Main Maritime Shipping Routes and Chokepoints

Map Maritime Routes Strategic Passages
Main Maritime Shipping Routes

Note: The terms bottleneck or choke point are also commonly used. The Spilhaus projection is centered on Antarctica and displays all the world’s oceans as a single continuous body of water.

There are potentially an infinite number of maritime shipping routes that can be used for maritime shipping, but the configuration of the global maritime shipping system is relatively simple. The central axis is a circum-equatorial corridor linking North America, Europe, and Pacific Asia through the Suez Canal, the Strait of Malacca, and the Panama Canal. These routes support the bulk of the traffic, but numerous other routes exist (namely for coastal shipping), depending on the origin and destination of the maritime shipment. Transatlantic and transpacific traffic concerns a wide variety of ports, so there are numerous routes, most of them having a path along the great circle. Trans-Indian ocean traffic is predominantly intermediary between Pacific Asia and Europe, implying a series of clearly defined routes between the Strait of Malacca and Bab el-Mandeb (often misspelled as Bal al-Mandab).

Maritime routes are shaped by obligatory points of passage, which are strategic locations that act as chokepoints. Physical constraints (coasts, winds, marine currents, depth, reefs, ice) and political borders also play an essential role in shaping maritime routes. As a result, maritime routes try to follow the great circle distance. Core routes are those supporting the most important commercial shipping flows servicing major markets, and secondary routes are mostly connectors between smaller markets.

Due to geography, geopolitics, and trade flows, specific locations play a strategic role in the global maritime network. They are labeled as chokepoints and can be classified into two main categories:

  • Primary chokepoints. The most important is that they offer limited cost-effective maritime shipping alternatives, which would seriously impair global trade if disrupted. The first type of chokepoints concerns connectors along major oceans and seas. Among those are the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal, and the Strait of Malacca, which are key locations in the global trade of goods and commodities. The closure of these bottlenecks would force the diversion of maritime traffic over long distances with the associated loss of time and capacity. The Suez Canal blockage of 2021 is such an example. The Suez Canal is also highly dependent on the access granted to the Red Sea by the Strait of Bab el-Manded. A second type of chokepoint concerns those connecting to maritime deadends with substantial resource and commercial potential, such as the Strait of Hormuz, which grants access to the Persian Gulf, and the Strait of Bosporus, which grants access to the Black Sea. The Strait of Oresund is also particularly important as it is the only access to the Baltic and Russia’s main ports. The closure of these bottlenecks would force the use of alternative overland routes that are unlikely to have the capacity to handle the volumes.
  • Secondary chokepoints. Support maritime routes that have alternatives but would still involve a notable detour. These include the Magellan Passage, the Dover Strait, the Sunda Strait, and the Taiwan Strait.

Not depicted are the chokepoints granting access to major river systems having commercial navigation with a single point of access to the ocean. The most salient chokepoints are the Yangtse, the Rhine, the Mississippi, the Danube, and the St. Lawrence.