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To rule the waves: how the Covid-19 pandemic is reshaping the role of shipping companies and maritime chokepoints

14 Feb 2022

To rule the waves: how the Covid-19 pandemic is reshaping the role of shipping companies and maritime chokepoints

14 Feb 2022

The unfettered and accelerated flow of trade that characterized the globalization era depended to a significant extent on critical sea-lanes of communications (SLOCs) and a handful of chokepoints connecting the world economy’s hotspots. These strategic locations, which are vital to the smooth functioning of the global supply chains, have come under increasing pressure as the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has forced countries and companies to significantly reconsider their resilience to shocks and crises. With global supply chains stretching for thousands of miles across the globe linking densely interconnected trade networks, the maritime industry found itself in the middle of a perfect storm given the global effects of mounting household consumption, widespread slowdowns of industrial production, and coronavirus-induced restrictions on mobility.

Faltering dots: the Covid-19 pandemic and the maritime supply chains

The global economy in general and the maritime industry in particular has faced similar crises in the past. Occasional and large-scale disruptions, such as the 2008 financial breakdown and the 2014 oil price collapse, slowed down the growth of global trade. The Covid-19 pandemic is no exception in this regard. However, even though the revival of the global economy seems to point to the inherent resilience and reactivity of the international economic system, the pandemic has had long-term and deep repercussions on both the structure and dynamics regulating the maritime global supply chain that are likely to persist and shape the next decades. [1]

With global trade flows declining by 5.3% in 2020 [2] before a recovery that has led the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) to project that total global trade in goods and services will reach $28 trillion by the end of 2021, [3] the notion that a fast-paced recovery is within reach has gradually gained traction and fostered cautious expectations among markets, producers, and consumers of a smooth return to a pre-Covid world. However, an increasing number of economic players are less confident and have warned that the major transformations set in motion by the pandemic are here to stay, especially for in relation to the global shipping sector. Acknowledging, reacting, and adapting to the transformative pandemic experience represents the first of a long series of steps that those actors eager to adapt and reposition themselves in a position of strength have to take in this ever-changing environment.

As the covid-19 virus began to globally spread in the early months of 2020, severe restrictions on individual mobility and the almost complete shutdown of collective activities, ranging from industrial production chains to retail purchases in shopping malls, revealed the extent to which global supply chains are inherently vulnerable. However, even though seaborne trade successfully passed the Covid-19 pandemic’s stress-test and the thirst for consumer goods quickly returned, it is crucial to recognize how the health emergency and its unfolding is likely to lead to enduring changes for both producers and the commercial shipping firms that facilitate trade. [4]

Seaborne trade is the spearhead of global merchandise commerce. It has secured the lion’s share in the evolving international market as it largely outnumbers land and air-based alternatives both in terms of volume and value. Indeed, according to UNCTAD data, more than 80% of the volume and around 70% of the value of global trade is shipped worldwide via sea-lanes. [5]

Having acknowledged the paramount role hold by maritime trade, a recently published study globally monitoring the journeys of 50,000 ships during the Coronavirus’ first wave demonstrates the magnitude of Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on the maritime freight industry. According to research data, an overall decrease was evident: “[the] effects of the pandemic on global ship mobility are observable since March until the end of June 2020, with variations ranging between −5.62 and −13.77% for container ships, between +2.28 and −3.32% for dry bulks, between −0.22 and −9.27% for wet bulks, and between −19.57 and −42.77% for passenger ships.” [6]

Despite the negative trend recorded during the first two quarters of 2020, volumes of global seaborne commerce saw only a limited slowdown that ultimately led at a 3.8% drop in the year as a whole. Trade exchanges rebounded soon after and were gradually consolidated to the point that a more positive picture emerged for 2021. Indeed, according to the 2021 “Review of Maritime Transport”, seaborne trade was expected to close the year with a 4.3% growth. [7]

In an economic world order tailored to and accustomed to the belief that time and distance feature less and less in the global trade equation, major disruptions along the distribution lines have caused great concern among all the actors involved in the trade sector. Indeed, for the industries in the essential strategic sectors that maintained services during the lockdowns, raw material shortages, depleted inventories, spiked prices, and supply difficulties have constituted the real nightmares rather than the impact of the actual impact of the pandemic. [8]

Globalization and its immense benefits in terms of expanded markets and reduced costs of doing business come with strings attached. Indeed, the increased degree of interdependence between industries across the globe has to be understood as a double-hedge sword looming over individual firms. On the one hand, companies are eager to reap gains from globalization, especially in terms of efficiency savings through locating production lines at highly specialized regional hubs. On the other hand, this means that if any link in the supply chain fails, there will be a cascading impact on the overall process, with firms bound to experience minor or major disruptions to their optimal functioning according to the level of integration, depth, and intensity of these synergies.

