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Straits, Sea Lanes, and Maritime Security

Discusses sea lanes and straits, along with their strategic and commercial importance. Conflict potential and actual conflicts, along with other security threats, surround these areas. This article discusses sea lanes and related areas which are particularly prone to this, in particular, the Strait of Hormuz, the Strait of Malacca, the Turkish Straits, the Bab el-Mandeb, along with the South China Sea and the Northwest Passage.

Straits, Sea Lanes and Maritime Security

Straits are strategically important, and also commercially important. Large amounts of commercial and other shipping transits them every year, and lots of money is thus involved. It could even be said that they are important to the entire world. It is thus no surprise that there are conflicts surrounding some of these areas, for various reasons; their geography also increases this. This, of course, is a maritime security threat, as it can threaten the shipping of many nations. Certain such places in particular are the scene of potential or actual violent and other conflict, and subject to other threats, and it is these which will be addressed here. They include the Strait of Malacca, the Turkish Straits, the Strait of Hormuz, the Bab el-Mandeb, and also the important waters which are the South China Sea and the Northwest Passage.

The Strait of Malacca is a narrow stretch of water approximately 500 nautical miles long between West Malaysia and Sumatra (an Indonesian island). It is considered to be one of the most important shipping lanes in the world, on par with the Suez and Panama Canals. It links the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean and thus is very economically important. Over one-fifth of the world’s shipping passes through it, as does sizeable quantities of oil. Currently, main threats are piracy and accidents. The strait becomes very narrow and is very vulnerable to shipping accidents; the effects would be considerable, as the strait would be closed. This, of course, opens up the potential for terrorist attacks in the future; how serious that threat is at this point questionable, however. Pirates, though, plague these waters, and piracy continues to be a major problem, and the largest security threat.

The Turkish Straits are two straits which connect the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea; they are the Bosporus Strait and the Dardanelles Strait. The waterways are not as narrow as the Strait of Malacca, and they are longer when combined. They are important due to the oil trade which transits the straits and also due to their military value; the Russian Black Sea fleet is trapped unless it can freely transit the straits. The biggest security threat is likely a Russian attempt to seize control over the straits. Overall, though, the security threat is low.

The Strait of Hormuz is a very important strategic waterway leading from the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean. Due to its width, it is capable of supporting sizeable amounts of maritime traffic. It is significant as very large amounts of oil trade transit the strait, including the bulk of Middle Eastern oil. Current threats include piracy, terrorism, and attempts at closure by naval forces. The last is the most likely and dangerous threat, and the primary threat currently is the Iranian Navy. It has been the scene of sizeable amounts of conflict in the past, and may again in the future.

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