Trading, in a globalized system like our own, represents the primary development source for many countries, and controlling its routes means controlling the wealth both of your country and of the states living with that trade. In this sense still today, the sea, with its intercontinental routes, is what the major trading routes of the world insist on. Routes through which anything is transported, from oil, to semifinished and final products. Above all routes which have some necessary passages. Controlling these passages means guaranteeing your own survival and also controlling the chances of others.
The strategical straits are copious, such as Bosporus, Gibraltar and Suez, but regarding future conflicts, it is better to focus on three of them: the Straits of Malacca, Hormuz and Baba el-Mandeb. Starting from the Malacca straits, one figure is sufficient to understand its fundamental importance: 40% of global trading passes through this strait. The straits of Malacca represent a very narrow corridor linking the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Basically the trading between the countries of the Persian Gulf and the ones of the Far East, in particular the oil trade, which passes through an eight thousand kilometers long strip of sea, reaching a width of only two and a half km. It is not by chance that this gulf is the one that is most affected by piracy, together with the Aden Gulf. More importantly, it’s not by chance that Saudi Araby, India, China, Japan and the ASEAN countries, USA allies, are all interested in controlling these routes. The business prospects are enormous, and China, especially, perfectly understands that in order to reach Africa, Persian Gulf and Europe, it is necessary to pass through there. The US allies came to the same awareness and, together with Washington, they have a strong interest in damaging somehow the Chinese routes. Also India, until now a sleeping giant, has 50% of its trade forced to pass through the Malacca Strait. Hence the expansion of rebel movements, pirates and Islamist groups is not surprising: the control on the routes, also with non conventional methods, such as rebels fringes, which is key to the diplomatic relationships in the Asian continent.
Also Hormuz is a strategical strait with a fundamental importance. This strait divides Iran from the Arabic Peninsula. Basically it divides the rival powers of the Middle East: Saudi Arabia (and the monarchies of the Gulf) and Islamic Republic of Iran. Passing through this strait is possible by entering two territorial waters, either the Iranian or the Omani ones. If one of these parts would decide to close the transit for cargo vessels directed toward the Persian Gulf or toward Far East from the Persian Gulf, the damage would be huge. According to US Energy Information Administration sources, during 2011 the traffic of oil drums through the strait was of 17 millions a day: that is to say that the Persian Gulf economies are based, for the major part, on this strait. Therefore the presence in Doha of the biggest American military base of the Middle East, as well as the presence of the Fifth Fleet in Bahrein, is not a coincidence, because controlling the body of water where tens of millions of oil drums are moving means controlling the economies of all states in existence, thank to this particular part of the sea. Nobody today, not even Iran, would ever close this strait, because this would threat one’s own survival. Either threatening its closure or owning its control would undoubtedly be a powerful instrument.
Regarding Bab el-Mandeb, the ongoing conflict in Yemen is perhaps the most glaring example of what owning the control over some areas could mean. It is useless to reduce the conflict of a religious clash between Schiism and Sunni. If it is useful for anything, it would be to understand who controls the country. But controlling Yemen means control of one side of the strait that leads the gateway of the Indian Ocean to Europe. Given the fact that Suez in owned by Egyptians and that it isn’t likely to rise up against the global commercial partners, the geopolitical crux of the Red Sea moved toward South, to Bab el-Mandeb, where there are years of old global competition in the placement of military bases in order to control the area. Also here, as for the Malacca strait, the growth of piracy and Islamist groups means that this weapon can be used as an instrument of extortion and control by some players over others, and as an instrument for damaging the economic and commercial stability of rival powers. The war in Yemen, which is a new face of the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, is an example of all of this. But also the competition for the military bases in the Horn Africa is a glaring example of the importance of this strait, which links the Red Sea to the Aden Gulf. The closure of this strait would have the consequence of moving of the routes towards the Cape of Good Hope, and that would mean not only huge delays in the trading routes, but also huge expenses and more countries involved in the nautical traffic. The instability of the strait is fundamental to understand the international dynamics tethering the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf. The fact that China has a military base in Gibuti and that the western fleets are there for the piracy, must surely mean something.