Major Shipping Routes of the World (By Commodities)

world trade routes

Introduction

In this article, by looking into the world’s major shipping routes, studying the commodities that the ship carries daily, we hope to understand just a little bit more about how reliant we are on the world’s maritime route.

70% of the earth’s surface is covered in seawater, life on earth mostly dwell under the seas too. There is much that the sea has offered to mankind. It gave us food for sustenance, it produces half of the earth’s oxygen for us to breathe, and it regulates the earth’s climate.

Importantly, the mastery to navigate the sea gave us the ability to transport products across nations. There are no rail tracks, nor are there road surfaces for mankind to follow.

We have to respect the seas as we rely so much on it. As the world we know today is down to our mastery of sea navigation.

Inevitably, systems come to place and the world’s shipping lane has etched a “Sea highway”. The world’s maritime route is used everyday by tens of thousands of ships of all sizes, right below our noses, so efficient is the shipping industry that we do not feel its significance.

World Maritime Transport Route, Source: oec.world

We notice that major shipping routes are usually explained just as-is, without looking into how the major shipping routes are formed. We think that understanding the commodities transported every day will give us a glimpse of why the major maritime routes are what it is today.

Hence, we hope to bring you a small understanding of the world’s shipping route, by first understanding the raw materials, semi-processed and finished goods transported.

Crude Oil and Oil Products Trade Routes

We mention that tracing the cargo flow gives us a direct view of how the sea lane arteries are formed. With that in mind, the petroleum and oil product trade are ones that we need to understand first-hand. So, we will spend more time on the trade of Crude Oil and Oil Product’s world maritime route.

Petroleum and oil products are highly hazardous, and throughout the years the industry has settled from transporting in case oils, then moving on to oil barrels, then to transporting it in liquid bulk tankers.

Depending on the trade lane, different sizes of liquid bulk tankers are used.

Panamax 60,000 DWT
Aframax 100,000 DWT
Suezmax 150,000 DWT
Very Large Crude Carrier 280,000 DWT
Ultra Large Crude Carrier 300,000 DWT

These tankers patrol the seas, depending on the destination, selected trade route, geographical limitations, different ship sizes are used. For example, VLCC and ULCC ships are not able to navigate through the Suez Canal due to its deep draft requirements.

VLCC and ULCC are built to circumnavigate the Cape of Good Hope, which is around the African Continent to reach across the North Atlantic Ocean.

Shipping Tanker companies ration that in order to justify the additional 11,000 nautical miles distance traveled, rather than going through the Suez Canal, they will have to build bigger ships to take advantage of economies of scale.

A standard VLCC with a capacity of 280,000 DWT can carry up to 4.7 times more than a Panamax Ship. But the size of the ship is not 4.7 times bigger but 1.6 times bigger only.

Getting to the point, in 2017, petroleum and oil products are the highest traded goods in terms of cargo value, representing almost 10% of total world cargo trade by value. Yes, the shipment of petroleum and oil products shapes the shipping trade lane immensely.

Here we have an extensive video of the oil tankers

Trade Volume

We followed the trail of shipment by looking into the traded goods between countries, and what we notice is a pattern that follows the Pareto principle. 80% of the total shipped petroleum and oil products are only exported by 17 Countries: –

Country Export Value (Billion USD) % World % Cumulative
Saudi Arabia 110.21 14.00% 14.00%
Russia 96.61 12.00% 26.00%
Iraq 57.52 7.30% 33.30%
Canada 54.08 6.80% 40.10%
United Arab Emirates 39.92 5.00% 45.10%
Iran 38.50 4.90% 50.00%
Nigeria 35.59 4.50% 54.50%
Kuwait 31.35 4.00% 58.50%
Norway 28.05 3.50% 62.00%
Angola 26.84 3.40% 65.40%
Venezuela 22.20 2.80% 68.20%
Kazakhstan 19.87 2.50% 70.70%
Mexico 19.53 2.50% 73.20%
United States of America 19.39 2.40% 75.60%
Great Britain 17.76 2.20% 77.80%
Brazil 17.39 2.20% 80.00%

So, we can generally get a picture of the major shipping routes by just finding out where these exporting country ship these “black golds” to, and paint ourselves a picture of what are the major oil shipping routes.

