Why Geography Does Not Favor China

For more than a decade various intellectuals, pundits, and statesmen have all predicted that China is on the path towards not only being the next superpower, but even surpassing the United States in power and influence. However, while there are certain indicators to suggest that China’s international importance will continue to rise, there are many reasons to be skeptical of China becoming the most dominant world power any time soon. For one thing geography is generally against her. While geography is only one factor it is arguably among the most important. Geography has the potential of seriously limiting China’s emergence as a superpower.

Looking at the history of great powers and superpowers there seems to be several geographic considerations that do much to determine which nations become powerful. Undoubtedly some of these, such as having a significant population, a decent sized country, and holding, or at least having access to, considerable resources, China undoubtedly has. However, these are but a few geographic considerations among many and they are not inherently decisive. China’s recent history of domination by Western imperial powers and having much of its country occupied during the 1930s and ’40s by Japan (a country much smaller, less populated, and having fewer resources than China) provides ample proof. Of course geographic considerations by themselves are only part of the story and several other factors including, but not limited to, political, economic, and military are often just as important, if not more so.

Yet, keeping these latter considerations aside, and wishing to find the foremost important geographic factors that lead to nations becoming superpowers, it is necessary to look at the few nations that have accomplished this feat. When defining superpowers it is necessary to mark key differences between major powers, and superpowers. These differences can be more subtle than one would think.

For example, while many scholars would argue that Germany was a stronger country in “World War 1” than Britain, the British Empire could be considered a superpower while Germany could not. While Germany had more military power in Europe and more industry than Britain, the British Empire was the foremost world power, had the ability to project power globally, was endowed with more economic power (which it used to prop up her allies financially), and thanks to the Royal Navy, could blockade Germany, starve her people and destroy its economic potential (which was a big factor in deciding the war). Some could argue that had Germany defeated France and Russia it could have theoretically built a navy to defeat England and become a superpower, but the point is that Germany despite all of its military prowess was at a heavy disadvantage in terms of numbers, resources and money, and never had time to emerge as one. The same principle applied during the “Napoleonic Wars” where Britain’s naval power limited French power to Europe and British economic influence propped up her European allies. Again the same principles influenced the “Cold War,” where NATO seapower and U.S. economic dominance mostly limited Soviet power projection and contained it until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

In these three cases; Germany, France and Russia were strong on land, but weak (at least vs. their enemies) at sea and in economic terms. The enemy’s control of sea lines of communications which gave them the ability to amass superior economic and financial resources were in the end decisive. Of course some could argue that had Germany, France, or Russia been successful at quashing their enemies on land they would have had a much better chance of achieving superpower status, my argument is that much of the reason they failed was their inability to effectively challenge the naval and economic dominance of their enemies. While it may appear simple, these considerations are arguably among the most important in determining the emergence of superpowers.

The majority of potential or real superpowers throughout history have had significant naval capabilities. Persia, Rome, Spain, Netherlands, Japan, France, Germany, Britain and America all had significant or dominant naval capabilities. Alexander the Great’s first priority when conquering the Persian Empire was overrunning the Eastern Mediterranean to eradicate Persian naval power. Rome, despite the common perception of not being an important maritime state, only gained serious influence in the Mediterranean by beating the Carthaginians, themselves traditionally a maritime power, at their own game (a point Alfred Thayer Mahan makes in the intro of “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783). Spain used her navy to conquer a vast empire and project her power across much of the globe, though ultimately failed to subdue England by the “Spanish Armada” and never focused on the economic or financial practices or institutions needed to develop into a true superpower. The Netherlands become an economic titan by her control of the sea lanes, but her small population, having to defend itself on land against hostile neighbors, and being boxed in geographically by Britain across the English Channel, doomed her chances of becoming a superpower. Japan should have, in theory at least, had the same chance as Britain at becoming a superpower but her lack of focus on economics and protecting her sea commerce, and her decision to fight all the main powers in Asia and the Pacific (on land and at sea) with no real allies during the “Second World War” was foolhardy. From 1939 to 1945 Japan fought Russia, the world’s biggest country, China, the world’s most populous country, Britain, the world’s biggest empire, America, the world’s leading industrial and economic state, and countless other nations.

The situation of France and Germany, both of which developed significant maritime capabilities, has been described above. Which leaves Britain and America, arguably the world’s only true superpowers. Besides having dominant navies, as well as unrivaled economic and financial capabilities, they had geography on their side. Unlike the previous nations mentioned (excluding Japan) the U.S. and U.K. have had no significant land rivals for most of their histories and thus have generally not had to invest in large, expensive armies and have had little fear of been overrun by hostile nations. If you look at the history of the previous nations they are filled with numerous invasions and bloody wars, while the history of America and Britain is, at least in comparison, relatively mild. This has allowed them the stability to develop democratic institutions, economic prosperity, and significant naval power.

The geography of America and the British isles is advantageous from a global standpoint. Besides the previously mentioned points both countries have great topography to construct good ports, long coastlines that are not boxed in by other powers, and are located in good positions that they can project power abroad as well as control/bloke other nation’s sea lines of communication. This along with Britain securing colonies and ports along vital maritime choke points (such as Gibraltar, Suez, Hormuz and Malacca, etc.) and America making alliances or stationing forces in proximity to these locations has allowed these two nations to dominate the world’s sea lines of communication and project power across the globe virtually unimpeded.

