The Geopolitics of Maritime Chokepoints Part 1 (of a 2 Part Series)

In military strategy, a choke point  is a geographical feature on land such as a valley, defile or bridge, or maritime passage through a critical waterway such as a strait, which an armed force is forced to pass through in order to reach its objective, sometimes on a substantially narrowed front and therefore greatly decreasing its combat effectiveness by making it harder to bring superior numbers to bear. A choke point can allow a numerically inferior defending force to use the terrain as a force multiplier to thwart or ambush a much larger opponent, as the attacker cannot advance any further without first securing passage through the choke point. Choke points are strategic, narrow passages that connect two larger areas to one another. When it comes to maritime trade, these are typically straits or canals that see high volumes of traffic because of their optimal location. Maritime chokepoints are places where geography has conspired to create opportunities for hostile navies to close off waterways vital to military and/or commercial activity. This report explores 6 of the world’s most important chokepoints, each of which plays a vital role in geopolitics.

Little changed over time, the Age of Sail, ships naturally had to follow the prevalent sea currents and wind patterns. With the introduction of the steam engine, shipping routes were set and haven’t changed since. Considering how well established today’s maritime trade routes are, and how reliant we are on them, there are still a number of key chokepoints that pose a serious and growing risk for global shippers. Any infrastructural entity within a supply chain that forces a convergence of traffic can be a chokepoint. Straits, canals, ports, bridges – there are many potential bottlenecks that goods must routinely pass to reach their destination.

The majority of chokepoints were, historically, strategic geopolitical assets for the countries that controlled them. The Suez Canal was built for European interests to connect with their colonies. The Panama Canal was an American attempt to connect east and west coasts.

Maritime transport is an essential part of international trade—approximately 80% of global merchandise is shipped via sea. Because of its importance, commercial shipping relies on strategic trade routes to move goods efficiently. These waterways are used by thousands of vessels a year—but it’s not always smooth sailing. In fact, there are certain points along these routes that pose a risk to the whole system. Shipping is the backbone of world trade, driving and driven by globalization. But as the recent blockage of the Suez Canal shows, maritime chokepoints can cause havoc to complex supply chains. As trade increases, so do these risks – and the search for ways round them. Volume of goods and ships: 18,829 ships bearing 1.17 billion tons of goods in 2020, down only marginally over 2019, even in the midst of the pandemic. Chokepoint risk: 12% of world trade passes through the canal.

Over the past four decades, global trade increased significantly … That put chokepoints under increasing pressure. 55% of internationally traded maize, wheat, rice and soybean was shipped through at least one maritime chokepoint in 2015. 11% of internationally traded maize, wheat, rice and soybean now depend on one or more of the maritime chokepoints as the only viable shipping option.

The consequences of disruption are as varied as the goods transported along the main maritime arteries. The damage may be limited to a local area, but it could also cause systemic collapse if essential goods cannot leave an exporting country or region. For consumers it could mean a delay in receiving a luxury gadget, but for the poorest countries that rely on food imports the consequences can be dire. If supplies become scarce, it can even lead to export bans. For some perishable foodstuffs stuck in transit it simply means the end of that supply.

In the worst case, climate-related impacts could block multiple passageways. “If several of the main arteries from breadbaskets in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, North America and Southeast Asia got disrupted at the same time – cargo from the Black Sea region alone has to pass three chokepoints to reach East African ports . Consumers as well as states – both the wealthy and the poor – all have an interest in mitigating the risk arising from our continuing dependency on sea trade. In some cases, it is simply a question of market management. If there are too many ships approaching the Suez Canal, a bidding system can be introduced whereby customers who are prepared to pay can use the infrastructure. Despite their convenience, these vital points pose several risks:

  • Structural risks: As demonstrated in the recent Suez Canal blockage, ships can crash along the shore of a canal if the passage is too narrow; causing traffic jams that can last for days.
  • Geopolitical risks: Because of their high traffic, choke points are particularly vulnerable to blockades or deliberate disruptions during times of political unrest.

Mapping the World’s Key Maritime Choke Points

Here’s a look at the world’s most vulnerable maritime bottlenecks at six of the world’s major choke points.   

1. The Strait of Malacca

At its smallest point, the Strait of Malacca is approximately 1.5 nautical miles, making it one of the world’s narrowest choke points. Despite its size, it’s one of Asia’s most critical waterways, since it provides a critical connection between China, India, and Southeast Asia. This choke point creates a risky situation for the 100,000 or so ships that visit the Port of Singapore each year.

The area is also known to have problems with piracy—in 2019, there were 30 piracy incidents.

Of the world’s 14 major chokepoints, the Strait of Malacca is the most important. It links the South China Sea with the Indian Ocean, carrying 40% of the world’s trade. Annually nearly 100,000 vessels pass the strategic waterway which, at its narrowest point, is only around 2.7 kilometers wide.

The reason for the heavy traffic in the strait is the ever-advancing globalization of our world economy. Over the past four decades, global trade not only increased significantly, but also saw a shift from Atlantic to Pacific trade. That put chokepoints under increasing pressure.

