Threats in the Straits of Malacca
Published August 23, 2012
By Felipe Umaña
Report available in PDF and Flash formats
The Straits of Malacca consist of a narrow but lengthy waterway that extends more than 500 miles from the eastern limits of the Andaman Sea to the South China Sea in Southeast Asia. Straddling the sea route between the Indonesian island of Sumatra, the Thai-Malay Peninsula, and the small city-state of Singapore, the Straits of Malacca are known globally for their economic, political, environmental, and strategic importance. The Straits themselves link the Indian Ocean to some of Asia’s most powerful economies, as well as many other trade-influential countries, like the United States, Germany, and Russia.
More than 60,000 vessels traverse the critical chokepoint per year, carrying more than a third of global trade. Due to the amount of traffic, the region is also home to some of the busiest ports in the world, particularly in Singapore. The Straits attract foreign investment with the amount of commerce and trade it supports. The Straits are also the focal point of legal and political issues, such as the sovereignty of territorial waters and the responsibility to secure the waterway. Likewise, the waterway is a source of environmental concern for the littoral countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. The maintenance of the environment is important to all three states in order to not deter tourism or development projects in the area, both of which can in turn influence the economic and political sectors directly. Finally, the Straits are crucial for worldwide communication and resource exchange, making them internationally significant.
Unfortunately, however, the Malacca Straits have become notorious for maritime robbery and pirate attacks, as well as for being a transit hub for myriad black markets and a haven for belligerent non-state actors. Indeed, in the area around the Straits of Malacca, porous borders and poorly monitored ports allow these threats to infiltrate the littoral nations. A lack of strong government control pervades in certain pockets and gives rise to corruption. In this governmental blind spot, crimes burgeon and flourish, and due to economic marginalization, individuals frequently turn to a life of crime, fueling hidden, black market economies. In addition, a number of separatist organizations and terrorist cells occupy land far from the control of governments, adding to the already high levels of state insecurity. To add to this slew of security threats, the South China Sea’s contested territorial disputes compound the stress and tension surrounding the Straits of Malacca.
Needless to say, the Straits of Malacca face multiple security issues that affect the three littoral states and the Straits’ user nations. In fact, its geographical position makes it not only valuable to the states that border the waterway, but also an intensely critical region for foreign countries dependent on any trade passing between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Security of these sea-lanes is therefore of paramount importance for state actors and should be galvanized on numerous levels.