseas and opening their regional headquarters there, or even managing all of their activities from the city-state.
Singapore’s government has designated the maritime industry as one of its key economic sectors, adding attractive tax incentives to the advantageous geographical location as factors prompting companies to move to the island nation.
Dubai gaining ground
Nor is the competition standing still. Ninth-ranked Dubai, the only port in the top ten that is not located in the Far East, already stands out from the crowd. But if analysts are to be believed, ports in the Middle East are likely to play a much more important role as international hubs in the medium term.
Dubai in particular, with its Jebel Ali hub, is aiming high. By 2030, the emirate intends to overtake current leader Shanghai in terms of cargo throughput, and is backing up this ambition with massive infrastructure investments (see also ITJ 21-22 / 2013, page 27). DP World, which operates Jebel Ali, plans to increase the port’s annual capacity from 14 million teu at present to 55 million teu in the year 2030.
Located between two continents
Like Singapore – which, incidentally, intends to build a new port capable of handling 68 million teu a year – Dubai seeks to leverage its favourable geographical location between continents. Along with easy access to Asia and Europe, Dubai sees a competitive advantage in its close proximity to Africa.
Dubai faces a headwind not only from Asia, however, but also from much closer to home. For example, the government of Oman recently gave the green light to the new South Batinah logistics hub. The centre will be located approximately halfway between the historic city of Muscat and the new port of Sohar, which will take over all activities of the former Muscat hub from August onwards (see ITJ 23-26 / 2014, page 16).
On the Westline
If Dubai’s plans pan out, this would do more than just delight the rulers of the emirate. It would also provide new evidence to back the so-called Westline theory, put forward in the 1990s by Martin Stopford. The British economist and non-executive president of Clarkson Research argues that global trade has steadily drifted westward over the past 5,000 years, starting in what is now Lebanon in around 3,000 BC.
From there, the centre of maritime trade moved through Greece, Rome and Northern Italy before settling in northwestern Europe. This resulted in the formation of Hanseatic cities in Germany, and with the introduction of steam shipping on the east coast of the USA that region also played a key role.
The 20th century saw the ascendancy of the Pacific region, with a rise in importance of Japan, South Korea and China. The emergence of Singapore also supports this line of argument, and a transition to Dubai would be the next logical step. Each of these changes is linked to economic activity in the respective countries. As old centres go into decline, new ones surge to the forefront. According to Stopford, the world of modern trade is a bit like a ship circumnavigating the globe.
US ports in competition
Although they are not at the centre of global maritime trade at present, ports on the American continent are probably engaged in the most intense arms race among container terminal operators worldwide. They are jockeying for a better position ahead of the opening of the expanded Panama Canal – a development that represents one of the biggest upheavals in the history of maritime trade. Despite several postponements of the completion date (now expected in 2015 or 2016), the project already looms large on many a centre’s horizon.
Once ships with a capacity of up to 13,000 teu can sail through the Panama Canal, then it may be worthwhile for ships carrying cargo from Asia to take that route to US ports on the US Gulf coast or the eastern seaboard. This has triggered infrastructure upgrade efforts at ports in these regions. Bridges are getting higher, berths longer and container cranes bigger, to prepare the gateways to handle larger vessels.
East versus West
Today, cargo for this part of the important US consumer market arrives in the country mainly via west coast ports, especially Los Angeles and Long Beach, before being transported to its final destination by road or rail.
Despite determined efforts by those ports to cling to their status, a shift in market shares between the west and east coasts of North America appears almost inevitable. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that Canadian ports have also been handling larger cargo volumes on the North American west coast in recent years, and play an ever-increasing role in the transhipment of goods destined for the US Midwest.
This has spawned new alliances, for example between erstwhile bitter rivals Seattle and Tacoma, who entered into a cooperative arrangement at the beginning of this year, with the goal of defending their market positions.
Jamaican hubs seeking opportunities
Port operators in the Caribbean, led by Jamaican hubs, also see fresh opportunities in the expansion of the Panama Canal. In addition to new ULCV-capable terminal facilities, a regional special economic area is being established.
On the other side of the world, China is currently striving to expand its business contacts, especially with emerging markets. This will increase the importance of south–south trade flows, especially between China and Africa and South America. The reason for this – as is so often the case – is natural resources. China is not only an importer of raw materials, but is also becoming more active in extracting minerals and other commodities in the source countries.
What is new, however, and motivated by entirely different aims, is China’s intensified push into Europe. The state-owned shipping group Cosco is now extremely active in Greece, for example. The company sees great potential there, particularly in the port of Piraeus (near Athens), which it plans to develop into the largest port on the Mediterranean as well as the region’s most important gateway. It will play a major role, especially as a gateway to the Balkans and southern Europe. The losers here might be other Mediterranean transhipment ports such as Gioia Tauro in Italy.
Backed by the state
China and Dubai have one thing in common: Firms active in the maritime sector there often have government backing for their activities. The economic order in these countries differs from that of the western democracies, with a different set of rules governing the players shaping business life there. The end of history has not been reached yet by a long chalk.
Trade flows shift and ports respond. But ultimately, these investments are a roll of the dice. There are too many factors influencing the routes open to shippers for their production and sales channels, and that won’t change in the future (see also page 70). The most recent example thereof is the development of relations between Russia and the European Union.
However, economic development is an ever-present source of change too, as seen in the increase in near-shoring (from the USA to Mexico, for example) or an accelerating shift of Chinese production centres from coastal to inland sites. But as an old gaming saying goes – «nothing ventured, nothing gained».