ASIA’S PRIMARY CHOKEPOINT: The 900-km long Strait of Malacca sees 100,000 vessels pass through it annually.

The Geopolitical Equation

Undoubtedly, in the current world situation, with the US targeting China, the Malacca Straits are the most vital chokepoint, and here is the reason why.China is a net importer of oil, since November 1993. That’s 3 decades ago. Today, China is the world’s largest importer, most of which comes from the Middle East. As Kissinger said back in the 1970s, – – “ – if one controls oil, then one controls the destiny of nations”.

In order to effectively control China, the Rockefeller Empire aimed to control the shipping route of oil tankers. In this way, the US could “threaten” China with oil cut off. Since all shipping traffic from west to east, and vice versa, has to pass through the Malacca Straits, this narrow passageway became an ideal “chokepoint” for the US Navy to use. In addition, a very large American naval base is situated at the southern end of the Straits-just outside Singapore.

This is the easiest way to block energy supplies from reaching China, Japan and South Korea. The reverse also holds true. All three countries above are huge exporters of manufactured goods. If the passage from east to West is blocked, then their exports will collapse. No raw material inputs- no exports of finished goods. For how long will those economies and governments stand? In order to avoid this American blackmail, China launched new transportation corridors, going overland from China to Europe. As well, China built 2 additional routes which would lessen the American hold over this maritime route.

These 2 new routes are the China- Pakistan Economic Corridor, and the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor. See the map below. Both of these became operational over the past decade. Since then, Myanmar and Pakistan have witnessed many terror attacks on these 2 corridors. The Americans are trying very hard to cause chaos in these 2 regions. It’s doubtful if they will be successful in this.

 During the past decade, oil and gas pipelines have been built, from Central Asia into China; and from Russia into China. More pipelines are being built along with highways and high-speed railways. In fact, using high-speed railways, goods take a shorter time to reach their destination, than by sea. The families and their spies, vassals and banks are working overtime to reduce Russian and Chinese influence in Central Asia, in order to make it harder for China to access energy supplies from Central Asia.

Fortunately, all the key players in the region know the game-plan of the 2 families.

An additional point to note. – see the map below carefully – the port city of Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka. It’s a key port of China’s maritime route. The port was built with Chinese money, and is being extensively used by Chinese commercial shipping. This port, along with Gawadar in Pakistan and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar are called the “pearls of China”. Sri Lanka was destabilized to a great extent last year. The aim was the eviction of China from Hambantota. This process is ongoing as the current government in Sri Lanka is vassalised by the West. For the US to succeed in Asia, it has formed an Asean “NATO”. Its success is not guaranteed.

2. The Straits of Gibraltar

The Strait of Gibraltar as seen from space. The Iberian Peninsula is on the left and North Africa is on the right.

The Strait of Gibraltar is a narrow strait that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea and separates the Iberian Peninsula in Europe from Morocco in Africa. The two continents are separated by 13 kilometers of ocean at the Strait’s narrowest point.  Ferries cross between the two continents every day in as little as 35 minutes. The Strait’s depth ranges between 300 and 900 meters. The strait lies in the territorial waters of Morocco, Spain, and the British overseas territory of Gibraltar. Foreign vessels and aircraft have the freedom of navigation and overflight to cross the strait of Gibraltar in case of continuous transit.

The name comes from the Rock of Gibraltar, which in turn originates from the Arabic Jabal Ṭāriq (meaning “Tariq’s Mount”), Except for its far eastern end, the Strait lies within the territorial waters of Spain and Morocco. The United Kingdom claims 5.6 km around Gibraltar on the northern side of the Strait, putting part of it inside British territorial waters. The ownership of Gibraltar and its territorial waters is disputed by Spain. Similarly, Morocco disputes Spanish sovereignty over Ceuta on the southern coast.

The Geopolitical Equation

For the past 150 years, both ends of the straits were controlled by the Rothschilds – Gibraltar (under British control) and Morocco (under French control). Controlling the Straits acts as a gateway to the Mediterranean. In the current situation today, NATO can refuse transit through the straits to naval forces of Russia. Since the start of the Ukraine war, Russia has been slowly building up its naval strength in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. This is to the detriment of NATO. If a full blown war breaks out between NATO and Russia, then expect NATO to close the straits to the Russian Navy.

3. The Bosporus Straits

The importance of the original Silk Road (2nd century BC- 18th century CE) for Asia and Europe is undeniable. The network of trading routes, established by land and by sea, spanned from the east coast of China to the southern parts of Europe, connecting along the way southern Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant region and East Africa. For the greatest part it was the most lucrative trade route of Asia, facilitating business for all the actors participating in the trade. Thus, the security of the trading routes became of utmost importance and geopolitics started playing a more relevant role for the existence of the network.  The most important positions that needed to be secured were the choke points, land or maritime, which could destabilize the continuous flow of goods. One of those choke points is the pair of Bosporus and Dardanelles straits that act like a gateway to and from the Black Sea. Given their geographical position and their geostrategic usage they represent a generator of wealth for the state that controls them.

