Archive for the ‘strategic geography’ Category


How Syria is, in fact, Iran’s “route to the sea.”

October 24, 2012

David Kopel explains why Mitt Romney’s statement about Syria’s maritime connection with Iran was not the mistake some are presenting it as:

Romney was speaking in the context of the debate topic on foreign policy and the sanctions restricting the finances and trade of Iran. Although Iran is indeed located on the seacoast of the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, the international trade sanctions have restricted and impeded its ability to transport armaments and other goods through its own seaports. To defeat these trade sanctions, Iran has resorted to using its air transportation to transport goods through an air corridor in Iraqi airspace into Syria and its seaports, such as Latakia.

. . . Iran was generous with its “foreign aid” because Syria provided support for terrorists Iran backed. Now Iran is keen on getting nuclear weapons. The first ones Iran will get will be large and delicate. The only feasible intercontinental delivery system will be a ship. A ship that is accustomed to moving illicit goods.

In short, Romney’s statement was not one of physical geography, but rather of strategic geography, of which the physical landscape is only one consideration.


The keys that lock up the energy world

September 13, 2012

In 1904, British Admiral Sir John Fisher proclaimed that “five strategic keys lock up the world.”  Those keys were Singapore, Capetown, Alexandria, Gibraltar and Dover, and “the world,” to Admiral Fisher, was the British Empire.   Those keys were all straits, passages or chokepoints through which British commercial and military ships had to sail to keep the Empire thriving.

The successor state to Great Britain’s global hegemony, the United States, does not have a literal empire nor, therefore, the same  constraints.    However, the global system which US power supports (and on which its prosperity depends), is heavily dependent on maritime trade and is thus also vulnerable to chokepoints.  As much as ninety percent of world trade travels by sea at some point, and between one half and two thirds of the world oil trade is maritime.   As energy is the single most important commodity in the modern global system, the importance of these chokepoints is magnified.  The US Energy Information Agency monitors the main oil transit chokepoints here. The EIA identifies seven chokepoints.  In order of the amount of oil that flows through them, they are:

  1. Strait of Hormuz
  2. Straits of Malacca
  3. Suez Canal
  4. Danish Straits
  5. Turkish Straits (Bosphorus and Dardenelles)
  6. Bab al Mandab
  7. Panama Canal

Below is the EIA map that locates these seven primary petroleum chokepoints

If you add to this a map of global maritime transit density, it is easy to see that there are other potential chokepoints – the southern tip of India, the South China Sea, and the Caribbean/Gulf of Mexico:

Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue of Hofstra University has a number of better maps at his comprehenisve Geography of Transportation site, but requests that we do not republish them; I encourage readers to visit Rodrigue’s site.

It is the US Navy that provides the bulk of security for these checkpoints.  The curious thing is that, when you go through the data at the EIA and Hofstra sites, you find that most of the oil transiting the Straits of Hormuz (59%) and the Malacca (96%) are headed to Asia, not the US.  Indeed, the US gets most of its imported oil from relatively secure sources – 54.8% from North & South America, 14.9% from Africa, 11% from Europe (including Russia) and 3.1% from other regions.  Only 16.2% comes from the Persian Gulf.  Conversely, China now imports more than half of its petroleum (and that percentage is growing); about half of its imports come from the Persian Gulf and thus transits Hormuz, and up to 3/4 of Chinese imports transit Malacca.

This dovetails with yesterday’s post on Chinese naval power and strategy.  China is in a difficult spot – at the same time that they are seeking ways to weaken America’s naval advantage, they are also dependent on the US Navy to secure their energy lifeline.  Meanwhile, America’s domestic energy boom is allowing it to be less and less dependent on distant and insecure sources and lessens our interest in securing those passages.

China has the weak hand here.  Even if they develop the skills to push the US out of their immediate maritime neighborhood, they will not have the ability to surge out and protect their sea lines of communication and commerce.  China can pursue an area access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy, but the US Navy can strangle them from a distance by closing the more distant approaches.

Just as Britain and her mighty fleets controlled the five keys a century ago, today the seven (eight, nine or ten) keys that lock up the energy world are owned by the United States and her naval forces.   The more things change, the more they stay the same.