In this respect, an illustrative case is that of Toyota Motor Corporation, the Japanese champion in the car sector well known for its just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing model based on a minimized inventory tightly connected to production orders. [9] As Covid-19 Delta variant infections soared in Malaysia and Vietnam in mid-2021, the impact on the production capacity of suppliers in both countries serving the Aichi-based automotive group meant that Toyota could not meet September production plans and was forced to scale down its forecast output by 40%. [10] These Coronavirus-induced supply shocks affecting vital offshore links in Toyota’s supply chain raised a number of questions concerning the JIT model’s capacity to survive future challenges. Besides, those calling for better stocked inventories and, most importantly, to have suppliers strategically re-located closer to end-stage assembly centers gained significant traction vis-à-vis the mounting risk of seeing orders piling up without having the components needed to process them. [11]

As the prospect of reshoring and nearshoring production plants located many thousands of miles away from final assembly centers has become more attractive, a new jargon has emerged with the growing frequency of terms such as “friend-shoring” [12] and “ally-shoring” [13] capturing the headlines and signaling the emergence of a new trend in policymakers’ and corporation’ mindsets. “If companies are near- or onshoring, we should expect long-haul shipping routes to be less congested,” [14] according to Megan Greene to the Financial Times.

Therefore, with the Covid-19 pandemic reshaping the global trade equation and sustainability targets featuring more and more in stimulus packages guiding the recovery, operational shipping patterns and maritime chokepoints have experienced a significant reconfiguration. However, while narrow waterways strategically connecting two vital water spaces have always been factored among global commerce priorities, not all the actors involved in seaborne freight transport are equally positioned to adapt to the changing rules of the game in a post-Covid-19 world.

In the short-term, container lines appear to have adapted to changed circumstances. Indeed, Covid-19-induced slowdowns in loading and uploading operations in major ports and crew-change crises have led to significant infrastructural bottlenecks and higher costs for consumers and producers. With skyrocketing freight spot rates on routes connecting Asia to Europe, container shipping companies are reaping unprecedented, record profits. [15]

However, global port operators, as well as specialized shipping companies, seem to have a comparative long-term advantage over container lines. In a duel between the seaborne trade industry’s main competitors, ports appear to be more in tune with the new needs of the global economic environment than shipping companies. By relying on a spider’s web of segmented point-to-point shipping and offering a vast array of maritime support services to their clients, global port operators have entered this transition phase in a position of strength compared to their rivals. Therefore, as the demand for tailored services – such as bunkering, maritime arbitration, and stockpiling facilities – has become more and more appealing over recent last quarters, shipping companies that traditionally operate long-distance routes on fixed schedules are bound to experience increasing difficulties in maintaining their share of a more competitive market. [16]

Therefore, the recent out-of-scale cash inflows for container shipping companies are likely to wane as the shipping market gradually adjusts to a new normality. Consequently, while the needs of a post-Covid-19 global shipping industry become increasingly diversified, container lines appear to be ill equipped to cope with an increasingly challenging and transforming environment.

Threading the needle: maritime chokepoints and global commerce

While oceans and seas cover most of the Earth’s surface, these water spaces would not be the linchpin of today transnational supply chains if it were not for the role played by the narrow passages that directly connect open sea lanes. Chokepoints are generally located where the water gap separating two or more lands narrows to the point where adjacent territorial jurisdictions meet or overlap at sea. These waterways might be geographical or artificial, depending on their origin. Just to mention few representative examples, the straits of Hormuz, Gibraltar and Malacca are, on the one hand, among the most important in the first group, while, on the other hand, the Suez Canal and the Panama Strait are the most significant narrow passages in the second one. [17]

Secured and safe transit through chokepoints is strategically vital to the free and unimpeded movement of commerce that is the essential lifeblood of trade-based economies. Due to their primary position in the smooth functioning of the transnational supply chain equation, unimpeded chokepoints are essential to the well-being of the global market and feature prominently in the security strategies of states as well as companies. As any disruption in the unobstructed flow of goods through these waterways can deeply affect the ordinary running of the world economy, chokepoints represent a golden piece in the complex puzzle of global supply chains. [18]

If shorter maritime routes and cheaper transportation costs are the most relevant advantages of chokepoints, major downside risks also exist. Indeed, threats to uninterrupted navigation in these waterways range from intentional disruptions, such as forced closures or terrorist attacks, to random factors including unpredictable climatic phenomena or human navigational or operational errors. As a result, chokepoints are inherently vulnerable to direct or indirect “weaponization” that might result in the partial or complete shutting down of trade flows.

