An air of sarcasm characterises many reports on the Ever Given, the 400m-long ship that blocked the Suez Canal for six days last month. But the incident was a reminder of how vulnerable the busiest maritime trading routes are at their choke-points, and of how this vulnerability might manifest in the future. The world’s few maritime choke-points are under increasing pressure. This is true of not only the Suez Canal but also the adjacent Bab al-Mandeb Strait – on whose shores Djibouti hosts a sizeable foreign military presence – as well as the Strait of Malacca, the Panama Canal, and the Strait of Hormuz.
Threats to traditional and new choke-points
The Ever Given incident demonstrated how a blocked choke-point affects a wider network. In this case, it caused tangible economic damage to businesses across the world that are tied together through global supply chains. It is nothing new that choke-points are vulnerable and that keeping them open is essential for global trade. The right of passage through the Suez Canal for all kinds of ships (including military vessels) from any nation is guaranteed under the 1888 Constantinople Convention, which prohibits blockades on the waterway. However, in recent times, rising political tensions around the world have posed serious challenges to such agreements and a rules-based order more broadly.
China’s aggressive expansion of its territorial control in the South China Sea goes against the wishes of most of its neighbours and risks a military confrontation. This expansion is prompting the US, Japan, and even European states to conduct freedom of navigation operations in the region.
Under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey is pushing through the construction of a new canal to circumvent the Bosporus, and has publicly announced that it will withdraw from the Montreux Convention. The convention regulates passage through the Bosporus and provides Turkey with the right of control of the waterway, keeping a delicate balance of power in the Black Sea that has implications for the security of NATO countries. When states disregard international treaties in this way, they risk eroding rules that are also crucial to the stability of global trade.
The danger is increased by the evolution of new networks and interdependencies with choke-points states could weaponise. Most of these choke-points that create new vulnerabilities in the existing order are harder to regulate than maritime passages. They include internet exchange points and other infrastructure, cloud computing and 5G networks, financial payments and clearing systems, and even market access points. Heavy dependency on particular states in their production or control of rare earths or other commodities, or on their cooperation in managing migration flows, creates choke-points that these states can weaponise.
The weaponisation of choke-points
The weaponisation of these choke-points is much less predictable than that involving waterways such as the Suez Canal. The Ever Given blocked the passage of more than 400 ships and caused many others to travel via the longer and riskier route around the Horn of Africa. This had a knock-on effect on businesses further along the supply chain, exposing their high degree of dependency on global suppliers. Europe – and the world – were already alarmed about the pandemic-induced shock to supply chains. And there have been growing calls for re-shoring and even decoupling in many Western countries. But European states cannot maintain their current standards of living while decoupling from globally integrated supply chains and information networks (as reflected in, for example, the creation of the iPhones and cloud solutions Europeans use at work every day).
The great danger ahead is in underestimating the extent of these global interdependencies and the vulnerabilities of their new choke-points. With geopolitical tensions rising, it is becoming ever more likely that states will weaponise these choke-points to coerce others into certain forms of behaviour.
The weaponisation of a choke-point is often less costly and risky for the coercer than using other types of force – but it is highly consequential for all other actors in the network. The United States, for instance, has been ever more assertive in exploiting its centrality to the international financial system. The country’s financial sanctions on Iran have had severe consequences for European businesses, placing European states in the awkward position of being unable to protect their companies.
Soon, however, the US will not be the only actor that can control networks for policy objectives in this way. The systemic rivalry between the US and China is moving towards the weaponisation of these new networks through their choke-points. China is actively building up network capacities by pursuing a strategy of “dual circulation”: building fully domestic supply chains while tying foreign companies to the Chinese market even more strongly. The country is expanding its digital and financial services beyond its huge internal market; creating closer links between neighbouring states and Chinese networks; using the Belt and Road Initiative to export its standards; promoting platforms such as WeChat; and creating a digital currency similar to Russia’s.
Competition between the US and China is the main driver of these developments, as the two great powers are colliding more and more. But smaller states might increasingly try to weaponise the choke-points they have influence over. Even if they do not succeed, the attempt itself can have severe consequences. In the Strait of Hormuz, Iran has allegedly attacked oil tankers on several occasions. Another scenario involves the weaponisation of digital communications infrastructure in a war, which could affect regions outside the conflict zone.
How Europe should prepare for the future
Europe is especially vulnerable to these threats because it has far less influence than the US or China over global networks. In a future in which the weaponisation of network connections is a common way to achieve policy objectives, states will likely become more transactional and try to force changes in behaviour from others in exchange for the use of a platform or supply chain.
Europe should strive for rules-based control over choke-points, through measures such as the treaties on the Suez Canal or the Bosporus. However, such control can only stem from states’ shared understanding of interdependence – a recognition that maintaining their ties to one another helps preserve stability. A better understanding of interdependency could help shape a framework of regulations that protects Europe’s future security and prosperity. The establishment of a European Resilience Office would be the first step in this direction.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.