地缘贸易博客This blog considers how ideas and events framed by geography and trade shape our world, while sharing observations and analysis on discovery, transport, industry and much more.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Space exploration in the 21st century – who will go forth?

The Russian Mir Space Station
In April 2011, it is 50 years since a Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Since then progress was rapid, in full Cold-War fervour, only 8 years separated Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the surface of the moon. Although the moon landings handed a temporary victory to the US, the Soviet Union dominated spaceflight for the next decade (the seventies) with pioneering missions to the first space stations Salyut and Mir to experiment on the effects of long periods in space.

In a new film called First Orbit original footage of Yuri Gagarin's 108-minute voyage is spliced together with new shots of the exact route he would have taken, filmed by an astronaut on board the International Space Station. The station's orbit was specially changed to mirror the Russian's 1961 flight path. The film was released on 12 April to mark the 50th anniversary. Below is a trailer of the film:

US Space Exploration

Gagarin's solo mission signaled an early milestone in a Cold War space race between the former Soviet Union and the US. Eventually, NASA caught up and raced ahead, landing a dozen men on the moon as part of the Apollo program between 1969 and 1972. The US really began to lead the space race with the launch of its Space Shuttle Programme in 1981. The US was the Space Leader by the early 1990s. But the risk and cost were so great, the US retreated. The Cold War ended, and the Soviet Union dissolved into member states. As one of the surviving states, Russia inherited the Soviet strides in space and joined with the US, Europe, Japan and Canada to forge the 15-nation space station.

NASA's decision to retire the 30-year old shuttle fleet without a replacement in sight to continue the human push beyond Low-Earth-Orbit to explore the Solar System has not been popular - the last shuttle mission is due to launch in July 2011. Many working within the US Space Industry disagree with the US decision to cancel the Constellation Program that set out to do just that, and many are not happy that US astronauts will have to rely on the Russian Soyuz capsules to reach the International Space Station for the foreseeable future. The video below shows a new initiative called Why Space Matters recently launched to communicate the wider benefits of space exploration to the US public.

Russian Space Exploration

In the 21st century, Russian President, Medvedev, stated that the country's space programme will remain a key government priority, but sceptics say the nation has done virtually nothing to develop a successor to the 43-year-old Soyuz spaceship. Russia has used the Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, whose designs date back to the 1960s, to send an increasing number of crew and cargo to their Space Stations and now to the International Space Station.
Russia announced recently three objectives for its space programme: it would test a next-generation spacecraft, build a new cosmodrome and consider a manned mission to Mars after 2035 and after new nuclear engines are developed.
Russian officials have set the tentative launch of a new spacecraft to replace Soyuz for 2015, but cosmonauts and industry watchers have said its development has barely begun. Russia will need to make at least 15 successful unmanned launches of the new craft, named Rus, before it can carry crew into orbit.
Russia is also due to start building a new launch pad in Russia's Far East in 2011, called Vostochny. Officials have said the first launches from Vostochny are expected in 2015. Russia still uses the Soviet-built Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for all its manned space flights and a large share of its satellite launches. Baikonur is where the history of space exploration began. The first space satellite, "Sputnik," was launched from there in 1957, as was the first manned space flight with Yuri Gagarin in 1961. Since then, over 1,200 spacecraft have been launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
However despite the positive political announcements, the Chief of the Russian Space Agency said on the anniversary of Yuri Gangarin's first space flight that the Russian Space Agency's current budget was not enough to finance breakthrough projects and that China might soon overtake Russian space technology.

Chinese Space Exploration

General Xu Qiliang, the Commander of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force believes space exploration is critical to China’s national security interests. His views reflect the Chinese government’s growing interest in space exploration and the development of space technology. China’s space program has made significant progress over the past decade. China is scheduled to start building its own space station in 2011 with the launch of an unmanned module named Tiangong-1(天宫一号).

China has collaborated mostly with other emerging economies on its space technology, especially Russia and Brazil. Russia is working with China to help the Chinese refine their Shenzhou manned vehicles (based on the Russian Soyuz design). China has also purchased spacesuit designs from Russia.

The new Chinese Space Station Tiangong -1
天宫一号 means "Heavenly Palace"

Tiangong -1 (天宫一号) is the first module of an unmanned space station that is expected to launch in the second half of 2011. The Tiangong -1 space module is expected to carry out China's first space docking with the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft, allowing for the building of the Space Station.

China now has the technology to be able to reach into outer space with its unmanned spacecraft and since 2003, for humans to enter space too. By operating at the highest level of space activities China has confirmed its potential place as a new 'Space Power' in the 21st Century. China too will inevitably have to reach a view on the value of its space program compared to its high costs and the potential likelihood of dramatic failure set against Chinese priorities for space exploration.

