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The straits and narrows of Malacca

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Straits of Malacca

The straits of Malacca is the worst choke point, 2 kms wide at its narrowest near Singapore, for shipping between the Indian and the Pacific Oceans, constituting 40% of the world’s trade! Maritime powers have historically tried to keep an outpost here: Port Blair, Singapore, Banda Aceh. So did pirates, until recently, as an article from Time magazine reported:

For centuries, the Strait of Malacca has been one of the great thoroughfares of global commerce. In the old days of wood and sail, the 500-mile ribbon of water, which connects the Indian and Pacific oceans between Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, carried pricey spices from the islands of the Indies to the eager markets of the West. Today, about 40% of the world’s trade passes through the strait on 50,000 vessels that ply its waters every year. Oil from the Persian Gulf flows east to China and Asia’s other voracious economies, which in turn send back manufactured goods to the Middle East and Suez Canal.

With such juicy pickings, it’s no wonder that the strait has long been a popular hunting ground for pirates. The sheer quantity of ships passing through its confined space — at one point the strait narrows to a mere 1.7 miles — makes spotting potential targets easy for pirates, and its route is a Hollywood-ready seascape of tropical isles and secret coves, providing ample hideaways. Earlier this decade, the waterway’s piracy problem reached crisis levels. Attacks ranged from small-scale robberies by lightly armed desperados to highly organized hijackings of giant vessels by teams of professionals. According to the International Maritime Bureau of the International Chamber of Commerce, the Strait of Malacca suffered 38 actual or attempted pirate attacks in 2004, the second highest total in the world after Indonesia. “We don’t stand a chance” against the pirates, an Indonesian naval officer conceded at the time.

But today, it’s the pirates who are on the run. While piracy in Africa has become a major international security concern, the problem in the strait has been almost completely eradicated. Only two attacks were attempted there in 2008, even as the global total reached a record high.

A series of measures [were] taken collectively, mainly by Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, with some cooperation from Thailand, that significantly improved security in the strait. Beginning in 2004, the local armed forces organized coordinated sea patrols. Each side polices its own territorial waters, but they communicate with one another on potential pirate activity, greatly enhancing the effectiveness of the patrols. In 2005, they added regular sorties of airplanes to scout the strait for pirates. The flights are undertaken by crews with nationals from the different countries so they can better share information. Intelligence gathered on pirates is also disseminated among governments, including on a Web-based network for quick and easy access. These actions, taken together, made it far more costly and difficult for the pirates to operate. “It dawned on the states that piracy is transnational and nothing that could be handled by one nation alone,” says Nazery Khalid, senior fellow at the Maritime Institute of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. “The sea doesn’t respect borders.”

It is also a strategic point where the Indian and Chinese maritime zones overlap. Avoiding this choke point is the driver behind China’s expansion into the Indian Ocean through Burma and Pakistan.

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

February 23, 2011 at 3:57 am

One Response

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  1. […] control over shipping. All shipping between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific must pass through the Straits of Malacca, which Singapore and India can control, and the South China Sea. So control over that sea is clearly of geopolitical importance. […]


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