Ultimately, by strengthening deep interdependences and fostering close interconnections, chokepoints present benefits and risks for global commerce. While they have offered globalization the means to accelerate in terms of increase trade interconnections, they have also heightened dependency-risk and vulnerability to disruption phenomena for both states and companies.

The Janus-face nature of chokepoints is an inevitable element of what Henry Farrell and Abraham L. Newman dubbed “chained globalization”. [19] Indeed, according to the authors, “globalization, in short, has proved to be not a force for liberation but a new source of vulnerability, competition, and control; networks have proved to be less paths to freedom than new sets of chains.” [20]

Therefore, as “maritime choke points are among the most sensitive locations where geography, trade, and politics meet,” [21] they tend to become the bone of contention between powers vying for political advantage as well as shipping companies wielding transit passage precedence rights as weapons against their rivals. According to Elizabeth Cullen Dunn, “[c]hokepoints are necessarily a terrain of power and contestation”. Dunn argues that these critical commercial nodes hold a primary position in what she had dubbed “vascular geopolitics”, [22] a power politics game that is played on “the ability to establish a clot and limit traffic through the chokepoint or to break a clot set by the other side and to enable flow is the key to geospatial power.” [23] Consequently, by reconceptualizing interactions between power and chokepoints, Dunn has shifted attention from the control of a specific territory to the ability to have a say on the movements taking within it.

However, even though chokepoints are often seen as flashpoints for frictions and tensions, they are not a conflict-prone space per se. Indeed, as recently published research highlights, “while strategic locations may often be the object of armed competition, periods of international trade booms increase the incentives to protect trade routes and attenuate the conflict risk at strategically important locations.” [24] The need to guarantee both the continuous flow of global trade and free access to sea-lanes connecting major hotspots has historically factored among the most critical priorities of the international community. Indeed, as Reynolds B. Peele argued, keeping the SLOCs open has to be primarily seen “as a matter of international right.” [25]

On the institutional level, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which was agreed in 1982 and entered into force in 1994, testifies to the collective quest for the freedom of navigation. By regulating the regimes of innocent and transit passage in international straits, the so-called “Constitution of the Oceans” is “well established in both international law and state practice and is a cornerstone for international maritime trade and commerce.” [26]

On the practical level, the need to guarantee the right of all ships to safe passage through international straits has often been essential for international maritime task forces, as proven, for instance, by anti-piracy missions undertaken by some European Union member states in the Gulf of Guinea [27] and off the Somalian coast. [28] Building on this long track record of successful seaborne missions, the European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASoH) mission represents the most recent initiative in the struggle to “de-weaponize” strategic chokepoints and uphold the right to free navigation. Launched in early 2020, EMASoH is a France-led maritime mission also including Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal that is intended to enforce safe navigation in the Arabian Gulf and foster de-escalation efforts among regional actors. By translating the unimpeded flow of seaborne trade from a geopolitical concern into a governable practice, EMASoH aims at proving that free and safe navigation is a goal within reach even in a conflict-vulnerable environment such as the Strait of Hormuz. [29]

The ultimate wake-up call: the Ever Given

While widely implemented good navigation practices, updated safety protocols, and cutting-edge technologies are vital to improve security for the shipping industry, the unimpeded flow of seaborne trade remains significantly vulnerable. Unpredictable disruptions along the global supply chains, especially where maritime commercial routes intersect by creating transit clots, are still a persistent threat for all shippers, suppliers and consumers dependent on sea freight.

On March 23, 2021, a 200,000-tonne and 400-metre long ultra large container ship became wedged in a waterway bank while transiting the Suez Canal’s southern section. The incident represented the worst nightmare for the maritime sector. It took almost a week to the Egyptian authorities to dislodge the Ever Given from where it had beached, resulting in the complete suspension of seaborne trade flows between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. [30]

The Suez Canal, which accounts for around 12% of global trade transit [31] and which normally handles average daily traffic of between 40 to 50 ships [32], is a vital artery for global commerce. For this reason, the six-day halt caused by the Ever Given blockage led losses estimated at $9.6 billion per day [33] and a bottleneck of hundreds of ships that took weeks to be cleared. [34]

Due to the lack of viable water-based alternatives and financial costs of re-routing strategies, cargo wait times for sailing through the Suez Canal increased to the point that it became almost impossible for ships to meet their navigation schedules. With far-flung trade and supply ramifications extending thousands of miles away from where the ship ran aground, “the Ever Given blockade demonstrated the vulnerabilities of international shipping routes and the fragility of supply chains” [35], according to Angela Stefania Begantino.

Even though transit through the Suez Canal smoothly resumed after the Ever Green had been freed from the waterway’s banks and the daily transit rate even hit the new record of 87 ships in September [36], the shipping industry has still to fully recover from the significant disruption caused by the incident. Indeed, despite the fact the blockade lasted less than a week, the accident’s ripple effects reverberated in major delays not only on navigation but also on load and unload activities at the docks to an extent that affected the global supply chains for months, thereby further complicating the difficulties for an already over-stretched maritime freight sector.

As future disruptions remain possible, “don’t take your constant supply of goods for granted,” is the lesson to learn from the Ever Given experience. [37] With coronavirus-induced shocks having clearly indicating the importance of maintaining secure and resilient lines of communications for trade and commerce, “the plight of the Ever Given offered a reminder that unencumbered passage through vital passageways is anything but a given” [38], concluded Mark Eisinger.


Undoubtedly, the Covid-19 pandemic has represented a reality test for the shipping industry as a critical sector to the smooth running of the world economy. In a context marred by commercial pressures, production disruptions, and mounting uncertainties, global supply chains have endured.

However, if the pandemic has illustrated the resilience of global seaborne trade flows to major shocks, the Covid-19 experience has also suggested the vulnerability of the globalized economy to highly unpredictable events. Indeed, as Gleen McGillivray pointed out, “the pandemic has shown us that global supply chains are a huge house of cards fragile enough on a good day, but prone to come tumbling down when there’s an unexpected breeze.” [39]

With supply chains stretching for thousands of miles across the globe, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced every economic actor to acknowledge, according to Parag Khanna, that “even the supply chain has a supply chain.” [40] Therefore, as the mounting urgency to reduce dependency-based risks increases the drive for more streamlined production and distribution lines, the hypothesis for a return to more regionally oriented economic systems is gathering increasing consensus. [41]

Besides, the call for increased efficiency and resilience in global supply chains goes hand in hand with proposals championing a smart and sustainable transition in the maritime freight industry. By developing cutting-edge transportation technologies and improving digitalization in all the steps of the supply chain, the highly energy-dependent shipping industry may be able to help both curb carbon emissions and foster an eco-friendly recovery. [42]

From a broader perspective, the Covid-19 pandemic has triggered a number of deep-seated transformations related to the world economy whose impacts are likely to have an enduring effect. For this reason, countries as well as companies need to adapt to the new dynamics of the post-Covid-19 world. From a sector-specific perspective, the shipping industry can be expected to redefine its operational patterns in order to strike a balance between upholding seaborne trade’s financial efficiency and guaranteeing the security of global supply chains.


[1] Kumar, Shailender and Jolly, Aman. “Consequences of COVID-19 pandemic on global maritime trade industry”, International Maritime Health, Vol. 72, No. 1, 2021: 82-83.

[2] “World trade primed for strong but uneven recovery after COVID-19 pandemic shock”, World Trade OrganizationPRESS/876 PRESS RELEASE, March 31, 2021.

[3] “Global trade in goods hits all-time quarterly high of $5.6 trillion”, UNCTAD, November 31, 2021.

[4] Siripurapu, Anshu. “What Happened to Supply Chains in 2021?”, Council on Foreign Relations, December 13, 2021.

[5] “Review of Maritime Transport 2021”, UNCTAD, October 25, 2017.

[6] Millefiori, Leonardo M. et al. “COVID‑19 impact on global maritime mobility”, Nature, Scientific Report: 11, Article number: 18039, 2021: 10.

[7] Review of Maritime Transport 2021, UNCTAD, November 18, 2021.

[8] Ziady, Hanna. “The perfect storm making everything you need more expensive”, CNN Business, June 9, 2021.

[9] Banton, Caroline. “Just-in-Time (JIT)”, Investopedia,

[10] Davis, River and Inajima, Tsuyoshi. “How a Single Covid Case Rocked the World’s Biggest Carmaker”, Bloomberg, September 1, 2021.

[11] Abrams Kaplan, Deborah. “Supply chains do the math on reshoring’s pros and cons”, Supply Chain Dive, April 8, 2021.

[12] Coy, Peter. “‘Onshoring’ Is So Last Year. The New Lingo Is ‘Friend-Shoring’”, Bloomberg, June 24, 2021.

[13] Dezenski, Elaine and Austine, John C. “Rebuilding America’s economy and foreign policy with ‘ally-shoring’”, Brookings, June 8, 2021.

[14] Greene, Megan. “Don’t believe the deglobalisation narrative”, Financial Times, November 16, 2021.

