GeoPolitical Tales Episode 11 | Major Shipping Routes of the World | دنیا کے اہم ترین بحری تجارتی راستے
A famous general of ancient Greece, Themistocles once said: “He who controls the sea controls everything” Today, 2,500 years later, the statement of Greek general has been proved to be the utmost truth. Today, if the United States is the world’s superpower, a big reason for it is its powerful navy. To maintain its presence and control over the world’s oceans, the United States has mi litary bases around the world. The importance of controlling international waters can be gauged from the fact that the United States spends more on its navy than it does on its army and air force.
In 2020, the US Navy’s annual budget was 205 billion US$, compared to its army’s budget of 191 billion US$. Despite the development of land and air routes, 85% of the world’s trade is still carried out by sea. In this episode of the Geopolitical Tales series, we will show you the story of maritime trade. We will inform you about the short history of maritime trade? Why is maritime trade preferred to the land trade? Which popular routes are used worldwide for maritime trade? And what are the choke points in the seas around the world, where the dangers of war often loom large?
The history of travel and trade by sea is at least 5,000 years old. Historians differ as to which was the first civilization to base its trade on the sea. But all historians agree that in the last 1500 years, most of the civilizations and nations that have gained wealth and power, they have done it through maritime trade. It was through maritime trade that such nations spread their religion, culture, language, knowledge and technology all over the world and increased their influence all over the world. A great example of this is the Indian Ocean trade route.
This trade route was the largest maritime trade route in the world from the 7th to the 15th century. Indian Ocean trade route connected the African Swahili Coast, the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian subcontinent, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia and China. The trade through this route was so extensive that it was considered larger than the famous Silk Road in terms of trade volume. Wood, silk, cotton, gold, rice, coffee, porcelain utensils and spices were traded through Indian Ocean trade route. It was through this sea trade route that Islam spread to many countries around the Indian Ocean.
These countries included Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique, Somalia, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, European expeditions from Spain and Portugal went on missions to explore new maritime trade routes. Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic Ocean and discovered the Americas. Following this discovery, Spain and Portugal colonized the continents of North and South America. Europeans also brought with them infectio us diseases such as smallpox, measles and cholera.
These diseases were new to the indigenous peoples of North and South America, and their bodies did not have the immunity to fight them. As a result, a large part of the local population began to die from these diseases. A large number of the remaining surviving local populations were selectively ma ssacred by the Europeans. After clearing the Americas of indigenous populations, Europeans began to settle their people there. Today, the indigenous population of South and Central America is only 7%.
Following this occupation of the Americas, Spain and Portugal made full use of the natural resources of the continents. As a result of the wealth gained from here, both the countries became superpowers of the world. The Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama discovered the first sea route from Europe to India along the coast of Africa. The discovery of a new route created new attractive trade opportunities for Portugal with India and Africa. Portugal became the world’s largest power as a result of this trade in spices from India and gold from Africa.
At the same time, the Indian ocean trade was taken over by Portugal. Seeing the successes of Portugal and Spain, a race started to colonize the world among other European nations. These colonial powers included Britain, the Dutch, the Italians, the Belgians, the French and the Germans. From 16th to 20th century, these nations colonised areas ranging from the Americas to Africa, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and China. The British East India Company came to India for trade through the route discovered by the Portuguese.
The East India Company, which came for trade, saw the opportunity and took over the whole of India. By exploiting the resources of India and the rest of its colonies, and by exclusively trading with these countries Britain accumulated more wealth and power. And Britain became the world’s superpower. The British rule on the world lasted from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. By the end of the eighteenth century, the whole world was connected to each other by sea. Now, European colonial powers began the process of making the maritime trade routes easier and shorter.
The greatest effort in this regard was the construction of the Suez Canal in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1854, French engineers began digging a canal in Egypt. The purpose of the 193 km long canal was to connect the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea, to create a new sea route. The construction of the Suez Canal on Egyptian soil shortened the trade route between Asia and Europe. To reach London from the Indian Ocean, one first had to take a sea route along the coast of Africa, which was about twenty thousand kilometers long and took about 30 days.
In comparison, the route of the Suez Canal was about 7,000 km shorter. And it took less than 10 days and the fuel savings were an extra advantage. Even today, the Suez Canal is a very busy route, accounting for 8% of the world’s maritime trade. Today, Egypt also charges a hefty fee from ships passing through the canal. Egypt earns US $ 5.5 billion a year in foreign exchange from the Suez canal. After the construction of the Suez Canal in 1869, the next revolution in world maritime trade came in 1914 when the Panama Canal was built.
