What the Ever Given saga could teach us about the world

Washington Post, 30 March 2021 – https://tinyurl.com/38ws8xx4

The mishap led to the huge container ship choking off the Suez Canal, a man-made strait that sees more than a tenth of all global shipping pass through every year, for almost a week, serving as a reminder of the extent to which the global economy still moves on sea — that is, about of 70% of all international trade. The ship’s journey saw it conveying goods from Asia to Europe. It ran aground amid a Middle Eastern sandstorm and was rescued by a multinational coalition that included Japanese and Dutch salvage teams and local Egyptian tugboat operators. The ship’s 25 crew members were all Indian nationals, part of a legion of close to 2 million seafarers — many from impoverished backgrounds in South and Southeast Asia — who literally keep international trade moving. Thanks to coronavirus-era border restrictions, hundreds of thousands of sailors have languished aboard their often cramped ships beyond the terms of their contracts, invisible workers in what one captain described as the “shadow sector” of the global economy. The ship’s ordeal also highlighted the fragility of the global economy. Over the past half- century capacity on cargo ships has mushroomed by about 1,500%, expanding the range of available consumer goods and lowering prices around the world. The vulnerabilities of an interdependent world, where one product may be produced and delivered through supply chains threading multiple continents, are also on show. Even shipments that don’t go through Suez will be affected, as factories wait on essential components arriving from elsewhere before they can make products to send off. It highlights a world of choke points and how important a handful of key maritime passages is to the whole global economy, as well as the strategic calculations of regional powers, including potential standoffs between rival navies. China is dependent on vast imports of oil and iron ore and has arguably structured the bulk of its foreign policy – including its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative – to secure its far-flung trade networks. China imports nearly 3/4 of the oil it consumes, as well as about 4/5 of the iron ore it uses to fuel its frantic pace of infrastructure buildout – not to mention most of the goods exports it uses to obtain hard currency to pay for these commodities, making it peculiarly vulnerable to maritime blockades. Choke points such as the Suez Canal are bound to be even greater sites of geopolitical rivalry and tension, highlighting the need for world powers to figure out a collective system for administering them. [And all the more reason for us to find ways to live better with less in a world already consuming more that our planet can safely produce!]

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