Smooth Sailing:The World's Shipping Lanes Are Safe

The dangers facing oil tankers carrying their vital cargo over long distances haunt leaders worldwide and animate their discussions about naval procurement. Military analysts in countries such as China and India have begun to assert that their countries need their own blue-water navies to protect tankers on their journeys from foreign terminals to home ports.

This argument is understandable given that much of the world's oil supply travels by sea. The United States, the world's largest oil consumer, imports 60 percent of the oil it consumes, over 95 percent of which arrives by sea. Japan, the world's third-largest oil consumer, is almost completely dependent on maritime imports. In 2005, China imported 46 percent of the oil it consumed, India 68 percent. By 2025, import figures are expected to balloon to 75 percent of total consumption for China and approximately 85 percent for India. Both bring in roughly 90 percent of their imported oil by sea.

Most of these countries rely on the safe transport of oil through one 21-mile-wide waterway: the Strait of Hormuz, which leads out of the Persian Gulf into the Indian Ocean and through which 16.5-17.0 million barrels of oil were shipped daily in 2004 (accounting for nearly 25 percent of global oil shipments). Oil bound for China, Japan, and the West Coast of the United States from the Middle East must also transit the Strait of Malacca and the Strait of Singapore, both of which carried 11.7 million barrels per day in 2004. These passageways are the chokepoints where the potential for the disruption of tanker traffic by terrorist attacks or naval blockades is greatest.

But in reality the risks to maritime flows of oil are far smaller than is commonly assumed. First, tankers are much less vulnerable than conventional wisdom holds. Second, limited regional conflicts would be unlikely to seriously upset traffic, and terrorist attacks against shipping would have even less of an economic effect. Third, only a naval power of the United States' strength could seriously disrupt oil shipments, but the United States is more likely to protect

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