The northern sea route has been under global attention as an alternative passage for West-East transit. Russia has attempted to use this new trade route through the Arctic Ocean. Read here to know the strategic significance of this route.
The ‘Ever Green,’ a massive 250,000-ton container ship that ran aground and blocked the Suez Canal for six days in 2021, caused daily trade losses of almost US$10 billion.
Although Egypt receives $8 billion in annual revenue via the Suez Canal, the event brought about by the 400-meter-long container ship caused product deliveries to be delayed, increased oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) costs, and daily losses.
The incident made clear the necessity for a different West-East transportation route. Additionally, it drew attention to Russia’s ambitions to create a brand-new trade route across the Arctic Ocean.
This potential alternative trade route, also known as “The Northern Sea Route,” has gained strategic importance over the last two years as a result of Russia’s efforts to construct it.
Northern Sea Route
Eastern and western regions of the Arctic Ocean are connected via the Northern Sea Route (NSR), sometimes known as the Northeast Passage (NEP).
- The NSR route between Europe and Asia is just 13,000 km long, compared to the 21,000 km covered by the Suez Canal route, which reduces the travel duration from one month to less than two weeks.
- The whole path, which has been dubbed the Northeast Passage and is comparable to Canada’s Northwest Passage, is located in the Arctic seas and within Russia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
- The NSR runs from the Barents Sea, near Russia’s border with Norway, to the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska.
- Since the Barents Sea is not a part of the Northern Sea Route itself, the Atlantic is not reached.
Currently, the Northern Sea Route brings supplies of food, equipment, fuel, and minerals into Siberia’s major rivers and ports along the Arctic coast.
The Northern Sea Route only has ice-free weather in certain places for two months out of the year, but as the Arctic ice covers melt, traffic along the route will undoubtedly rise.
- Since the mid-1930s the Northern Sea Route has been an officially managed and administered shipping route along the northern/Arctic coast of Russia.
- In August 2017, the first ship traversed the Northern Sea Route without the use of icebreakers.
- The Arctic ice has been melting faster due to global warming, and few studies have predicted that the route will be ice-free by 2030.
- However, despite several attempts, the NSR’s development as an alternative to the Suez Canal has remained limited to research because of the region’s harsh natural environment.
Advantages of Northern Sea Route
The route is most advantageous to Russia with it has three distinct geostrategic and geoeconomic benefits from the NSR, which is seen as a major artery of the Russian Arctic:
- become a global energy superhighway for the exchange of various natural resources from the Russian Arctic, including hydrocarbons;
- Create strong supply networks to the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation (AZRF) to guarantee the uninterrupted flow of cargo to the ports and new points of economic growth;
- Gain prominence in the passage of international trade.
Heavily dependent on the Suez Canal route for its critical energy and rare minerals imports, China, too, has emerged as an active player in the NSR’s development.
India and Russia are looking to expand the use of the Northern Sea shipping route, including the building of processing facilities which was discussed during the recent Russian ministerial visit to India.
The NSR is economically profitable in comparison with the Suez Canal due to several reasons:
- Fuel savings due to reduced distance;
- The shorter distance reduces the cost of staff labor and chartering vessels;
- The Northern Sea Route does not charge payments for the passage yet unlike the Suez Canal;
- There are no queues like in the Suez Canal;
- There is no risk of a pirate attack which the Horn of Africa is notorious for.
Issues with existing routes
International cargo using the traditional Suez Canal route has to encounter three critical choke points between Europe and Asia- The Suez Canal, the Bab el-Mandeb, also called the ‘Gate of Grief’ in West Asia, and the Strait of Malacca in the Indo-Pacific.
- Since 2005, there have been many pirate attacks on ships in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. In the Red Sea, Houthi militants have planted naval explosives that pose a threat to it. These mines have been hit by several cargo ships in the Red Sea, and they have also claimed the lives of nearby fishermen.
- Because it provides the majority of its energy supply, the Strait of Malacca off the coast of Malaysia is crucial for East Asian nations like China and Japan. A blockade will have a 25% impact on global commerce and a 33% impact on oil trade.
- Chokes in the Suez Canal route’s maritime traffic can obstruct international trade and trap commercial ships in perilous situations in constrained spaces.
Challenges of NSR
- At best, the Arctic is not a benign environment, and as the earth warms, it is getting more unstable.
- The Arctic is seeing twice as rapid a rise in surface temperatures as the rest of the world.
- Extreme cold occurrences are occurring more frequently in Russia and Europe as a result of this heat reducing the stability of the polar vortex air circulation.
- The paths of northern storms are also altering due to unusual jet stream patterns.
- The Laptev Strait’s shallow depth, which is a few hundred miles east of the Lena River’s mouth, is the NSR’s main obstacle.
- The strait restricts the size of ships passing the NSR to those with an Arcticmax draught of 12 meters.
- Analysts have also noted that the new channel, which is far away and scantly supervised, may be used by terrorists to transport weapons.
- As Russia and China intensify their efforts, the High North’s growing economic potential, which is thought to hold a fourth of the world’s untapped petroleum reserves, has also elevated the region to the status of “profound importance” for NATO.
- Ships and workers navigating the NSR face dangers due to unpredictable and harsh weather conditions as well as inadequate search-and-rescue resources and infrastructure.
Russia and China are evaluating the possibility of joining the Northern Sea Route with China’s Silk Road to create a global and competitive route connecting East Asia to Europe.
These trends point to the potential for Russia and China to eventually unite their influence to control the NSR and the majority of global trade.
The NSR is equally crucial for Japan and South Korea as it is for China and Russia. Both countries are the leading industrial nations of the East, increasingly using the northeastern passage.
Experts anticipate that the Northern Sea Route will be fully operational and able to handle most of the volume of international commerce by 2030.
The Suez Canal will continue to be utilized for marine trade, particularly between Turkey and South and Southeast Asia and the Mediterranean region.
It is yet to see how the West will react to the rising power of China and Russia along the new route. The future of global commerce is uncertain given this continuous game of strategy in a hitherto uncharted international trade corridor.
-Article written by Swathi Satish