The March 23 traffic collapse in the Suez Canal due to the grounding of the giant container ship Ever Given has inadvertently become one of the hottest topics of discussion of late. It has brought additional world attention to our vulnerability and direct dependence on the state of current transportation routes in various parts of the world.
The accident blocked one of the busiest trade routes in the world, connecting Europe, Asia, the United States and the Middle East. About 12% of world trade passes through the Suez Canal, 30% of the world’s annual container ship capacity, and about 600,000 barrels of crude oil from the Middle East to Europe and the United States daily. More than 350 ships were caught in the jam. This event has alarmed world markets, and it was not only oil prices that reacted, but there was also a warning of a possible increase in the price of food and other goods due to the temporary closure of this major world transport artery.
The Suez Canal is one of the most active shipping lanes connecting the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, and is the shortest route from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean. Thanks to this artificially excavated channel, ships can avoid rounding Africa for passage to the Mediterranean Sea, shortening the journey by about eight thousand kilometers.
The number of ships passing along this sea route, as well as any other sea routes, can be tracked in real time on a specialized website.
Of course, ships have run aground in the Suez Canal before, but this case is unique in many ways because of the massive size of the vessel, which created an unprecedented disruption in the rhythm of ship navigation. And this incident clearly showed the serious risk to the Euro-Asian exchange of goods due to the lack of alternative transport arteries. This is a signal to world trade: for global trade to remain sustainable, a logistical alternative is needed to deliver goods between Asia and Europe.
One of the baseline options is to bypass South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, but this significantly lengthens the route and dramatically increases shipping time. Another risk should not be overlooked: piracy, especially in the Straits of Malacca, the Gulf of Oman, off the coast of Somalia and other rough parts of the southern route, resulting in very high risk insurance against piracy. In addition to all this, one should consider weather obstacles as well: sandstorms on the loose banks of the Suez Canal are frequent and, as it turns out, quite severe, fraught with negative consequences – a number of accidents in the Suez Canal have already occurred because of them.
Under these conditions, one cannot help but think of the Russian Northern Sea Route (NSR) and the Russian Trans-Siberian Railway (RTSR) — passing through a port in the Far East, including Vladivostok and a commercial seaport, and then sending direct container trains by rail. The route through the Far Eastern and Arctic seas, called the Northern Sea Transportation Corridor, further reduces the distance, thereby decreasing the maritime delivery time from Asia to Europe by 13 days.
However, it should be made clear that while the Northern Sea Route is good for what it is, it is still only a draft project. Its cargo turnover today is nowhere near comparable with the so-called Big Circle. About 30 million tons a year are transported through the Northern Sea Route, while more than a billion tons are transported through the Suez Canal.
In recent years, due to melting ice in the Arctic, the Northern Sea Route has been attracting more and more attention. Icebreakers are realistically capable of making this route year-round even today. Russia, China, the U.S. and Northern European countries are looking at the route.
On March 6, 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved the “Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic until 2035,” which defines the interests and objectives of Russia in the Arctic, as well as its Arctic strategy for the next 15 years. The document predicts that the importance of the Northern Sea Route as a transport corridor of global importance used to transport national and international cargoes will increase as a result of climate change. Among the main points of the document are fixed directions of infrastructure development of the Northern Sea Route, construction of icebreaking, rescue and auxiliary fleet vessels, creation of system of emergency evacuation and medical care to crew members of sea vessels in the Northern Sea Route. It also provides for accelerated programs of building cargo ships used for merchant shipping for economic projects and building cargo-passenger ships for transportation between sea and river ports in the Arctic zone; construction of hub ports and creation of Russian container operator in order to provide international and coastal transportations in the waters of the Northern Sea Route; expansion of shipping capabilities on the White Sea-Baltic Canal, the basins of the Onega, Northern Dvina, Mezen, Pechora, Ob, Yenisei, Lena, Kolyma and other rivers of the Arctic zone. Measures are already being taken to deploy a highly elliptical space system providing high temporal resolution hydrometeorological data on the polar region of the Earth; to create and develop a satellite constellation based on Russian equipment on highly elliptical orbits, providing satellite communications for users in the waters of the Northern Sea Route.
Traditionally, navigation in the eastern sector of the NSR ends in December and begins in the second half of May. However, this year, as an experiment, Russia began an unprecedentedly early eastward routing of liquefied natural gas (LNG) tankers along the Northern Sea Route. The Russian companies NOVATEK and Rosatom have already sent two test cargoes unaccompanied by an icebreaker in January: On January 5, the gas carrier Christophe de Margerie left Sabetta as part of a commercial voyage to deliver gas from the Yamal LNG project to the Asia-Pacific region, followed on January 6 by the second gas carrier Nikolay Evgenov. The gas tanker Nikolai Zubov passed toward them from Tianjin in China. “The duration of the crossing of the gas carrier Christophe de Margerie from the exit of the Sea Canal in the Gulf of Ob to Cape Dezhnev was 10 days and 21 hours. The vessel covered a distance of 2,474 nautical miles (4,500 kilometers),” Sovcomflot said in a release.
Under these conditions, the Northern Sea Route, as well as the Russian Trans-Siberian Railway (RTSR), may in the near future become a viable alternative for the transportation of goods between Europe and Asia. A more active cooperation with Russia by other countries to create the necessary logistical and technical conditions for the existence and safety of transport along the NSR and RTSR can not only put these transport arteries into year-round operation more quickly, but also provide financial and economic benefits to the countries that use these routes.
Valery Kulikov, political expert, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.