In “Message From The Bridge” in the June 2012 edition of Sea Breezes, we celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of Henry Bell’s Comet – which introduced scheduled services on the Firth of Clyde in Scotland. This was to be the beginning of a long golden era for shipbuilding on the Clyde and the phrase “Clydebuilt” became well known as the gold standard for shipbuilding across the world.
Every month in Sea Breezes we publish a “Ships We Forgot To Remember” article – detailing ships of the past. In these articles the ships described by Murray Robinson and Andrew Bell were, more often than not, built on the Clyde or at one of many eminent British shipyards in the first half of the twentieth century.
Just past the first decade of the 21st century how different the world of shipbuilding is – the shipyards of the Far East have a near stranglehold on the international shipbuilding market, with huge multinational firms such as Hyundai and Daewoo playing a dominant role. China and South Korea are the countries which now lead the way in terms of world shipbuilding production and along with Japan have a dominant market share. It is common for shipbuilding to play an important part in underpinning the strength of developing economies. Britain’s era of shipbuilding dominance was very much aligned to its time as an imperial power; shipbuilding in Japan was crucial to its emergence as a world economic powerhouse in the decades following World War Two; and it is no surprise that China now has a burgeoning shipbuilding sector as it moves towards overtaking the United States as the largest economy in the world.
I often wonder whether this total imbalance of shipbuilding capacity/power is prudent. Given the potential fragility of political and trading relationships across the world as the balance of power shifts from west to east, and considering some of the diplomatic flashpoints which could affect the stability of the Far East, this might be a moment to consider whether it is acceptable for Europe, including Britain to have such limited shipbuilding capacity. Only recently, a longstanding dispute between China and Japan over a group of small islands in the East China Sea flared up into a major diplomatic incident. There is also always tension between the two Koreas.
Should this not serve as a warning to many governments, to think more strategically on the risks of almost all major shipbuilding production being centred in one potentially volatile region of the world? However, although concerted Government efforts – including varying degrees of state support – in countries such as Japan, Korea and China have been successful in creating their shipbuilding power bases, I fear that most political leaders closer to home will simply believe that the free market must have free rein. Let’s hope we don’t come to regret such a laid back approach in the future.
HAMISH ROSS, EDITOR