Thus a key component of Superpower status is maintaining the world’s sea lines of communication for trade and power projection. China is at a geographic disadvantage regarding this. While China certainly has a long coastline and excellent ports they are both considerably boxed in, or surrounded by, potentially hostile nations. South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and especially Taiwan (all American allies) would put a serious brake on Chinese naval ambitions in the event of heightened international relations or war. Even Vietnam, with its considerable coastline, is becoming weary of Chinese influence and has grown closer to America. The prospect of Sino-Vietnamese conflict is not far-fetched, for most of Vietnam’s history China has been seen as its gravest threat and the two nations fought a brief war in 1979. The same goes for India (also a likely U.S. ally against Sino expansion), while it does not border Chinese waters, its growth is destined to match that of China’s and it could also place naval forces astride the sea lanes China needs (especially the Strait of Malacca) to get many vital resources and minerals from Africa and the Middle East.

China’s only potential remedies to this situation would depend upon either building a navy that could dominate Asia and hope that America would eventually withdraw into relative isolation, and thus allow China hegemonic power in East Asia, or build such a fleet and convince enough of her neighbors to align themselves more with her instead of the United States and thus eliminate her geographic isolation. Both of these considerations depend upon the relative balance of strength (military, diplomatic and economic) between America and China. The key question is whether America is able and willing to commit to defend its paramount position in the region and prop up her allies in the long run, or whether China can gain such a dominant position in the region that her neighbors decide to reorient their interests towards Beijing. Neither of these are inevitable. America could easily one day conclude that a more isolationist policy would better suit her interests (especially given the excessive costs of trying to be strong in countless areas of the globe) whereas on the other hand a strong alliance between even a weakened America and her Asian allies (especially if backed by strong nations like India, Japan, and potentially even Russia) would probably be enough to maintain the balance of power in Asia.

China could also seek hegemony on land, as historically France, Germany, and Russia have. However, just as at sea China does not have an advantageous position on land either. Much like Germany throughout her history China has to deal with several land powers. India and Russia are obvious significant competitors, while Vietnam (especially if it grows closer to America’s orbit) would be a moderate threat. North Korea is an ally and provides a buffer zone from South Korea, but a unified Korea (especially a pro-American one) could present a potential threat as Manchuria and China’s industrial and economic heartland are close to the Yalu river (a key reason the Chinese intervened in the “Korean War”). Anyone who thinks that conflict is impossible between these nations should remember that China has gone to war with all of them in modern times: India in 1962, Russia in 1929 and 1969, Vietnam in 1979 and South Korea and America during the “Korean War” (1950-53).

While just as at sea there is little chance of there being a major land war in Asia, it does however force China to spend significant money and resources to be the dominant land power in Asia if it wants to be the regional hegemon. However, as dominating the sea lanes is also a prerequisite of being a hegemon as well, China would also be forced to build a fleet to secure these as well as having to maintain the ability to project power abroad. In other words China would need to have the best army, as well as the best navy (and even air force as the former two depend much upon Airpower) in Asia and the Pacific to be the foremost power in the region, let alone a superpower. Even if America withdrew from the region into isolationism, regional powers could theoretically pull together and strain China’s effort.

The cost it would take China to be the dominant military power in East Asia and the Pacific would be astronomical if not impossible. If one looks at world defense expenditures things do not look promising for Chinese hegemony. According to SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) in 2012 China spent 143 billion (USD) on their armed forces vs. 711 billion by the United States. While one could argue, disingenuously, that the Americans have to spread their resources globally, China’s real or potential rivals also have significant defense budgets. Japan spent 60 billion, India spent 49 billion, and Russia 72, while other nations like South Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan spend smaller but still respectable amounts of money. Thus, even if Chinese spending somehow one day overtook that of the Americans, or even if America withdrew into isolation, China would still be surrounded by a ring of other powerful countries with significant military power.

Historically it is difficult, if not impossible, to be dominant on land and at sea. Germany and Russia tried to and failed, Spain during the 16th century came close to but failed at the “Spanish Armada,” and Napoleon overextended himself trying to hurt Britain from invading Egypt and Spain, building a big fleet, as well as trying to subdue Russia. Britain and America both succeeded as superpowers because they could concentrate on naval power and prop up allies to fight their enemies while expending limited forces on land. However, China’s geographic position resembles Germany between 1914-45. While she is destined to be the most powerful country in the region, her coast is boxed in by a coalition of strong naval power, and has multiple rivals on land. While China has obvious advantages vs. Germans as in a massive population, more resources and strategic depth, she also has some of the same shortcomings such as a considerable dependence on imported resources.

Indeed, China is dependent upon imports for 55% of its oil, and an ever growing percentage of its coal (from 114 million tons in 2009 to over 250 million tons in 2012). These are both necessary to fuel its economic growth, let alone run its country and heat its people. Additionally, China is even more dependent upon seaborne trade than Germany and thus prolonged hostilities (which would also be detrimental to America and other powers) would arguably be more crippling to China. Thus an argument could be made that no matter how strong and efficient China can be, just like Germany she is doomed to be held back from superpower status via geography. On the other hand, many histories suggest Germany could have won the “World Wars” and nations have succeeded in overcoming geographic conditions throughout history.

Thus to in order to dominate Asia, let alone the world, China faces considerable obstacles on land and at sea. On land India will always be a rival, the Korean Peninsula will likely be a source of anxiety for some time, Vietnam is drifting more into the American orbit, and even Russia could eventually turn against her (considering the massive Chinese emigration patterns into the Russian Far East where a mere 6 million Russians are up against 100 million Chinese in Manchuria). As the Russian Far East is rich in resources and materials that China needs, this is not an academic factor.

