From their bases along the coasts of Somalia, heavily armed and well-organized pirates have, in recent years, proved highly adept at seizing international freight as it moves through the Gulf of Aden and off the coasts of East Africa, and demanding high ransoms in exchange for both the crew and the cargo. In the course of 2008, a multinational task force that included warships from NATO members and from the United States Fifth Fleet had started to patrol the region, but met with only limited success. Having already staged more than 80 single attacks off the Gulf of Aden in the preceding few months, the pirates still managed to pull off two highly audacious coups within the space of just weeks. At the end of September they stormed on board a Ukrainian ship that was carrying 33 tanks and what Defence Minister, Yuri Yekhanurov, called 'a substantial quantity of ammunition'. And in mid-November they seized the attention of the world's media by hijacking a Saudi super tanker, the Sirius Star, which was moving a $100 million cargo of crude oil, causing universal panic and outrage by doing so.
The threat of piracy may eventually recede, but for the foreseeable future shipping companies are likely to look further afield to find and explore safer routes, such as the Northwest Passage. Within a week of the seizure of the Sirius Star, Europe's biggest ship owner, A. P. Moller-Maersk, announced that it had decided to divert its fleet of 83 tankers along the longer and much more expensive route that goes along the coasts of southern Africa and around the Cape of Good Hope. A Norwegian company, Odfjell, also ordered its 90-strong fleet of chemical tankers to follow the same path, while Frontline Shipping, the world's biggest tanker operator, admitted that it was reconsidering its routes. This would of course drastically increase shipping costs, as well as hugely reduce the transit fees earned by the Egyptian government from maritime traffic passing through the Suez Canal.
So instead of passing through the Suez Canal, European or North African cargo ships that are heading for the Far East could conceivably one day move westwards, crossing the Atlantic and then moving through the Northwest Passage to reach their destination, or else head eastwards along the northern coasts of Russia.
Although any ships that move over the Arctic Bridge would be at risk of being obstructed or damaged by floating icebergs, they would not only be immune to the threat of piracy but also be less vulnerable, in the short term at least, to a nightmare scenario that is increasingly haunting the imagination of international shippers and their insurers. This is the real risk of a collision between container ships or, much worse, between carriers of crude oil or liquefied natural gas. This can pose a serious risk anywhere in the world, and as the next chapter shows it will eventually become a real danger in the Arctic. But because some of the world's key waterways are already very congested, the Arctic Bridge would initially offer shipping companies a good way of reducing their exposure to risk; although it might not be long before sea lanes in the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route become equally overcrowded.
The most important single reason is that global demand for almost every commodity, particularly oil and gas, is expected to grow in parts of the world that are geographically distant from sources of supply: as the populations and economies of China, India and Japan continue to surge, increasing quantities of oil will be shipped, rather than piped, from the producing countries of the Middle East. This is the main reason why, according to some estimates, the number of tankers in service is expected to expand enormously over the next two decades, with their capacity increasing by more than half over the next 20 years.13
Shipping companies are keener than ever to avoid some of the world's most congested waters. Perhaps the most notorious are the
Malacca Straits, lying between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, through which maritime traffic has to pass to get to and from the Far East. But although the narrowest point of this shipping lane measures just over a mile wide, approximately 60,000 vessels pass through it every year. Overall, about one-third of the world's trade and half of its oil moves through these straits, making them the busiest waterway in the world.
Congestion on this scale makes international shipping highly vulnerable to delays caused by accidents, or indeed to the threat posed by the region's own pirates. 'Congestion and accidents in the Straits can cause major delays, with significant negative repercussions to the whole supply chain and the coastal and marine environment of the three littoral states', as Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister, Shunmugam Jayakumar, has pointed out. 'The threat does not come from navigational risks alone. These straits have traditionally had a high incidence of armed robberies at sea.'14
It is easy to see, then, why the prospect of trans-Arctic trade is stirring so much interest in the world of commerce and why over the past few years shipbuilders have started to show much more commitment than ever in building ice-capable ships.15 The private sector is already investing billions of dollars in a fleet of Arctic tankers. In 2007 there were 262 ice-class ships in service worldwide and another 234 on order, all using cutting-edge technology that can allow ships to sail through some frozen waters without any icebreakers at their side. One such innovation, is a 'double-acting tanker' that steams through open water bow first, but can turn right round when it moves into frozen seas and then use a specially reinforced stern to smash through the ice. Such breakthroughs are making Arctic shipping more cost effective and turning what were once commercially unviable projects into booming business.
Various governments are encouraging this trend. The European Commission, for example, wants to help 'maintain the competitive lead of European shipyards in developing technology required for Arctic conditions', and thinks that that 'the potential to provide specially designed, environment-friendly ships, including icebreakers, is an important asset for the future'. It also wants to 'improve maritime surveillance capabilities in the far north' and is working closely with the European Space Agency to build a polar-orbiting satellite system that can pick up signals from anywhere in the world. 'If successful', the Commission claims, then 'this would allow a better knowledge of ship traffic and mean that emergencies could be responded to more quickly. The Galileo satellite navigation system will also play an important role in the Arctic by providing better and safer navigation, maritime surveillance and emergency response.'16
The Canadian government is also keen to see more traffic passing through the Northwest Passage. 'We're not just waiting for the ice to melt', as Ron Lemieux, the Transportation Minister in Canada's Manitoba province, told one British newspaper. Although by 2008 some ships were already being toughened with an extra inch of steel to speed them through the softening ice in Hudson Bay and the wider region, Lemieux was still 'lobbying hard' for 'nuclear icebreakers (that) could keep that port open for twelve months a year'.17 The Russian government has also declared a strong interest in reopening the Northern Sea Route and commissioning the construction of new icebreakers: on 1 October 2008, when the Kremlin published a document on the future of the Russian economy, it highlighted the importance of the Route and set out a plan to establish a joint control and security system for shipping by the year 2015.
National and commercial interests frequently converge but sometimes also differ considerably.
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