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Balancing powers in the Malacca Strait

March 7, 2010

SINGAPORE-SHIPPING/THREAT  Singapore’s warning of a terrorist threat in the Malacca Straits has again highighted the issue of who is in charge of security in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

 Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have stepped up sea patrols in the strait after Singapore’s navy said on Thursday it had received indications a terrorist group was planning attacks on oil tankers.

A Police Coast Guard vessel patrols shipping lanes near freight ships off the coast of Singapore March 4, 2010. ( REUTERS/Vivek Prakash)

 The 900-km long (550 miles) Malacca Strait, linking Europe and the Middle East with the Asia-Pacific, carries about 40 percent of the world’s trade. More than 50,000 merchant ships ply the waterway every year. 

About 3.3 million barrels per day (bpd) of Middle East crude passed through the strait and to Japan last year. Middle East crude accounts for 90 percent of Japan’s total imports. Up to 80 percent of China’s crude imports are delivered via the narrow and congested waterway.

 So China and Japan have a stake in keeping the Malacca Strait secure, as does India which has a blue water navy patrolling in the Andaman Sea at the western end of the strait.

 The strait is a vital sea lane for the U.S. Navy, which sent warships to Taiwan via the Malacca Strait at a time of heightened tensions between China and Taiwan in 1996.

Although the three littoral states — Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore — have asserted their sole right to maintain security in the Malacca Strait, Australia, India, Japan, the United States and China have all offered military assistance at various times.

The Malacca Strait has been infested with pirates for centuries, but since the 9/11 suicide airliner attacks the security focus has switched to terrorism.    The ability of Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia to ensure security in a waterway of such geopolitical importance has been complicated by their own competing territorial claims and rivalries. All three countries, for instance, have had territorial disputes over islands and waters that have wound up in court or in naval confrontations. MYANMAR/CYCLONE

Worries about territorial sovereignty have made hot pursuit in the strait problematic.  The three countries conduct joint patrols under the Malacca Straits Coordinated Patrol established in July 2004. But joint patrols are not the same as combined patrols and have proven difficult to coordinate.

Crew member uses pair of binoculars as he watches for
pirates from USNS Walter S. Diehl in Malacca Strait off Malaysia 
on May 14, 2008  (Reuters/Vivek Prakash)

 A 2005 initiative, “The Eyes in the Sky Program” involving joint aerial surveillance with Thailand also restricts air patrols from going within threee miles of each other’s borders. The same lack of trust has hampered intelligence sharing.

The United States, after pronouncing Southeast Asia a “second front in the war on terrorism” in 2002, tried to increase its naval presence in the region. Malaysia and Indonesia swiftly shot down that idea.  Two years later, Washington proposed the Regional Maritime Security Initiative, which would have involved joint patrols — including putting U.S. special forces on high-speed boats. Again Indoensia and Malaysia vetoed the presence of foreign forces in
the strait and a diluted version of the idea was adopted instead.

Southeast Asian countries are, if anything, even more suspicious of a Chinese military presence in the region. One of the rationales for keeping security confined to the littoral states is to keep the strait from becoming a big power flashpoint.    Indeed, the response to piracy and terrorism in the Malacca Strait can illuminate how the big power dynamics are playing out in the region. The Regional Maritime Security Initiative, for instance, also had in mind interdicting WMD cargo (think North Korea nuclear and missile materiel).

Singapore did not say what terrorist group was behind the threat to oil tankers in the strait. Security experts say the al Qaeda network has long had video footage of Malaysian police patrols. The Indonesian militant group, Jemaah Islamiah, once had strong connections to the group. The head of an Indoensian anti-terrorism task force has suggested Indoensian militants have re-established an al Qaeda connection.   

The United States, China, Japan and India will continue to seek influence over Malacca Strait security — for anti-terrorism, geopolitical and commerical interests — even as China, for one, looks for alternative routes for its burgeoning energy needs.

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