At sea the odds are even more lopsided against China. South Korea, and Vietnam box in China’s coast from the South and North. Additionally, all the countries in the “First Island Chain” including Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, Malaysia and Singapore all fear Chinese expansion and are U.S allies. India is also a U.S. ally and many of these nations already have naval agreements with the Americans. Meanwhile the U.S. has bases in these countries, as well as in the “Second Island Chain” of the various island groups in the mid-pacific. In the event of war or international crisis the U.S. and her allies could use their superior naval power and geographic control of the various sea routes and choke points to box in China’s naval power to her coast, limit her power projection abroad, as well as effectively neutralizing her seaborne trade.

China also faces issues regarding her political geography. While globalization and trade have indeed lifted countless millions of Chinese out of poverty, the results have been uneven. Just as in old China the urban and coastal areas have reaped much of the benefits whereas inner and rural China is still relatively backwards and poor. Unsurprisingly the people in these region are often bitter with the unequal distribution of wealth and dissidence will arguably continuously mount. Ironically, even among the emerging Middle Class in the coastal and urban regions, the gaining of more wealth, education and exposure to the outside world via traveling, social media, and the Internet, will also lead to rising level of dissidence.

In fact such levels have risen significantly since 1989 (the year of the “Tiananmen Square massacre”) from roughly 8700 mass group incidents in 1993 to 87000 in 2005 to 180000 in 2010. Many have pointed out that most of these protests have focuses on smaller issues rather than advocating systematic chance in China. However, anyone who thinks that the repressive Chinese state can cow the masses indefinitely should keep in mind that a steady growth in dissidence increases the chances of spontaneous revolutionary movements such as the unexpected “Arab Spring” as well as the “Tiananmen Square Protests” in 1989 of occurring.

While less of a problem due to their relatively small populations and remote locations, the Tibetans and Turkish Uyghurs in Xinjiang, as well as other minorities with separatist aspirations also present significant sources of domestic tension. The Communist Party of China has 3 course open to it to deal with such mounting levels of dissidence. They could try mass repression (as in even more severe then now, perhaps imitating the doomed Assad regime in Syria), appease disenfranchised Chinese with financial or political incentives, or a controlled move towards more democratization as Taiwan and South Korea have done.

The first option would probably fail in the long run due to world media, international pressure, the rising levels of Chinese dissidence in spite of existing high levels of repression, and the fact that such repression would undermine all the economic progress China has made in the last few decades. The second option would also probably fail in the long term due to the current slow down in the global economy, the prevalence of corruption in Chinese society (according to the Corruption Perception Index of 2012 China ranked 80 out of 176 countries while its main rivals, the U.S, Japan and Taiwan scored much better at 19, 17, and 34 respectively), the sheer numbers of people that need to be appeased, and the fact that even if it worked the better off people would probably want political change eventually anyway. The third option, perhaps the one most likely to succeed, and most beneficial to peace (as democracies do not fight each other) is arguably not likely due to the lack of democracy in Chinese history, the monopoly of power and perks enjoyed by the Communist Party of China, and the tempting prospect of eventually emerging as the most powerful country in the world by the regime’s leadership.

Of course the Chinese Communist Party could very well hold onto power without repression, appeasement, or reform, and if one looks at their calamitous history of beating the odds against the Chinese Nationalists, the Japanese, the Americans and later Russians during the “Cold War” and even civil dissent (as seen by the “Tiananmen Square Massacre”) it would be a mistake to underestimate it. Yet historically such regimes usually end sooner or later and the odds are against the CCP being an exception. The important questions are whether or not such a collapse will occur before China becomes too powerful to easily contain, launches an aggressive foreign policy that could lead to serous strife (such as an attempt to annex Taiwan by force), and whether or not the succeeding government in Beijing is less threatening to Asian, or Western interests.

However, even if CCP surpassed all these challenges there is the added prospect that despite what all the pseudo-economists and pundits say China is not destined to enjoy indefinitely the impressive economic growth she has had thus far. As Ruchir Sharma noted in an article in Foreign Affairs entitled “Broken BRICs” very few nations historically enjoy such growth levels (over decades) for so long. Indeed, despite enjoying double digit growth rates for the past few decades China’s rate has slowed in recent years to 7% or less just as other growing economic titans have before. For example, during the ’80s the economic growth rate of Japan led many to believe she would eventually overtake the American economy, only to eventually level out and then to grow in a more limited fashion. While there are reason to suggest that China could outdo Japan in this respect the history of economics suggests that China is much farther from gaining equality, let alone superiority, vs. the U.S. economy than is usually imagined.

Certainly regarding GDP (PPP) per capita China and other developing nations may never reach parity with the U.S. or her allies. For example, when the International Monetary Fund ranked countries regarding GDP (PPP per capita) in 2011 the U.S. Taiwan, and Japan stood at 6, 20, and 25 respectively while China ranked at a distant 93. Put another way the U.S. figure was 48,000 vs. 8000 for China (in other words America’s GDP per capita was 6 times that of the Chinese). The political-geographic consequences of this should not be ignored. A higher GDP per capita generally represents a more educated, professional, and innovative population and workforce (though not always considering some of the higher ranking countries qualify almost exclusively due to their excessive oil wealth as seen by many of the Gulf countries). Such a population is generally more loyal to the state, is economically more efficient, and produces more technological and innovative solutions to the various problems presented to the nation. While they also usually demand more economic and political incentives than less developed populations, they undoubtedly make the nation stronger.

