10 July 2012

The rise of the dragon

Until the Second World War, the global Merchant Marine fleet was basically an imperial one.
It operated in the so-called "protected markets". The world, then, was a vast net of water-tight protectorates, with a very small amount of communication in-between. In those days, the merchant fleet was orthodox in its commercial approach and territorial in its own area of influence. Basically, the Europeans dominated the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Indian basins leaving the Pacific to be mostly shared between the Americans and the Far-Easterners.
Aside from a few interactions, nobody bothered to question the sanctity of this establishment. Things were OK that way.
Those were the days of the traditional flags. Meaning that every nation had its own merchant fleet, registered under its own flag. The market was heavily regulated. Both in the commercial matters and in the labour ones.
In those days having the nationality of the vessel was a nearly-global mandatory requirement for achieving a job as a seaman.
But then came the Second World War. And the world equilibrium of forces started to collapse. And so did the Empires. And, within six years, the war was over.
Suddenly, somewhere between the end of the forties and beginning of the fifties, the world had a vast fleet of thousands of "Liberty Ships" and former "imperial" vessels alongside. And all of them desperately craving for a freight contract.
And so did happen. While the world was being rebuilt over the second global conflict, we, mariners, entered happily in a new-era of globalization. And I say new-era because the actual globalization have started four hundred years before those days, with the Portuguese Discoveries.
First in the form of convenience flags (with the purpose of making the fleets commercially competitive) and afterwards (as a direct consequence of the latter) in the form of labour market deregulation, the globalization arrived to the modern maritime world.
It's hard, presently, to attribute a direct responsibility to anyone for the happening. Like most things in human History, this had also a direct relation between cause and effect.
And one of the causes being the traditional maritime nations starting the loose the vocation to the sea. And it happened through all European maritime nations. Faced with (at the time) large fleets and no crews, these nations started to open their labour markets to foreign citizens.
However, and regardless of that, the European maritime power was still hegemonic. And that hegemony lasted until now. To the days in which our European economic power, once mighty, is being challenged by the so-called "emerging nations".
And so is our Merchant Fleet (or what is left of it).
I'm not a very old professional mariner. Truth being told, I've started my professional life about seventeen years ago. But I do remember, not long ago, the racist comments I used to listen on the VHF open channels and related to the non-European seafarers navigating in our waters.
Nowadays those colleagues are respected members of our profession and were embraced (due to their proven value) by the maritime community.
But things continuously change. And while we are sitting and enjoying the view of the China's rising economic star, we should also take a time to see and analyse the development of their global transport net.
Once a timid regional player, China is now opening her eyes to the more profitable global freight market.
And so we see them now. Calling every deep water port in Europe. The Coscos and the China Shipping Lines. And this is just the beginning.
While I was tramping in the North European short-sea market, some nine years ago, I had the chance to discuss that with the Bar Pilot leading us in the port of Rotterdam. According to him, they still have a "shy" approach to shipping. They take (at that time, at least) a Deep-Sea Pilot while arriving to Ouessant and they don't disembark him until they left the North Sea for good (and with that crazy traffic... who can blame them?). Also according to him, their English is very, very weak. And fluent English is now becoming mandatory for any seaman.
But I guess this is not a problem. There's one beautiful thing about us humans: we can learn anything if we are taught. So, soon they will learn their English and they will be ruling our waters as they are already ruling our economy.
Unless we learn mandarin first.
The container carrier Xin Pu Dong (IMO nº 9270440), from China Shipping Line, entering the port of Rotterdam, under escort by two tugboats, pictured from the bridge of our "petit" Wani Venture (IMO nº 9117208).
Photo taken with Nikon FM3A and Nikkor 28-105mm AF 1:3.5-4.5 D kit lens.
Shot on Fujichrome Velvia ASA 50 and scanned on Nikon Coolscan V ED.
Post-processing in Adobe Photoshop CS3.