The 82-kilometer-long canal was built to connect the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic Ocean, carving a new sea route. For example, if a ship were to sail from the east coast of the United States to the west coast of the United States, it would have to circumnavigate the continent of South America. But with the construction of the Panama Canal, the route became shorter by about 15,000 km. And it took less than 20 days and fuel savings were in addition. Even today, the Panama Canal route is a very busy route, accounting for 5% of the world’s maritime trade.
Today, the Central American country of Panama charges a fee from ships passing through the canal. Panama earns 1.7 billion US$ in foreign exchange annually from Panama canal. With the passage of time, where the sea routes have become shorter, there was also a great innovation in shipbuilding technology. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a ship was capable of carrying 3,000 tonnes of cargo. Today this capacity has increased 100 times. Today a ship can carry up to 300,000 tonnes of cargo. A ton weighs approx one thousand kilograms.
Increasing the cargo capacity of ships has also significantly reduced the cost of transportation of goods. Maritime trade requires less energy than land trade. Therefore, maritime trade requires less fuel, which makes it cheaper than land trade. In addition, maritime trade makes it easier to handle freight management. Accidents are also reduced due to the relatively safer voyage. And it also does relatively little damage to the environment. For these reasons, trade by sea is still preferred over trade by land or air.
Even today, 85% of the world’s trade is done by sea, 9% by road, 5% by rail, and only 1% by air. Let’s look at the current maritime trade map. Here busiest trade routes are shown in Red color. Developed countries trade heavily with each other. We can also see this in the map. For example, the trade route between Europe and the United States through the Atlantic Ocean is very busy. That is, there is a lot of trade between these countries. Even traditionally, Atlantic Ocean trade route has been a very busy route.
But in the 21st century, the dynamics of sea lanes have changed. In the 21st century, Far East Asian countries have also made great industrial progress. Here on the map we can see why the countries of Far East Asia are considered the leaders of maritime trade in the world in the 21st century. These countries include China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan. Being at the forefront of maritime trade means that these countries also have very developed industrial sectors.
These countries import crude oil and raw materials from the Middle East, Australia and African countries by sea. This crude material and crude oil run the industries of these countries. Also these Far East Asian countries export the finished products made in their industries by sea. Over the past three decades, China’s industrial development in particular has reached its peak. And it has emerged as the world’s largest exporter. China’s industrial growth can be gauged from the fact that 9 of the world’s 20 largest commercial ports are in China.
Let us now mention the choke points or narrow waterways on the sea trade routes. Choke points are narrow lanes in the ocean where traffic pressure is high. Choke points are easier to block, which can stop all traffic on this route. If the maritime traffic is stopped, all trade closures could severely damage the economies of developed countries. To avoid this situation, powerful countries maintain their naval presence at various strategic points in the seas at all times. Due to the geopolitics around these maritime routes, there is often tension between powerful countries.
The Panama Canal and the Suez Canal are two major choke points, which we have already discussed. In the second episode of Geopolitical Tales, we have discussed the Bosphorus strait near Turkish city of Istanbul. Here we will tell you about the three main choke points, the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb. The Strait of Malacca is located between Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. At one point, this strait is so narrow that its width is reduced to about 3 km. About 25% of the world’s trade passes through the Straits of Malacca.
All oil supplies to China from the Middle East passes through this route. That’s why the Malacca Strait is a backbone of Chinese economy. China is building alternative supply routes to end its sole dependence on the Malacca Strait. CPEC is also one of these alternative routes. The other major choke point is the Strait of Hormuz. The Strait of Hormuz is located in the northeast of the Arabean Peninsula between Iran and Oman. The Strait of Hormuz is only 55 km wide and it connects the Persian Gulf with the Arabian Sea.
Middle eastern countries export their oil to the world through the Strait of Hormuz. These countries include Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Iran and Qatar About 21% of the world’s oil is supplied through the Strait of Hormuz. That is why the Strait of Hormuz is so important for these countries. Because Iran can easily close the Strait of Hormuz, the US navy is present around the area. Tensions between the Iranian and US navies have also been frequent in the region. The third major choke point is Bab el-Mandeb Strait.
The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is located in the southwest of the Arab Peninsula between Yemen and Djibouti. The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is only 28 km wide and connects the Red Sea with the Arabian Sea. The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is extremely important because most traffic from Asia to Europe first passes through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and then through the Suez Canal. Because of this strategic importance of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a wa r is being carried out in Yemen between Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and Saudi coalition forces.
Somali pirates are also a threa t around the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Due to the special importance of Bab el-Mandeb strait and the prevailing situation in the region, a small country like Djibouti houses mi litary bases of five countries. Countries with mi litary bases include the United States, France, Italy, China and Japan. Friends, this was the story of maritime trade. Have you ever traveled by sea? Or do you wish to travel by sea? Do express your opinion and travel experiences in the comments section of the video!
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