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Safeguarding the Malacca Straits

Cdr Gurpreet S. Khurana was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • January 05, 2005

    The Southeast Asian states are critically dependent on regional sea-lanes for trade since most of them have embarked on the philosophy of export-led development. These are also the energy lifelines of the East Asian states and are equally vital for global trade. The Malacca Straits and Singapore Straits enclose the busiest of these sea-lanes, through which about a quarter of the world trade passes each year aboard 50,000 vessels. These vessels also carry about half of the world's oil and two-thirds of its Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) to the energy-dependent economies of China, Japan and South Korea. The oil flow through the Straits is three times greater than that through the Suez Canal and fifteen times more than that through the Panama Canal.

    Of late there have been periodic threats to the safety of the traffic moving through these straits from the Al Qaeda-linked regional terror network, the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), which continues to thrive in Southeast Asia. It was recently reported that the Al-Qaeda was in the possession of video footage of Malaysian police patrols in the Malacca Straits, indicating their potential interest in attacking the waterway. With the 805-km-long navigable channel being only 22 metres deep at its shallowest, only 1.2 nautical miles wide at its narrowest and lined with shipwrecks and shoal patches, an attack on oil tankers or vessels carrying potentially dangerous goods would be easy and rewarding for terrorists seeking to choke the straits, besides causing environmental pollution and severely affecting the littorals.

    The Australian government even claims that terrorists could be planning an attack on one of these sea-lanes with a dirty bomb. Besides, other non-conventional threats like piracy and drug trafficking are also rapidly proliferating in these straits.

    It is against this background that some extra-regional initiatives have been proposed with the aim of securing the Malacca Straits. India was requested by the littorals to provide security to the Straits during the 11t ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) Meet held earlier this year. Though reports are unconfirmed and the exact nature of the assistance sought is unclear, a senior Indian Navy Officer Cmde C Uday Bhaskar says: “Our role is being perceived as that of a responsible nation, which can create a balance in the region. Also, everyone realises that India has no ambitions of hegemony. The request also acknowledges India’s overall strategic capability.”

    In case the littorals had explored the possibility of asking for patrolling assistance informally, to which the Indian External Affairs Minister had given his nod ‘in principle’, it could have been seen as an extension of several such policing requests made to India lately (there have been such requests from Mozambique and Mauritius). The new Indian maritime doctrine also lays down multilateral naval cooperation as one of the guiding principles for naval forces to address common security concerns like protection of sea- lanes, terrorism, piracy, drug trafficking and transportation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) by sea. Besides being an endeavour to ‘build bridges of friendship’, providing security to the Malacca Straits is also vital for India due to the economic importance of energy and trade flow. It has expanding vital trading interests in the east with ASEAN and East Asia. With ASEAN, India’s trade grew by 30 per cent from US $7.6 b in 1999 to US $12.5 b in 2002 and it is projected to reach US $30 b by 2010. With China, it increased from US $3.6 b in 2001 to US $7.59 b in 2003. Though trade with Japan has been fluctuating it still remains one of India’s smajor trading partners. Trade with South Korea stood at just US $2 b, but it went up by 42 per cent till May 2004 (as compared to the corresponding period in the previous year). India’s energy demands are also heavy and growing and are projected to more than double by 2020. Insecure due to its heavy dependence on the Middle East, it intends to diversify its sources of energy in the East. Hence, security of its eastern sea-lines is an imperative that would only strengthen with time.

    In addition, the mercantile traffic transiting through the Malacca Straits passes through India’s maritime zone and any contingency in the straits has security and environmental implications for India. Piracy and armed robberies of vessels are steadily spilling over to the Bay of Bengal. On the basis of 2003 statistics, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) has termed Bangladesh and India as the second and third most prone countries, respectively, to such attacks, with Indonesia leading the pack. Little wonder then that India has been actively participating in curbing the threat. It also recently mooted a satellite communication network of littoral states for effective monitoring of ships’ passage across its maritime zone to forestall hijacking, piracy and transportation of WMD, wherein, a toll-free number enables ships to report their movement voluntarily.

    The Andaman and Nicobar Islands lie in the waters most frequented by drug-traffickers to fuel secessionist movements and associated terrorism. Besides joint-patrolling with Indonesia in the Andaman Sea since 2002, India has also planned a joint naval exercise with Thailand to boost cooperation in curbing arms smuggling.

    Indira Point, the southern tip of Andaman and Nicobar Islands is located barely 80 nm from Indonesia's Banda Aceh and is a 3-4 hours sailing distance from the western entrance of the Malacca Straits. All ships must approach the Straits either through the 10-Degree Channel that bisects these islands or through the 6-Degree Channel south of Indira Point. Using these islands as a base, India can play a significant role in protection of the Straits. Joint patrolling with the littorals would also provide the Indian Navy with greater operational experience in dealing with non-conventional threats that abound in India’s eastern seaboard, besides facilitating greater confidence building and cohesion with regional navies. India’s security assistance in the straits could even include a 'convoy protection scheme' that is being contemplated by the littorals and for which the Indian Navy has acquired the experience through its successful 2002 mission of escorting US high-value ships through the Malacca Straits. Even the US would be amenable to India’s operational role in the straits since it is aware that by acting ‘solo’, its counter-terrorism efforts in Southeast Asia would be futile.

    (Published in the Sahara Times, New Delhi, Page 10 on 01 January 2005. The views expressed are personal.)