Who owns the Malacca Strait?

Just two days after Indonesia hosted a two-day international discussion on maritime security, the International Maritime Bureau again urged Indonesia to increase patrols in its waters to clamp down on piracy.

According to the Associated Press, the global maritime watchdog issued the warning after sea pirates attacked a Malaysian barge on Aug. 13 in the Malacca Strait. Two Indonesian sailors were released after the pirates received a ransom. It was the third such incident this year alone.

Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore are the littoral states of the Malacca Strait, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. Indonesia controls the majority of the sea lane. Singapore controls the smallest area of the strait, but the city-state enjoys the biggest economic benefit from shipping activities.

Indonesia is often cited as the main source of pirates operating in the Malacca Strait. But it is very firm in its position that all three of the countries are fully responsible for security in the strait.

However, Indonesia lacks the capacity to exercise its duties because its Navy is smaller and not as well equipped as the navies of Malaysia and Singapore.

Other countries -- no matter how vital the security of the strait is for their economies -- can only provide technical assistance to help Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore ensure safe and secure passage through the 805-kilometer shipping lane.

While we fully support the sovereignty of the three countries, we also want to remind them that all stakeholders in the strait have the right to play a role in ensuring the safety of this vital waterway. Major Asian economic powers like Japan and China want more of a role in patrolling the waters, because they depend on the strait for the transportation of commodities like oil and gas.

During his summit with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Jakarta last week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reportedly raised his concerns over security in the Malacca Strait and tried to persuade Yudhoyono to soften Indonesia's opposition to foreign vessels helping to patrol the strait.

Indonesia can not simply claim sovereignty and reject any foreign presence in the strait, especially when it remains the main base for pirates there and has so far failed to ensure safe passage through its waters.

It is also difficult simply to dismiss whispers overseas -- although there is no evidence --- that rogue elements of the Indonesian Navy turn a blind eye to activities of pirates for a cut of the profit.

As long as Indonesia remains unable to play a credible and sustainable role in maintaining security and safety in the Malacca Strait, it will remain difficult for other countries with strong economic and political interests in the waterway simply to entrust Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore to handle security responsibilities.

The three states have every right to maintain their sovereignty over the strait, for their commercial and security interests. They also have the rights to ask for more economic benefits from the foreign parties.

But as long as piracy and other security problems remain a concern, it will be nearly impossible for them to continue rejecting the presence of foreign powers in the strait.

Indonesia should not be overly rigid in maintaining its territorial sovereignty when a more flexible approach can yield greater benefits, especially in terms of economic advantages and safer passage through the strait for the international community.

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