Put simply nations with a higher GDP per capita produce a more loyal, educated and innovative populace that facilitates their nations becoming stronger (militarily, politically and economically) than nations with lowers levels of GDP per capita. For example while Egypt and her traditional Arab allies have had much more economic potential (especially in workforce, industry and resources) than Israel, the Jewish state has been more politically cohesive, and willing to channel the abilities of her population, while Egypt and her allies have less stable governments and often stifle the abilities of their peoples to maintain control. This has enabled Israel to produce a superior military (which contrary to popular perception was not always more technologically advanced thanks to American support) and an electronic and commercial based economy that has allowed her to defeat Arab armies that have enjoyed superior strength as well as Arab economies with considerable oil wealth. Likewise, despite having a bigger population, and more resources than the U.S, the Soviet Union, thanks to her backwards policies, repression, and bureaucracy, was clearly defeated in the Cold War by American innovation and technological superiority. The ease in which the U.S. won the “Gulf War” where an strongly equipped Soviet style Iraqi army was defeated by a technologically and better motivated Western army is perhaps the best example of how matched the two sides really were in the long run.

China admittedly has a better chance vs. the Soviet Union as she has adopted free market reforms and is less dogmatic when it comes to ideology, yet China’s police state which stifles innovation and open exchanges of ideas more so than liberal democracies, and her much lower GDP per capita vs. the U.S. suggests that in the long run she is at a disadvantage in winning the battle of history.

Frankly having such a massive population is probably a disadvantage given the logistical difficulties of feeding and supporting such a number of people, trying to appease so many of them via economic rewards, and the astounding environmental and health costs China’s industrial and economic progress have created. For example, according to the Environmental Performance Index (basically a ranking of nations according to how well they manage environmental issues) in 2012 China scored poorly at 116 out of 132, while the U.S. Japan and Taiwan ranked 49, 23, and 29 respectively. Likewise according to the World Bank in 2007 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities were in China. Air pollution is among China’s worse health issues; last month in Beijing it reached a record level at 30-45 times the recommended safety level according to an index which measures particles of matter in the air. In economic terms MIT estimated “that lost labour and health care costs associated with pollution cost the Chinese economy $112 billion in 2005.” There is no reason to believe this has not gotten worse in the last 7 years.

Yet despite all the seemingly unfavorable geographic disadvantages China has there is no guarantee her rise to superpower status can be blocked. Many of the same disadvantages effected Russia yet the Soviet Union became a superpower (at least in name) and if could be argued that her economic backwardness (something China does not suffer from) was the primary reason it ultimately collapsed. Additionally many of the geographic disadvantages China have are political and could change over time. For example, it is possible that China’s ever increasing economic dominance of Taiwan, South Korea, and many of her neighbors could eventually swing them into its orbit and away from America’s sphere of influence.

Indeed, a unification of China and Taiwan, and even the unification of Korea under Seoul’s control would arguably eliminate the need for the latter’s military resistance to Beijing (South Korea is more scared of North Korea and China is already her main trade partner). Likewise other nations such as India, Vietnam, the countries in the “first Island Chain” and even Russia could eventually conclude that it is better to accommodate rather than resist Chinese hegemony in Asia, especially in the case of a weakening, or potentially isolationist, America. However economic interdependence has not always stopped war as the relative globalization that occurred before 1914 did not prevent the world from plunging into war. If something relatively minor like an assassination of a third rate power’s monarch could propel the world into war as it did in 1914 who is to say that something absurd like the saber rattling between China and Taiwan, or China and Japan could not someday lead to war.

This is why American steadfastly and commitment to her allies in the Pacific and East Asia is crucial. Just as British control of the seas, and economic and military support of her European allies was necessary in deterring, and ultimately defeating Germany, American support of her Asian allies is necessary to contain Chinese dominance (militarily, economically, demographically, etc.). Even if China becomes more powerful than America an alliance of U.S. and Asian allies could contain her. Germany was easily more powerful than Britain in both World Wars, but thanks to her naval dominance, and Germany having to fight multiple allies on land and sea, Britain was victorious regardless. No matter how powerful China gets, the Unites States and other powerful countries like India, Japan, and other nations can deter her (especially if they control the vital trade routes on land and at sea).

China is not blessed by geography, despite the size of its country, the length of her coast, her massive population and considerable resources. China faces multiple rivals on land and sea, forcing her to dilute her military strength to combat countless potential scenarios. China likely does not have the potential to address these multiple threats and achieve superpower status as long as the Americans maintain its commitments to her Asian allies or China’s neighbors do not feel as though they have no choice but to accommodate Chinese hegemony. While China certainly has a lot of resources and population, she depends a lot upon imports (such as oil and coal) that can easily be cut off by sea via American and her allies naval power. Additionally, China’s political geography, including a significant rural and urban split, potentially separatist minorities, and the ever increasing desire of her masses for economic prosperity and political reform threaten the Communist regime’s very survival. Finally uncertain economic, environmental and health considerations pose many hurdles to Chinese ambitions. A powerful China is not necessarily a grave threat to world peace or stability, but America and her Asian allies would be wise to contain her influence and deter her from excessive expansion (economic, demographic or military) to maintain the balance of power in Asia, if not the world.

Bernstein, Richard and Ross Munro. The Coming Conflict with China. New York: Random House, 1998.

Corbett, Julian. Principles of Maritime Strategy. New York: Dover Publications, 2004.

