Choke Point

You've seen it in a movie: our heroes on horseback are on their way to their destination, but they have to pass single-file through a narrow canyon with high cliffs on both sides. Suspenseful music builds. They're about halfway through when arrows begin to rain down from above. Our heroes are trapped! They fight valiantly to the bitter end, but they should have known that the enemy would wait until they entered a choke point to ambush them.

Choke Point Choke Point

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    Now imagine instead that heroes on horseback are replaced by oil tankers at sea, and arrows by missiles. You can then begin to understand the critical importance of these geographic features in geopolitical conflicts. From Vicksburg to the Straits of Hormuz and from Gibraltar to the Khyber Pass, the choke point has played a major role in political geography, wars, and trade. Keep reading to learn more about choke points geography, examples, and much more.

    Choke Point Definition

    The term sounds precisely like what it means!

    Choke Point: Also spelled as "chokepoint," this is a narrow stretch of land (such as a defile, pass, or canyon), water (a strait, for example), or a connector (e.g., a bridge) that can be constricted ("choked off") by those seeking a tactical advantage in a conflict.

    Choke Point, Gibraltar location, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Straits of Gibraltar choke point

    Choke Point Geography

    Choke points exist where physical geography creates obstacles to the easy passage of people and goods from one place to another. In mountain ranges, for example, only certain narrow places, known as passes, typically allow access from one side to the other.

    Even a bridge can be a chokepoint; this was the case of the 427-year-old Old Bridge over the Neretva River at Mostar in Bosnia, blown up by a Croat militia in 1993 and rebuilt in 2004.

    Choke Point, Old Bridge Mostar, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Rebuilt Old Bridge, Mostar, Bosnia

    For water-going vessels, any ocean, lake, or river passage that can be restricted or choked off altogether creates vulnerabilities that make the points on land surrounding the area of high tactical value.

    Many choke points come and go over time, depending on political geography and dominant modes of transportation. Others, such as narrow passages at sea, retain their importance over centuries because travel by sea is still the chief means by which goods are shipped, and military forces move around the world.

    The strategic importance of choke points cannot be overstated. Control over them can bring considerable wealth and power and is a geopolitical imperative for certain nation-states.

    Military Choke Points

    In times of peace as well as war, the tactical and strategic value of choke points is not lost on militaries and armed groups of all types. During any land battle, careful attention paid to choke points is necessary.

    For example, because railroads can play a central role in transporting people and supplies during wartime, they have often become valuable targets. Tunnels and bridges, not easily or rapidly rebuilt, are classic choke points. Or imagine controlling or destroying the point where two railroads, or trade routes of any type, cross, and you can begin to see just how critical the defense of certain places can become.

    In peacetime, choke points do not lose their importance as long as they are in an area that is disputed or needs to be protected, such as from terrorists or separatist rebels. The presence of military bases near several of the chokepoints we give as examples indicates this. It is no exaggeration to say that the strangulation of commerce in any one of a handful of choke points worldwide (e.g., the Suez Canal, Panama Canal, Straits of Hormuz, or Straits of Malacca) would significantly disrupt trade and do massive damage to the world economy.

    Maritime Choke Points

    With the stabilization of nation-state boundaries and the reduced amount of disputed territory, land-based choke points tend to become prominent only when active conflicts occur. Maritime choke points, however, are a constant geopolitical concern. The main reason is that 90% of world trade is by ship (shipping by air is much more expensive due to fuel costs). While the high seas also have risks, the most dangerous places for ships are those where land-based piracy, terrorism, and military conflict can easily target them as they move slowly through narrow straits.

    Choke Point Examples

    Below are just some of the numerous choke points that have attained geostrategic importance.

    Straits of Gibraltar

    The Rock of Gibraltar is a 1400-foot-high promontory above the Mediterranean on a spit controlled by the UK's Royal Navy for over 300 years. It is the world's most iconic choke point. Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory claimed by Spain, the country that holds the rest of the local real estate on the north side of the Straits of Gibraltar and some on the south (the autonomous city of Ceuta) as well. Over 100,000 ships enter and exit the Mediterranean yearly, and many of them bunker, i.e., refuel, at Gibraltar.

    Choke Point, Rock of Gibraltar, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Rock of Gibraltar

    Spain's Point Marroquí (Punta Tarifa) and Morocco's Point Cires, not Gibraltar, mark the narrowest point along the eight-mile-wide passage from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. The general area is within the territorial waters of all three countries. None is willing to relinquish its position, as if this were some three-dimensional board game (in a way, it is!). Each has a responsibility to keep trade flowing which in today's world means avoiding conflict and stopping terrorist groups from targeting this vulnerable area.

    Vicksburg, the "Gibraltar of the Confederacy"

    This town sits high on a bluff above the Mississippi River in the state of Mississippi, and while it has no strategic importance today, it was the place to besiege in the Civil War. The Union set out to control it because Vicksburg was where a major rail line from the western part of the Confederacy (Louisiana and Texas) reached the Mississippi River. Supply of hides from the West was critical for the Confederacy, as was the Mississippi River, a major north-south artery for goods and troops.

    Choke Point, Vicksburg map, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Vicksburg map showing railroad route, Mississippi River, and position of the town on bluffs

    After an almost two-month siege in summer 1863, Vicksburg, the most famous chokepoint of the war, finally fell to the Union.