Major Petroleum and Oil Product Exporting Country

This is a rough deduction, based on total cargo value transported in (USD), it may not reflect the true nature of transportation, as there are many factors we did not take into consideration. Such as the fact that oil products, or products of crude oil refining, generally has higher trade value. Moreover, the cargo value does not give a true representation of actual deadweight tonnage transported to-and-fro countries.

But with that being said, what we found is actually quite an accurate representation of how the cargo flow generally is.

Here is a table of Exporting Countries shipping to their respective major importers in the world.

Exporting CountryTop Importing
Countries
Saudi ArabiaJapanChinaSouth Koreathe United StatesIndia
IraqIndiaChinathe United StatesSouth KoreaGreece
CanadaUnited States
U.A.EChinaIndiaSouth KoreaJapanE.U.
IranChinaIndiaSouth KoreaJapanE.U.
NigeriaE.U.Indiathe United States
KuwaitSouth KoreaChinaJapanIndiathe United States
NorwayE.U.

Shipping Routes

The chart above is a graphical representation of the Top Crude Oil and Oil Product exporters and the Top Crude Oil and Oil Product Importers. Granted that literally every country has demand for oil products, there must be shipping lanes going to every single country, and the world’s seas are littered by ships sprawling around without any recognize patterns.

But recall that we mention that these major importing and exporting countries account for roughly over 80% of the cargo value of goods traded. We first need to focus on these major trade lanes to get a picture of what are the major trade lanes.

Russia – China – E.U.

Let us look at Russia, their major customers can be generalized to the East and West, or Asia and the EU. Which makes a lot of sense, due to their geographical reach, both the European Union and China are connected by land.

Russia Close Proximity to China and Europe

Russia is supplying 5.67 million tonnes of oil per day according to Reuters, which is equivalent to 35 thousand trips of Panamax vessels per year!

Of course, that is not efficient, hence Russia utilizes pipelines such as the East-Siberia Pacific Pipelines, a steady flow of oils feeding China, the largest oil buyer in the world. The same goes for their westbound cargoes. This National Geographic Image shows the Oil and Gas pipelines feeding though to Eastern Europe and to Russia’s Western Customers.

The same goes to the Westward oil transportation. This National Geographic Image shows the Oil and Gas pipelines feeding though to Eastern Europe and to Russia’s Western Customers.

Oil Pipelines from Russia towards Europe, Source: National Geographic

So, we learned that Russia has its own network of pipelines supplying to Europe and China, it does not rely on sea shipping on a large scale.

So, we can focus on the shipping route that starts with other nations, the OPEC countries (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries)

  1. Saudi Arabia
  2. Iraq
  3. Iran
  4. United Arabs Emirates
  5. Kuwait

Straits of Hormuz

Based on cargo value alone, over 35.2% of the total crude oil and oil products are produced by those 5 countries in the Middle East, all of which have to go through to the Straits of Hormuz. Other sources show that 20% of global seaborne crude passes through the Strait of Hormuz.

“The Jugular of the World Economy” is an apt description as 21 million gallons of oil pass through the narrow corridor to the Arabian Seas every single day.

As we know now, the major importers of oil from countries in the vicinity of the Strait spans east and west too.

To the East, the vessel passes through the Arabian Sea, to the Bay of Bengal to India and the final leg through to the Straits of Malacca to China, Japan, and Korea. Or as industry players coin those routes as “East of Suez”.

To the West, the vessel will go through the Suez Canal to the European Nations, and the United States, and as we mention, bigger vessels will have to go through to the Cape of Good Town to reach the United States.

Graphical depiction of Straits of Hormuz by Vox

Dry Bulk Cargo Trade Routes

COAL

Coal, the black lump that powered steam engines during the industrial revolution, is still in use today to power over 40% of world electricity.

In reality, the country who exports the most coal does not necessarily mean that it is the biggest coal producing country in the world.

China, as of 2017 is the biggest importer of coal, although China reins as the world’s biggest coal production.

Ore Exporting Countries By Cargo Value, Source: oec.world

Australia, on the other hand, is only the 4th largest coal producer, but with a lower population count, there is generally a surplus of coal which Asia is happy to devour, especially China.

