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The enduring significance of maritime chokepoints

Updated: Jan 26

International Affairs Analyst

Credit:Wikimedia Commons

The United States (US) Energy Information Administration defines maritime chokepoints as “narrow channels along widely used global sea routes”. They are primarily a result of natural geography and are important to the movement of goods, resources and military assets. Although human agency and technological innovations have overcome certain geographical challenges, maritime chokepoints remain geopolitically significant today. This is accentuated by the fact that, as stated by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 80% of the volume of international trade in goods is carried by sea. When the threats associated with a chokepoint are realised, far-reaching consequences often include disruption to global trade flows and inflated consumer prices. Examples of threats to maritime chokepoints include military confrontations, piracy, terrorism and natural disasters. This article examines the significance of the world’s most important maritime chokepoints and frames them within the geopolitical contexts that define them.


Suez Canal


Completed in 1869, the Suez Canal was constructed to provide a vital artery for trade between Europe and Asia by connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea. The strategic significance of the waterway is obvious and has even led to conflict in the past. When Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the canal in 1956, an entente consisting of Israel, Britain and France sent forces to regain control by invading Egypt in what became known as the Suez Crisis. Following threats of economic sanctions from the US, the coalition was forced to withdraw, marking the decline of European colonial powers in the post-World War II era.


As pointed out by Al Jazeera, the canal is a drastically preferable choice for shipping companies given that the alternative route around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope adds 6,000 miles to the journey and $300,000 worth of fuel. The 193km long shortcut is also a better environmental option due to the amount of fuel saved. According to the United States Naval Institute, approximately 12% of global trade travels along the canal. Illustrating its importance to the global energy economy, roughly nine million barrels of oil were shipped through the Suez Canal in the first half of 2023, as per freight analytics firm Vortexa. Europe has become even more dependent on the Suez Canal for its oil consumption demands following Europe’s support for the Ukrainian war effort. To avoid funding the Russian war machine and reduce the potential impact of being cut off by Russia, Europe reduced its importation of Russian oil and increased imports from Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Consequently, much more of Europe’s oil supply is now transported through the Suez Canal.


Widespread economic interests in protecting this supply line have led to multilateral cooperation to ensure the security of the canal. However, in March 2021, it was accidentally blocked for six days by a Japanese container ship called the Ever Given running aground. German insurance provider Allianz estimated that for each day the canal was not in operation, the world incurred an economic cost of $6-10 billion. Egypt suffered heavily from revenue losses as ships were diverted and toll revenue stopped. To ensure that such an event does not repeat, Egypt is implementing plans to widen and deepen the southern stretch.


Strait of Bab al-Mandeb


Translated from Arabic to English, the name Bab al-Mandeb means “Gate of Tears”, a reference to the dangerous crosscurrents, winds, reefs and shoals found in the waterway. Although modern technology has alleviated the threat posed by natural hazards to ships passing through these waters, the name remains fitting given regional geopolitical risks. The strait links the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and separates Africa from the Arabian Peninsula. The strategic importance of the Bab al-Mandeb significantly increased as a result of the completion of the Suez Canal, which facilitated the movement of shipments through both chokepoints when transiting between Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The strait currently serves as a crucial link for the flow of oil and natural gas.


Located in a geopolitically sensitive region and just 29km wide at its narrowest point, the Bab al-Mandeb has experienced numerous threats to maritime navigation. Most recently, Iran-backed Houthi rebels, best known for their role in Yemen’s civil war, have been attacking ships in the strait with cruise missiles, drones and anti-ship ballistic missiles. The escalation is in response to Israel’s invasion of Gaza, as is evident from the Houthi’s targeting of vessels linked with Israel. As a result, four major shipping companies (Maersk, CMA CGM, Mediterranean Shipping Company and Hapag-Lloyd) paused their operations in the Red Sea, prompting a US-led coalition to send naval forces to address the security situation in December 2023. The fact that Maersk resumed shipping in the Red Sea, only to then exit again after another attack on December 31st, demonstrates the failure to dissuade the Houthis and restore confidence. Helicopters from two US warships sunk three Houthi boats, killing ten group members in the process. This was then followed by the launching of air strikes by the US and United Kingdom (UK) on the 12th of January, hitting 16 Houthi sites in Yemen. With the leader of the Houthis, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi vowing to retaliate, it is likely that problems will persist in these waters. Interestingly, as the Bab al-Mandeb is on the same maritime route as the Suez Canal for many cargo ships, these issues have reduced the number of vessels using both chokepoints.


Recent news emerging from the Horn of Africa has also provided cause for concern moving forward. The striking of an agreement between landlocked Ethiopia and the breakaway Somalian state of Somaliland has resulted in deteriorating Somali-Ethiopian relations. The plans involve the leasing of a naval port in Somaliland by Ethiopia, which the Somali Federal Government consider to be a violation of Somali sovereignty and international law. The government have threatened to retaliate if Ethiopia follows through with the deal. In addition to the risk of direct conflict jeopardising stability, strained relations between Somalia and Ethiopia are likely to undermine counterterrorism efforts and increase the frequency of attacks by the Somali-based terrorist group Al-Shabaab against Ethiopian targets. These developments have increased the potential for security problems in the Bab al-Mandeb Strait.