No matter who goes forth to explore the Solar System, humankind's thirst for a greater understanding of 'space' and our solar system means the world will be eagerly watching new space exploration and awaiting the new discoveries to come.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

The Biggest Container Ships the World has ever seen

Artist’s impression of the new colossal “Triple E” container ship
Source: Maersk

Maersk Line, a Danish shipper, announced in February 2011 that it had ordered ten new colossal container ships. The new ships known as “Triple-E” ships will carry 18,000 boxes each, that is 2,500 more than the biggest container ship currently in service also operated by Maersk. The new vessels will come into service in 2013.

The new ships will sail the trade routes between Asia and Europe, arriving in Europe packed with Chinese-made TVs and fridges but sailing back much lighter. Container shipping rates are rising and global trade is predicted to grow by 6-8% this year. Some believe global trade in shipping could grow even further— Clarksons—the world’s biggest shipbroker, is predicting growth of around 10%.

From the 1990s and into the first decade of the 21st century the volume of container cargo traded through the world’s biggest container ports has increased nearly sixfold as globalisation has taken hold.

Twenty years ago more than half of the top 20 container ports were in the US or Europe. Now, Asia's strength as an exporter is in evidence in the location of the top container ports. Singapore now has the top spot. 14 of the top 20 container ports are now in Asia, with eight in China. The below chart from the Economist's recent survey of container ports charts the changes of the last 20 years:

Invention of the container ship

The first container ship voyage took place on 26 April 1956, the ship was an oil tanker whose deck had been strengthened to accommodate 58 well-filled boxes each some 30ft (9 metres) long. The boxes were shipped down the east coast of the US into the Gulf of Mexico and on to Houston. They survived the journey. They were not swept unrecoverably into the sea, as some doubters had predicted.

Trade was ready for a new mode of transport. The savings made by moving freight from roads to sea were huge. For centuries the trade of the world had depended on there being a vast labour force at every port to handle goods in manageable quantities. Container shipping required less dock labour and as a result savings of as much as 25% could be passed on to the shippers. As containerisation spread around the world, ships were turned round more quickly with even more savings.

By the 40th anniversary of container shipping in 1996, around 90% of world trade was moving in containers on specially designed ships. At that time Bill Clinton correctly proclaimed that container ships were aiding to “fuel the world’s economy”.

Since then Container ships have continued to grow and grow.

But container ships are still slow

Some fast ships have been developed, but these are mostly passenger ferries. The big container ships that carry most of the world's long-haul manufactured exports (by weight) travel at 23 knots (26.5 miles an hour) at best, and barely 17 knots in heavy weather.

The jet age that sank passenger liners has so far failed to take hold on the ocean. The Boeing 707 jet transformed aviation because it could fly faster, farther and higher than propeller-driven aircraft, clear of storms and turbulence.

Ever since the Vikings built their longboats it has been accepted that the way to move quickly across water is to have long, thin boats. This is because the faster a ship travels, the more water it drags along with it. Not only does this drag consume much energy, it causes high-speed vessels to squat low in the water, pulled down behind the “captive wave” at the bow. Propellers vibrate at high speeds, causing shocks that can break hulls. Hydrofoils that lift the hull out of the water and use water jets are fine for passenger ferries, but not for big, heavy container ships.

In the 21st century, container cargo of cars, tractors, cookers and washing machines still travel at about the speed of a running man. It takes a ship full of car parts a week or more to cross the Atlantic and around three weeks to go from Asia to Europe. The next challenge will be to design a faster colossal vessel capable of carrying 18,000 containers but at a much greater speed. Surely with such high inter-continental trade forecasts between Asia and the US and Europe, the incentives to develop a new high-speed container ship have never been better.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

The Arctic in the 21st Century - a New Polar Frontier

Arctic Ocean Ice Breaker

In April 2010 Russian President Medvedev paid a state visit to Norway. The highlight of this visit was a surprise announcement – after 40 years of negotiations – an agreement on the division of a disputed zone in the Arctic Ocean into roughly equal parts for Russia and Norway. A newly agreed Arctic maritime delimitation line was announced accompanied by treaty provisions for new rules and procedures to ensure responsible management of natural resources. The disputed territory measured 175,000 sq km which is equivalent to about half of the land territory of Norway.

Map of Arctic Region Boundaries

Experts believe that the oil potential of the formerly disputed parts of the Arctic Ocean could be more than 5 bn metric tonnes of oil – 10-times Saudi Arabia's production potential and still larger gas reserves 10,000 bn cubic metres of natural gas – five times Norway's proven reserves. But experts argue the high cost and inaccessibility of these resources mean large-scale development of these resources could be years away.

