Canal project to bypass Bosporus may trigger arms race

A planned canal linking the sea of Marmara with the Black Sea could trigger an arms race in the region, wrote journalist Helen Franchineau in the South China Morning Post on Sunday.

The canal project would bypass the Bosporus, which is the only waterway currently connecting the Black Sea to the World’s oceans. As such, it would not automatically be governed by the 1936 Montreux Convention, a treaty that grants merchant vessels free passage of the busy straits to merchant vessels but applies restrictions to military vessels.

“The strait of Istanbul [the Bosphorus] is unique because of the Montreux Convention, which imposes limitations, particularly on passage of war vessels,” the article quoted Nilufer Oral, from the Faculty of Law at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, as saying.

Since the announcement of the planned canal in 2011, many have questioned its implications for the Montreux convention. 

“The warship provision is the issue,” Oral said. “I would be surprised if the new canal was open to warships, it would be a serious political issue with Russia.”

Under the rules of the convention, military vessels are limited in terms of their numbers, tonnage and the duration of their stay in the Black. According to Franchineau. Russia is determined to maintain those limits.

“The Montreux Convention is a key to the Black Sea’s regional security and Russia’s defence and security. From a political standpoint, it is important for Russia not to leave the Black Sea to the maritime powers.” said Admiral Cem Gürdeniz, founding director of Koç University Maritime Forum.

Even though it is not a signatory to the Montreux Convention, China is also monitoring developments with interest, since any agreement relating to the new canal may have repercussions in the South China Sea.

“China does not want to touch the Montreux Convention because changing its spirit is also disrupting China’s geopolitical spirit of maritime defence,” Gürdeniz said, “China is not directly involved in the Montreux Convention, but would be indirectly affected by its revision.”

At present, is unclear how the Turkish government will proceed with the new canal: it may seek to impose new limits on warships or to revise the Montreux Convention to include the man-made canal in its scope.

What everyone can agree on though, says Franchineau, is the need for, “Turkey to maintain stability through the Montreux Convention and some limit on warships for the new canal, to avoid triggering an arms race in the Black Sea region.”

“Circumventing Montreux would be a big mistake. Peace regulations would not apply and warships could cross. Montreux should be sustained at all costs,” said an anonymous maritime broker in Istanbul.