Japan Considering Russian Alternatives to Suez Canal After Blockage Fiasco

In this March 28, 2021, satellite file image from Planet Labs Inc, the cargo ship MV Ever
Planet Labs Inc. via AP

Japan’s government is considering investing further in alternative trade routes through Russia — including the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Northern Sea Route — in the wake of the Suez Canal blockage in March, Al Jazeera reported Sunday.

“In mid-April, after the Suez accident, Russian Railways announced the opening of a representative office in Tokyo to further promote the development of the business,” Al Jazeera noted, referring to still-in-development plans by Russia to connect its Trans-Siberian Railway to Japan.

The Japanese-owned container ship Ever Given blocked billions of dollars in trade from passing through the Suez Canal from March 23-29 after it became wedged inside the waterway, which links the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea and serves as the shortest sea link between Asia and Europe. Roughly 12 percent of global trade passes through the Suez Canal. The vessel is owned by Japanese national Shoei Kisen Kaisha and was built by the Japanese company Imabari Shipbuilding.

Japan’s close ties to the Suez Canal blockage have forced the country’s government to reconsider alternative trade routes to Europe in recent weeks. Tokyo’s options — apart from a prohibitively long route around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa — include routes through Russia via its Trans-Siberian Railway and Northern Sea Route. The Trans-Siberian Railway line is the longest in the world and currently connects Western Russia to the Russian Far East. Russian President Vladimir Putin in September 2017 said Moscow was considering plans to link the railway to Japan by building a rail bridge connecting the Russian mainland with the Russian island of Sakhalin, which lies just north of the Japanese island of Hokkaido.

A reporter asked Japanese Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism Akaba Kazuyoshi his thoughts on “ensuring international logistics routes between Asia and Europe” at a regular press conference on April 6 shortly after the Suez Canal blockage.

“In response to the Suez Canal incident, it was once again recognized that it is important to secure various means of transportation and transportation routes in order to realize stable international logistics,” Akaba said.

“The [Japanese] Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism has cooperated with the Russian government and the Russian Railways to secure stable international logistics through various means of transportation and transportation routes, and has been engaged in marine transportation and air transportation between Japan, Russia and Europe,” he continued. “We are currently implementing efforts to promote the use of the Trans-Siberian Railway as the third means of transportation.”

“Specifically, we have been conducting pilot transportation of freight as a public-private partnership since FY [Fiscal Year] 2018 and in FY [Fiscal Year] 2020,” Akaba revealed.”The Trans-Siberian Railway will be operated by demonstrating the ‘block train,’ which is a single train that connects directly to Europe. We verified the advantages and issues for expanding the use of [this potential method].”

Akaba added that Japan’s government had also been considering further collaborating with Russia to develop plans for a potential Northern Sea Route, which runs from the Russian port of Murmansk to the Bering Strait and would theoretically allow regular commercial transport between Asia and Europe. The Kremlin capitalized on the media frenzy surrounding the Suez Canal blockage on March 26 to propose its Northern Sea Route as an alternative to the Egyptian-run waterway.

“Also, regarding the NSR [Northern Sea Route], which may be a new option as a route connecting Europe and Asia, [the Japanese government is] … collecting information such as usage trends of the NSR [Northern Sea Route] and exchanging information with private businesses and research institutes,” Akaba said on April 6.

“However, the reality is that these transportation means and routes currently have issues in terms of transportation capacity and year-round operation, for example,” the minister added.

Moscow has in recent years claimed that Arctic trade routes are becoming increasingly viable as new openings emerge in the region’s thick ice allegedly due to climate change. The Kremlin has in recent years ordered Rosatom, which operates Russia’s nuclear-powered icebreaker program, to focus on developing heavy-duty icebreakers necessary to clear a path for freight traffic along its Arctic coast. The planned path would follow the Northern Sea Route.


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