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Former MI6 chief: geopolitical tension now a major threat to maritime industry

13 September 2021

A panel of industry leaders at London International Shipping Week has identified geopolitical tensions, piracy, cyberattacks and pandemics as key security threats to the maritime industry.

Speaking at the Global Marine Geopolitical Forum, hosted by risk and insurance consultancy Willis Towers Watson, former MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove said: 'It's a very dynamic period in world affairs. What I think we’re witnessing is the mutation or decline of the liberal world order, and geopolitics is back with a vengeance in all aspects of business.

'We have seen a significant rise in the influence of government decision-making and government interventionism.'

Sir Richard stated that this could result in protectionism and the imposition of local rules that restrict free flow of trade and therefore affect the maritime industry.

He identified the rise of China as of particular concern, noting the enormous volume of Chinese trade and shipbuilding, its construction of 'Chinese size' infrastructure that effectively shuts out competitors (such as the iron ore port in Rio de Janeiro), financial inroads into shipping lines, and the country's aggressive stance in the South China Sea – home to some of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

As shipping becomes more and more cyber-dependent, the security of cyber systems becomes of greater importance, and we have to bear in mind how we can improve not just the physical defences but also the technological protection of ships. Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6

He also noted the immediate threat at the Straits of Hormuz, stating his fear that tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia are likely to escalate. 'The contest in the Middle East between Sunni and Shia has yet to be played out,' he said. 'The Iranians are very good at intervening with the safety of shipping and denying it was them, but none of us are in any doubt this is being driven by for geopolitical reasons and to emphasise the vulnerability of the Straits of Hormuz.

'There is not a lot shipping companies can do when faced with what is the greatest geopolitical challenge in the middle east,' he said. In the event of open conflict, 'the first thing the Iranians will try to do is close the Straits, which will have a huge impact.'

Perhaps as a counter to some of these threats, Sir Richard said Britain should invest in the Royal Navy, which has become 'ridiculously small in size'.

Panellist Johanna Holliday, managing director at Special Contingency Risks, picked up on the developments in the South China Sea.

'The South China sea remains a challenging area, not because there is an escalation expected but because it is contested and increasingly militarised. This could lead to an accidental use of force.' She highlighted recent action by Chinese vessels which harassed Petronas vessels, and mentioned the rise in suspected GPS spoofings, which increases the risk of accidents and could lead to escalation in contested areas.

Ms Holliday also discussed the expansion of piracy, especially in the Gulf of Guinea. This poses a significant threat to life, with long-range attacks and violent kidnappings of seafarers. She noted that the recent theft of vessels, especially fishing vessels, might be a sign of new tactics among the pirates.

Panellists also considered cyber risks to be worrying.

'As shipping becomes more and more cyber-dependent, the security of cyber systems becomes of greater importance, and we have to bear in mind how we can improve not just the physical defences but also the technological protection of ships from cyber interventions by malign players, whether governmental, non-governmental or purely criminal,' said Sir Richard.

'You need to take advice, and there’s a lot of advice and expertise available from the government and companies.'

Panellists also highlighted pandemics as a source of continuing trouble for the sector. Jens Martin Jensen, CEO of Athenian Group Inc, said that during Covid, 'the biggest impact has been on the crew, an intolerable situation. It’s quite remarkable that when 90% of all trade is done by sea, we don’t have a better system to mandate that all seafarers should be vaccinated immediately.'
He identified the lack of a unified, strong voice for the industry as a serious problem that had hampered efforts to get priority vaccination for seafarers.


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