    Bosphorus and Dardanelles

    These narrow Turkish straits connect the Black Sea with the Mediterranean Sea, dividing Europe (Thrace) and Asia (Anatolia). They are said to be the most strategically important maritime passages in history: armies have come and gone through here for millennia. Istanbul (formerly Constantinople), which sits astride the Bosphorus, has even been called the center of the world.

    Choke Point, turkish straits, StudySmarterFig. 5 - 1878 map of the Turkish straits

    Today, the principal importance of Turkey's straits is their role in trade and military movement in and out of the Black Sea, particularly to and from Ukraine and Russia. For the latter country, a friendly relationship with Turkey is crucial, as, during the winter months, Russia does not have an ice-free port anywhere but on the Black Sea.

    Panama Canal

    This conflict-free zone carries 3% of the world's trade and, like the previous example, is located entirely within a single country. However, as in most of the Americas, choke points like the Canal are not at risk from the types of conflicts found in the Old World.

    Choke Point, Panama Canal, StudySmarterFig. 6 - Panama Canal

    Suez Canal and Bab-al-Mandeb

    The Suez, an artificial passage connecting the Mediterranean and Red seas and entirely controlled by Egypt, channels 12% of world trade on 19,000 ships annually. It is of enormous strategic importance, and like other choke points in this part of the world, it is heavily protected against terrorist attacks.

    Choke Point, Red Sea, StudySmarterFig. 7 - Red Sea ("Mer Rouge") and its choke points

    At the south end of the Red Sea is the bab-al-Mandeb or "Gate of Lamentation," connecting the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean via the Gulf of Aden. It is bordered by Yemen to the north, a country often in violent conflict, and Eritrea and Djibouti to the south. An idea of the importance of this highly vulnerable connector between Europe, Africa, and Asia can be gained by the number of countries with military bases in tiny Djibouti: the US, China, France, Germany, Italy, the UK, and Spain, with others lining up to gain basing rights. (Part of this has to do with the protection of traffic in and out of the Port of Djibouti and the bab-al-Mandeb, and part is a projection of power on land and sea across Asia, Africa, and the Indian Ocean.)

    Khyber Pass

    To get from the Indian subcontinent to Europe and Asia by land or vice versa, it has always been easiest to go through Afghanistan at a single location, the Khyber Pass. This storied route through 15,000-foot mountains connects Pakistan to Afghanistan and saw up to 80% of the military supplies used by Western forces in Afghanistan wind tortuously through it after 2001.

    Choke Point, Khyber Pass, StudySmarterFig. 8 - A historic fort oversees the most strategic location in the Khyber Pass

    As a gateway between central Asia and South Asia, the Khyber has seen armies traverse it and defenses mounted along it since the times of Alexander the Great. This is because mountain ranges on both sides (Hindu Kush, Karakoram, Himalaya, etc.) stretch thousands of miles with few breaks, while a flatter route to the south is a harsh desert.

    Afghanistan is a classic shatterbelt, a geostrategic region of great cultural diversity and conflict associated with chokepoints; the two concepts are often studied together in AP Human Geography.

    Straits of Malacca

    This 580-mile-long water passage in Southeast Asia carries 25% of world trade and is thus the most significant choke point in the world. Mostly between Indonesia and Malaysia and passing by Singapore, the Strait has long been plagued by piracy and is quite shallow at points. Still, alternate routes are far longer and more expensive. It is essential for China, which in the case of an international conflict involving this country, would become highly vulnerable if the Straits were closed off.

    Choke Point, Malacca location, StudySmarterFig. 9 - Straits of Malacca circled in red

    Strait of Hormuz

    The most strategic bit of maritime real estate on the planet links the Persian/Arabian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. This strait sees 25% of the world's oil and a third of its liquefied natural gas pass through on tankers every day. The US's Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, is responsible for the security of the ships in alliance with various Gulf states and other countries.

    Choke Point, Strait of Hormuz Pass, StudySmarterFig. 10 - Strait of Hormuz

    Iran, a formidable rival to the West and many Arab nations, borders the Strait of Hormuz to the north. On various occasions, Iran's leaders have reminded the US and its allies that in the event of a war, it can mine and close off the Strait, essentially crippling the world economy.

    Choke Point - Key takeaways

    • Choke points are geographic locations where the flow of people and goods can be constricted and choked off in the event of a conflict.
    • A choke point can be a strait, a mountain pass, a tunnel, or even a bridge.
    • Maritime choke points such as certain straits (Hormuz, Malacca, Turkish) and canals (Suez, Panama) maintain tactical and strategic relevance over long periods due to the predominance of world trade on the ocean.
    • Land-based choke points such as mountain passes and bridges are typically only important during conflict or in areas with significant security risks (such as the Khyber Pass).
    Frequently Asked Questions about Choke Point

    What is a choke point? 

    A chokepoint is a location with tactical and strategic importance such as a narrow land or sea passage, a bridge, or a tunnel, the destruction of which would hamper flows of trade and people.

    Why is it called a choke point? 

    A choke point is called such because it is a place where attackers or defenders can choke off the movement of people or goods from one side to the other.

    What's an example of a choke point? 

    The Straits of Gibraltar are the world's most iconic choke point.

    How is the Suez Canal a choke point? 

    The Suez Canal is a choke point because it is a narrow body of water transited by thousands of ships carrying goods between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.

    Why are choke points important? 

    Choke points are important because a large percentage of world trade, particularly on oceans, passes through them. Thus they are highly vulnerable in times of conflict.

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