Straits and sea channels: a reflection

June 19, 2023

The cover image of this paper was taken from the Wikipedia site, under ‘satellite photos’, which can be found at the following link: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:2004_satellite_picture_of_Istanbul_and_the_Bosphorus.jpg.

As many will remember, in December 1989, the US invasion of Panama took place, with the declared and successful aim of deposing General Manuel Noriega, head of the Armed Forces who exercised de facto dictatorial power in the country. It was a military operation, decided by President George H. W. Bush, called ‘Just Cause’, which for a long time blocked merchant traffic in the Panama Canal, the administration of which was returned to the Panamanians after a good 10 years, on the basis of the Carter-Torrijos agreement of December 1999.

Beyond the political effects usually associated with military operations, the blockade of the Panama Canal did not fail to produce very serious damage to the economies of the many countries, especially on the South American Pacific coast, which used the Central American route to be able to export their products through Panama or import them from the European and African continents. We must not forget, in fact, that despite the advancement of technology and air cargo carriers, still today about 80% of world trade uses ships as means of transport. Ergo, straits and maritime canals ‘shorten the distances of the world’ and constitute strategic passages of absolute importance for world trade, assuming extreme importance in terms of geopolitics and international security, as well as in the balance of power between states and in the delicate diplomatic dossiers concerning them. On the other hand, the recent incident in the Suez Canal, in which the grounding of the motor vessel ‘Ever Given’ caused the total blockage of vessel passage for over a week, causing millions of dollars in losses to shipping companies, is testimony to this delicate aspect.

Fig. 1: The Panama Canal on the map https://www.freeworldmaps.net/centralamerica/panama/map.html

Fig. 2: View of the Suez Canal on board a container ship
Take for example the case of Ecuador, an Andean country that in 1989 was among the world’s leading exporters of bananas, cocoa, shrimps, and was a member of OPEC, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries. In its capital, Quito, located 3,000 metres above sea level, there was evidently serious economic damage caused to the country by the Panama blockade. Apart from an albeit substantial amount of products that were exported to the USA and Canada along the Pacific coast, the temporary ban on passage through Panama forced the Andean nation’s cargo ships to circumnavigate the South American continent to access the Atlantic via the Strait of Magellan. Similar fate was reserved for other countries on the Pacific coast in relation to their exports to Europe, with greater damage to ship transports of perishable goods such as, for example, tropical fruit and other foodstuffs, but also with greatly increased costs for the transport of industrial, mining or hydrocarbon products.

Apart from the aforementioned case of Panama, it is more than evident that the need to ensure the smooth passage of maritime transport through straits and canals, as obligatory routes, concerns many other fundamental strategic passages of high importance in the geopolitical scenario. These include the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal, the Strait of Gibraltar, the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, the Strait of Malacca, Bab El Mandeb and the Bering Strait. If, as we have seen, the Panama Canal – which connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans – represents a vital element for most Latin American and Caribbean countries, the Strait of Hormuz, located between Iran and Oman, is also of absolute importance. Indeed, it is considered the most important oil transit point, with about 18 million barrels per day in 2020 (20.7 in 2018 and 20.6 in 2016) and, according to an estimate by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, this volume would constitute about 20% of the world’s liquid oil consumption. At the same time, it is worth emphasising the importance of the Strait of Malacca, the main passage between the Pacific and Indian oceans, which ranks just behind Hormuz in terms of merchant traffic.

Fig. 3: Strait of Hormuz

Fig. 4: Strait of Malacca
With regard to the aforementioned affair of the Suez blockade – an artificial passage of about 200 kilometres connecting the Red Sea to the Mediterranean – in addition to the economic repercussions on the shipping trade between Europe and the ports of East Africa, Asia and Oceania, the aforementioned case of the container ship Ever Given, (belonging to the Taiwanese company Evergreen and flying the Panamanian flag) should be mentioned. This affair has not failed to produce its distorting effects also on the Strait of Ba Bel-Mandeb, through which the Suez Canal is accessed and which constitutes an essential strategic point between the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.

But also the historical, political and economic importance of the Strait of Gibraltar is, especially for us Europeans, very evident since, with its length of 64 kilometres, it represents an obligatory passage between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean and a sensitive border between Europe and Africa. Indeed, it is a significant critical point in the delicate issue of migratory waves from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan regions. On the other hand, the persistent presence of the United Kingdom on the Strait through the Rock of Gibraltar and Spain’s presence on African territory, with the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, are clear evidence of its strategic value.

Fig. 5: Strait of Gibraltar

Fig. 6: Enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla
And again, the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, straits dividing Asia from Europe, easily show their decisive strategic importance, all the more so in coincidence with Ankara’s newfound power in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern region. The Bosphorus, located between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, and the Dardanelles, located between the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, are thus strategic waterways and passageways in relation to numerous industrial products and raw materials, as well as crude hydrocarbons from the Caspian Sea region destined for western and southern Europe.

Fig. 7: Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits
The strategic value of the Bering Strait is in full evidence, if one considers that it separates the United States from Russia and for a long time, especially during the most critical phases of the so-called Cold War, it was heavily guarded by both the US and the Soviet Union and gave rise to quite a few frictions and tensions. It is quite common for students of geo-strategy to come across the study of maps representing unusual perspectives. Particularly interesting among these is a map centred on the North Pole, showing northern ‘oil routes’ through Bering, to which both Moscow and Washington have given extreme geopolitical attention for many decades.

