Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is indeed a pleasure for me to be here today to talk to you on a topic of much interest to the international maritime community i.e. The Security of the Straits of Malacca and its implications to the South East Asia Regional Security.
Until the early part of this decade, discourse on the Security of the Straits of Malacca (SOM) has always centered on maritime security issues such as piracy, illegal fishing, smuggling, contraband and illicit materials. However, since the post 9 – 11 tragedy, the debate has shifted to the potential threat of seaborne terrorism and the risk of terrorist attack on ships transiting along the 885 km waterway. The maritime community also started to link the possibility of a nexus between piracy and terrorism and how piratical activities might become tools of terrorists. Some even raised the possibility of terrorists hijacking tankers and damaging major port facilities.
This concern led to the renewed international interest in the security of the Straits and fanned negative media coverage on it. As a result, the SOM was categorized by Lloyds Market Association (LMA) of London in June 2005, as a “war risk zone”, which it later revoked in August 2006.
While no concrete nexus has proven to exist, there was in fact a decline in the number of actual and attempted attacks against ships passing the Straits. In comparison to the year 2003 and 2004 that recorded 28 and 37 cases respectively, the year 2006 only recorded 11 cases with 19 cases in 2005.
The anxiety towards security in the SOM has raised many questions as well as perceptions from major user countries. As stakeholders have different priorities and expectations with respect to actions taken to overcome these threats, it gave the impression that the littoral states do not have the essential capacity to safeguard and ensure secure passage of their sea trade.
Acknowledging its significance and strategic importance of the Straits, let me address the topic on a wider scope that include socio-economic, environmental and navigational safety issues.
For centuries, the SOM is recognized as a pivotal sea lane linking the region’s economy with the rest of the world. Located in one of the world’s most vibrant economic growth areas, it is a crucial link for international trade and transportation. Its immense socio-economic and geo-political importance is not only confined to the littoral states of Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand but also to the international community.
As a littoral state, 80 percent of Malaysia’s trade passes through the Straits, while 70 percent of its fishermen are concentrated along the coastline, reaping more than 380,000 tons of fish estimated at USD 0.32 billion annually. Our main container ports are located along the coast of the SOM. Many of our marine resorts and tourist spots are also located along the Straits, contributing significantly to tourism revenue. In addition, there are also independent power plants along the Straits vicinity which are dependent on water intake from the sea. In short, the Straits provide livelihood and employment to a lot of people in Malaysia, underscoring its socio-economic importance to the nation.
A similar pattern of socio-economic dependence is observed for Indonesia. As for Singapore, its maritime sector is its economic life line. The throughput at the Port of Singapore, the world’s busiest container port, would suffer should a situation arises in the Straits that would affect the flow of traffic. The consequence to its economy would be calamitous. Hence, it is vital to the economies of the littoral states that the sea lane is open, safe and secure all the times.
Beyond the littoral states, the SOM is also important to the international community with more than 30 percent of the world trade and half of the world’s oil shipment at an estimated capacity of 11 million barrel per day passes through the Straits.
The Straits is also important to the economies of Asian and North East Asian countries of course including South Korea, as 90 per cent of the ships transiting the Straits are destined for these countries. In addition nearly half of the largest container shipping lanes and 18 of the world’s top container ports are based in this region, which collectively own 30 per cent of the total world shipping tonnage.
With the growing interdependency among nations and the increasing reliance on trade to power the economic engines, the role of the Straits too has become more prominent, and its security becomes an issue of paramount concern to not only the East Asian countries but also their trading partners. Besides its significance as a trade lane, the SOM is also a vital passage for energy transportation with 70 percent of Japan and 80 percent of China’s oil imports from the Middle East passes through the Straits. In today’s increasingly integrated global economy, energy supply has become the life line to the international trade, transport and economic systems.
Besides the economic concern, the SOM is also threatened by issues of navigational safety. The waterway is still an accident-prone area. This is despite the fact that the navigational aids to facilitate smooth flow of traffic in the Straits are already in place.
At the same time, the volume of traffic has increased dramatically over a short period with over 62,600 ships sailed through in 2005, compared to 44,000 ships in 1999, i.e. a 42 per cent increase within a six year period. In light of the increase in global trade and the rise of East Asian economies the volume is expected to increase to an estimated 100,00 within the next decade.
The volume of traffic alone underlines the huge challenge that the littoral states have to face to ensure safety of navigation in this already navigationally challenging Straits. The projection of an increase in the traffic will most definitely exert a bigger financial demand to the littoral states to ensure security and navigational safety.
