The Strait of Hormuz is one of the world’s most important waterways. Some 40% of all seaborne oil passes through this narrow passageway, which is equivalent to about 20% of total oil traded worldwide. This amounts to 16.5 to 17 million barrels per day, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The strait is vital to the international economy; it is the access point to the heart of the world’s largest producers of oil, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, and Iraq.
This very narrow waterway lies between Iran and Oman. It is about 34 km (21 miles) wide at its narrowest point. The strait is so shallow that oil tankers can effectively navigate only some 9.7 km (6 miles) of the width. According to Finian Cunningham, writing for Globalresearch.ca, 2 miles are reserved for traffic into the Gulf, 2 miles for traffic leading out, and 2 miles as a buffer zone between the two lanes.
Cunningham writes that “[u]nder international maritime law, Iran (along with Oman) has sovereign territorial rights over these waters. Iran has under United Nations law agreed to grant ‘innocent passage’ to ships through its waters provided there is no infringement of its security.”
In comparison to the Strait of Hormuz, other significant seaborne chokepoints for the transit of oil include the Suez Canal (4.5 million barrels per day), and the Strait of Malacca (15 million barrels per day). The Strait of Hormuz does not only see more transit of oil, but it is also the passage on which the other straights depend for much of their own traffic since most oil exported from the the energy abundant Gulf states are overwhelmingly reliant on Hormuz to access global markets.
More from the US Energy Information Administration:
In 2007, total world oil production amounted to approximately 85 million barrels per day (bbl/d), and around one-half, or over 43 million bbl/d of oil was moved by tankers on fixed maritime routes. The international energy market is dependent upon reliable transport. The blockage of a chokepoint, even temporarily, can lead to substantial increases in total energy costs.
The bulk of the Middle East oil passing through the Strait of Hormuz makes its way to Asia, the US, and Western Europe.
3/4 of Japan’s consumption of oil passes through the strait.
China, the world’s second largest oil consumer, sources over 70% of its imported oil from the Middle East, according to the People’s Daily.
India depends on the Middle East for nearly 74% of its imports of crude oil (2007-8).
South Korea received over 80% of its imported crude oil from the Middle East for the greater part of 2009.
The US imports about 24% of its crude oil from the Gulf (2008).
The US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations has recently released a report on the need for a policy in regards to Sri Lanka. The report, “Sri Lanka: Recharting US Strategy After the War,” indicates that the island nation is key to US strategic interests in the region.
“As Western countries became increasingly critical of the Sri Lankan Government’s handling of the war and human rights record, the Rajapaksa leadership cultivated ties with such countries as Burma, China, Iran, and Libya. The Chinese have invested billions of dollars in Sri Lanka through military loans, infrastructure loans, and port development, with none of the strings attached by Western nations. While the United States shares with the Indians and the Chinese a common interest in securing maritime trade routes through the Indian Ocean, the U.S. Government has invested relatively little in the economy or the security sector in Sri Lanka, instead focusing more on IDPs [Internally Displaced Persons] and civil society. As a result, Sri Lanka has grown politically and economically isolated from the West,” states the US Senate report.
The report’s writers make a case for a shift in US policy by emphasizing the geostrategic importance of the island: “Sri Lanka is located at the nexus of crucial maritime trading routes in the Indian Ocean connecting Europe and the Middle East to China and the rest of Asia.
“[…]A more multifaceted U.S. strategy would capitalize on the economic, trade, and security aspects of the relationship. This approach in turn could catalyze much-needed political reforms that will ultimately help secure longer term U.S. strategic interests in the Indian Ocean. U.S. strategy should also invest in Sinhalese parts of the country, instead of just focusing aid on the Tamil-dominated North and East.”
About 80 percent of China’s oil passes through the waterways near Sri Lanka, most of India’s imports of oil pass through the Indian Ocean, and “three-quarters of all Japan’s oil needs pass through [the Straight of Hormuz],” one of the chokepoints into the region’s open seas.
Robert D. Kaplan has written a noted article in the Foreign Affairs journal indicating that “India’s and China’s great-power aspirations, as well as their quests for energy security, have compelled the two countries ‘to redirect their gazes from land to the seas,’ according to James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, associate professors of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College. And the very fact that they are focusing on their sea power indicates how much more self-confident they feel on land. And so a map of the Indian Ocean exposes the contours of power politics in the twenty-first century.” Furthermore, “Already the world’s preeminent energy and trade interstate seaway, the Indian Ocean will matter even more in the future. One reason is that India and China, major trading partners locked in an uncomfortable embrace, are entering into a dynamic great-power rivalry in these waters—a competition that the United States, although now a declining hegemon, can keep in check by using its navy to act as a sea-based balancer.”
India continues to secure its naval presence by increasing its surveillance capability. A new listening post has reportedly begun to operate in Madagascar, linked with two other similar listening posts off of India’s west coast. The system will allow for surveillance of navies in large swaths of ocean from Africa’s east coast to India’s west coast. New Delhi considers the security of these lanes as vital to its economic health. Asia Times reports that “most of India’s trade is by sea,” and that, “nearly 89% of India’s oil imports arrive by sea.”
Another report released by the US, this one by Naval Intelligence, reviews Iran’s naval history and strategy: “Iran uses its naval forces for political ends such as naval diplomacy and strategic messaging. Most of all, Iranian naval forces are equipped to defend against perceived external threats. Public statements by Iranian leaders indicate that they would consider closing or controlling the Strait of Hormuz if provoked, thereby cutting off almost 30 percent of the world’s oil supply.” The document is titled ‘Iran’s Naval Forces‘.
I’m doing some research into maritime trade and key naval powers. Maritime trade is the backbone of the global economy. 90% of global trade (by volume) was transported via sea routes in 2006.
Maritime trade routes are “strategic by its control and commercial by its usage,” writes Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue, Associate Professor, Dept. of Global Studies and Geography, Hofstra University.
Here are some of my findings, in rough:
Both of the above tables are from the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ report entitled ‘Maritime Trade & Transportation 2007‘.
I’ll likely add similar tidbits of information in time prior to writing up a series of articles on the subject.