The straits of Malacca and Singapore form one of the world’s busiest sealanes, with 50,000 vessels a year passing through, carrying half the world’s oil supplies and two-thirds of its liquefied natural gas to the energy-dependent economies of China, Japan and Korea.
The narrow and shallow straits are also one of the most dangerous, topping the global list for piracy attacks in a region where there are several well established terrorist groups.
It is this lethal combination that has persuaded some international security experts that the straits are destined to become the site of a major terrorist attack, with the potential of disrupting the shipping industry and making energy costs much higher for Asian users.
Although there are other maritime chokepoints, such as the Straits of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Malacca is considered the most vulnerable. Navigation along the 900km strait becomes constricted from Malaysia’s Port Klang down to Singapore, causing congestion as ships are forced to sail close to each other.
Security experts believe this provides the ideal conditions for several troubling scenarios. A co-ordinated attack on a group of vessels, for example, might scuttle the ships in the shallow passages and effectively block the strait.
Terrorists might also hijack an oil or LNG tanker and turn it into a floating bomb that could be detonated in a busy international port such as Singapore.
Such an attack would not halt energy supplies to Asia. Shippers could switch to alternative routes, such as the Sunda Straits in southern Indonesian waters.
The biggest impact would come in higher costs to ship oil and LNG supplies to Asia, which could slow economic growth.
Longer sailing times resulting from the closure of the Strait of Malacca would strain current tight shipping capacity, cause freight rates to increase and raise the price of new ships at a time when demand is exceeding supply, says Michael Richardson, a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. Ship and cargo insurance rates “would also skyrocket to prohibitive levels”, said Mr Richardson in a recent study.
The effect on the economies of greater China, Japan and Korea could be severe since more than 80 per cent of the oil they import now flows through the Malacca strait.
Some regional officials are warning that time is running short in preventing a major attack in the Malacca Strait. “Recent attacks have been conducted with almost military precision. The perpetrators are well trained, have well laid-out plans and have sophisticated weapons,” says Tony Tan, Singapore’s deputy prime minister.
There are suggestions that terrorists in the region may be conducting practice raids to hijack a tanker containing highly explosive gas or chemicals. In one incident in late April, eight pirates armed with guns took temporary control of a chemical tanker off Indonesia’s Bintan Island, near Singapore.
There has been a surge in the number of piracy attacks against oil and chemical tankers in the past year, according to the Kuala Lumpur-based anti-piracy centre of the International Maritime Bureau. The capture of tugboats and kidnapping of crew members is seen as part of a plan by terrorists to acquire skills in mounting a maritime attack, such as steering a seized tanker to a vulnerable point in the strait.
But officials in Malaysia and Indonesia suggest a less sinister reason for the attacks. They largely blame the kidnapping of crewmen on Indonesia’s Aceh rebels who are holding them for ransom to finance a separatist revolt on the island of Sumatra, while the capture of tugs is seen as aiding smuggling operations.
Threats of terrorist attacks have been “blown out of proportion”, says Syed Hamid Albar, Malaysia’s foreign minister, suggesting the US is exploiting the issue to justify military intervention.
The US is promoting a Regional Maritime Security Initiative to help safeguard the Malacca Strait. The programme would focus on sharing intelligence and increasing security co-operation among Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore with US help. But the Pentagon has also floated a proposal that the US could conduct joint patrols in the strait. Singapore, a close US ally, has backed the plan.
But Indonesia and Malaysia see the US plan as an infringement of sovereignty since the strait lies entirely in their territorial waters.
The diplomatic dispute underscores the difficulties of mounting international patrols in the straits.
While Malaysia and Singapore are seen as effective in cracking down on pirates, corruption and an under-funded navy in Indonesia have allowed piracy to flourish in its waters.
The resulting failure to deal with the piracy problem means the strait will remain a vulnerable point for east Asia’s energy imports.