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As part of the Worldwide Threat Assessment, Global Guardian has identified chokepoints where, due to climate-related and geopolitical disruptions, the safety of shipping lanes is no longer guaranteed. 

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May 7, 2024



This analysis of global chokepoints is adapted from Global Guardian’s 2024 Worldwide Threat Assessment. For more information on this topic and additional insight on the emerging geopolitical threats facing travelers and organizations today, download the latest Worldwide Threat Assessment. 

Globalization is predicated on the free movement of goods across vast geographies. Today, 90% of all globally traded goods are moved by sea, with shipping container volume expected to triple by 2050. Merchant shipping relies on certain trade routes to move goods efficiently. Control over these waterways has always been coveted, often bringing with it lucrative rents and geostrategic advantages. 

Today, a lack of physical, security, and environmental stewardship over maritime checkpoints is endangering international trade. The “Axis of Disorder” — China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran — is contesting the world order in a time when the economic and military forces that used to maintain free and open waterways are no longer as strong. As a result, maritime chokepoints are of major global concern going forward.  

What is a chokepoint?

In maritime shipping, a chokepoint refers to a narrow passage along a waterway that is critical for the movement of vessels and their goods. These chokepoints are often natural features, such as straits or channels, which connect larger bodies of water, like oceans or seas. They are vital for global trade because they often represent the shortest or most efficient routes between major ports or regions. 

GG GD WWTA Chokepoints-1

Due to their narrowness and strategic importance, chokepoints can also be vulnerable to geopolitical conflict, piracy, or natural disasters. Disruptions at these chokepoints can have significant impacts on global trade, leading to delays, increased shipping costs, and potential shortages of goods. 

Global Guardian has identified five major chokepoints where, due to both climate-related and geopolitical disruptions, the safety of these shipping lanes is no longer guaranteed. 

Threats to these chokepoints are not going away anytime soon, and are set to increase in this current environment. Understanding these chokepoints is crucial for planning for a future where one, or many, of these waterways is impassable.  

Current chokepoints at risk

1. Bosphorus Straitbosphorus strait chokepoint map

The Bosphorus Strait connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. It serves as an important transit point for grain, foodstuffs, and fertilizer. Together, Russian and Ukrainian nitrogenous fertilizer exports accounted for 28% of the global market in 2022 and prior to the war, Ukraine produced 50% of the world’s sunflower oil. Central Asian states and Azerbaijan also rely on the Bosphorus for oil exports through the Caspian Sea Pipeline to Russian ports on the Black Sea.  

Primary risk: Geopolitical.  

The Black Sea is currently a theatre of war between Russia and Ukraine. In addition to multiple instances of Russian and Ukrainian attacks on each other’s civilian shipping, there have been at least four instances of floating mines damaging ships or washing up on shore. Insurance has also been affected with war risk premiums for Black Sea shipping reaching 10% of hull value, exceeding the cost of hiring the cargo ships. Most of Ukraine’s foodstuff exports run through the Bosphorus to developing countries where food prices have an outsized impact on economic and political wellbeing. When Ukraine was allowed to resume grain shipments via the Black Sea, global food prices dropped almost 20%, highlighting the macroeconomic impacts of the war on the global grain market.

panama canal chokepoint map

2. Panama Canal

The Panama Canal facilitates movement from the Atlantic to Pacific Oceans. It is the primary route for maritime trade between the U.S. East Coast and East Asia and is critical for the movement of agricultural goods from the Western to the Eastern hemisphere. 6% of the world’s maritime commerce flows through the Panama Canal and it is the most economical method of moving goods from one side of North America to the other. The Canal shortens the maritime journey from New York to Los Angeles by roughly 11 thousand kilometers.  

Primary risk: Climate.  

