The subject of exposure to acts of terrorism and piracy has once again been occupying minds in the SE Asia region with governments anxious to protect the existing levels of commercial traffic and to secure expansion of tourist and leisure sectors connected with the waterways. Two recent conferences, a symposium in Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur at the end of May on developing marine tourism, and an annual Asia Security Conference on in early June were attended by Defense Ministers from the region and beyond, and each brought up the sensitive issue of the Malacca Strait, the narrow, 800-kilometer (500-mile) shipping lane situated between Malaysia and Indonesia which has of late been subject to a number of violent piracy attacks. For the year 2004 the International Maritime Bureau, based in London, recorded 37 separate pirate attacks on vessels. These occurred despite coordinated marine patrols mounted by Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.
But according to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong the region “remained under threat from terror attacks” who are eyeing the narrow Strait, through which about 50,000 ships pass each year. “The threat is real and urgent” Lee insists, speaking at an interview on Radio Singapore International, “We know that terrorists have been studying maritime targets across the region.” [http://rsi.com.sg].
Disruption of the sea route would have immediate economic and strategic repercussions, and far beyond Southeast Asia. The Malacca Strait is one of the world’s most important stretches of water, the 50,000 ships that pass though it annually account for about one third of global trade, and half the world’s oil. Singapore, along with Indonesia, has also inaugurated a new surveillance radar system at the beginning of June to upgrade security in the Singapore Strait, which is located between the city state and Indonesia’s Riau archipelago. The strait links the Malacca Straits with the South China Sea.
The issue of improving security, however, is fraught with political complications. Coordinated patrols are one thing, but active pursuit of suspicious vessels requires a level of operational autonomy that allows for unprecedented instant access to neighboring territorial waters. Sensitivities on this in the region remain high. A territorial dispute between Malaysia and Indonesia, over demarcation in the Sulawesi Sea, soured relations between the two countries recently. According to a report in the Filipino daily the Manila Times, director of the Maritime Enforcement Coordinating Center, Abdul Hadi Rashid, maintained that talks between Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines to allow pursuit remain “at a discussion level.” What is being mooted is the establishment of on-board ‘liaison officers’ who would be able to obtain immediate approval from their own governments [http://www.manilatimes.net].
An extra complication is Singapore’s repeated calls for U.S. help in policing the Malacca Strait. Singapore considers itself particularly exposed to the threat of terrorism, being a major base for Western businesses in Asia, and having already foiled a planned attack by Jemaah Islamiah militants in 2001. The call for U.S. assistance has, in the past, created friction with Singapore’s neighbors Indonesia and Malaysia, but Prime Minister Lee is pushing for more discussions at a forthcoming meeting of foreign ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. To date, there has only been one sea-borne terrorism incident in the region, a bomb placed on a super ferry in the Philippines in February 2004 – attributed to the Abu Sayyaf movement. According to Pottengal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau’s piracy center, the majority of attacks on shipping have been “opportunist, low-level crimes”. But the Singapore government press release carried Prime Minister Lee’s warning that groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah are “morphing into a loose web of dispersed individuals and small groups, highly resistant to penetration and detection,” signaling that the threat remains significant [http://app.sprinter.gov.sg].