Volatility in the Horn of Africa threatening maritime trade is nothing new, with widespread terrorism and piracy from Somalia posing a major challenge before decisive international intervention. Fought since 1991, the ongoing Somali civil war has resulted in a protracted and severe humanitarian crisis, the emergence of warlords in fragmented territories and an extremist Islamic insurgency in the form of Al-Shabaab. Subsequent lawlessness and economic strife created an environment conducive to piracy. Research by maritime geographer Clive Schofield found that, due to a dramatic increase in attacks year-on-year from 2009-11, Somali pirates were responsible for over half of global piracy attacks. Shared international interests in protecting these sea lanes led to the deployment of several multinational naval task forces to patrol the waters. One notable example of these joint efforts was Combined Task Force 151, which comprised fifteen countries, including the US, UK, Bahrain, Brazil, Denmark, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Pakistan, the Philippines, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Thailand and Turkey. There was a significant decline in attacks in subsequent years.


Numerous other instances have had the potential to escalate and threaten the Strait of Bab al-Mandeb but have fortunately fallen short of doing so. However, there is always the possibility that a revival of past clashes could transpire and cause security issues in the future. The recent 2020-2022 Tigray War provides one such illustration, with forces allied to the Ethiopian federal government and Eritrea clashing with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Had this conflict escalated along a similar vein to the Yemeni civil war, attracting intervention from neighbouring countries and regional powers, the likelihood of implications to the Strait of Bab al-Mandeb would have increased. Although a peace deal was reached, hostilities could reignite again in the future as deep fault lines remain. Eritrea’s status as a totalitarian dictatorship increases the likelihood of its involvement in conflicts moving forward, particularly with Djibouti. Despite relations being normalised in 2018, territorial disputes between the two have escalated to border clashes on occasion and could easily do so again. These examples illustrate the persistent risks associated with the Strait of Bab al-Mandeb and illustrate why it warrants recognition as a vulnerable maritime chokepoint.


Strait of Hormuz


Connecting the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman, the Strait of Hormuz acts as the lifeline to the oil-dependent economies of the Arab world and is considered to be the world’s most important oil maritime chokepoint. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), 21 million barrels of oil flow through the waterway each day. This is of particular importance to Asia, with 76% of the crude oil heading for Asian markets in 2017, as per the EIA. China, India, Japan, South Korea and Singapore were the largest destinations.


There is a litany of examples illustrating disruption in the Strait of Hormuz. The greatest example of this is the Tanker War, which refers to the naval campaigns that transpired during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. With both sides targeting each other’s oil-related infrastructure as a means of economic warfare, there was an initial 25% drop in commercial oil shipping and a subsequent rise in global oil prices, according to the Strauss Center. The ensuing US military intervention, code-named Operation Earnest Will, involved reflagging Kuwaiti oil tankers to sail under the American flag and ensuring their safe passage with naval escorts. Operations were also conducted to clear sea mines from the shipping lanes. In the more recent past, attacks on oil tankers in May and June 2019 were suspected to have been authorised by Iran amid heightened tensions with the US.


In a similar case in July 2023, Iran’s attempt at seizing two tankers near the strait was thwarted after the US Navy dispatched a guided missile destroyer to the scene. Iranian officials have threatened to close the strait on multiple occasions in response to perceived threats and sanctions. While these threats have not materialised, the constant atmosphere of uncertainty has contributed to the US’ permanent stationing of its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, allowing for a swift response when necessary. While geopolitical dynamics have shifted over time, the tendency for problems to arise in and around the Strait of Hormuz has persisted.


Panama Canal


Linking the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean via the Caribbean Sea, the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914 was a groundbreaking feat of engineering. Tropical diseases, challenging jungle and mountain terrain as well as the humid climate rendered construction difficult and time-consuming. Initiated by the French, the project was completed by the US. By enabling the transportation of goods between the Pacific and Atlantic whilst avoiding the 8,000-mile journey around South America, the Panama Canal was a positive development for the global economic system. The US was the greatest beneficiary, with the waterway facilitating the movement of goods between the East and West coasts more efficiently and cheaply. Export-oriented Asian countries similarly benefitted from improved access to the east coast of the Americas, while European countries also enjoyed the faster route to Pacific markets.


During the Cold War, exerting influence over the Panama Canal was strategically important to Washington, which maintained a substantial role in its operation and maintenance. The shortcut is militarily advantageous as naval vessels can travel between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans swiftly when required. Being able to prevent hostile forces using the canal for the same purpose is similarly advantageous. In December 1989, the US invaded Panama, citing the political instability of General Manuel Noriega’s regime and the significant American expatriate community as justification. However, another key motivator was the safeguarding of the Panama Canal and the US’ keen interest in controlling it. The Panama Canal Zone remained a US-controlled territory up until 1999 when it was transferred to Panama.