Russian interests in the Arctic

Russia has long held an interest in the Arctic. Indeed, Russia underlined the importance of the Arctic by declaring its plans to make the Arctic Region its primary resource base by 2020 in its 2009 Arctic Strategy. PM Putin visited Russia's Arctic territory shortly after President Medvedec's visit to Norway last year, where he proclaimed the Arctic's importance was in “Russia's deepest geopolitical interests”. Russia sees itself along with Norway as the two “principle Arctic countries” although it reluctantly acknowledges the need for cooperation with the other Arctic countries: US, Canada and Denmark.

However Russia's political ambitions are not reflected by its technical and financial reality. Russia badly needs international technical expertise to implement cutting-edge projects in such difficult acreage, and money to begin exploration in the offshore Russian Arctic. Hence the recently announced deal in January this year between the British company BP and the Russian company Rosneft to work together to extract oil from above Russia's Arctic Circle. The deal recognises the importance of BP's geological know-how with BP swapping a 5pc stake in itself for a 9.5pc share of Rosenef.

Chinese interests in the Arctic

China is not an Arctic state. Nor does it have an official Arctic Strategy yet. Nevertheless it is increasingly active and vocal on the international stage on issues concerning the region.

In recent years China has been trying to bolster its position in the Arctic by seeking observer status on the Arctic Council (which was denied). China has also emphasized the rule of law in the Arctic. In an article in the Asia Times, in February 2011, Rear Admiral Yin Zhin was quoted saying:
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the North Pole and surrounding areas are the commonwealth of the world’s people and do not belong to any one country… China must play an indispensable role in Arctic exploration as we have one-fifth of the world’s population.”
Chinese oil companies are not yet in a position where they can offer technical expertise. But in the near future, it is highly possible that China could become a major player in the Arctic by financing Russian activities in the region.

Environmentally Sensitive Arctic

It is estimated that the Arctic region holds 25pc of the world’s oil and 9pc of the world’s coal and it is one of the last remaining regions that has not been mined for resources.

Many believe the sensitive Arctic environment is the last place that should be drilled for oil because the risks just aren't worth it. In July 2010, Environmental NGOs called for moratorium on new offshore drilling in the environmentally sensitive Arctic. The calls for a moratorium echo growing concerns across the Arctic that industry needs to prove Arctic oil development will not cause catastrophic damage to the Arctic environment. A US environmental NGO, the Pew Foundation, recently published this video about the risks of Arctic exploration:

What is the future for the Arctic?

In the 21st century, the Arctic is fast becoming a new Geo-strategic region in natural energy resources, as competition for its massive untapped reserves of oil, gas and coal heats up.

The presence of natural resources has increased the incentives for Arctic countries to settle old maritime territorial claims, largely because no private company will invest without them. But the process of deciding who owns what is aided by international law but often not fully resolved. As a consequence, we should expect much competition and jostling in the foreseeable future among the 5 Arctic countries and their investors as they stake their claims to the Arctic's wealth of natural resources.

But it is also worthwhile remembering that resources are not always mined because they are there but rather because the price is right or because the politics are right (preferably both). The key issue in large parts of the Arctic will be to understand the political risks and whether the necessary long-term investments in infrastructure are made in this previously unexploited polar region.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Airships of the Future – a revolution in airfreight?

Artist's impression of an Airship of the future

Airships are a means of transport few have taken seriously since the German Hindenburg Zeppelin went up in flames in 1937. The new generation of Airships use helium, not flammable hydrogen. Unlike the Zeppelin aircrafts, they are not lighter than air and have an internal frame where a large fraction of their weight is carried by aerodynamic lift on the wings and hull. They also have wheels and take off and land as passenger aircrafts do.

The new airships of the 21st century mix the concept of planes and zeppelins. They travel at slower speeds than traditional aircraft, around 200km/hr but they can carry 3 times more freight than a Boeing 747. Hence, the big idea for the new Airships is to carry cargo: heavy loads, such as turbines, or bulky ones, such as segments of oil refineries.

A cheaper way to send airfreight

Air freighting goods is currently an expensive means of transport and is usually only used for perishable goods, valuables that warrant the extra cost like pharamceuticals or more generally for goods that are subject to arriving within a time limit like newspapers.

Current trends show that geographical trade of air freighted goods is predominantly from Asia to the US and Europe. Freight planes often fly with empty holds to Asia, solely to collect goods.

If the cost of airfreight were to become much cheaper, it would be able to compete with surface transport like road and rail but with the added advantage of being able to go where road and rail infrastructure is lacking, for example, in Latin America, Asia and Africa. If this were possible, it may just provide a catalyst for rethinking what is sent by airfreight.

