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:
- Strait of Hormuz
- Straits of Malacca
- Suez Canal
- Danish Straits
- Turkish Straits (Bosphorus and Dardenelles)
- Bab al Mandab
- 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.