The international maritime canals are « choke points » of strategic interest as they regulate the world economy. They contribute to the affirmation of maritime transport as the main vector of imports and exports throughout the world. To remain competitive and attractive, the channels keep being expanded. They also have a “neutrality status”, which means that everyone is free to use them regardless of the international situation. However, several factors are limiting these increasingly costly expansions.
Strategic “Choke Points” and regulators of the world economy
Built during the 19th century, the international maritime canals (Suez, Panama and Kiel) greatly facilitate the economic exchanges by reducing travel times. The Suez Canal allows a saving of 3500 nautical miles on a trip from Shanghai to Rotterdam, compared to the route via the Cape of Good Hope. The canals also limit certain risks such as capricious weather (Cape Horn and Cape of Good Hope) or potential collisions (density of ships in the Danish straits) as they are very well secured. The flow of goods transiting through these maritime nodes has thus exploded with globalization.
If the maritime canals facilitate commercial exchanges for the benefit of the majority of people, they entail enormous geopolitical stakes. Whoever controls the canals not only controls a part of the world economy but may also project their fleet far from their bases1. With globalization, the major challenge is to ensure one’s own supplies and potentially constrain those of one’s adversaries2.
Today, the states bordering the canals are required, as it is the case for international straits, to allow “freedom of passage for all states”3. This reduces the strategic importance of owning or controlling the canals. Nevertheless, in an uncertain international environment where international law and treaties are regularly challenged, it is possible that this principle of neutrality will become at least temporarily outdated.
Vital and profitable expansions
In order to cope with the exponential growth of commercial traffic, coupled with the increase in the size of ships, the “owner” states, bordering the canals, have been forced to widen the facilities. The main goal of such enlargement was to meet the needs as much as possible and to preserve the strategic interest of these “choke points”.
The Suez Canal is a model of adaptation: initially built with a depth of eight meters and a width of twenty-two meters, it has been regularly enlarged. In 2014, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, announced extensive work to adapt the Suez Canal to the new characteristics of maritime traffic. The work, which took only one year instead of the three originally planned, consisted in widening part of the original canal, and digging a parallel lane in the Eastern section to allow two-way traffic. It resulted in a significant reduction in waiting time and an increase in daily capacity.
The Panama Canal, on the other hand, was quickly overtaken by the trend towards naval gigantism. The canal authority invested $1 billion in 1998 to widen the trench. In 2002, an invitation to tenders was initiated, in order to build new locks and increase the size of the ships received. The works started in 2007 ($5.2 billion) and were completed in 2016. It allowed for a significant increase (22%) in transit tonnage in 2017.
Successive enlargements have made it possible to sustain the economic benefits and strategic interest of the canals. However, several factors pose a limit to these successive enlargements.
Container ships are now 400 meters long and 60 meters wide. It is likely that in the near future such gigantism will reach its peak because, on the one hand, the construction and navigability of such giants is becoming increasingly complex and, on the other hand, ports may no longer be able to absorb such large cargos in a reasonable time.
Moreover, the grounding of the 23,000 twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) container ship “Ever Given” across the Suez Canal on March 23, 2021, is an illustration of the limits of naval gigantism and the vulnerability of sea-lanes4. Following the incident, the Suez Canal Authority decided to double the track from 72 to 82 kilometers, when the doubling of the entire canal was deemed too costly.
Indeed, the financial and environmental costs are increasing considerably with each expansion. When the canals were built more than a hundred years ago, there was obviously no massive opposition based on environmental criteria. However, the damage caused was considerable and permanent, whether in the desert Egyptian isthmus or in the lush Panamanian isthmus. This environmental aspect can no longer be neglected, as it is another factor of vulnerability. The Panama Canal is facing problems of water supply, essential for the locks operations. Water from the Gatun and Madden lakes is becoming scarce due to evaporation, drought and the increase in the number of ships. Each ship passage releases 166 million liters of water into the ocean, which must be replenished.
Strategic “choke points” as they are, the maritime canals will be coping with globalization, traffic increase and shipbuilding gigantism, up to a certain limit…
1 The Suez Canal was originally built and controlled by the French and British governments to connect the Eastern empires to Europe more quickly. It was also for their own national interests that the Americans took over the construction of the Panama Canal in order to ensure its management until 1999.
2 This was notably the case for Egypt, which, after the nationalization of the canal in 1957, refused Israel the right to pass through the Suez Canal.
3 Convention of Constantinople of 1888 for the Suez Canal, Treaty of Versailles of 1919 for the Kiel Canal, and a bilateral treaty of 1977 for the Panama Canal.
4 The blockage of the canal for six days directly affected the global economy and could dampen the ardor of ship-owners. Lloyd’s List Intelligence estimated the cost of the canal blockage at $9.6 billion.