Turkey takes another step toward the abyss

September 8, 2011

Prime Minister Erdogan, working without experienced military leadership to guide him (since his senior commanders have all resigned in protest over those lower ranking commanders who have been jailed for political reasons), has ordered his Navy to escort Gaza blockade runners and to court a serious military confrontation with Israel.  Erdogan is also intent on limiting Israeli exploitation of the recently (2010) discovered gas fields beneath the Eastern Mediterranean.  There is as much as 1.7 billion barrels of oil and 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the region, not enough the change the global balance of power but certainly enough to change Israel’s strategic energy profile for the better.

Yesterday, we wrote that Turkey was risking the creation of another cold war with Israel not dissimilar from the one it has been engaged in with Greece.  But, the Israelis will not back down, and this war could easily become very hot, very fast.    The decline in Turkish/Israeli relations could end up being the most destabilizing event in the Middle East in decades.


Oil, Minerals drive maritime tensions in South & Southeast Asia

August 3, 2011

This report from the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) updates the latest in disputes over oil rights in the South China Sea (see recent EGP post on the SCS here).

Meanwhile, the Times of India reports that China is expanding its reach into the Indian Ocean for the first time, seeking to mine the seabed for minerals.  India has been nervously watching as China builds its “String of Pearls” from the Arabian to the South China Seas, this is just the latest manifestation of the new Chinese imperialism.


The Obama Dominoes

August 1, 2011

I wrote over the weekend how the situation in Iraq is suddenly crumbling while the (what should have been) certain victory in Libya is also slipping away.   The Obama Administration is preparing the ground for a withdrawal from Afghanistan.  The Arab Spring has swept away our longtime ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.  Turkey is turning its back on secularism, and casting eyes toward our rivals Russia and China in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.  With American power and prestige in the region in obvious decline, even the linchpin of American strategy in the region – stalwart ally Saudi Arabia – is seeking an entente with our regional nemesis, Iran.  From Stratfor lst month:  Something extraordinary, albeit not unexpected, is happening in the Persian Gulf region. The United States, lacking a coherent strategy to deal with Iran and too distracted to develop one, is struggling to navigate Iraq’s fractious political landscape in search of a deal that would allow Washington to keep a meaningful military presence in the country beyond the end-of-2011 deadline stipulated by the current Status of Forces Agreement. At the same time, Saudi Arabia, dubious of U.S. capabilities and intentions toward Iran, appears to be inching reluctantly toward an accommodation with its Persian adversary.

Is this the end of the American Era in the Greater Middle East, or can the decline be reversed – or at least halted – by a renewed focus by the current Administration?   Perhaps, after being frustrated and dominated by the Republicans in Congress (and with domestic policy making hamstrung by the stagnant economy), the White House will seek to make a mark in foreign policy.    This is a pivotal moment for a United States that has been operating without a coherent grand strategy for half a decade.  Let’s hope the Administration siezes the opportunity before any more dominoes fall.

The Afghanistan Withdrawal

June 23, 2011

Short take:  We support it.  To us, Afghanistan only made sense in conjunction with Iraq.  The two operations together brought the US a ring of allies and operational bases in Central Asia and the Persian Gulf that allowed a physical containment of Iran.   We have argued for years that should have always been the larger geopolitical objective.  Absent that, the operation in Afghanistan should have been a punishment operation meant to shatter al Qaeda on the ground, but with no need for a long term commitment to the nation.

Once the Iraq project was  largely abandoned and other US allies in the region began dropping away, an Afghanistan commitment no longer made any sense.

To be clear, we advocated a very long term commitment to both nations, with permanent US military bases as part of a vast regional network.  However, the moment to seize that opportunity passed in 2008.  A strategy based on a large physical presence in Central/Southwest Asia is no longer in the cards, so it is best to redeploy as quickly as possible.  Redeploy to where is the question.  Neither American political party has articulated a Grand Strategy for the next decade, although people like Daniel Drezner are hard at work trying to piece one together from the various loose strands lying around.


Russia flexing muscles in Caspian energy basin

May 14, 2010

Despite the lack of a treaty with the other Caspian states (Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan), Russia is pressing forward with energy development in the Caspian Sea, launching its first offshore rig last month.

In the not so distant past, the US was in a position to influence – if not dominate – Central Asia, the Caspian basin and the Strategic Energy Ellipse.  Today, that position is nearly lost and the Russia-organized Collective Security Treaty Organization and the China-organized Shanghai Cooperation Organization are the dominant players.   US influence is in steep decline.