Fig. 8: Bering Strait on geographical map https://no.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fil:Bering_Sea_Aleutian_Is_Alaska_map.png

Fig. 9: Aerial view of the Bering Strait
The geo-strategic consequences of not having free access to channels and straits

It should be noted that the international community has long been making efforts to codify rules of international law relating to sea passages through conferences and conventions (the 1982 Montego Bay Conference on the Law of the Sea is essential in this respect). Nevertheless, the security of straits can be jeopardised by several factors. These include the frequent incidents of piracy which, besides posing a real threat to sea passages, force states and shipowners to equip themselves with on-board deterrence and/or defence devices in order to ward off attacks on their vessels even on the high seas. Particularly serious and notorious is the activity of the pirates who, with a high number of attacks, have infested the Straits of Malacca and Bab El Mandeb in recent years, in some cases supported by non-state entities and left in a position to act by the almost total lack of control on the part of the coastal States, a deficiency that has undoubtedly favoured illegal trafficking and crime.

On the other hand, in the straits of the Middle East region transit products that are essential for the economies of the entire world, primarily oil. An indiscriminate increase in its price, due to the temporary blockage of a strategic channel, could in fact have repercussions on global prices, with the obvious possibility of generating a generalised economic recession. Let us recall, in this regard, the distress situation produced following the so-called Kippur War in 1973 and the consequent increase in the price of hydrocarbons and related products. Sometimes, even situations of latent political conflict with countries that insist on a strategic maritime passage generate criticality, because instability increases the fear of insecurity and it is difficult to maintain high levels of efficiency and guaranteed navigability, as witnessed, for example, by the long-standing tensions between the United States and Iran and the consequent insecurity of the passage at Hormuz, after the dramatic events of 1979 and the long kidnapping of US diplomats in Tehran.

Ultimately, regardless of the cause, the timing of a blockade of a strait is decisive: if it is limited to two or three days, the impact will be limited to a worsening of the delay in the passage of ships. If, however, the blockade were to be prolonged, there would be very serious global ramifications with price increases and huge losses for economic operators. In the recent case of Suez, for example, not only were deliveries of foodstuffs, fuel, manufactured goods, vehicles and various products blocked, but the Egyptian authorities themselves did not collect the canal passage fees, which some experts have calculated for each vessel – for the entire period of stoppage – at around 700,000 dollars! We know, therefore, that these sea passages – of enormous importance for the world economy – present blockage risks that can destabilise the ship transport system, generating significant losses for ship owners, canal companies and states. This can be caused by fortuitous incidents (e.g. Suez 2021), war events in the region (e.g. Kippur 1973), politico-military interventions (e.g. Panama 1989), but also by piracy, terrorist attacks, and special conditions that temporarily prevent the use of transit systems (e.g. damage to lock mechanisms).

The issue of the delicacy of strategic maritime passages is very much felt by scholars of international law and world diplomacy. These, while aware of the existing balance of power between the actors of the international community, have not failed to theorise about forms of internationalisation of certain straits and channels, with the aim of removing them from the political control of individual states and making the risk of blockade for political reasons less likely. Such a solution would be of undeniable benefit both to the country hosting the canal in its territory, to shipping companies and to the entire international community. In fact, an appropriate internationalisation formula would perhaps represent the most suitable legal figure in terms of neutrality, efficiency and peaceful use of the strategic passage. Moreover, its administration, in the event of a war conflict, could be entrusted to a special commission above the parties, capable of guaranteeing the smooth running of the passage’s operations and preventing international trade and transport from suffering instability. However, it is easy to understand that the interests at stake would still be numerous and significant; moreover, the concrete realisation of such a project would only be partially effective: in fact, forced suspensions of canal operations due to terrorist attacks or facility breakdowns would not be eliminated through internationalisation.


In the light of the above, some reflection seems appropriate. Independently of private insurance policies taken out by shipping companies, it would be worth considering the creation – in the context of the competent multilateral diplomatic fora, e.g. the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) or the World Trade Organisation (WTO) – of a kind of International Straits and Canals Authority, with the aim of protecting commercial actors affected by blockades. It could operate on the basis of a system of quotas (similar to those of the International Seabed Authority, which regulates the collection of valuable minerals on the international seabed) proportionate to the number of annual passages or the volume of goods transported through straits and canals, which would have, in the event of a blockade, a function of redistribution of economic resources to mitigate as much as possible the losses suffered. Think, for example, of the less advanced countries that export raw materials, where the damage caused by a commercial blockade of a strategic naval passage could produce serious economic and, in all likelihood, also social destabilisation.

Certainly the power relations between states and the so-called principle of effectiveness, which characterises the dynamics of the international community, will find it hard to cede its supremacy, based on economic interests and the related need to exercise the widest possible political control over straits and channels, to law and international organisation. However, this does not detract from the fact that diplomatic action can be exercised with a view to regulating the peaceful management of straits and canals in a more harmonious and equitable manner, also in order to avoid turbulence and setbacks in the orderly unfolding of world navigation through these essential strategic passages.

Resta Aggiornato

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