Hence, in terms of Coal transportation, it is largely to-and-fro Australia and Indonesia to China, Japan, India, and South Korea.

Indonesia, the other major coal briquette exporting nations, exports its production almost exclusively to India, South East Asia Region, China, Japan, and South Korea.

Once again, the largest country in the world, Russia’s 17.1 million square kilometers also has the most countries it borders with. It capitalizes on the large land area by exporting both to European Countries and Asia Region.

This leaves us with the 4th largest coal exporting nation in the world, the United States of America, it’s closer proximity to E.U. makes exporting coal to Europe a viable route.

IRON ORE

The next commodity that we are looking into is the transportation of iron ore. Heated with coal coke, coincidentally also one of the world’s most traded cargo, the iron ore will morph into steel alloys, which is the structural material for building skyscrapers, cars, and appliances.

Top Iron Ore Producers: in Red
Top Iron Ore Importers: in Blue

Oil powers the cars, and steel materializes into vehicles, so it all comes harmony that drives the economic engine.

We see the same pattern with iron ore shipping with the patterns of oil shipping, where the major importers of the goods are geographically close to the major exporters of the raw material.

This pattern will only surface with raw material shipping, this is not the case with containerized goods, which carries mostly semi-processed goods or finished goods.

The reason why is because semi-processed or processed goods often are higher in cargo value, it justifies the higher shipping freight cost per ton.

The top 3 producers of iron ore by cargo value in 2017 are Australia ($48.2 Billion), Brazil ($20.1 Billion) and South Africa ($4.02 Billion).

Exporting Country Top 3 Importing
Countries
Australia China Japan South Korea
Brazil China Japan Malaysia
South Africa China South Korea Japan

As you can see in the table above, the top producers of iron ore almost exclusively export it to China, Japan, and South Korea.

Australia ships through South East Asia via the South China Seas to reach China, Japan, and South Korea. Brazil, on the other hand, will navigate through the Indian Ocean, the Malacca Straits and the South China Seas to reach its Asian Customers as well. And lastly, Brazil will take the additional route through the South Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean, Malacca Straits to the South China Seas. The voyage is practically halfway across the globe.

Grain

Wheat, Oats, Corns, and Barley are all considered grains. We don’t think it is necessary to table out all of the grain trade, honestly, the author is too lazy to collect the data for it. But instead, we look at the transportation of wheat, which is the cream of the crop in terms of cargo value trade, if we compare it among its grain siblings. 

Exporting Country Importing Country
Russia Egypt Turkey Sudan Nigeria
United States Mexico Japan Philippines China
Canada the United States Indonesia Japan Bangladesh

As you can see here, there are no discernible major shipping routes. Wheat is traded in bulk all over the world. The complexity of grain with different species and types of grain also suggests the different countries will import grain of different types from specific countries.

Containerized Shipping Trade Routes

We have looked at liquid bulk cargo and dry bulk cargo shipping in general. Now, we can look into containerized cargo shipping and its major shipping route.

The World Customs Organization (WCO) has a very clever way of sorting shipping cargos into neat categories of headings and subheadings.

Officially it is called the Harmonised System of Tariff Nomenclature, but the industry usually calls it the H.S Code or the T.C Code, they both mean the same actually.

From there, countries are able to track their trade and monitor the performance of the trade to shape national policies.

Here we categorize the cargos by one main category and four main subcategories.

Main products traded globally, source: oec.world

What we can deduce from the table above is that Bulk Shipping usually ships raw, unprocessed materials and containerized goods ship semi-processed or finished goods.

As we can see above, the containerized shipping routes dominates the sea transportation industry, granted we are looking at cargo value instead of total cargo tonnage.

We have another insight to the top exporting countries by cargo value, the Pareto Principle rings true again as out of the 195 sovereign countries, 26 countries consist of 80% of the total world export cargo value.

Top 17 Exporting Nations of the World by Cargo Value 2017, Source: oec.world

We can see that the countries above are familiar when we drill down to the world’s cargo trade by the general cargos traded.

With this information, we can construct the most efficient shipping route possible for these countries. It is no surprise that the theoretically efficient shipping route is also what the world’s current major shipping route looks like today.