Herzog, Chaim. The Arab-Israeli Wars. London: Greenhill Books, 2004.

Isaacs, Jeremy and Taylor Downing. Cold War. London: Abacus, 2008.

Jaco, Charles. The Gulf War. Indianapolis: Alpha Books, 2002.

Kaplan, Robert. The Revenge of Geography. New York: Random House, 2012.

Lynch, Michael. Modern China. London: Teach Yourself, 2006.

Mahan, Alfred Thayer. The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1788. New York: Dover Publications, 1987.

Paret, Peter. Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Rothenberg, Gunther. The Napoleonic Wars. London: Cassell, 1999.

Article from “The Atlantic”: Dependence on Middle Eastern Oil: Now It’s China’s Problem, Too by Damien Ma, July 2012. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/07/dependence-on-middle-eastern-oil-now-its-chinas-problem-too/259947/
Article from “China Daily”: China’s coal imports to maintain growth in 2013 by Xinhua, December 2012. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2012-12/24/content_16056988.htm

Article from “Foreign Affairs”: Broken BRICs by Ruchir Sharma, December 2012.

Article from “Green House”: MIT: China’s pollution costs $112B in annual health care by Wendy Koch, 2012. http://content.usatoday.com/communities/greenhouse/post/2012/02/chinas-growth-worsens-air-pollution-hikes-health-costs/1#.URALzhG9KSP

Article from “Huffington Post”: Beijing’s Air Pollution Steps Get Poor Reception Among Some In China’s Capital by Reuters, January 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/22/beijings-new-air-pollution-china_n_2523742.html

Article from “Insight”: Innovation score and GDP per capita – 2011, May 2012. http://stats.areppim.com/archives/insight_innovxgdp_correl_2011.pdf

Corruption Perception Index 2012.

Environmental Performance Index 2012.

Wikipedia article on “Coal in China”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal_in_China [February, 2013]

Wikipedia article on “List of countries by GDP (PPP) per capita”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(PPP)_per_capita [February, 2013]

Wikipedia article on “List of countries by military expenditures”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_military_expenditures [January, 2013]

Wikipedia article on “Pollution in China”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pollution_in_China [February, 2013]

Naval Power and Maritime Chokepoints

Maritime chokepoints are narrow stretches of water that connect two significant bodies of water.  They are called chokepoints because they can easily be blocked due to their relatively constricted nature.  Most maritime chokepoints are along major routes of international seaborne trade.  Since 90% of the world’s trade is by sea the closures of such chokepoints usually have severe economic consequences for countries dependent upon such routes.  For example, when the Suez Canal was closed from 1967-75 countries in East Africa and South Asia that relied heavily on the Canal for trade had to deal with significant increases in costs for shipping that resulted from the longer distances their ships had to travel by going around the Cape of Good Hope instead.  Likewise, the closure of the Strait of Hormuz by Iran would likely result in widespread economic disaster as 40% of the world’s seaborne oil trade passes through it.

Perhaps more worrying is the fact that many routes of seaborne trade have several chokepoints spread out along their passage.  As such the closure of any of these chokepoints can seriously disrupt seaborne trade to many of the nations concerned, especially those at either extremity of the route.  For example countries in Northern Europe and the United Kingdom that trade with countries in the Indian Ocean usually prefer the shorter trade route that goes through the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.  Unfortunately the closure of the Strait of Gibraltar, the Suez Canal, or the Bab el-Mandeb would force these nations to go around the Cape of Good Hope, open the blockade by force, or find other arrangements.

It is no coincidence that the British Empire had colonies or bases positioned along such routes.  Look at any major trade route at sea and chances are you will find former British possessions dominating their chokepoints.  Besides the obvious route through the Mediterranean to their crown jewel colony in India the British had the Falkland islands to watch the Drake Passage, their protectorates along the Persian Gulf to guard the Strait of Hormuz, the once powerful fortress at Singapore to safeguard the Strait of Malacca and its Cape Colony to patrol the Cape of Good Hope among others.  Besides the former British Empire only the United States has the bases, and allies, to dominate the world’s major chokepoints.

The ability to control the world’s major sea routes has given these two countries distinct geopolitical advantages.  Indeed, this ability is what made Britain historically, and America currently, both Superpowers.  The control of these chokepoints with the combination of the Royal Navy at one time, and America’s Carrier fleets at the present, allowed Britain and now America to dominate world trade, project their military power on a global scale, and deny such capabilities to their enemies.

Since the 16th century the British have fought the Spanish, the Dutch, the French, and the Germans to control the seas, while America’s naval supremacy during the Cold War gave it a distinct advantage over the Communist bloc.  While nations that dominate sea lanes gain an inestimable advantage in maritime trade and power projection, nations that relay on sea lanes but are unable to contest their dominance are extremely vulnerable.  For example the naval blockade of Germany during the First World War, which was facilitated by Britain’s control of the English Channel and the GIUK (Greenland, Iceland, Unite Kingdom) Gap, was at least indirectly responsible for the deaths of a million German civilians.  Also, American naval dominance during the latter stages of World War 2 provided an effective blockade of the Japanese home islands.  Many military experts and historians believe that had the Americans not used nuclear weapons that Japan could have been starved into submission by the spring of 1946.