October 2023 — peak rain season — marked the region’s lowest rainfall since 1950. As a result, Gatun Lake, which feeds the canal's locks, has begun to dry up. This has decreased how many ships can travel through the canal by 50% capacity. Last-minute canal booking slots, which are auctioned, have been sold for prices as high as 10 times the normal transit fee (USD $400,000). The current dry spell is not isolated, Panama experienced its three driest consecutive years from 2013 to 2015. The El Niño events that spur the rain shortages are expected to become more frequent, meaning that capacity reductions in the Panama Canal are likely to become a perennial challenge. 

bab el-mandeb chokepoint map

3. Bab el-Mandeb Strait

The Bab el-Mandeb Strait connects the Mediterranean via the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean via the Gulf of Aden. Around 10% of overall global trade volume and 12% of all seaborne travel through this chokepoint. Bab el-Mandeb also facilities the internal movement of half of the Middle East’s goods. Owing to its strategic location, and the Strait’s history of piracy, the U.S., China, France, Italy, China, Japan, and the United Arab Emirates all possess military bases abutting the Strait.  

Primary risk: Geopolitical.  

Piracy emanating from Somalia is a perennial issue. But since 2015, when the Iranian-backed Houthi Movement took control of most of Yemen’s Red Sea coast, attacks on commercial shipping have become a major threat. The Strait is a key fixture of Iran and Israel’s hybrid war and since November 2023, the Houthis have been targeting transiting vessels with unmanned drones and anti-ship missiles. Shipping volume through the Strait has now dropped by 70%. It is possible that the Houthis will soon start to damage the undersea cables that traverse Bab el-Mandeb.  

suez canal chokepoint map

4. Suez Canal

The Suez Canal provides entry to the Mediterranean Sea in the north from the Red Sea to the south. The Suez Canal bypasses Africa, making it the quickest sea route between Asia and Europe. Between 10% and 12% of global trade transits through the Suez Canal, including around 30% of all cargo container ships. The Suez is also home to 16 undersea cables, making it one of the most important nodes in the global telecommunication system. Approximately 17 % of the world’s internet traffic travels along these cables.   

Primary risk: Climate.  

On 21 March 2021, the Ever Given, a 400-meter-long containership traveling from Tanjung Pelepas, Malaysia, to the Port of Rotterdam, Netherlands, became lodged in the canal obstructing all traffic for six days. By 28 March 2021, over 400 ships were waiting to navigate the canal amounting to USD $1 billion of direct economic damage. Weather conditions played a large role in the beaching of the Ever Given. The incident was preceded by 43.6°C (110°F) heat and 112 kph (70 mph) winds. The combination of poor visibility and extreme winds grounded the vessel. Compared with today, extreme heat events reaching 45°C (113°F) in this region are expected to double by 2050. This event demonstrates how weather events — which are expected to worsen — can threaten critical trade routes and disrupt global supply chains.  

strait of hormuz chokepoint map

5. Strait of Hormuz

The strait of Hormuz offers passage from the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean – 21% of global petroleum liquids pass through this vital artery. Asia’s energy security and the stability of oil prices depend on the free flow of merchant vessels through this chokepoint. 

Primary risk: Geopolitical.  

Iran has long weaponized its geography. In the 1980s and again in 2019, Iran has employed hijacking and mining in this Strait. On 11 January 2024, Iran seized an oil tanker involved in a U.S.-Iran dispute, precipitating American intervention in the Red Sea against the Houthis. Iran has many anti-ship capabilities it can use to shut down the Strait of Hormuz. The possibility exists, should Iran wish to escalate and generate leverage vis a vis the U.S. and Israel, that Tehran places mines in the Strait or even uses more attributable measures including anti-ship cruise missiles, hijackings, and small boat attacks to disrupt the global energy supply.  

Future chokepoints at risk

Trade routes have become a major avenue for geopolitical competition, another way for adversarial states to contest Western interests. As it stands today, Western-friendly governments are only in control of one-third of the chokepoints connecting global sea lanes. Meanwhile, members of the Axis of Disorder can feasibly threaten access to 64%. Hostile states or non-state actors with geographic proximity to key maritime chokepoints can blackmail the West into granting concessions or tolerating destabilizing behavior in exchange for access, a tactic that could be used in Taiwan in the not-too-distant future. 

Additional chokepoints, therefore, are at risk of disruption. These include:  

  • East China Sea
  • South China Sea
  • GIUK Gap
  • Bering Strait
  • Darvis Strait 
  • Barents Sea 

For more information on future chokepoints, including stakeholders and risks, download the latest Worldwide Threat Assessment from Global Guardian

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