Iran, the United States, and Britain were recently involved in a skirmish on the Strait of Hormuz. Drones were shot down, oil tankers were seized, oil prices rose, and a billion brows furrowed. What was at stake wasn’t just these governments’ honour and prestige but also global economic stability.
How So? The Strait of Hormuz isn’t your normal body of water – it’s a choke-point, which makes it an Achilles’ heel of world trade.
What Are Chokepoints?
Valves of Vulnerability: Chokepoints are strategic narrow routes that link two broader regions. In military studies, they are bottlenecks of land or water that armed forces have to pass through; but because of the narrow front they are forced to greatly limit their effectiveness into a few columns/lines. In doing so, these restrictive passageways make armies waging war (or ships carrying goods) susceptible to enemy forces that, even if inferior in number, can hold much superior forces hostage by trapping them around the chokepoint, thereby “choking” them.
These points can be both maritime and inland. On the sea they take the form of straits and canals while on land they take the form of valleys and bridges.
Leonidas’s Last Stand: Remember the movie 300? In 480BCE, Greeks and Spartans famously confronted and inflicted heavy losses on the invading Persian army despite being outnumbered by a ratio of 1:42. They did this by blocking the narrow 100m-wide Pass of Thermopylae – a chokepoint.
Why Are They Important?
The importance of chokepoints is axiomatic. Especially so in a 21st century globalised world.
Backbones of International Trade: Millions of tonnes of food, fertilizer, tech components, medical equipment and all kinds of traded goods rely on safe passage through the world’s many chokepoints to reach their destination. A closure of even one critical chokepoint can disrupt global traffic and have far-reaching consequences, including food supply crises and recessions.
Sea to Shining Sea: 90% of international commerce happens via oceans (sea transport is significantly cheaper than land and air). This is why the most critical chokepoints (listed in the next section) are either straits or canals.
Some Legalese: Inland chokepoints are subjected to the laws of the country they’re in – for example, the Brazilian road network is governed by Brazilian law. Maritime chokepoints, considering they’re in “international waters”, are subject to customary international law, which would mean the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS, of which 168 countries are parties, prohibits strait-bordering states from hampering or suspending transit passage. Shipping lanes are also subject to other treaties on traffic control, pollution and maritime safety. But these customary regulations can be ambiguous at times, especially so when chokepoints are so narrow that the boundaries between “international” and “territorial” waters can blur to the point of non-existence.
Choking Mother Earth: A point to remember - and a point that’s sadly a given - because of the high, constant and dense traffic they attract, chokepoints are hubs of environmental pollution, destruction of aquatic ecosystems, maritime accidents, oil spills and coastal degradation.
Which Are The Most Important Chokepoints?
Amongst the numerous chokepoints that exist thanks to Earth’s geographic diversity, a handful of them are of particular importance due to their indispensability to the global oil trade or their geostrategic implications. Some of these are listed below:
A few important points to note:
The Far-Reaching Consequences of Chokepoints: A Case Study
To better appreciate the multi-dimensional gravity of chokepoints, let’s look the Strait of Malacca – Asia’s “primary chokepoint” and the “world’s busiest shipping lane”, which accounts for 25% of all traded goods in addition to a third of all seaborne oil – and how it has inspired world-changing, multifaceted policies by the country that relies on it the most.
All Eyes on China: In 2003, Chinese President Hu Jintao lamented that his country is chained to the “Malacca dilemma”. China’s economic and energy needs depend overwhelmingly on the small Malacca strait, which could be shut down by only a handful of ships in the advent of war, and was therefore a major thorn on Beijing’s side.
As the Chinese economy grew, measures were adopted or proposed to decrease its reliance on Malacca. These include establishing oil pipelines through Myanmar, building deepwater ports in Kyaukphyu and Gwadar, installing petroleum stockpiling machinery, expanding nuclear power generation, and planning an “Asian Panama Canal” through Thailand.
Many of these projects are part of the much-debated $1tr+ Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), particularly BRI’s flagship China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). CPEC is working to intricately link China’s Western province of Xinjiang to the Arabian Sea via Pakistan (thereby providing an alternative to Malacca).
The Strait of Malacca lies between Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore and, as per some estimates, is the world's busiest shipping lane.
Escaping Malacca: The above-mentioned measures vary when it comes to efficiency, feasibility and practicality. Nevertheless, they underscore China’s desperation to overcome its Malacca dilemma.
More than that, they demonstrate how chokepoints impact everything from trade deals to war room rhetoric. Beijing knows that its Malacca handicap means these straits would decide the fate of any conflict it could be involved in (especially so considering its souring relations with Washington). Therefore, hundreds of billions of dollars spent in bypassing or diluting this chokepoint’s importance are hundreds of billions of dollars well-spent for China’s security.
A narrow passageway has elicited pipelines running through entire nations, proposals to split a peninsula for a canal, megaprojects that have employed and irked millions, realigned international allegiances, and rationalised a global connectivity project of historic proportions that has evoked commentary everywhere from being a game-changer for the international economic order to “neo-imperialism” aimed at enabling Pax Sinica. Talk about ripples in a pond.
Chained to Topography: Now we can understand why the recent tensions in the Strait of Hormuz were bound to cause international alarm. 30% of all oil traded via oceans passes through this strait, which is only 21 miles wide at its narrowest point. Even the slightest disruption in the chokepoint of Hormuz, let alone all-out war, would have a domino effect by cleaving supply chains and driving up prices and pushing down markets. The same goes for other chokepoints.
Around the world, as a “new Cold War” emerges and countries increasingly weaponise trade, chokepoints are becoming points of global attention. These are the Achilles’ heels of great powers, the chinks in the global economy’s armour. They are also poignant examples of how countries, no matter how great or how powerful, still remain prisoners of geography.