Controlling chokepoints and shipping lanes also allows countries to cut off reinforcements and supplies to enemy garrisons far away from friendly support.  If these forces are unable to get help by non-naval means, they are vulnerable to being overrun by an enemy that can concentrate superior resources against them.  This stratagem was used frequently by the British in its colonial struggles against Spain, France and Germany.  For example, French possessions in North America and India were conquered, and Napoleon’s attempt to take over Egypt was frustrated, by the superiority of the Royal Navy and its possession of key chokepoints such as Gibraltar that kept the French Atlantic and Mediterranean fleets from combining into one force.  Likewise the same chokepoints that allowed the Americans to blockade Japan with submarines automatically cut off isolated Japanese garrisons in the Pacific that were usually bypassed rather than eliminated.

Historically, attempts by inferior naval powers to seriously challenge dominant ones have been mostly ineffective.  Typically, the best chance is for several leading naval powers to join forces and confront a common enemy who enjoys naval dominance.  This was used effectively by the Spanish, Venetians and their allies to confront and defeat the Turkish fleet at Lepanto in 1571.  It has also been used in the past by the French, Spanish and Dutch to fight the Royal Navy, albeit with limited success.

Trying to build a superior navy to defeat a dominant naval power has occasionally been attempted as well, notably by the French and Germans against the British and the Japanese against the Americans.  This stratagem tends to fail for a number of reasons.  For one thing the dominant naval powers usually have better, or at least more numerous, port facilities and superior ship production, not to mention more experience in fleet operations when it comes to actual fighting.  Additionally, many nations that have tried to challenge dominant naval powers have had to balance their naval expenditures against maintaining standing armies.  It is no coincidence that countries like Britain and America, which are not threatened on land, can easily build massive navies while continental powers like France and Germany have struggled historically to find a proper balance between their naval and land forces.  Finally, at least in the case of France and Germany, British control of key chokepoints severely reduced the potential threat they posed to Britain.

For these reasons France and Germany failed to wrestle naval dominance from the British.  Napoleon and Kaiser Wilhelm may have constructed impressive navies, but it is debatable what practical use they served as they were mostly impotent to challenge the Royal Navy.  It is not unreasonable to suggest that they would have been wiser to invest more money in their land forces instead.  Even if Napoleon had been able to create a superior fleet he would have had difficulty combining its Atlantic and Mediterranean elements due to Britain’s control of the Strait of Gibraltar, and even then it would not have necessarily guaranteed victory against the Royal Navy (it should be remembered that Sir Francis Drake’s victory against the Spanish Armada and Nelson’s triumph at Trafalgar were against numerically superior opponents).

Likewise, Britain’s control of the English Channel and the GIUK Gap would have at least allowed the Royal Navy to concentrate its strength against a theoretically stronger German fleet, and the indecisive nature of the naval battles between Britain and Germany during the First World War hardly provides assurance that the Germans would have been able to defeat Britain’s mastery of the seas.

The case of the Japanese challenging the Americans is different, at least theoretically, as Japan needed a powerful navy to guard its sea lanes and support its military expeditions across Asia.  However, even had the Japanese completely destroyed the American Carrier fleet at Midway in 1942 the Americans were bound to overwhelm them eventually with their vastly superior ship production capabilities.

One notable case of an inferior naval power using a chokepoint to defeat a superior navy occurred during the Second Persian War when Persian forces invading Greece were dependent upon their navy to supply their advance.  Themistocles, the Athenian Commander of the combined Greek navy, lured the Persian navy into the narrow waters of Salamis where it was unable to bring its superior numbers to bear, and scored a decisively victory against the Persians.  After this defeat, Xerxes, the Persian king, retreated to Asia with most of his army.

Besides using direct methods to wrestle command of the seas from dominant naval powers, countries have used more limited means such as raiders and submarines in attempts to either starve them into submission, or at least weaken their maritime superiority.

Raiders have been used to capture, or destroy, merchant vessels or weaker warships.  The British used raiders extensively against the Spanish in the 16th century while the Americans, the French and the Germans have used it against the British during the War of 1812, the Napoleonic Wars and even to a limited extent during both World Wars.  Raiders can be easily dissuaded from operating around chokepoints, so long as these points are adequately patrolled.  The use of raiders has decreased over time due to the establishment of convoys and advances in communications and propulsion that have allowed navies to track them more effectively (though ships plagued by piracy off Somalia’s coast and in the Indian Ocean may disagree).

A more dangerous threat to maritime powers has been the submarine.  In both world wars the submarine proved its worth.  Despite having few in numbers and being largely obsolete, German submarines during both wars came close to starving the British into submission.  It was only the introduction of protected convoys in the First World War, and many improvements in submarine detection and effective air cover in World War 2 that saved Britain.  It is not surprisingly that Winston Churchill, who himself had held the position of First Lord of the Admiralty twice once said “the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.”

However, it is probable that the allies made more use of submarines than the Germans.  The British used them so effectively against Italy that Rommel was often robbed of necessary supplies to effectively fight the 8th Army in North Africa.  The Americans enjoyed even more success against the Japanese, more or less cutting Japan off from its Empire and bringing it to the brink of starvation.  This is an impressive achievement considering submarines accounted for perhaps 2% of the American navy.

Unfortunately, for dominant maritime powers, chokepoints are not as effective against submarines as they are against raiders.  While in theory it should be easier to detect a submarine travelling through a chokepoint than at open sea, it is just a case of finding a needle in a smaller haystack.  While it is certainly risky for submarines to pass through chokepoints even the Germans managed to get 40 U-Boats through the Strait of Gibraltar (arguably one of the narrowest chokepoints) in World War 2, though 10 more were damaged and 9 more were sunk when attempting to do so.  Likewise, while the blockade of the Strait of Otranto during World War 1 cut off the Austro-Hungarian Empire from seaborne trade outside the Adriatic, it did little to prevent submarines from coming and going through the strait.

