Small Wars Journal

“The Battle of the Straits: A Geopolitical Maelstrom”

Sun, 04/07/2024 - 9:14pm

“The Battle of the Straits: A Geopolitical Maelstrom”

A Useful Fiction Short Story


By Isaiah (Ike) Wilson III, PhD



This near-future vignette posits a scenario where maritime chokepoints become the stages for a new brand of warfare—a conflict fought in the shadows, where the weapons are as likely to be cyber as they are to be traditional arms. It underscores the fragility of global trade networks and the precariousness of geopolitics in a multipolar world where strategic waterways have become the chessboard for Great Power confrontation. 


In this scenario, "The Battle of the Straits" would drastically reshape the global geo-economic landscape. Nations would grapple with the impact of increased military expenditure at the expense of economic development, high commodity prices causing economic hardships, and shifts in trade alliances that could alter the balance of global power. The interconnected nature of global trade means that even localized disruptions can have cascading effects, highlighting the need for peaceful navigation and cooperation across the world's maritime chokepoints. This fiction underscores the delicate balance of global trade, the fragility of which could lead to catastrophic consequences in the face of rising geopolitical tensions.



Year: 2028


The world teeters on the brink of a new form of conflict, where old rivalries ignite over the jugular veins of global trade: the world’s strategic maritime chokepoints. Tensions have been simmering, and a series of incidents across the globe signals the escalation of what future historians will call "The Battle of the Straits."[1]


Strait of Hormuz:

A covert cyber-attack attributed to Russian hackers cripples the navigational systems of oil tankers traversing the Strait of Hormuz. The ensuing chaos results in multiple collisions, effectively blocking the Strait and halting a substantial portion of the world's oil supply. In a dizzying response, the United States dispatches Carrier Strike Groups to the region while appealing to the UN for sanctions. To counter the move, China begins an aggressive diplomatic campaign to broker a resolution, positioning itself as a neutral peacekeeper.


Suez Canal:

As the tension escalates, a sudden drone strike by an unknown actor on a mega-container ship in the Suez Canal paralyzes one of the busiest waterways in the world. Initially suspected to be an isolated terrorist act, intelligence reports later reveal the involvement of Chinese military advisors. The USA responds by increasing its military presence in the Mediterranean, and Russia responds by conducting naval exercises in the Black Sea, hinting at a response should their access through Turkish Straits be compromised.


South China Sea:

In the South China Sea, artificial intelligence-enabled underwater drones, presumably of Chinese origin, begin aggressively patrolling disputed waters, harassing international commercial vessels traveling through the Strait of Malacca. The United States calls for a coalition of Southeast Asian nations to form a united front, but the countries are hesitantly noncommittal, fearing economic reprisals from China.


Panama Canal and US Gulf Coast:

Meanwhile, Latin American proxy conflicts intensify. Hackers destabilize the Panama Canal's lock systems, resulting in severe delays and rerouting of traffic around Cape Horn. Tensions rise as accusations fly towards Russia, which has recently deepened relations with certain Latin American regimes. This move strains the United States’ influence in its hemisphere, forcing it to divert naval assets from the Pacific to safeguard the Gulf Coast ports and the Caribbean Sea routes.


Northern Passage:

In a surprising twist, Russia and China announce a joint venture to develop the Northern Sea Route, arguing that climate change has opened new shipping possibilities that will reduce dependency on traditional chokepoints controlled by Western allies. This announcement comes with a subtle show of military force in the Arctic Circle, showcasing a budding Sino-Russian alliance and a direct challenge to the naval supremacy of the United States.


The world stands on a precipice as the Great Powers engage in this "Battle of the Straits." Global trade is in disarray, with supply chains disrupted and economies suffering. Minor and non-aligned nations find themselves forced to choose sides in a conflict where sovereignty and autonomy are at stake.


The Black Sea: As the USA bolsters its forces in Eastern Europe in reaction to the Black Sea naval exercises, a cyber-physical attack on Turkish Straits navigation controls creates another maritime standstill. With accusations against Russia mounting and Turkey demanding NATO support, the USA finds another front opened against them.


Brazil's Southern Ports: Not to be sidelined in global strategic maneuvering, China increases investments in Brazil's infrastructure, attempting to cultivate an economic counterbalance in America's backyard. With influence over Brazil's southern ports, China secures a foothold in the Atlantic, much to the consternation of both Washington and Moscow.


In the throes of "The Battle of the Straits," the intensifying standoffs and incidences of disruption ripple out into the world economy with a number of dire consequences. Here's an exploration of the implications from this fictional scenario from various perspectives:


Implications on Global Commercial Shipping and Trade:

  • The blockades in pivotal chokepoints like Suez and Hormuz cause immediate and severe supply chain disruptions. Commercial shipping is forced to take longer, alternative routes, increasing transit times and fuel costs significantly.
  • The inability to predict safe passage creates a sharp decrease in shipping efficiency, causing a spike in global shipping rates which in turn inflates the prices of goods.
  • A shift in trade patterns emerges as countries seek to become less reliant on chokepoints by diversifying supply chains or increasing production domestically.
  • Economies heavily reliant on maritime exports, such as oil-exporting countries in the Middle East or manufacturing giants in East Asia, face considerable economic downturns.