[15] Bacelli, Olivieto. “What Does the Future of Shipping Look Like After The Covid-19?”, Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), October 27, 2021.

[16] Weitz, Rockford. “Strategic Maritime Chokepoints: Perspectives from the Global Shipping and Port Sectors”, in G. F. Gresh (ed.), Eurasia’s maritime rise and global security: from the Indian ocean to Pacific Asia and the Arctic, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018: 17-29.

[17] Miah, Mehadi Amin. Ahmed, S. M. Saief Uddin and Sultana, Kazi Shaila. “Control over Maritime Chokepoints an Assurance of Secure Lifeline”, Bangladesh Maritime Journal, Vol. 3, No.1, 2019: 109-128.

[18] Johnson, Keith. “‘Silvery Strips of Sea’ andTheir Role in History”, Foreign Policy, April 2, 2016.

[19] Farrell, Henry and Newman Abraham L. “Chained To Globalization: Why It’s Too Late To Decouple”, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2020.

[20] Farrell, Henry and Newman Abraham L. “Chained To Globalization: Why It’s Too Late To Decouple”, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2020.

[21] Guzansky, Yoel. Lindernstrauss, Gallia and Schachter, Jonathan. “Power, Pirates, and Petroleum: Maritime Choke Points in the Middle East”, Strategic Assessment, Vol. 4, No. 2, 2011: 94.

[22] Dunn, Elizabeth Cullen. “Warfare and Warfarin: Chokepoints, Clotting and Vascular Geopolitics”, Ethnos, 2020: 2.

[23] Dunn, Elizabeth Cullen. “Warfare and Warfarin: Chokepoints, Clotting and Vascular Geopolitics”: ibid.

[24] Gallea, Quentin and Rohner, Dominic. “Globalization mitigates the risk of conflict caused by strategic territory”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Vol. 18, No. 39, 2021: 1.

[25] Peele, Reynolds B. “The Importance of Maritime Chokepoints”, The US Army War College Quarterly: Parameters, Vol. 27, No. 2, 1997:

[26] Rothwell, Donald R. “Challenges to the Distinction between Innocent Passage and Transit Passage according to UNCLOS”, in Benny Spanier, Orin Shefler, Elai Rettig (eds.) UNCLOS and the Protection of Innocent and Transit Passage in Maritime Chokepoints, Maritime Policy & Strategy Research Center and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, November 2021: 15.

[27] “Gulf of Guinea: Council conclusions launching the pilot case for the Coordinated Maritime Presences concept”, European Council, January 25, 2021.

[28] “European Union Naval Force Somalia Operation Atalanta – Information Booklet”, European External Action Service (EEAS).

[29] “European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASOH)”, Ambassade de France aux Émirats Arabes Unis, January 21, 2020.

[30] Stavridis, James. “The Blocked Suez Canal Isn’t the Only Waterway the World Should Be Worried About”, TIME, March 29, 2021.

[31] Myers, Joe. “The Suez Canal in numbers”, World Economic Forum, March 25, 2021.

[32] Rivas, Ana. de Acosta, Rosa and Faucon, Benoit. “After the Suez Canal Jam, Hundreds of Ships Await Their Turn”, The Wall Street Journal, March 31, 2021.

[33] Harper, Justin. “Suez blockage is holding up $9.6bn of goods a day”, BBC News, March 26, 2021.

[34] Chang, Greg. “Suez Canal Authorities Say Backlog of Ships Is Now Cleared”, Bloomberg, April 4, 2021.

[35] Begantino, Angela Stefania. “The Suez Canal: Perspectives After the Ever Given Accident”, Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), October 27, 2021.

[36] El Sawy, Nada. “Suez Canal records highest daily transit rate in its history”, The National, September 29, 2021.

[37] Braw, Elisabeth. “What the Ever Given Taught the World”, Foreign Policy, November 10, 2021.

[38] Eisinger, Mark. “Letter: Suez blockage highlights strains facing globalisation”, Financial Times, March 30, 2021.

[39] McGillivray, Gleen. “The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that global supply chains are a huge house of cards”, The Conversation, July 26, 2021.

[40] Pilling, David. Dempsey, Harry. Campbell, Peter and Inagaki, Kana. “New Suez crisis: a global economy creaking under the strain”, Financial Times, March 26, 2021.

[41] Enderwick, Peter and Buckley, Peter. “Rising regionalization: will the post-COVID-19 world see a retreat from globalization?”, Transnational Corporations, Vol. 27, No. 2, 2020: 99-112.

[42] “Smart, sustainable maritime transport critical to global recovery: UNCTAD”, UN News, November 18, 2021.

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