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World 'choke points' are moving from sea to air

By Justin BrownStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 15, 1999


After Pearl Harbor was bombed Dec. 7, 1941, US Navy ships rushed through the Panama Canal and went on to help win World War II.

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At the time, the shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was considered so crucial that some 50,000 US troops guarded it.

Nearly 60 years later, the US will pack up its military operation, and walk quietly away from that same canal.

The decline in the canal's importance has been difficult for many Americans to fathom. As Ronald Reagan said in a sharp attack on the 1977 decision to turn over the five-mile-long waterway, "We bought it, we paid for it, it's ours. Let's keep it."

But the reality, analysts say, is that the Panama Canal no longer matters as it once did. And the same can be said for the other strategic choke points throughout the world - from the Strait of Gibraltar, which separates Africa and Europe, to the Strait of Hormuz, which links the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf.

"We are entering a transitional period," says Harlan Ullman, a naval-strategy specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "At the end of the 20th century, the choke points are moving to cyberspace and economic markets."

One reason has to do with today's global power scheme. The US is a lone superpower and has capable fleets in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. In the case of the Panama Canal, Navy officials say cross-ocean ship movement is no longer crucial enough to justify military control of the waterway.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Europe is uniting and expanding, and internal rivalries are no longer fought on the seas.

Moreover, throughout the world, militaries increasingly project power by air. Oil is transported by pipeline. And information is bounced off satellites well above the earth's waters.

Importance of waterways

It was not until the first decade of the 1900s that modern naval strategy recognized and emphasized the importance of a handful of narrow waterways - which, if controlled, could result in disproportionate power. Then, Britain ruled the seas, but it was facing increasing competition.

Sir John Fisher, the commander in chief of the Royal Navy, began to transform Britain's fleet from stationary to mobile. He coined the phrase "choke point" and asserted that Britain would have to control them - and move through them - if it were to retain its water dominance.

But well before Sir John pinpointed his country's strategy, most choke points had histories of war and conquest, and were won and lost with the ebb and flow of global dominance.

The Dardanelles, which links the Aegean Sea to Istanbul, was contested dating back to 480 BC. In World War I, the British-French alliance made a run for it, but eventually lost to Turkey.

Today, Turkey is a member of NATO and a candidate for the European Union. Dardanelles is no longer considered a flash point between East and West, but a bridge between the Muslim and Christian worlds.

The opening in 1869 of one strategic choke point, the Suez Canal, buoyed the importance of another key waterway, the Strait of Gibraltar. Combined, they link the Atlantic and Indian Oceans - and allow ships to bypass Cape Town, the southern tip of Africa.

The Suez Canal was built by the French, controlled by the British, and claimed by Egypt in 1956 in an unusual military standoff in which the Soviet Union threatened to intervene and the United Nations eventually was able to defuse. Gibraltar was won by Spain in 1462, but taken by the British in 1830.

One example of the Suez Canal's lessening importance in the modern era, analysts say, is that it was closed from the late 1960s until 1975 - without a major disruption to commerce. Meanwhile, in 1985, Spain essentially gave up its claim to Gibraltar by lifting a 16-year border blockade.