However, it has always been the case that the most effective means of combating submarines has been convoys and early detection methods rather than trying to hunt them down.

While there are many maritime chokepoints there are a few in particular that hold significant strategic or economic value.  While it is difficult to establish their relative importance the most notable chokepoints for seaborne trade would include the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal, the Strait of Malacca, the Bab el-Mandeb, the Dardanelles and Bosporus straits, the Strait of Gibraltar, the English Channel, and the Danish Straits.
As stated earlier, approximately 40% of the world’s seaborne oil trade passes through the Strait of Hormuz.  The Strait of Hormuz separates the Persian Gulf from the Indian Ocean.  As something like 50% of the world’s proven oil reserves are in countries that rely on passage of the strait to export their oil its closure would be devastating to the global economy.  Iran could potential blockade the strait in retaliation if the Americans, or the Israelis, bombed its nuclear facilities.  However, despite threatening to close the strait from time to time the Iranians would be foolish to do so as they are heavily reliant upon their own oil exports for revenue.  Even if they did the blockade would not last long as American Carrier fleets would quickly arrive and defeat the Iranian forces as they did in a similar occasion in 1988 during the Iran-Iraq War.

The Suez Canal allows trade through the Eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea.  It was made during the late 19th Century to create a shorter sea route from Europe to the Far East than having to go around the Cape of Good Hope.  Its strategic importance for the Europeans was demonstrated when the British and French were willing to go to war with Egypt over it in 1956 to reclaim its ownership.  The blocking of the Canal in 1956 and 1967-75 had significant economic repercussions for those countries largely dependent upon it for trade.  Even today roughly 7.5% of the world’s seaborne trade flows through the Canal.

The Panama Canal was built to shorten sea communications between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.  It is generally a shorter, and less dangerous, route than the Drake Passage for most countries trading between these areas.  It is not a significant trade junction for oil, as many oil tankers cannot fit through its locks.  However it is still a major hub for world trade as more than 14,000 ships pass through it annually.  Like the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal has seen conflict.  Japan had some incredible schemes they never enacted to attack the Canal during the Second World War.  Additionally securing the Canal Zone was an important consideration during America’s invasion of Panama in 1989.

The Strait of Malacca is the main passage between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.  It is a vital junction as 25% of the world’s traded goods pass through it.  Countries like China, Japan and South Korea are especially dependent upon this route for their oil as ¼ of the world’s oil trade traverses it as well.  This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why China is anxious to build a blue-water navy; to secure its maritime communications.  If the Strait were to be closed the two closest alternate passageways (the Sunda Strait and the Lombok Strait) would be poor substitutes due to the former’s narrow and shallow nature and the latter’s remote location.   The British considered the Strait of Malacca so important that it built a powerful fortress at Singapore before the Second World War to guard it against naval attack.  Unfortunately for the British, the Japanese attacked it overland via the Malay Peninsula in 1942 and captured it with ease.

The Bab el-Mandeb connects the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean.  Blocking its channel would render the Suez Canal mostly redundant, as free passage of both chokepoints is necessary to navigate the shorter sea lanes between Europe and Asia via the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, thereby bypassing the much longer route via the Cape of Good Hope.  The Egyptians blockaded the strait during the Yom Kippur War of 1973 which could have been devastating to the Israelis had it continued, as they were depended on it for their oil imports from Iran.  The strait is also in a region rife with modern piracy, which remains mostly unchecked despite countless warships from many nations patrolling the area.

The Dardanelles and the Bosporus Straits dominate access between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.  This gives Turkey considerable political leverage as it controls both straits.  Together they form a significant oil chokepoint as it is Russia’s (as well as other regional nations with large amounts of oil) primary route for exporting its oil goods.  On average 50,000 ships, including 5,500 oil tankers, pass through them every year.  Besides their economic importance the straits have held much strategic value throughout history.  When the Persian King Xerxes invaded Greece in 480 BC he built a bridge across the Dardanelles to reach Europe.  Unfortunately, it was destroyed by a storm and he ordered his minions to punish the sea with 300 lashes.  Russia has tried for centuries to control the straits to gain access to the Mediterranean and this ambition did much to provoke the Crimean War.  Yet perhaps the most well known historical instance was the failed attempt by the British to conquer the straits during the First World War in order to knock Turkey out of the conflict.

The Strait of Gibraltar separates the Atlantic Ocean from the Mediterranean.  As previously noted, it is one of the primary chokepoints along the vast trading route from Northern Europe to the Indian Ocean.  Historically, it has been a strategic gem for the British (also previously noted) as it has allowed them to control the Western Mediterranean and helped them   prevent the French Atlantic and Mediterranean fleets from combining.

The English Channel is the shortest route for seaborne trade to the rest of the world for the Low Countries, Northern Europe, and nations connected to the Baltic Sea.  The alternate route through the GIUK Gap is much harder to block, but significantly longer.  The English Channel is the world’s busiest seaway with 500 ships passing through it each day (which amounts to approximately 180,000 a year).  The vast majority of oil imports for these nations either pass through the Channel or come from Russia via the Baltic Sea.  The Channel has a colourful history with the Norman Invasion in 1066, the Anglo-Dutch Wars, the Spanish Armada, the Battle of Britain and the D-Day landings among countless other incidents.

