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The Malacca Strait has a unique geographical outlook. It is a shared border of four littoral states (mainly three), namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. Moreover, the strait connects three major oceans: the South China Sea in the North with the Indian Ocean in the South, including the Pacific Ocean.
The strait is also a long and narrow waterway. It extends about 600 nautical miles, which makes it the longest navigational strait in the world. Regarding its width, the strait varies between 11 nautical miles at its narrowest point and 200 nautical miles at its widest. Thus, not all parts are navigable.
At certain points, the navigable route may even be less than a nautical mile wide. In addition, there is one part of the strait in which the recommended passing-through ships’ draught needs to be less than 20 meters deep.
Beside its unique features, the Malacca Strait is one of the busiest straits in the world. The strait accommodates more than 60,000 transiting ships annually.
This figure is nearly three times that of the Panama Canal and twice the traffic that travels through the Suez Canal. The huge utilization of the strait, therefore, relates closely with many fundamental global factors, such as economics, energy security and militarization.
Data depicts that the strait’s traffic represents about a third of the world’s trade. Other literature claims that the rising energy demands from large industrial states like the US and Japan, and new industrial powers, such as China and India, place more energy-security dependence on the strait.
In addition, today’s dynamic condition of global military-related issues has intensified the strait’s function as a shortcut in reaching any trouble spot throughout the world. In short, these combined factors indicate the strategic significance of the Malacca Strait to the world, which may grow even larger within the near future.
In practical terms, the global dependence upon the Malacca Strait produces another concern. It is a general principle that a state’s interest must come first.
Thus, global intervention, especially by major powers, upon issues concerning the strait, is unavoidable. Conversely, such intervention is also unacceptable for the littoral states, since the strait mostly encloses their territorial seas.
The presence of foreign powers in the strait will only raise suspicions among the littoral states when it does not emanate from a common agreement.
In fact, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has a particular provision that regulates straits such as the Strait of Malacca — the strait used for International navigation. According to Part III of UNCLOS, there are two regimes of passage applied to the strait; they are transit passage and innocent passage.
Regarding the transit passage regime, there is still some vagueness about the provisions, which can be interpreted in a variety of ways.
For instance, there is a reference to “normal mode” during transit, which can mean anything to a transiting ship. With this “normal mode”, a submarine can submerge when passing through or a carrier can deploy its aircraft, establishing air cover when transiting — but these maneuvers would likely pose a threat if implemented.
Moreover, although there is an innocent passage regime through the strait, it differs from “the passage original form” since it cannot be suspended by anyone as can the transit passage.
Other UNCLOS provisions concerning piracy are also ambiguous. In Article 101, piracy is defined as “any illegal act”, containing “violence, depredation or detention with private ends” that takes place on the high seas, meaning outside the jurisdiction of any particular state.
With such a definition, any such act that happens in the Malacca Strait’s gray areas — where international and littoral states’ interests intersect — cannot be covered. The definition becomes more inadequate still in facing crimes committed by non-state actors, such as terrorism and drug and human trafficking, or with a criminal nexus like narco-terrorism, which usually has a mixed goal, be it political or economic.
Once more, the strait’s complexities have created “a zero-sum game” situation. On one hand, the littoral states want to be responsible for security within their own jurisdictions. On the other hand, other states, especially the major powers, do not want to take any chance by leaving their vital interests to the littoral states’ discretion.
Thus, in order to alter the situation into “a positive-sum game”, cooperation among all stakeholders
Undeniably, there is already some cooperation and collaborative initiatives in which security in the strait is the main objective. These include the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP), the Regional Maritime Security Initiative (RMSI), the Container Security Initiative (CSI) and Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI).
Nevertheless, these partnerships are politically sensitive and their achievements are constrained by their initiators. As mentioned earlier, if one of the littoral states is unsupportive, cooperation is likely to go nowhere.
Take the RMSI for example. It was proposed by the US in 2004 with a famous vision of “a one-thousand ship Navy” securing the sea, especially the Malacca Strait. Although Singapore was a supporter of the initiative, it was unsuccessful since the other two littoral states, Malaysia and Indonesia, rejected it. Similarly, the CSI and PSI have been less than successful in their respective applications in the strait, as they were given a lukewarm reception by Indonesia. These examples show that solid commitment by all littoral states is imperative for cooperation to be successful.
Perhaps the most successful example of cooperation has been the Malacca Strait Security Initiative (MSSI). It was established by the three main littoral states (Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore) in 2004. Moreover, cooperation between these states brought them to agree upon combining their naval and air patrols (the Eye in the Sky or EiS) on the strait. Unfortunately, it is not a collective security framework.
Adopting the “ASEAN way” of non-interference, cooperation is merely a mechanism of “taking care of oneself” in a collective way. This appears in the absence of “hot pursuit” agreements and the very limited maneuvering space for operations (three nautical miles from EiS states’ coastlines). Hence, although it has been in operation for almost eight years, it is still criticized as being merely “an exchange of scheduling activities”.
In conclusion, the Malacca Strait is a global strategic dilemma that needs a cooperative solution. The littoral states are the decisive stakeholders in achieving cooperation for the sake of the strait.
This cannot be achieved, however, if the major standing body in the region, ASEAN, does not move toward a collective security phase. In fact, what does exist is the Five Powers’ Defense Arrangements (FPDA), in which Malaysia and Singapore are members. Yet again, this is ironic since the initial FPDA aimed to contain another fellow ASEAN state, namely Indonesia.
The writer has a master’s degree in maritime policy from the University of Wollongong, Australia, and a postgraduate diploma in strategic studies from Massey University, New Zealand.