New Slow Airfreight Infrastructure

Perhaps the real opportunity for the new Airships in the 21st century is in developing a new Slow Airfreight Infrastructure, as a means of intercontinental transport for slow shipping freight. It would be cheaper, compared with traditional fast air transport. And it would enable airfreight to reach places with little or no road or rail infrastructure.

There may also be the potential for passenger transportation in airships if a new Slow Airfreight Infrastructure were to be built. It could be adapted as a cheaper means for passenger travel too. It would be a means of travel, not as fast as traditional passenger air travel but surely much faster than travelling overland in Latin America and Africa to connect cities within a continent.

One of the most recent projects is spearheaded by Lockheed Martin. Their first experimental Airship is due to fly in 2012. Below is a video of their proposed new Airship:

Friday, 1 April 2011

A New Wall on the US-Mexico Border, for what purpose?

A recently constructed section of the US-Mexico Border Wall between Yuma, Arizona
and Calexico, California. The new barrier between the US and Mexico stands 15 feet tall
and sits on top of the sand so it can be lifted by a machine and repositioned whenever the
 migrating desert dunes begin to bury it.
Since 2005 the US Government has been building a US-Mexico Border Wall. The US-Mexican border follows the Rio Bravo through the rough terrain of the Big Bend and through the once busy trading posts of Presidio/Ojinaga and on to the El Paso/Ciudad Juárez twin cities (on each side of the border) established as the "Passage to the North" between the mountain ranges, from there, the river gives way to the new wall.

The primary purpose of the Great Wall of China was not to keep out people, who could scale the Wall, but to insure that semi-nomadic people on the outside of the Wall could not cross with their horses or return easily with stolen property.

The Great Wall of China

Borders and Walls

A border marks the place where adjacent jurisdictions meet. This combined conjunction and separation of national laws and customs creates a zone in which movements of people and goods are greatly regulated, highly examined and sometimes hidden. Commerce attains a higher importance on both sides of the border. Smuggling, legal and illegal immigration, add to a picture of accentuated concern with the trade in goods and the flow of people.
The border is an environment of opportunity. Individuals find work enforcing or avoiding the laws that regulate movement and goods. Companies use national differences in labour and regulations to pursue their advantage. Borders thrive on difference and people and institutions come there to exploit niches.
The New US-Mexico Border Wall
By building a wall along the border, the psychological barrier between two different jurisdictions is physically manifest as a structure that seeks to distinguish and separate the two sides.

The US-Mexico border has frequently been transited in history for the mutual advantage of both countries. For example, during the Second World War, when the US was badly lacking in labour, it  launched a programme to encourage large migrations of Mexican workers to the US to work legally as contract labourers for seasonal work. In more recent times, since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) labour unions of Mexican farmers, service employees, and oil workers now organise maquiladora workers at the assembly plants on the Mexican side of the border.
What purpose does the wall serve?

Diagram of US proposed enforcement of the “Virtual Wall”

The Obama administration has been under intense pressure to beef up security on the border to prevent the recent increase in drug-related violence in Mexico spilling into the US. One of the ways to do this was through "virtual policing" of the wall by lining the border between the US and Mexico with cameras and radar towers as shown in the diagram above. This was supposed to be a cost effective way of policing the wall.

However, in February 2011, the Obama administration finally pulled the plug on what was known as the "Virtual Wall". After spending more than $1 billion on the scheme, the US Department of Homeland Security was forced to admit that it was a "complete failure". But building of the physical wall still continues. Since 2005, the Wall covers around half of the 2000-mile US-Mexico border.

Even so, it is not clear what purpose the wall serves. It can be easily scaled within 20 seconds by a person as shown in YouTube videos. The US Government (without cameras and radar) will not have the resources to police all 2,000-miles of the Border Wall. Earlier on this year there were reports that people were using medieval catapults to thwart it. Smugglers trying to get their goods across the wall were trying a new approach – a medieval tribuchet catapult installed on a flatbed towed by a sports utility vehicle to launch projectiles across the new wall. This only serves to illustrate that human innovation will not be stifled by a wall. People will constantly seek out new ways for goods and people to go under, over and around it.

The US-Mexico Border Wall seems to lack a clear purpose compared with the Great Wall of China which was built with a clear primary purpose, to ensure those outside could not easily cross and get back across with stolen property. In the 21st century, the US and Mexico's economies are highly dependent on each other. They are not enemies where one is stealing from the other. Instead, they are trading partners within NAFTA. Mexico sends the lion's share of its exports to the US. Mexico is the second-largest export market for the US and it is the US' third-largest trading partner. Mexico also supplies US companies with much human capital both within Mexican borders and across the border in neighbouring US states. It would appear that erecting a wall has more to do with an 'imagined fear' than a real need to protect against maruading intruders from the South.