The Danish Straits allow access between the Baltic Sea and the North Sea.  All seaborne trade leaving the Baltic must pass through them or the Kiel Canal (the busiest artificial sea lane in the world with 43,000 ships traversing it annually).  Besides being the key junctions for Baltic trade the Danish Straits serve as a significant oil chokepoint, with more than 3,000,000 barrels (mostly from Russia) of oil passing through it each day.  The straits were the scene of two actions by the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars.  In the first instance Nelson led a successful attack in 1801 against the Danish fleet while in the second instance the Royal Navy bombarded Copenhagen to force the Danes to surrender their fleet (which the British believed was at risk of falling into Napoleon’s hands).  The British also seriously undermined the Russian economy during the Crimean War by blockading the straits.

A few other chokepoints are not as important to global trade, but still hold significant strategic value.

The Taiwan Strait separates China from Taiwan.  Japan often claims this passage is vital for its trade, especially regarding its oil imports from the Middle East, but this is disingenuous because the waters east of Taiwan actually provide a shorter route.  In reality the Chinese gain the most by controlling the straits, though not for economic reasons.  A simple look at any world map shows that Taiwan is strategically placed to block China’s naval dominance of the Pacific.  As long as Taiwan is an ally of the United States, or at least retains independence from China, it provides an effective base to blockade the Chinese coast in the event of war.  This is another reason the Chinese are building a modern fleet; to challenge America’s dominance of the Pacific Ocean.

The Korea Strait separates the Sea of Japan from the East China Sea.  It holds much economic value to South Korea and Japan.  It has also historically facilitated Japanese dominance of the Sea of Japan.  A Mongolian fleet trying to invade Japan in the 13th Century was destroyed by a massive typhoon.  Japan’s control of the strait gave it a significant advantage during the Russo-Japanese War in the early 20th Century, allowing it to prevent the Russian fleet at Vladivostok from combining with its sister fleet at Port Arthur.  It was also the scene of the naval Battle of Tsushima where the Japanese Navy fought the Russian Baltic fleet sent across the world only to be sunk after one day’s fighting.  Control of the strait also allowed the American occupational forces in Japan to supply the Pusan perimeter in Korea during the early days of the Korean War, buying enough time for General MacArthur to launch a daring amphibious assault at Inchon that turned the tide of the conflict.

The strait of Tiran allows Israel and Jordan to engage in maritime trade via the Red Sea.  While it is of little importance when it comes to world trade its closure could potentially lead to severe economic dislocation.  Egypt has the ability to blockade the Strait due to their control of Sharm el-Sheikh.  Blocking Israel’s trade route through the strait from 1949-56 and again in 1967 were significant factors that led to the Suez Crisis and the Six Day War, both of which had severe economic repercussions far beyond the tiny strait.  The strait’s strategic importance to the Israelis was deemed so important that Moshe Dayan, arguably Israel’s most famous general, once said that it was better to “have Sharm el-Sheikh without peace, than peace without Sharm el-Sheikh.”  However, Israeli control of Sharm el-Sheikh after the Six Day War did not help them during the Yom Kippur War when the Egyptians were able to cut off Israel’s trade through the Red Sea by blockading the Bab el-Mandeb (once again showing how different chokepoints often affect each other).

Maritime chokepoints separate two significant bodies of water and often serve as vital strategic and trade junctions.  Most major sea routes contain several chokepoints, the closure of any resulting in severe economic dislocation for the countries concerned.  Superpowers like the former British Empire and America have used major maritime choke points, in conjunction with superior naval power, to dominate world trade, project their military might abroad, and deny such capabilities to their enemies.  Secondary naval powers have tried to challenge naval superpowers by combining their naval forces with other countries, attempting to build superior fleets, and using raiders and submarines to capture, or destroy, inferior warships and merchant shipping.  These means usually fail due to the vast resources naval superpowers control due to their domination of the world’s seaborne trade.

Chokepoints such as the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal, the Strait of Malacca, the Bab el-Mandeb, the Dardanelles and Bosporus straits, the Strait of Gibraltar, the English Channel, and the Danish Straits are perhaps the most important junctions for world trade (and for seaborne oil commerce).  Other such chokepoints like the Taiwan Strait, the Korea Strait, and the Strait of Tiran are not as important to trade, but are potential flashpoints for conflict that could result in severe economic fallout for global markets.  As long as trade is predominantly done by sea the control of the planet’s key maritime chokepoints guarantees control of the world.

Bennett, Geoffrey.  Naval Battles of the First World War.  London:  Penguin Books, 2001.
Corbett, Julian.  Principles of Maritime Strategy.  New York:  Dover Publications, 2004.
Fahey, John.  Atlas of the Middle East.  Washington D.C:  National Geographic, 2003.
Lewis, Jon.  The Mammoth Book of Battles.  London:  Robinson Publishing, 2000.
Mahan, Alfred.  The Influence of Sea Power upon history:  1660-1783.  New York:  Dover Publications, 1987.
Nalty, Bernard.  The Pacific War.  London:  Salamander Books, 1999.
Scribd Article on Chokepoints [Online]http://www.scribd.com/doc/47660084/choke-points [2011, March]
Website on World Oil Transit Chokepoints [Online]http://www.eia.doe.gov/cabs/world_oil_transit_chokepoints/panama_canal.html [2011, March]
Wikipedia Article on Royal Navy’s Chokepoints [Online]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Choke_point#Royal_Navy_choke_points [2011, March]