When the Ever Given container ship lost control in the midst of a dust storm and high winds on March 23, and became wedged across the Suez Canal, it rekindled Japan to find alternative routes to Europe.
The canal is one of the most important arteries in global trade, and was completely blocked for six days.
The incident sent a shiver through supply chains in the Asia Pacific and beyond, reminding everyone just how much their trade, supplies, and prosperity were reliant on Ferdinand de Lesseps’s 19th-century engineering project in the Egyptian desert.
Japan lay half a world away from the sandstorm that crippled the Ever Given, but the impact of the event was keenly felt.
First of all, the Ever Given was owned by Shoei Kisen Kaisha and built by Imabari Shipbuilding, both of them Japanese companies. Indeed, the two are still locked in negotiations with the Egyptian government over compensation payments.
More broadly, it highlighted the vulnerabilities of the Suez route for both the Japanese government and its business community.
Leaving aside the very long route around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, Japan has two potential alternatives, both of them reliant on Russia.
One Trans-Siberian Railway route and the other Northern Sea Route.
In the Trans-Siberian Railway route, ship containers would be loaded in trains and sent to a terminal in the Polish city of Poznan. By utilising this route, transport to Europe could become much quicker. The sea journey through the Suez Canal takes about two months to complete, while this route will take less than 27 days.
The final alternative, although it is more of a long-term prospect, is the Northern Sea Route (NSR). One of the odder impacts of global climate change, with its attendant melting of glaciers along the poles, is that it is increasingly possible to travel from Asia to Europe via the Arctic Ocean. Currently, this is only a seasonal possibility between June and December, and even then, it requires an icebreaker.
The interest in these routes has been mutual, and the Suez incident led the Japanese side to restate its own ambitions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has personally promoted these alternatives.