Unlike the previous chokepoints examined, the greatest threat posed to this maritime chokepoint in more recent times does not concern conflict, but rather natural challenges. Insufficient precipitation in the watershed that supplies the canal due to a prolonged dry season has lowered water levels and forced a reduction in the number of vessels able to use the waterway. With records stretching back 140 years, data suggests that the current predicament results from a longer-term shift in regional rainfall patterns in line with climate change, as opposed to an anomalous event. Panamanian authorities are weighing up potential solutions, such as constructing a new reservoir to increase the water supply. However, officials face several challenges, including acquiring legally protected land, displacing locals and funding the project, all the while in a race against climate change. Political economist Richard Morales claims that the failure to address these concerns could lead to interest in building land routes in countries with coastlines on both oceans. Should such alternatives gain traction, countries such as Mexico and Colombia would be strong candidates for such projects. Whether authorities can address the drought issue remains to be seen. It is possible that the importance of the Panama Canal could decline as temperatures rise and alternative options become more attractive.


Strait of Malacca


Seen to the left-hand side of the image, the Strait of Malacca is a 900km stretch of water that separates Indonesia from Malaysia and connects the Andaman Sea to the South China Sea. The passage is a crucial trade route for goods and energy resources moving between the Middle East, Europe and Asia. Second only to the Strait of Hormuz, 16 million barrels of crude oil and 3.2 million barrels of liquified natural gas were transported through the strait daily in 2016, according to the EIA.


With great power competition between the US and China escalating, the Malacca Strait has become even more important to regional power dynamics. The Chinese economy is heavily reliant on this waterway for exporting goods to lucrative overseas markets and facilitating the importation of 60% of its total oil supply (according to The Insurer). Just 2.7km wide at its narrowest point, the potential for a foreign power to cause great damage to the Chinese economy by weaponising this natural bottleneck has been a thorn in the side of Beijing’s foreign policy for decades. Former Chinese President Hu Jintao aptly referred to the situation as the “Malacca dilemma” in 2003. Although China has expanded its focus from “near seas defence” to “near seas defence, far seas protection”, their navy would in all likelihood be unable to secure these supply lines in wartime. A lack of military alliances and reliable partners has not helped the situation. Chinese strategists are particularly concerned about the capability of the US Navy to implement a naval blockade that could strangle the Chinese economy. In collaboration with the like-minded nations that border the strait (Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia), the US maintains an interest in regional stability and the freedom of navigation through these waters. However, if China were to invade Taiwan to force reunification, which it has been increasingly vocal about doing, China’s longstanding concerns regarding this sea lane could quickly become a reality. The severe repercussions associated with this hypothetical wartime scenario have restrained China’s aggressive foreign policy ambitions.


Unwilling to accept the status quo, Chinese policymakers have been looking to alternative options for sourcing energy, such as through land links with Russia, Pakistan and Myanmar. However, the measures taken thus far have been “insufficient to drastically reduce the level of dependence” on trade via this route, says analyst Pawel Paszak. On several occasions, discussions have been held between Chinese and Thai officials regarding the construction of a canal across the Kra Isthmus in southern Thailand. By connecting the Gulf of Thailand with the Andaman Sea, this project would provide China with an alternative to the Strait of Malacca. The latest iteration of this idea, albeit adapted, was pitched in October 2023 by Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin to Chinese investors at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. Rather than a canal, he proposed the construction of a land bridge. As of yet, this idea has failed to gain momentum with no investment forwarded from Beijing, which has historically lobbied for a deep-water Suez-canal style waterway to support large container ships. Concerns surrounding environmental damage and physically dividing the country in two have thus far outweighed the economic incentives for Thailand.

 

Conclusion


With broad agreement among analysts that the world has reached peak globalisation, what comes next remains unclear. For some strategists, we are entering a period of de-globalisation, characterised by declining global trade and cross-border capital flows. Others argue that we are headed for a world split into competing blocs, marked by increased macroeconomic volatility, but without a significant decrease in international flows of goods, services and capital. Uncertainties regarding the geopolitical and economic landscape moving forward make it hard to predict the future of maritime chokepoints. Nevertheless, several inferences can be made. The tendency for instability to proliferate in the Middle East makes it safe to assume that issues in the Bab al-Mandeb Strait will continue, impacting the usage of this strait and the Suez Canal. With Sino-American strategic competition seemingly destined to continue escalating, the Malacca Strait could become an even greater flashpoint in years to come. Climate change is also set to have a profound impact on maritime chokepoints. While global warming is reducing the viability of the Panama Canal, it is having the opposite effect on the Arctic passages, which are becoming increasingly viable shipping routes as a result of melting sea ice. In addition, the need to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is likely to reduce the strategic importance of chokepoints predominantly used for transporting oil, such as the Strait of Hormuz. Evidently, maritime chokepoints that have acted as key geopolitical battlegrounds in the past may not do so in the future.


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