Based on what I have alluded this far, Malaysia and the other littoral states are concerned over the high costs they have to incur in maintaining initiatives already in place, upgrading them and perhaps introducing new ones, towards meeting the expectations of the international users of the Straits.
Considering the fact that a majority of vessels traversing it are merely on transit and do not stop at ports along the Straits, the littoral states are in fact feeling aggrieved by the huge expenses they have to bear. Further, the international users’ lukewarm response in terms of resources needed to upkeep the safety of navigation is indeed worrying.
Let me now briefly touch on the issue of environmental threat. The increase in traffic volume and, sometime heavy fog poses the risk of ship collisions and the threat of shore-based pollution. Accidents threaten the health of the Straits eco-system, particularly when cargo and oil spill over major fishing grounds and beaches. From the year 1995 to 2003 there were 44 cases of collisions and 15 cases of grounding occurred in the SOM. Obviously Malaysia and other littoral states face a huge challenge in mitigating the risk of pollution in the management of the Straits in the years to come.
Initiatives By Littoral States
Let me now briefly highlight some of the initiatives undertaken by the littoral state in recent years to ensure the safety and security of the Straits. The Navies of the littoral states launched the MASLINDO, a coordinated patrol in 2004 to provide the year round patrol. To complement the MASLINDO, the `Eyes in the Sky’ (EIS), a maritime air operation and surveillance was launched. Both, MASLINDO and Eyes in the sky, have provided visible deterrence, thus contributing to a dramatic decline in the incidence of piracy and sea-robbery in the Straits.
Malaysia too has undertaken various unilateral measures which include the formation of Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) a Coast Guard-type outfit providing maritime surveillance and police services in looking after the safety of vessels transiting Malaysian waters. In addition, there were significant increase in patrols by Malaysians Police in the Straits resulting in several arrests and prosecution of pirates and gang robberies.
Meanwhile, several regional and international initiatives have been taken to boost security. These include agreements on information exchange and establishment of communication procedures, treaty of mutual assistance in criminal matters and regional forum framework on measures against terrorism, counter-terrorism and transnational crimes.
The manner and speed in which the initiatives were implemented underline the seriousness and commitment of the littoral states in forging regional maritime security cooperation and enforcement. Given the low number of incidents of collision and pollution in the Straits, vis-à-vis the volume of traffic, and the drastic drop in piracy attacks, it can be safely said that the measures taken by the littoral states are effective.
Collaboration and Cooperation of Stakeholders
It is regrettable to note that the international users have thus far not matched their usage of the Straits with contribution to the costs of maintaining its safety and security. Japan however has been forthcoming in their assistance and resources to enhance navigational safety through the installation and maintenance of navigational aids as well as pollution preventive measures. Japan recently handed over a training ship from the Nippon Foundation to the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency.
Malaysia finds it difficult to accept that while the international users consider the Straits as an international sea lane which they have the right to use, however, the efforts of maintaining and securing the waterway have always been regarded the responsibility of the littoral states. The high expectations from the international users and the increased in volume of traffic have indeed imposed considerable demand and financial burden on the littoral states.
The SOM will continue to face a plethora of challenges, whether existing or emerging in the years ahead. There is thus a need for the littoral states and the stakeholders to go beyond the confidence building stage to concrete collaboration by realizing modalities for cooperation. The Blue Print of cooperation should involve the littoral states and stakeholders based on the approach of proactive rather than reactive and anticipative rather than passive doctrine. Focus thus should be given to further strengthening capacity building, training and exploring modalities for burden sharing. These issues I believe have been discussed at the IMO Meetings since 2005. It is Malaysia’s hope that the matter would be expedited in a more resolute manner.
In conclusion, let me reiterate that being a vital passage in which regional and international stakeholders have interests, it is inevitable that global attention is accorded to the security and safety of the SOM. Meanwhile, the eagerness of the international community to undertake measures to “internationalize” the Straits to protect their interest should be cautioned as it may have repercussions on regional security interests.
Given the many interest, multiple perspectives and opposing views, it is important that any actions to mitigate the security threats are agreed in a consensual manner. This must be done in full consultation with the littoral states and taking cognizance of their sensitivities, national interest and sensitivities. Hence it is essential that the stakeholders accentuate on points of convergence rather than divergence in reconciling the perspectives and interests.