The world is slowly emerging from the Suez Canal saga, where the Ever Given vessel was stuck in the narrow southern lane of the Canal for six days, disrupting global trade in a time of critical economic recovery. The Suez Canal, similar to the Straits of Malacca, is a choke point that handles 12 percent of global trade, 10 percent of world oil, and 8 percent of the global liquified natural gas (LNG) flows. The stranded Ever Given vessel held up trade valued at $9.6 billion along the canal each day. The incident sent shock waves across the map, sparking enormous discussions about supply chain resiliency and giving strategists a preview of what could happen if conflict in Asia escalates and Malacca is shut down. The West should take notice. Undermining the city of Suez as a cornerstone in global trade and geopolitics would eventually undermine the West in the era of great power competition with China and Russia.
No East of Suez if there is no Suez
The strategists behind Washington’s Pivot to Asia, London’s Tilt to the Indo-Pacific, and Paris’ and Berlin’s strategic views on the Indo-Pacific ignored the Suez Canal’s centrality to their strategies. Former National Security Advisor John Bolton argues that “this [Suez Canal incident] is not merely about geography, but also about today’s broader political risks to world commerce, ranging from one errant ship at Suez to confronting China’s enormous political, military and economic challenge.” The integration of the canal into Western powers’ strategies towards the Indo-Pacific is not a luxury, but a necessity in a time of great power competition.
Suez is at the Forefront of West’s Military Footprint
In addition to the commercial significance of the canal, Suez is a geostrategic cornerstone to the U.S. military strategy in the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, and the Arabian Gulf. Thanks to military cooperation with Egypt, the United States benefits from a preferential treatment in which the country’s naval ships get priority pass in the Suez Canal, avoiding a lengthy wait time in the Mediterranean or the Red Sea. Following last month’s blockade, the U.S. navy offered to help the Egyptian authorities to refloat the Ever Given vessel—eventually, Egypt succeeded in refloating the behemoth ship on its own before the arrival of help.
With the increasing emphasis on the Indo-Pacific and a broader U.S.-EU alignment on China, the Suez Canal will play another important role in the transit of the American and European naval vessels from the Mediterranean Sea into the Indo-Pacific theater. Following the refloating of the vessel, Admiral John Kirby, assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, said “I wouldn’t go so far as to say the Suez blockage has caused us to rethink anything about how we are postured in the Middle East or how we meet mission requirements there, our national security interests there.”
Egypt as Operator, Not a Partner
The canal’s operator, Egypt, is one of the eighteen non-NATO ally states to the United States— a list that includes Australia, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Brazil, and Singapore. However, since the end of the Cold War, Cairo has been primarily seen as a local operator of the international chokepoint, rather than a strategic partner that needs accommodation and integration into a wider geostrategic and geo-economic vision. The exclusion of Egypt from this ecosystem, and Egypt’s dire need for economic development, has pushed Cairo to look eastward toward Beijing.
China’s March West to Suez
Beijing has long understood the significance of the Suez Canal. As a response to America’s “Pivot to Asia,” China started its own “March West,” a foreign policy strategy to turn attention towards areas the United States is seemingly pivoting away from—like the Middle East. The Suez is at the very center of China’s vision. The canal is the major trade route that connects producers in China, and other Asian economies, with their largest consumer bases in Europe. Unsurprisingly, Beijing is the largest investor in Cairo’s landmark project “The Suez Canal Corridor Area Project,” which aims to transform the Suez region into a logistical and industrial hub for nearby markets in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Transforming Egypt into a regional manufacturing hub for Chinese companies explains the variety of China’s investment in Egypt from infrastructure to industrial parks, and from electric vehicles to electronics—representing a fusion between Cairo’s Vision 2030 and Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Security of Malacca is tied to Suez
In Washington, there is an emerging bipartisan consensus around the need to manage the rise of China, and the Quad is central to the United States’ strategic repositioning towards Beijing. The United States and the other three nations in the dialogue—Australia, India, and Japan—are committed to a “free, open, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific’’ by ensuring maritime security and the freedom of navigation in the region under international law. Centering Suez to the emerging concept of the Indo-Pacific builds on an existing French and Indian view of the Indo-Pacific as the region between the shores of East Africa to West America. The centrality of the Suez Canal to global trade and energy flow, and its connectivity between Europe and Asia, makes the Suez Canal an indispensable element of any global approach to the Indo-Pacific.
From Suez to the Indo-Pacific
The West should court Egypt and incorporate it into their vision of the Indo-Pacific. The United States and its allies should pursue a two-track strategy with Egypt—development, and security. Egypt is now a rapidly developing country with more than 100 million people. Helping Egypt climb up the development ladder is foundational for a new partnership between the West and Egypt in an era of great power competition.
Trade is one of the major tools of economic statecraft that Washington could capitalize on to court Egypt. Washington and Cairo have been negotiating the U.S.-Egypt Free Trade Agreement (FTA) for years. While Washington is undergoing a paradigm shift on trade, finalizing the deal with Egypt should be a cornerstone for their Indo-Pacific vision. The U.S.-Egypt FTA would allow for a deeper integration of Cairo into the U.S.-led order by “investment, labor rights, environmental impact, judicial reform, and intellectual property rights.”
Washington needs to change the prism through which it views Egypt. Since 1978, Washington invested in Egypt more than $80 billion in military and economic aid, and the two militaries have institutional relations that were developed over the four decades. However, under the U.S. commitment to Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME), Egypt, has been denied access to much-needed military equipment such as the F-15 Eagle and F-35 stealth fighters for Cairo’s regional needs in the Mediterranean, North Africa, Red Sea, and the Horn of Africa. During political unrest in 2013, and while Egypt was battling the Islamic insurgency in Northern Sinai, Washington halted the delivery of F-16 Falcons and Apache attack helicopters, cut a portion of the military aid, and called off the “Bright Star” joint Egyptian American military exercise. Now distrustful of Washington’s indecisiveness, Cairo has sought strategic autonomy centered around the diversification of arms suppliers and security partners that include Europe, Russia, and China. The United States needs a more comprehensive and cohesive strategic and military approach to Egypt that accommodates Cairo’s strategic needs, especially in a growing multipolar order.
The Indo-Pacific represents an emerging geo-economic system that is centered around the free and secure flow of trade between the West and Asia. Suez, a major strategic chokepoint for this trade and maritime security, is fundamental to the West’s commitment to a “free, open, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific.” Geography is destiny, and Suez cannot be separated from the Indo-Pacific.
Mohammed Soliman is a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute’s Cyber Program and a Senior Associate at McLarty Associates’ Middle East and North Africa Practice.
Image: The US Navy aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman transits the Suez Canal, Egypt towards the Mediterranean Sea in a photo released by the US Navy June 2, 2016. U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Anthony Flynn/Handout via Reuters.