Top 26 Exporting Nations of the World

Shipping Route

Piecing it all together, the UCL Energy Institute (shipmag.org) has done a wonderful job depicting the world vessel’s shipping routes. Their illustration took the data of ship’s position of bulk ships, Ro-Ros, and container ships to give a sense of the carbon emission of vessels.

Please go to their website for an interactive experience.

World Trade Route, Source: shipmag.org

Taking into account of the top 26 exporting nations of the world, we can see that the busiest sea routes of the world are etched around some chokepoints, and around the mentioned exporting nations.  

Straits of Hormuz

Vessels pass through the Straits of Hormuz supplying over 20 percent of the world’s oil demand. All passing through the 3-kilometer width Straits, as it has become the most contentious straits in the world.

Oil Trade Routes, Source: Shipmag.org

The Straits of Hormuz connects the Oil Producing Countries like Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and United Arab Emirates from the Persian Gulf through to the Arabian Seas.

Malacca Straits

Malacca Straits, we can see it as the shortcut for a vessel to reach its main market, which is the Asia Region.

Singapore and Port Kelang of Malaysia are strategically situated along the Malacca Straits, offering vessels transshipment and bunkering service, no wonder that Singapore and Malacca, although not a big economic contributor of the world, has the world’s 3rd and 13th busiest ports respectively.

Suez Canal

The shortest route for oils from the Middle Eastern OPEC countries to reach it’s European and American customers is through the Suez Canal via the Gulf of Aden, to the Mediterranean Seas to Europe.

To reach the Americas, the ships have to navigate through the Straits of Gibraltar to reach the North Atlantic Ocean, to reach Northern American countries such as the United States and Mexico.

Suez Canal and the Straits of Gibraltar

The Suez Canal is the gateway for Asia and Europe, the East and West. It is older than the Panama Canal since it’s inauguration in 1869. It’s significance to the expansion of the economies of both the East and West is remarkable.

Panama Canal

One of the United States’ biggest contributions to Panama and the world alike, the century-old canal is still in use today to transport goods from China, via the Pacific Ocean through the canal to reach the Eastern side of America and vice versa.

Panama Canal Source: shipmag.org

Fun fact, Panama Canal has been in the possession of the United States until recently in 1999, where Panama gained full authority over the operation of the canal. Major construction upgrades are underway until today to allow access to bigger vessels prevalent today.

The South and East China Seas

Where the Straits of Hormuz is “The Jugular of the Economic”, the Suez Canal the gateway of east and west, the South and East China Seas is the main access point to-and-fro China to the world.

South and East China Seas, Source: shipmag.org

According to CNBC, nearly a third of the world’s maritime trade passing through the South and East China Seas. We have studied that dry and liquid bulk cargos are mainly going to China, and containerized semi-finished and finished goods exit China to the world via the seas.

Bringing it all together

As a whole, it seems that there are no recognizable patterns of shipping routes, essentially a registered flag vessel is allowed to navigate anywhere around the open seas. The maritime regulations are made such a way to allow commercial freedom for all shipowners and charterers to freely transport goods to the intended destination.

But once we have a closer look, the major shipping routes are apparent. We definitely do not foresee any tectonic shifts of the earth’s surface in our lifetime, so the major maritime shipping route will remain as such for centuries.

The one change that can alter the world’s shipping route is, therefore, the change in the top 26 exporting nations.

Who’s to say that China, Japan, South Korea may one day trail off and it is no longer the economic trade’s Goliath?

Who’s to say that one day the Oil reserve in the OPEC nations has depleted and the world has become energy self-sufficient? Therefore, there is no longer a need for oil transportation via the Straits of Hormuz.

The only tectonic shift that will change the world’s shipping route is not down to geography, but rather the shift in the world’s economic build.

We hope you enjoy this content, please share with your buddies if it helps you understand more today about global logistics trade and the world’s shipping route.

Resources

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-economy-trade-crude/russia-remains-chinas-top-oil-supplier-as-pipeline-expands-idUSKCN1G808M

https://www.nationalgeographic.org/photo/europe-map/

https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/15-countries-most-dependent-on-coal-for-energy.html

https://www.shipmag.org

https://www.oec.world

kelvinsee

Hello! I'm Kelvin, I work as a custom broker and I'm thrilled with having the experience to share my industry knowledge with you. I hope that you enjoy reading them as much as I do posting them.

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