An aerial view of shipping containers at Westports in Port Klang. Port Klang is one of three of the top-20 world’s busiest ports located along the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. -EPA

GLOBAL warming may be seen as a threat by many, but, as far as the shipping industry is concerned, it is viewed as an unveiling of a new maritime superhighway, the Northeast Arctic Passage (NAP).

Could NAP be the new “Straits of Malacca and Singapore”, affecting maritime traffic calling at Malaysian, Singaporean and Indonesian ports of call located along the length of the straits?

The Eurasian continental landmass sprawls from Europe in the west to Asia in the east. For centuries, trade has flowed 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 Straits of Malacca and Singapore as well as through the Indonesian archipelagic straits.

According to the American Association of Port Authorities, three of the top-20 world’s busiest ports are located along the Straits of Malacca and Singapore — Port of Singapore, Port of Tanjung Pelepas and Port Klang. Like the Suez–Malacca route, the NAP is also a passage that connects Europe and East Asia using the route on the Arctic coast of Russia that has been navigated as early as the 18th century.

Despite being the shortest route connecting Europe and East Asia, the NAP is a perilous route as the waters there are ice-stricken with extreme winters and unpredictable weather.

The rapid 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 eventually be accessible for navigation throughout the year. In other words, international shipping traffic in the NAP will increase when the icebergs in these waters disintegrate.

In Sept 2009, German ships transited the NAP from the South Korean port of Ulsan to Yamburg in Siberia. In 2018, Maersk Line’s ice-class ship Venta Maersk successfully navigated from Vladivostok to St Petersburg via Port of Busan in South Korea through the NAP. Using the NAP would cut the navigational distance from Europe to East Asia significantly as compared with a similar voyage via the Suez Canal and the Straits of Malacca and Singapore.

There are advantages and disadvantages for ships travelling via the NAP and the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. The Straits of Malacca and Singapore are considered as important Asia-Pacific maritime shipping highways. They have considerable marine infrastructure and are equipped with numerous aids for navigation and are reasonably safe for international shipping.

Piracy and other maritime crimes, which posed a threat in the past, have been reduced in recent years due to the improved security measures by the littoral states to safeguard the Straits. The shortcomings of navigation through the Straits of Malacca and Singapore include constricted and shallow waters, forcing ships to slow down, especially in the TSS areas (traffic separation scheme — a maritime traffic-management route-system ruled by the International Maritime Organisation) and the eastern exit of the Singapore Strait 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 compared with the NAP. Longer journeys mean more expensive shipping costs.

On the other hand, ships may save on operational costs if they choose the NAP. The Russian government also constantly 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. Despite the shorter voyage, there are 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 may be interrupted 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 also limitations to radio and satellite communications in certain areas of the NAP, making it difficult to mount an effective emergency response should a maritime emergency occur. The sensitive marine environment of the Arctic could also be threatened should a maritime accident occur.

The NAP is seen as a potential new global maritime highway of the future. Some commentators anticipate that its importance as a shipping route will grow when oil and gas industries develop extensively in the Russian Arctic region.

However, the Straits of Malacca and Singapore would remain the preferred route for as long as the East Asian nations continue to turn to the Middle East for their supplies of oil and gas. Maritime voyages from the Middle East to East Asian nations would take longer via the NAP route, hence, it would not be a viable option for many shipping owners.

Mohd Hazmi (PhD) is associate Professor, Faculty of Syariah and Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia and an honorary Lieutenant Commander of the Royal Malaysian Navy; Roman Dremliuga (PhD), is associate professor, School of Law, Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok, Russia