SPEAKING FREELY East Asia's future maritime highway
By Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli and Wan Izatul Asma Wan Talaat
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The Eurasian continental landmass sprawls from Europe in the west to Asia in the east. For centuries, trade has flowed by land and sea from Europe to India and the East Asian nations. After the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, ships from Europe travelled to the Indian Ocean through the Strait of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal and linked with the East Asian ports via the Strait of Malacca and Singapore as well as through the Indonesian archipelagic straits.
Like the Suez-Malacca route, the Northeast Arctic Passage
(NAP), or, as it is popularly known in Russia, the Northern Sea Route, connects Europe and East Asia , but by the route along the Arctic coast of Russia that has been navigated as early as the 18th century. Despite being the shortest route connecting Europe and the East Asia, the NAP is a perilous route as the waters within the passage are ice-stricken with extreme winters and unpredictable weather.
The melting of the Arctic ice cap due to global warming means that within the next 15 years, the NAP, which is now open only two months of the year, may become accessible for navigation throughout the year. In other words, international shipping traffic in the NAP will increase as the icebergs in these waters begin to disintegrate.
In September 2009, German ships transited the NAP from the South Korean port of Ulsan to Yamburg in Siberia. A year later, in July 2010, two Russian oil tankers, the Varzuga and Indiga, plied the NAP sailing from Murmansk to Chukotka in Russia's far eastern corner.
The NAP Route
Source: Modified from Google Earth
In August 2010, Russia's largest independent gas producer, Novatek, completed its tanker delivery to the Asia-Pacific region via the NAP. These navigational successes reveal that navigation through this passage is far from impossible. Utilizing the NAP would cut the navigational distance from Europe to East Asia significantly as compared to a similar voyage via the Suez Canal and the Strait of Malacca.
The Length of a Voyage to Rotterdam from Different Ports by the Routes of Malacca - Singapore and the NAP
Based on the above, the voyage from Rotterdam to Yokohama via the Suez - Malacca route is around 11,205 nautical miles. By traveling northward and using the NAP, the distance between these two ports would be approximately 3,345 nautical miles, cutting approximately 34.45% the distance off the conventional Suez-Malacca route, which would translate into lower fuel costs.
The potentials of the map
The Arctic is rich in oil and gas reserves, with the US Geological Survey estimating that up to 25% of the world's remaining oil and gas lie beneath the icy seabed of the Arctic Ocean. This survey reported that the Arctic may contain as much as one-fifth of the world's unexplored oil and natural gas, potentially containing 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered gas.
These resources are primarily located in three areas within the Arctic; namely, the West Siberian Basin, the East Barents Basin and the Alaska Arctic, also believed to contain significant mineral resources.
With the depletion of oil reserves in the Middle East, the developed economies of East Asia, including Japan, China and South Korea, may seek to import oil from the Arctic region if this research by the US Geological Survey is validated. Japan has been looking for alternatives for its sources of oil supply in view of the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East. It fears that its industries will be affected if there are changes in production policies by Middle East oil producers, or embargoes and unpredictable events such as wars, coups and revolutions.
All these factors show that the NAP and the Arctic Region may in the future become maritime superhighways as well as being the location of significant global oil and gas reserves.
As shipping activity in the Arctic region is expected to grow, the Arctic is likely to experience an extraordinary transformation; natural resource development, governance challenges, climate change and marine infrastructure issues will continue to influence the future marine uses of the Arctic.
The increasing shipping volume that plies the NAP will have a significant impact on the marine environment of that region of the Arctic. Therefore, there is much to be done to improve navigational facilities along the NAP in order to make it safer and more viable for future shipping activity.
There are a variety of advantages and disadvantages for ships traveling via the NAP and the straits of Malacca and Singapore. Those straits are equipped with numerous aids to navigation and considerable marine infrastructure and are reasonably safe for international shipping.
There are also many ports along the straits for vessels to call at, such as Dumai, Port Klang, Penang, Tanjung Pelepas and the Port of Singapore. Piracy and other maritime crimes have posed a threat in the past, but these incidents have been dramatically reduced in recent years due to security measures introduced by the littoral States to safeguard the straits. The shortcomings of navigation through the straits include that they are constricted and shallow, forcing ships to slow down, especially in the Traffic Separation Scheme areas and the eastern exit of the Strait of Singapore to the South China Sea.
The straits are also exposed to harsh weather during the monsoon season, and voyages from Europe to East Asia take a longer time using the straits compared to the NAP.
Voyages through the NAP has also have advantages and disadvantages to be considered by shipping companies. Ships may save on operational costs if they choose to use this route. Another advantage is that the Russian government consistently monitors the passage of ships and provides adequate navigational aids such as pilotage and icebreakers for transiting vessels. Due to its harsh conditions and sparse population, especially in the Siberian region, piracy is not a threat for ships traversing the NAP.
However, despite the shorter duration of passage through the NAP, ships are likely to incur additional costs such as payments for services such as pilotage and escort icebreakers. Sea ice and water depths are the two main impediments to navigation in the NAP, and voyages through the NAP may be frustrated should the route be closed due to ice accumulation during winter.
Even though the NAP has calmer waters, ships using this route would have to reduce speed to ensure their propellers are not damaged by the layers of ice.
There are serious limitations to radio and satellite communications in certain areas of the NAP, making it difficult to mount an effective emergency response should a maritime casualty or other emergency occur on this route. In addition, the sensitive marine environment of the Arctic could be threatened should a maritime accident take place.
The future of the NAP
The NAP is seen as a potential new global maritime highway of the future. Some commentators anticipate that the importance of NAP as an important shipping route will grow when oil and gas industries begin to develop extensively in the Russian Arctic region. In fact, research has revealed that by 2020, 70% of the overall cargo transported via the NAP will be oil and gas.
Nevertheless, so long as the East Asian economic powerhouses of China, Japan and South Korea continue to turn to the Middle East for their supplies of oil and gas, the straits of Malacca and Singapore will remain as busy as they are today. Maritime voyages from the Middle East to East Asian nations would obviously take longer via the NAP route, hence it may not be a viable option for many shipping owners.
In the long term, the straits of Malacca and Singapore may ultimately be preferred and the NAP may only ever be a secondary, and less navigationally convenient, alternative route.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli (PhD) is a senior lecturer at Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia and an associate fellow at the Institute of Oceanography and Environment, University Malaysia Terengganu. Wan Izatul Asma Wan Talaat (PhD), is an associate professor at the Institute of Oceanography and Environment, University Malaysia Terengganu.
(Copyright 2013 Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusl and Wan Izatul Asma Wan Talaat)