Nations vie over Malacca Strait's security
By Barry Desker
SINGAPORE - There has been, of late, increasing concern over the
safety of navigation in the Malacca Strait. This follows al-Qaeda
attacks on the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, in October 2000 and the
French-owned supertanker Limburg off the coast of Aden also in October
2002. Then there was the bombing of a super ferry by the
al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group in waters off Manila in February
2004, the worst act of maritime terrorism in recent years with more
than 100 passengers killed.
The latest incident occurred on Monday night, when a group of armed
pirates attacked a Japanese-registered tugboat in the northern part of
the strait, seizing its captain and two chief engineers. As a result,
Malaysia has pledged to boost security in the strait, dismissing any
need for international help to patrol the vital waterway that
separates peninsular Malaysia and Indonesia's island of Sumatra.
According to a report by The Associated Press, the security of the
Malacca Strait is the responsibility of Malaysia, Indonesia and
Singapore only, Kuala Lumpur said.
Two examples suffice to highlight the significance of the Malacca
Strait to international shipping. First, oil flows through the strait
are three times greater than those through the Suez Canal/Sumed
pipeline and 15 times greater than flows through the Panama Canal.
Second, two-thirds of the tonnage passing through the strait consists
of crude oil from the Persian Gulf bound for Japan, South Korea, and,
increasingly, China. More than a third of world trade and half of its
oil supplies passes through the strait. The International Maritime
Organization (IMO) estimates that if for some reason the strait was
closed, all excess shipping capacity would be absorbed, "with the
effects being strongest for crude oil shipments and dry bulk cargoes
such as coal ... [which] could be expected to immediately raise
freight rates worldwide"...
It is widely believed that the Acehnese separatist group the Free Aceh
Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or GAM) has been orchestrating acts of
piracy in the northern stretch of the Malacca Strait, particularly in
the past year. Malaysian marine police have suggested that the
kidnappers involved in Monday's attack could be GAM rebels, but the
group's spokesman, Sofyan Daud, has denied any such connection.
Significantly, attacks by GAM rebels have declined greatly since the
devastating tsunami of December 26, 2004, which destroyed coastal
communities in northern Aceh.
Yet there is growing concern that acts of piracy may be linked to
regional and global organizations such as al-Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah -
and GAM. From the vantage point of the shipping community, how does
the crew of a vessel transiting the strait differentiate an act of
boarding a vessel to stage a robbery at sea from that of boarding a
vessel with the intention to hijack and use it as a floating bomb?
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, changed the way the civil
aviation community handles hijacking incidents, because in that attack
the intention of the hijackers was to kill as many people as possible.
In the past, the intention was to get as much publicity and as much
ransom as possible, with minimum loss of life. Similarly, the maritime
community needs to pay greater attention to the risk of "low
probability, high impact scenarios", such as the hijacking of a tanker
or a liquid natural gas carrier for use as a human-guided missile, or
an attack on a commercial or naval vessel at narrow points in the
strait to disrupt traffic flows within the waterway.
The idea is not so far-fetched. Jemaah Islamiyah operatives arrested
in Singapore in late 2001 had undertaken operational surveillance and
were considering the possibility of an attack on US naval vessels in
waters off the Strait of Singapore. At its narrowest point, between
Raffles Lighthouse and Batu Berhenti, the strait is 1.2 nautical miles
wide. If a collision or grounding were to occur there, it would create
a natural bottleneck, aside from possibly polluting the maritime
The Malacca Strait's littoral states are cooperating to facilitate the
unimpeded passage of international sea-borne trade. Trilateral
coordinated patrols between the navies of Indonesia, Malaysia, and
Singapore have been implemented and are targeted against sea piracy
and maritime terrorism - but much more needs to be done.
The changed strategic environment in the Malacca Strait is of
particular interest to two communities of states. First, the littoral
states - Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore - because of the threat of
pollution and the possible risk of attacks on onshore facilities.
Second, the user states, especially Japan, China, and South Korea,
which are dependent on the strait for the smooth and efficient transit
of cargo, particularly energy supplies. Other user states are the
major maritime powers (such as the United States) that are concerned
about the possible threat to their naval vessels traversing through
Consequently, the status of the strait as a waterway used for
international shipping requires an inclusive approach to the future
management of the strait. Just as the littoral states have valid
concerns about the possible costs arising from pollution in the event
of a collision or grounding in the strait, user states are concerned
about the provision of appropriate facilities that could reduce the
risk of such accidents as well as prevent possible acts of piracy or
The 1982 United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) recognized
that user states had an interest in unimpeded passage through and over
straits used for international shipping. It limited the right of the
littoral states to regulate the passage of ships traversing the strait
but recognized the jurisdiction of the littoral states over illegal
activities taking place within their territorial waters. Article 43 of
UNCLOS provided for burden-sharing agreements between the littoral
states and user states: "(a) in the establishment and maintenance in a
strait of necessary navigational and; (b) safety aids and other
improvements in aid of international navigation; and for the
prevention, reduction and control of pollution from ships".
One should therefore conceive the forthcoming IMO-sponsored meeting in
Jakarta in September as the beginning of a process intended to address
issues of navigational safety, environmental protection, and maritime
security in the Malacca Strait.
The international shipping community is confronted with growing
challenges as a result of the exponential increase in shipping through
the strait as well as the new threat of catastrophic terrorism
post-September 11. There is a need for a new architecture facilitating
cooperative arrangements involving the littoral states and the user
states. One approach could be the institutionalization of the
IMO-sponsored meeting on the Malacca Strait involving all interested
parties. It could go beyond the modest objectives envisaged in the
original proposal to consider ways and means of implementing Article
43 of UNCLOS.
Such an inclusive process will strengthen the commitment of user
states to meet the costs of upgrading the capabilities of the littoral
states. It will also encourage the user states to ensure the provision
of safety and navigational aids and the establishment of
state-of-the-art electronic information systems. Over the longer term,
the formation of a regional coordinating center could be envisaged.
The center could help coordinate responses by naval, coast guard, and
marine police capabilities operating in or traversing through the
strait in the event of future acts of piracy or maritime terrorism.
Barry Desker is director of the Institute of Defense and Strategic
Studies, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore...
Is this "safety" approach a "back door" way of effectuating the internationalizing of the security of the Malacca Straits? Stranger things have happened...
But nations do not usually willingly give up sovereignty. So far the countries along the Strait have resisited "assistance" offers from the U.S. and Japan. Why should they accept a rather broad reading of Article 43 of UNCLOS which might allow for international enforcement of anti-piracy/anti-terrorism laws in their home waters?