Main Routing Alternatives between East Asia and Northern Europe

Main Routing Alternatives between East Asia and Northern Europe

Source: adapted from Notteboom, T. and J-P Rodrigue (2011) “Emerging Global Networks in the Container Terminal Operating Industry”, in T. Notteboom (ed) Current Issues in Shipping, Ports and Logistics, Brussels: Academic & Scientific Publishers. pp. 243-270. ISBN 978-9-054878582.

Long-distance transportation seeks to minimize distances, but maritime shipping must follow specific routes constrained by strategic passages. Due to the world’s geography and dominant trade relations, there are two intercontinental connectivity challenges; linking Asia and Europe and linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The focus is routing alternatives between East Asia and Northern Europe, two of the world’s most significant markets. The selection of a specific route is commonly related to factors such as cost, speed, and reliability.

The Suez route is the main commercial artery between Asia and Europe and transits through locations such as the Strait of Malacca, Bab el-Mandab, the Suez Canal, and the Strait of Gibraltar. It offers opportunities to pick up and drop cargo at major transshipment hubs such as Singapore, Colombo, Salalah, Suez, Gioia Tauro, and Algeciras. These hubs act as collecting points for their respective regional cargoes as well as connectors to north/south routes. Because of the level of trade and the draft of the Suez Canal, maritime shipping companies have been able to allocate their largest ships along this route, with services including container ships with a capacity above 10,000 TEU.

The Cape route is a shipping alternative involving a long detour through the southern tip of Africa. Still, it represents an opportunity to handle African cargo as well as connect with routes bound for South America. Next to the Cape route, a number of other routing alternatives are being planned or are in operation to accommodate part of the trade volumes between Europe and Asia, but their market shares are expected to remain low compared to the Suez route, that offers substantial capacity, low costs, and reliability:

  • First, there is the Northern Sea Route, a set of all-water shipping lanes between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans along the Russian coast of Siberia and the Far East. Future polar ice cap reductions would open new possibilities for commercial shipping on this route. The route is still less favorable in cost terms due to the need for ice-classed ships and ice breaker assistance, non-regularity of the liner services, slower sailing speeds, navigation difficulties, and Russian transit fees.
  • Secondly, North/South land corridors could develop as landbridges from the Persian Gulf via Iran to Russia. However, geopolitical and infrastructure considerations forbid any serious consideration of this alternative in the medium term.
  • Third, the east-west rail corridors, a set of railway lines connecting East Asia and the western part of Russia with the Eastern part of Russia, are becoming more commercially interesting. One of the main arteries is the Trans-Siberian Railway, which connects St. Petersburg with the port of Vladivostok. Other primary rail connections are the Trans-Manchurian Railway, the Trans-Mongolian Railway, and the Baikal Amur Mainline (BAM – opened in 1991). The ‘Trans-Siberian in Seven Days’ program sets a target speed of 1,500 km daily by 2015 but faces different rail gauges between the Chinese, Russian, and Western European systems. In principle, rail land bridges offer lead-time advantages to shippers, but capacities remain low compared to container liner services. They offer a niche potential for time-sensitive cargo.