One of the focal points of the New Silk Road is the Bosporus Strait that will be crossed by a highway bridge that will absorb a great proportion of the international cargo from the maritime routs. The key factor that reinforces the Turkish Straits as a major geostrategic choke point is the constant high maritime traffic.  The New Silk Road gives fast access to countries that totals to more then 2, 3 billion consumers and it restructures the main maritime routs between Asia and Europe.

The volume of oil shipped out of the Black Sea is 4 million barrels a day. Most of this oil originates from Russia and Azerbaijan. Were this transit closed to oil shipments – for whatever reason- then expect oil prices to shoot up. Turkey will be dragged into a bigger war.

The Geopolitical Equation

The Bosporus Straits plays more or less the same role that the Straits of Gibraltar, in granting or denying access to naval forces of NATO or Russia.

The straits in the Black Sea basin have always been central in the geopolitics of the region. The Istanbul canal could strengthen Turkey’s role as key player. In the latest weeks increased attention has been focused on the topic of the straits in the Mediterranean basin, seawaters that connect Europe and Asia, due to the Ukraine war.

The Geopolitical Role of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits

Moving from the Suez Canal towards north, we find the Black Sea basin and the city of Istanbul, which has always been considered a bridge between Europe and Asia. Here, a quick look at the map will already suggest the importance that this particular region has for international politics and trade.

Six states overlook the basin, including Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and two important straits cross one country, Turkey. The Bosporus channel is the waterway that joins the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and marks, together with the Dardanelles, the southern border between the European continent and the Asian one.

These straits consistently played a key role in the geopolitics of the region. To retrace their legacy, these channels have always been part of Turkey history and national politics.

 The British, regulators of the region, obtained with the 1841 Convention of the Straits that no country’s military ships could cross the canals at the expenses of Russia, which remained without access to the Mediterranean Sea.  The resurrection of Turkey (after the abolishment of the Ottoman Caliphate, and the subsequent adoption of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923) granted the country sovereignty over the straits, albeit with the obligation of demilitarization. 

A decade after, Turkey bargained with the international community to review the conditions imposed by the Treaty of Lausanne. The renegotiation brought to the 1936 Montreux Convention, which is still in force today. The Convention confirmed the international character of the straits but also recognized Turkey the right to rearm the entire area and accorded Ankara sovereignty over the channels. As a result, Turkey has the capacity to regulate the passage of commercial ships enjoying the right to freedom of passage through the straits, and to impose some restrictions to warships passage, depending on whether these ships belong to Black Sea States or not. The Treaty also grants Turkey some leeway , that,  if there are countries that “threaten” Turkey, and it is up to Turkey to decide who is the threat, the transit can be unilaterally blocked. Hence, the Convention empowers Turkey’s with great strategic powers, but somehow restricted.

Erdoğan’s – The Istanbul canal

Several years later, the number of ships passing through these seaways has grown substantially, reaching the number of around 50.000 ships annually. Because of the increased traffic through the Bosporus and the consequent incidents that have occurred over the years, Turkey is rethinking the dynamics of the region. 

Already since 2011, Erdoğan started planning the construction of another canal between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea, a project that he calls the Istanbul Canal. The construction of the Istanbul canal could encourage Turkey to review the provisions included in the Montreux Convention. This possibility represents a threat specifically for Russia. Indeed, Moscow’s advantage in the Montreux Convention lies with the restrictions the Convention includes on military ships not belonging to Black Sea States, including those of NATO, which are already present in the basin but with limited capacity. Proposing a review of the Convention could deprive Russia of this advantage. The Istanbul canal as a way for Turkey to increase its strategic role in the Black Sea basin rather, the new channel will be under the full control of Turkey. This means Ankara will have the capacity to regulate the traffic and to charge a fee over the passage. Of course, this element will be extremely profitable for Turkey. But most importantly, Turkey will have the capacity to strategically set regulations on maritime traffic at discretion and hence increase its own geopolitical influence in thearea. The opening of a new waterway, subjected to Turkey’s sovereignty and disengaged from the Montreux Convention, will give Ankara the chance to bypass the limits imposed to its strategic control of the straits by the Convention. 

Moreover, Turkey is increasing the regional cooperation with its neighbors in the Black Sea basin, as well as the investments in the development of its naval fleet, which further underlines the willingness of Ankara to achieve greater strategic role in the area.

NATO sees Turkey and Russia moving closer together. Thus, NATO-especially Washington will cause more problems for Erdogan, especially in the wake of the devastating earthquake that struck the region. NATO is desperately trying to move more naval ships into the Black Sea, but this is being blocked by Turkey. It will be interesting to see the geopolitical moves that Russia and the US make in the coming months. Of the 6 chokepoints, we have discussed 3 of them. In Part 2, we discuss the other 3.

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