Global warming and the Suez Canal of the Arctic

Published 28.09.2018 20:22

Over the course of history international networks of trade, transportation and logistics constituted the main arteries of the world economy. The ability to transport raw materials, primary goods and manufactures to target markets via efficient, safe and affordable channels has emerged as one of the main factors of economic competitiveness.

Therefore, control over international land and maritime trade routes, as well as strategic logistical passages, represents one of the most vital areas of hegemonic competition among global powers. As commercial and industrial capitalism turned into an integrated global system, struggles for logistical control intensified, turning into physical conflicts and even triggering large-scale wars. For instance, following its opening in 1869, the Suez Canal triggered a massive increase in international maritime trade between Asia and Europe by enabling direct passage from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean. But as such, the area around Suez, and Egypt in general, continued to constitute one of the focal points of global hegemonic struggles, geostrategic tensions and conflicts ever since. Similar observations could be made for the Panama Canal in the Americas as well as natural maritime passages such as the Bosporus and Dardanelles in Turkey, the Malakka Strait in the Pacific and the Gulf of Aden in the Red Sea.

Construction of massive maritime passages was thought to be a thing of the past, until the long-term effects of global warming created the possibility of a brand new logistical route right through the Arctic. After 150 years since the opening of the Suez Canal we might witness the emergence of a new international logistical route due to rising temperatures in the Arctic and developments in maritime technology. These days, one of the largest and technologically advanced cargo ships in the world, Venta, owned by Danish logistical giant A.P. Moller-Maersk Group is about to complete its maiden commercial voyage via the Northern Sea Route from South Korea to Germany and back to Russia. Venta's journey represents the first commercial voyage by a container ship from the Bering Strait to the edges of Alaska, from the north shores of Scandinavia and Siberia to Europe via the Northern Sea Route. The historic voyage of Venta constitutes a critical test for the regular use of the Arctic route for commercial shipping during summer months, as well as an opportunity for scientific data collection regarding ice intensity and logistical safety. This initiative is being followed with great interest across the globe as it could herald the birth of a brand new and substantially shorter maritime route between East Asia, Europe and the U.S. where almost 90 percent of all international trade takes place.

Scientific projections state that the Arctic route could be opened for year-round maritime trade within 20 years depending on climate conditions, but the geostrategic calculations of Russia and China are based on shortening this time frame. The existing logistical routes which carry the bulk of the world's manufactured goods from East Asia via the South China Sea, Malakka Strait and Suez Canal to Europe are extremely long as well as sensitive to politico-military tensions in the Pacific.

China has serious concerns that ongoing trade wars with the U.S. might trigger military confrontations in the South China Sea which is surrounded by key U.S. allies, with potentially crucial negative ramifications for China's global export capacity. That is why Beijing is one of the most ardent supporters of developing the Northern Sea Route as an international logistical path that could allow faster and safer access to European markets. Investment for this idea is also in conformity with the $1 trillion "Belt and Road Initiative" within the context of an Arctic Silk Road. Besides, as the Arctic route to Europe is substantially shorter than the route via the Suez Canal, the route might offer around 30 percent savings in terms of delivery times and fuel efficiency.

For Russia, the Arctic route carries considerable geopolitical and economic importance as the project will support Moscow's territorial claims over vast segments of Arctic land and sea borders. Moreover, commercial shipping along the route will provide substantial amounts of additional financial revenue, as the bulk of the route is located in the Russian Exclusive Economic Zone. Therefore, it is not surprising to see recent comments depicting the route as the "Russian Suez Canal."

As the focus of global hegemonic competition continues to shift eastwards, we are bound to hear more about conflicting claims on trade routes and logistical channels that connect the Asia-Pacific to the West. In this context, with its untapped mineral resources and logistical importance the Arctic is bound to constitute one of the key stages of global rivalries for decades to come.

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