Can the Ever Given grounding in Suez Canal be a case of geopolitical sabotage?
A mega-ship got grounded blocking the Suez canal. Could it be more than what meets the eye?
Yesterday (24th March), we woke up to the news of a mega-ship blocking the Suez canal. Called the Ever Given, a container ship operated by a Taiwanese company called Evergreen. It is 400 meters long and shipping experts say may take at least two days to set free with multiple tug-boats.
Early reports on the cause of the grounding ranged from engine failure to power outage. But the latest explanation from authorities is that there was a sandstorm with high winds. High winds and sandstorms are not uncommon at this time of year in Egypt. And ships have grounded before on the Suez.
Given all the above information, and applying Madhava’s razor: If one simple assumption is enough, with evidence, then setting up two assumptions is “too much” mistake — it is more than safe to say the incident was a freak accident.
But what if it was not a freak accident? What if someone did it purposefully for strategic or geopolitical reasons? Let’s consider the question, as it was definitely on the minds of many people I spoke to about the news today.
To consider a possibility of a sabotage for geopolitical reasons, we need to look at who gets affected and who benefits, to see if there is an excellent incentive for purposefully grounding the mega-ship.
The first country to consider will be Egypt. They own the Suez Canal and they make about $5 billion a year. But blocking the canal means lost revenue. Is there any purpose to do it losing money? I cannot think of any. Unless pressured by any other power to do it.
Now that’s very much possible. Even Marlboros as incentives can do such things. Keep in mind, in the Suez Canal, ships have to be piloted by local Suez authority pilots. Not the crew. So the crew wasn’t technically in control of the ship when it grounded like that.
Then we have the great powers. EU, US, Russia, and China.
If we consider the EU, a massive amount of its energy comes through the Suez. They will lose their supply of Middle Eastern oil, making them more dependent on Russian and American energy. Their imports and exports to Asia will get affected too. So EU, any which way, seems to be on the losing side. From fuel crunch forcing them to buy from Russia to a loss on exports. I would rule out the EU to be behind any sabotage.
Let’s consider the US. A block of Suez for a longer period means the US will lose Middle Eastern oil to its refineries, making oil price go higher. Not to mention demand from EU will also do the same. And the US may face some losses exporting to Asia through the Suez. And imports to its eastern seaboard will take a hit, raising commodity prices at home.
So the US seems to be a net loser if this blockage continues for a longer time with higher fuel and commodity prices at home leading to inflation. Coming at a time when the treasury is printing dollars in free flow for economic stimulus and hand outs.
Now consider Russia. One of their principal exports is energy. If the EU faces a fuel shortage due to middle east oil not reaching them, it will force them to buy from Russia. Force them to buy more and at higher prices. Which benefits Russia when they are reeling under western sanctions.
Not only this, Russia has been long planning an arctic route for shipping. Warming oceans are making it easy to cut through the thinner ice and ship via the Arctic, which Russia largely controls. There has been a concern in the EU and the US about this. As it will give Russia undue leverage over global shipping because of its vast territory around the arctic and military control over it.
The grounding of Ever Given blocking the vital shipping canal presents a great opportunity for Russia to pitch and pursue the Arctic shipping route with little opposition. At least from the EU, which has many member states bordering the arctic. So Russia is a clear gainer here in many ways.
Before we consider China, let me add a sentence on India. Recently, the US became the second largest energy exporter to India. And this is going to get affected. Adding to existing woes of increasing fuel prices. And Indian exports to EU, which is India’s largest trading partner will be affected as well. This blockade won’t be good for India if it continues for a few weeks or more.
Coming back to China, Suez canal is vital for China as a chunk of its shipping flows through it. And any blockage causing disruptions to Chinese trade is not good for China. But at present, this hardly makes a dent on Chinese exports. They can still go around the horn of Africa charging more for their commodities as long as the EU and US will pay.
Anyways most of their trade is through the Pacific to the US. And they can make it over land to the EU. China would be more than happy to show Europe how vital their overland trade route is : The part of Belt and Road connecting Europe to China, with opposition from many EU member states.
And this does not impact Chinese oil imports. As this is the Suez and not the straits of Hormuz. With an oil pile up on this side of the Suez, China will benefit from lower middle eastern oil prices. China’s strategic oil reserves are also at an all time high. Now, China is a big partner of Russia, including in creating an alternative Arctic shipping route.
China’s biggest concern is, in the event of a conflict, Indo-Pacific powers like India, Australia, Japan, and the US can blockade their shipping. Or more popularly, we know these powers as The Quad. Though the Quad is still more hype than a genuine threat to China, the Chinese do not take it lightly. And have made some firm statements recently against the grouping likening it to NATO.
The Quad held its first ever heads of state security dialogue hosted by US President Joe Biden. At the same time the EU, and the US, imposed sanctions on China over alleged genocide of Uighurs in Xinjiang. And two days ago, Russia and China held a high level meet to “break the US hold on world order”. The blockade of the Suez by the Taiwanese owned mega-ship, which seems like it will hurt the EU and the US, comes in the wake of all this.
Now with existing evidence, to suggest the Suez blockade to be a sabotage by great powers for geopolitical reasons would be pure speculation, bordering on conspiracy theory.
But if shipping doesn’t resume in the Suez in a week as predicted, and if the US and EU take strong actions on China and Russia soon, or if the straits of Hormuz or the SCS heat-up militarily affecting Chinese interests, or if Russia cuts the arctic ice by this summer citing the blockage, they may all be signs of a greater geopolitical agenda behind such a ‘freak accident’.
Perhaps, such signs are already here.
Update 2 (March 27th): The explanation that high winds and a sandstorm grounded the ship has now been withdrawn.
Update 1 (March 26th): There have been comments here blaming the Indian crew. Purely due to xenophobia and racism that runs rampant in some people with minds as small as the territory they live in. I have deleted them. To be clear, the ship is owned by a Japanese company, operated by a Taiwanese company, managed by Belgians, staffed with Indians, and was piloted by local Suez Canal authority Egyptian pilots when it ran aground.