The End of Entrepôts – why the future is big, not small


Photo: Lord Lugard with the Legco in 1909

It is one of the most oft-repeated fallacies in modern politics that the future is destined to be ever smaller and fragmented. One only has observe the fetishization of breakaway movements such as Scotland or Catalonia and hear the accompanying, knowing murmurs telling us that in political terms at least, atomization is the way of the future – small is beautiful. Some still reach further back, summoning up the collapse of the Soviet Union as proof that all large entities must collapse.

This is completely at odds with reality, on a number of levels. First, recent history has, far from being driven by a narrative of devolution, instead been dominated by the rise of “big countries” which in turn are resurrecting their own brand of Great Power relations. The corresponding decline in relevance of smaller entities is pronounced – most noticeably in the shape of individual European nations which have seen their weight fall off considerably. The 2010 Copenhagen agreement, where Obama sidelined the Europeans to reach straight for emerging giants, was an early sign of this; the gradual extinction of the Quadrilateral in determining trade policy was another.

Indeed in my 2013 paper on China and multilateralism, I noted that the world is if anything heading towards a new “community of empires”, with both the foreign and domestic policies of China, Brazil and India joining the US and Russia in pursuing an unrelentingly imperial logic. In response, those outside of their orbit are banding together to form what are prima facie trade blocs, but which are in reality the beginnings of something much more. Whether the European Union, ASEAN or Mercosur, nation-states are ceding sovereignty slowly but surely for the express purpose of aggregating their power in the world beyond. Even in unexpected corners of functioning humanity such as East Africa, union is the name of the game. Status and size do not have a linear correlation; as one reaches critical mass, the relationship becomes exponential. A power ten times as large as its neighbours is far more than ten times as important.

At the heart of this is a simple thesis: in the long run, the power of any country will be determined by the size of its population (with a shared identity – more of that another time), somewhat adjusted for a country’s natural resource base. In the long run, all else is mere noise. Yes, certain countries or civilisations may exercise disproportionate power for a period of time, even centuries. This can have any number of causes but often it is because of temporary technological disparities – temporary because in the long run, all technology will permeate meaning that we arrive back at where we started: population. Any vision of a world where the largest population blocks are not the most important countries must be premised on a smaller, more nimble country actively and exploitatively keeping larger population blocks subject. This was a kernel of much of European colonialism of the 19th century (which should not be conflated with a general model of imperialism exercised in human history).

Now in the long run, as Keynes says, we are all dead. So does it matter? I would say yes it does, particularly for those living in and around the rising powers of Asia such as China, Indonesia and to a lesser extent, India. Because some of these changes are no longer concerns for the long term, but coming to maturity now.

One lesson is this: the age of entrepôts such as Hong Kong and Singapore is fast coming to an end. In the future, there will be no space for such outposts any longer, at least in their current form. This is because the very existence of such centres is a lingering post-colonial legacy, based on an economic system that is now no longer extant. City-states like Singapore thrive because they are a form of offshoring, and the offshoring they offer is reaching the end of its useful life.

We should be crystal clear that offshoring has two forms: there is offshoring for work a country does not want to do, and offshoring for work it cannot do. On the one hand, there is what we classically understand as “offshoring” where one jurisdiction offers a cheaper way of producing goods and services for a richer one – offshoring from below. Textiles in Bangladesh fall into this, as does the core of China’s economic rise during the 1990s and 2000s. The second form is what hubs such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai and even London offer to an extent – offshoring  from above. They provide capabilities that other poorer, less developed countries cannot do themselves.

The problem is that much of the world is catching up. There is precious little that can be done in Hong Kong today that cannot be done in China; yet Hong Kong really only exists to serve the Chinese economy, much as some lament its progress to becoming “just another” Chinese port. Singapore is safer for the moment, but it is still implausible to imagine that Malaysia, much less Indonesia, will allow the island to remain an offshoring hub for high value-added industries such as finance. As with China, they will end up doing everything themselves. The post-colonial legacy of substantially inadequate skills and infrastructure will be bridged, if not today, then tomorrow. At that point, the city-states will have precious little left. This is a problem not faced by Bangladesh – but then no-one wants to be Bangladesh. There is a reason why entrepôts barely exist in the OECD and if they do, they service a tiny, marginal sliver of their neighbours’ economic life as Jersey or the British Virgin Islands do. It is because there is no room at the top.

Britain suffers from many of the same issues. Plenty have lauded the supposed rebirth of the British automotive industry, and in a few instances, this is well justified. But for every Aston Martin or Morgan, where real value-add and R&D is achieved in the UK, there is a far bigger presence of Nissan or Toyota. The latter however, are essentially a little Bangladesh model – investment into the UK occurs not because of any inherent capabilities, but because we are marginally cheaper and have fewer regulatory restrictions (unionization etc) than regional neighbours. This is not much of a national dream.

The other side of the UK is that of the entrepôt. Here I am referring to her services exports – but not the headline-grabbing financial services sector, which will be pretty easily replicable elsewhere, but rather industries such as advertising, publishing, design and architecture which are more genuinely unique. And one can tell that they are unique, since whereas the UK can barely export any financial services to the big empire economies of the US or China, it sells large quantities of stylish design. The problem is, this is nowhere near enough to support an independent UK – the idea of the UK becoming a “Singapore of Europe” is beyond fanciful, as I have noted before.

Singapore has been conspicuous in how strongly it clings to and pushes for ASEAN. And the reason is clear: if ASEAN does not succeed in binding the region together, Singapore will soon have nothing to offer its larger neighbours. Only a union of sorts will allow it to continue holding a position of import. Hong Kong’s commercial residents have long acquiesced to the fact that it will have to be another Chinese city, albeit one offering some special rules and playing a specific role. Hong Kong’s flagship airline’s troubles reflect the decline of hub-and-spoke trade in favour of point-to-point, and are a microcosm of how the whole economy is developing. Dubai will play off the inability of regional giants to pull their weight (Iran, Egypt and Turkey) but if and when they do, it too will face the same problems of reinvention.

But the old model of “Singapore” is a complacent and condescending anachronism – and those pushing the model for countries like Britain are living a sheer fantasy.

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