Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

With a Little Help from My Friends: Maritime Capacity-Building Measures in the Straits of Malacca

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

With a Little Help from My Friends: Maritime Capacity-Building Measures in the Straits of Malacca

Article excerpt

Sandwiched between the east coast of Sumatra, Indonesia and the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, lies the 500-mile (800 km) Straits of Malacca, one of the world's most pivotal waterways. The sea lane, (2) the world's longest and busiest used for international navigation, hosts over 70,000 vessel movements annually, (3) and provides a crucial trade link between the East and the West. A staggering 15 million barrels of crude oil--a third of the world's oil trade--passed through the Straits in 2006, (4) while an estimated 30 per cent of world trade is shipped through the waterway each year. (5)

What is known geographically as the Straits of Malacca is in fact more than just the southern part of the waterway where the territorial seas of the littoral states overlap. The Straits of Malacca is defined as the area lying between the west coast of Thailand and Malaysia in the northeast, and the coast of Sumatra in the southwest. (6) The frequent use of the term "littoral states" in the discourse of the Straits may suggest uniformity of views among Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. To the contrary, however, there exist differing interests and perceptions among the three nations. Indonesia takes a strong stand on protecting its sovereign rights in the Straits which it deems crucial to the country's territorial integrity and national defence, and is conscious that the Sumatran side of the waterway is not as well developed as the Malaysian and Singapore sides. Malaysia views the Straits as an important facilitator of trade and a provider of resources and recreation. Meanwhile, Singapore, whose economy depends on the continued free flow of maritime trade, views the waterway as an economic lifeline and is more concerned with the security and safety of the southern part of the waterway that juts into the Straits of Singapore.

One position the littorals indisputably have in common is that the Straits of Malacca holds tremendous socio-economic and strategic value. This view is core to the cooperation that has been forged among the littoral states over the years to collectively maintain order in the Straits and to ensure that it remains open to shipping, while at the same time ensuring their own national interests are protected.

The United Nations Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) accords the Straits the status of an international strait in which freedom of passage for all users is guaranteed. However, UNCLOS also affirms the sovereignty and sovereign rights of the coastal states over the waterway. (7) Although the management of the Straits is the responsibility of the littoral states, issues and problems concerning the waterway attract international attention on account of its vital importance to global trade and its strategic value to the international community.

However, there exists a notable divergence in the way the stakeholders of the Straits view this strategic sea line of communication (SLOC). The Straits is perceived by external powers in "hard" terms as a shipping lane that should be kept open at all times and as a pivotal SLOC of immense strategic value to the regional maritime balance of power. The economic powerhouses of northeast Asia--Japan, China and South Korea--depend on the Straits for trade and energy imports and persistently emphasize the need to secure ships passing the waterway. A rising India, meanwhile, considers its navy as a stabilizing force in the Indian Ocean, and thus pays close attention to the Straits of Malacca.

The littoral states, on the other hand, tend to perceive the Straits in "soft" terms: as a sea lane facilitating interregional trade, as a key source of food for their populations, a source of recreation and revenue from tourism, and as a sensitive marine ecosystem that needs to be protected from environmental degradation. Differing views between the user states and the littoral states often leads to contention in the use of the Straits and over how it should be properly managed. …

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