Geo-Economic Consequences as Drivers of Local Fragility:

  • The disruption of global trade exacerbates economic fragility in chokepoint countries, leading to increased unemployment, inflation, and potential civil unrest as economies shrink.
  • Varying capacity to respond to these shocks leads to a widening economic divide between nations, potentially increasing the chance of local conflicts as competition for dwindling resources intensifies.
  • Political stability in countries depending on the revenue from transit fees, like Egypt for the Suez Canal or Panama for the Panama Canal, is undermined, leading to calls for more nationalistic policies and protectionism.


Trans-Regional War and Warfare:

  • Military posturing and forced alliances in response to the "Battle of the Straits" accelerates an arms race, with increased naval deployments and land-based anti-ship missile systems in littoral states.
  • Shadow conflicts and proxy wars could ignite around the world as Great Powers seek to undermine each other's positions in strategic regions.
  • An increased likelihood of accidental conflicts or escalations due to the presence of military forces in close proximity along contested maritime corridors.


Implications on Global Financial Risks:

  • The uncertainty and instability lead to volatile financial markets. Energy prices skyrocket, and stocks of global shipping companies plummet.
  • Insurers raise their premiums for shipping through or near conflict zones, which in turn affects the costs of goods.
  • Credit risks increase as importers and exporters face difficulties fulfilling contracts, leading to a rise in trade finance costs.
  • Countries and companies increasingly seek alternative routes and methods of transportation, investing in infrastructure such as overland routes or Arctic shipping lanes, which come with their own sets of financial risks and environmental concerns.
  • Rising protectionism and regional alliances could potentially lead to a decoupling of economic ties, with long-term impacts on globalization. Nations might resort to barter trade systems or localized currencies to bypass the US dollar's domination and related financial markets fluctuations.


Global Economic Rebalance:

  • Economies previously at the periphery may gain newfound importance if they can offer alternative routes and resources, leading to a potential economic rebalance.
  • The developing alliances between countries like Russia and China might solidify new economic corridors, such as the Northern Sea Route promoted by Russia, leading to shifts in global shipping lanes.


Global Response:

Faced with escalating confrontations, the United Nations calls for an emergency meeting. Countries on every continent voice their concern over the standoff that threatens to evolve into open conflict—a war that could lay waste to economies and destabilize the geopolitical order that has been in place since the end of the Cold War.


To avert disaster, a clandestine group of diplomats from neutral states work tirelessly to mediate behind the scenes, resulting in a fragile agreement around the governance of maritime chokepoints. However, trust is eroded, and the framework for international maritime law now hangs by a thread, with Great Powers continuing their shadow struggle for control over the waterways of the world.



[1] In 2022, the Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) partnered with P.W. Singer and August Cole, the co-authors of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War and Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution. The goal of this collaboration was to leverage their “useful fiction” approach to create near-future narratives envisioning how our Nation may use its special operations forces in the decades to come and demonstrating the unique value proposition these forces bring to the Nation.  The anthology, The Fourth Age: The Future of Special Operations, published in fall of 2023, is one product from this collaboration.  In that volume, the originator of this project and collaboration – Dr. Isaiah “Ike” Wilson III, then President of the JSOU – wrote the prologue to the Anthology; and in that prologue, introduced the scenario of a future years “The Battle of the Straits.”  This paper picks up on that ‘Useful Fiction’ theme.     

About the Author(s)


Isaiah (Ike) Wilson III earned his PhD in Government (Intl Relations and American Politics) from Cornell University and is a professor of practice with the School of Politics & Global Affairs at Arizona State University (ASU). He is president emeritus of the Joint Special Operations University (JSOU), a partner with Gainful Solutions Ventures Inc., and president and CEO of Wilson W.i.S.E. Consulting LLC, which provides advisory services on strategy and operational planning, technology & teaming integration, transitions (change) leadership coaching and organizational re-design and innovation.  A decorated combat veteran with combat tours in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and direct strategic and operational planning and advisory service to six (6) 4-Star Commanders, three Secretaries of Defense, numerous ambassadorial chiefs of mission, and the presidents of three foreign country partner nations, Wilson’s civil-military career has spanned troop-leading, staff-planning, strategic advisory and teaching assignments. He has published extensively on organizational politics, civil-military relations, national security (defense) policy, and grand strategy. His book, Thinking beyond War: Civil-Military Relations and Why America Fails to Win the Peace, along with his service on the 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom Study Group, helped to increase public attention to the problems and errors in U.S. post-war planning for the Iraq War and sparked governmental movement toward policy reforms. He founded the West Point Grand Strategy Program and has executive directed, taught, and conducted research at several top-tier and top-ranked colleges and universities, including Yale, Columbia, West Point, and the National War College. He is a Lifemember of the Council on Foreign Relations and a Senior Future Security Initiative Fellow with New America. (Bio Sketch:  LinkedIn) (Website: