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Op-Ed: Ports as sites for security and defense

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By Professor Basil Germond, Chair in International Security and co-director of the Security Lancaster Research Institute and Professor Jan Bebbington, Rubin Chair in Sustainability in Business and director of the Pentland Centre, Lancaster University.

Ports are core infrastructures of the global maritime supply chain, whose value extends beyond their contribution to state prosperity. Ports exercise an important security function for a wide array of commercial actors as they are the gateway through which most world trade passes. At the same time, current geopolitical tensions make ports more complex locations.

Ports, organized crime, and homeland security

Ports are entryways and gateways for prohibited and counterfeit items but also for criminals and terrorists. Addressing maritime crime (e.g., illegal fishing, drug smuggling, human trafficking) requires structured efforts and complex measures to monitor flows and enforce regulations. This cannot be achieved without a high degree of trust and cooperation between law enforcement agencies, maritime actors (e.g., shipping companies, fishing industry, maritime insurances), and port authorities, which need clear guidance and information to be able to implement measures in an efficient, targeted, and cost-effective way. In addition, some illegal flows (for example illegally caught fish) are not themselves prohibited (compared with, for example, drugs) requiring some way in which to distinguish legal and illegal goods in supply chains.

Moreover, in the current geopolitical context, ports are key sites for homeland security. There are risks of interference by agents of hostile states engaged in transnational repression, intelligence gathering, and other disruptive activities. Ports are critical infrastructures and thus can be targeted by malicious activities “under the threshold,” otherwise known as grey zone activities, which aim at destabilizing Western economies and political systems without risking an overt war. Hence the emphasis on the protection of critical undersea infrastructures (i.e., pipelines and communication cables). But ports themselves can be targeted, either kinetically or with cyber-attacks that would stop or slow maritime traffic for potentially extended periods of time. Disruption of global supply chains during the Covid-19 pandemic and the inadvertent blocking of the Suez Canal demonstrates how problematic any halt in maritime traffic will be.

Ports, states, and security: converging and diverging interests

The security function of ports is crucial but convergences and divergences of interests between ports, states, and other stakeholders of the global maritime order make security governance a challenging task.

Governments are driven by the need to address the threats posed by organized crime, terrorism, and hostile states. They need commercial actors to comply with national and international norms and regulations, including on prohibited items, sanctions, and export control. But they also want ports to be thriving economic actors as part of the liberal economic system, and thus tend to facilitate economic ventures.

Most ports are driven by the search for profitability and business continuity (even when state-owned). However, business operations and investments require some degree of security and certainty at sea and in ports. The international and sensitive nature of port business necessitates close relationship with governments and being trusted by them.

Additionally, who constitutes the “port” is not clear. The industry’s organizational model means that port authorities are but one stakeholder of the transnationally operating maritime sector that includes suppliers, subsidiaries, customers, investors (both lenders and port owners), workforce, insurers, and other port-based actors (with port hinterlands often extending well beyond the port formal boundaries). This adds complexity to coordinating efforts, including for security purposes. Governments can impose blanket checks, but this is often unrealistic.

For instance, the cost of systematically collecting the information on transiting cargo is high, because it is often necessary to work through the entire supply chain, upstream (provenance) and downstream (destination). The multinational organizational structure of port business (including multiple ownerships) also means that political allegiances are not as simple as ‘one port-one state-one flag’. All this creates converging and diverging interests across the value chain and political system.

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The geopolitical dimension

The civilian maritime sector contributes to sanctions against Russia. Major shipping companies (except the Chinese ones) have suspended their operations to and from Russia. This significant collective effort has a cost. For instance, in its Interim Report for the third quarter 2022, Maersk evaluates that “winding down in Russia” has resulted in “a net EBIT (Earning Before Interests and Taxes) impact of negative USD 532m.” Declining trade with Russia and the ban on Russian ships has also impacted business in some ports, as reported by Rotterdam.

In war zones, ports are key targets. Indeed, as demonstrated by Russia’s attempt to disrupt Ukraine’s supply chain, blockades are hard to implement (both for tactical, naval reasons and because of a lack of credibility), whereas port infrastructures and related entrepots can be damaged and thus constitute alternative targets when blockades become ineffective.

In another example, China has, until recently, been able to invest heavily in Western ports via Chinese private companies, e.g., in Piraeus, Antwerpen, Rotterdam, Gdynia and others where Chinese companies own and operate terminals and infrastructures. Yet, Chinese private companies have close ties with the CCP, entailing risks of political interference and meddling with European critical infrastructures. Beyond these geopolitical risks, there is a long-term economic risk: if tensions between the West and China increase and sanctions are imposed on Beijing, this might lead to the closure or disruption of operations in major European terminals.

Ports at the center of the security nexus

The stability of the maritime order and the security of the global supply chain heavily depend on effective performance of security functions by ports, which are situated at the center of the security nexus. There is a convergence of disruptive activities at ports that include transnational crime, terrorism, and interference by hostile states. It is thus crucial to acknowledge the role of ports in this process and to advocate for closer collaboration between states, port authorities and the myriad of other relevant maritime actors.

Source: MarineLog