The Northeast Passage

Global Warming is the topic of our time, and much is talked about its consequenses for the world and mankind. But next to many negative scenarios, ones in a while there accures a positive side as well. And one of this chances might be the establishment of the Northern Sea Route, in Europe called the Northeast Passage, as one of the main trading routes of the world.

The Arctic Ocean

The Norther Sea Route, as the Russians call it, is heading from the northern russian peninsular Kola, respectively the island Nowaja Semlja, next to the russian coast til Bering Strait, the gateway to the Pacific Ocean.

It is one of the three great routes in the Arctic Ocean. The second one is the Northwest Passage, which runs at the canadian coastline, from the Atlantic to the Bering Strait as well. In contrast to the increasing ability to use the Northeastern Passage, the prerequisite for ships on this route may even worsen, as the warming of the region will increase the number of icebergs crossing the ships that use this passage. But even if the economic opportunities would be exploided to the fullest, the benefits wouldn´t reach that of the eastern route.

The third one is the Transpolar Sea Route, which is crossing the Arctic Ocean at the shortest way possible between Atlantic and Pacific. It is therefore the most efficient way. But the hurdles are just as big. Despide the great distance from the coast, which leads to logistic calamities, there is far too much ice in this area, even during the summer months. It probably won´t be an alternative during this century.

The Consequences

The intense usage of the Northern Sea Route on the other side could become of great use for international sea trade, as it would reduce travel time between Europe and Asia by 40%. Especially the European states, China, Japan South Korea and most of all Russia would benefit from it. According to optimistic estimations, the strategic and economic benefits would be as big as the discovery of the Transatlantic Route, but this seems a bit of the top. Nonetheless, the danger of the pinholes pinching the Indian Ocean, most of all the Suez Canal, Bab el-Mandeb and the Malakka Strait, would be diminished. On the contrary, the dependency on Russia would be magnified.

There is an element of ironie from the russian perspective. Over centuries, the country tried more or less in vain to get an entrance to the big oceans, which they never fully accomplished. Instead of reaching out to the Seas, the ocean itself is now heading towards Russia. Despide that, Russia could than exploid the immense raw materials hidden in Siberia and the Russian Far East. Should the Norther Sea Route really become one of the most used trading routes, it would certainly be the biggest strategic lucky break for the country in centuries.

Also the nations of East Asia, namely China, Japan, South Korea and, should they start to trade at any time, North Korea, would benefit from it. At the other end than the Europeans at the Suez-Singapur Line, they would also benefit from the decreasing dangetrs caused by the pinholes at this route and could export or import their goods much faster. Japan could even become an international trading hub, as the natural end-point of the Northern Sea Route, at the asian side, is the northern japanese island of Hokkaido.

Ironically, next to the Peoples Republic of China, Taiwan may just benefit as much from this development. Through the avoidance of the South China Sea, which Beijing is recognizing as part of their own country, the danger of a potential blockade respectivaly the costs of such a blockade would decrease for Taipeh.

It would be a disadvantage for the states that benefit from the trade between Suez and Singapore, foremost Egypt, which operates the Suez Canal, and Singapore, the main hub between the Indian and the Pacific Ocean. Less affected would be the states of South East Asia, as the time saving from the use of the Northern Sea Route is diminished south of Hongkong.

The Requirements

For the enormous investments that must certainly take place in order to realize this project there needs to be more than just global warming. As the infrastructure between Suez and Singapore is well established, there is a high caution to change the supply chains. Next to the economic advantages there must be added insecurities related to the old routes. These could be, for example, piracy, which has at times severely impaired trade in the Horn of Africa, or technical restrictions on the Suez Canal, which can only accommodate ships up to a certain size and was closed for an extended period in the spring due to an accident. But potential risks could also arise in the South China Sea due to China’s expansion of power, in the eastern Mediterranean due to Turkey’s expansionist policy, the war in Yemen and the general power struggle in the region, as well as jihadist terrorist organizations.

Global Politics

So far, I have not mentioned the role of the USA in this development, because as a global regulatory power, Washington has the ambition to guarantee the free movement of goods on the world’s oceans. If it were no longer able to fulfill this task, its time as the dominant world power would be over. And on the political level, this is also likely to be the all-important factor, which may not be superficial, but in long-term planning it´s certainly the most important element in all political decisions. The weakening of the U.S. on the world’s oceans has already begun in recent years, especially through policies of Turkey and China. The new AUKUS alliance between the USA, Australia and Great Britain is also a response to this development.

A new artery running almost exclusively along the Russian coast would, of course, be a tremendous blow to the U.S. claim to hegemony. However, Washington’s ability to influence this development is limited. Russia and China, the two most important states, will not listen to Washington and will also try to break the U.S. supremacy with the help of the Northern Sea Route. The best U.S. policy would be to guarantee security on the old trade routes and thus give the other countries as few reasons as possible to make extensive use of the Northeast Passage.

Exactly how the Northern Sea Route will develop and whether it can actually become a main artery of world trade will become clear in the coming decades. Should this be the case, it would certainly be one of the most interesting and significant developments in world politics this century.

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