Energy security and trade between the economies in East Asia and ASEAN depend extensively on maritime security in the critical passages of the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea.
The Sunda Strait and the Lombok Strait are important secondary channels to link these economies to major markets in case of a catastrophe along the Malacca Strait.
While there has never been a terrorist attack or accident that effectively cordoned off the Malacca Strait, there is a need to prepare for such possibility to ensure that trade in and out of the region will not come to a near halt.
In view of the potential for disasters or security situations to affect vital waterways, there is a need for cooperation capable of averting and managing any potential crisis that could cause major economic damage to the region’s economy.
Data from the WTO underscores the urgency of the matter. Japan was the top importer of fuel from the Middle East in 2011 with US$116 billion worth of fuel passing through the Malacca Strait, while Korea and China imported $76 billion and $62 billion worth of fuel respectively from the same source and passing through the same channel.
The economies of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines also depend on fuel imports from the Middle East to meet the domestic needs of industries, for electricity generation as well as for the growing public use of motor vehicles.
Aside from fuel, ASEAN’s economies, China, Japan and South Korea also export textiles, clothing, electronics, cars and food products through the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea on daily basis.
These high-value products are transported by large bulk carriers though waters with elevated risks of piracy, terrorism and, more importantly, a high possibility of collision.
Despite measures taken by the Port Authority of Singapore, several collisions have taken place in the Singapore Strait, and the potential for larger collisions in the shallow Malacca Strait remains high.
While piracy has been under control, risks remain high that terrorists might be able to paralyze the economies of the region by striking at the flow of fuel hat support daily economic activities.
There is also a possibility that a more sophisticated attack might be planned on undersea gas pipelines and telecommunications cables that link the nations of the South China Sea and the Java Sea. We cannot ignore these scenarios as remote undersea vehicles could carry out such attacks.
At the moment, the ASEAN Maritime Forum and the ASEAN Regional Forum have gone into extensive discussions on strategies to manage piracy; the smuggling of goods, people and narcotics; terrorism and marine disasters.
China and Japan are two of the keenest participants in the forums, as their economies depend extensively on the ability of ASEAN to manage security of the vital waterways.
These forums have resulted in coordinated training and patrols among navies, arrangements to authorize “hot pursuit” into the maritime territory of other countries, streamlining port operations and security procedures and building a Maritime Electronic Highway that would monitor and identify the movement of all shipping along the Malacca Strait. All those preventive measures have been effective so far.
Now as ASEAN heads toward the formation of the ASEAN Economic Community and toward greater connectivity among the 10 member economies and the major economies in our region, there is a need for closer collaboration in upholding maritime security.
Threats to maritime security have been on the rise. Increased reliance on interconnected computer navigation and communication systems has led to new vulnerabilities. Any breakdown in such systems as a result of hacking or software failure could cause accidents at sea. The easy availability of small, low-flying planes to avoid protection could also pose a threat to the vessels carrying fuel.
As long as there are growing geopolitical tensions in the Middle East and a sustained agenda by terrorists groups to strike at governments and trade, the risks along the Malacca Strait remain high.
Further, there is an apparent rivalry in naval capabilities among nations contending for control of the South China Sea.
As China, Vietnam and other claimants of the Spratley Islands flex their naval muscles, there is a risk. While ASEAN is pushing for ratification of the Code of Conduct by all parties, there is still a need to take more proactive measures.
The writer is a graduate researcher at the international relations department at Jenderal Soedirman University in Purwokerto, Central Java.