Dire Strait? Energy Security in the Strait of Malacca | Wilson Center

Dire Strait? Energy Security in the Strait of Malacca

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An Asia Program Event, cosponsored by the Wilson Center's Division of International Security Studies and Environmental Change and Security Program; Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies; and the U.S. Army's Dwight D. Eisenhower National Security Series.

Foreign Policy magazine recently designated the Strait of Malacca as one of the world's five top global chokepoints. This narrow waterway, which divides Indonesia's Sumatra Island and western Malaysia, is a hub of global trade and one of the world's busiest sealanes. Significant amounts of the world's energy needs pass through the strait, including large percentages of Northeast Asia's oil and liquid natural gas (LNG). There is concern, however, that piracy and terrorism may jeopardize the safe transport of these energy needs. This Asia Program event sought to make a measured assessment of energy security in the Malacca Strait.

Mikkal E. Herberg provided an overview of the Malacca Strait's energy geopolitics. He projected that by 2030, two-thirds of Asia's total oil consumption will pass through the strait, including 22 million barrels of oil per day. He asserted, however, that assessing energy security in the Malacca Strait requires a broad framework. The Malacca Strait, he argued, is a "codeword" for the sealanes of East and Southeast Asia as a whole. In the event of a blockage in the strait, tankers could use alternate sea routes. For this reason, control of Southeast Asia's many sealanes is a paramount energy security concern; by 2030, for example, the South China Sea is expected to service as much LNG as the Strait of Malacca. While the United States "dominates" the sealanes today, Herberg averred that China fears this dominance and may seek to reduce it.

Catherine Zara Raymond analyzed the Strait of Malacca's maritime security challenges. She argued that piracy threats are exaggerated; today's incidents are largely limited to robberies on small ships staged by lightly armed pirates. She also highlighted oft-mentioned terrorism scenarios. One involves sinking a ship and blocking the strait, while another envisions using an LNG tanker as a "floating bomb" to explode in a port. Raymond minimized the likelihood of these scenarios, noting that the strait—even at its narrowest point—is too wide to block off shipping traffic, and that terrorists would find land-based targets more accessible than oil tankers. Raymond also played down the possibility of a "terrorism-piracy nexus," given that terrorists are motivated by ideology while pirates are driven by money. A somewhat more likely prospect is a terrorist attack on a small tanker—such as those on the Limburg and USS Cole off Yemen.

David Rosenberg spoke about the impact of energy security on the environment. While "user" nations such as the United States, Japan, and China worry about piracy and terrorism compromising their freedom of navigation through the Strait of Malacca, the "littoral" states (Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore) are anxious about security issues like pollution. In the 1990s, fires were set to clear land across Indonesia, generating smoke haze. The resulting damage prompted littoral states to collaborate on regional haze monitoring programs and, later, oil spill monitoring initiatives. All the same, "burden-sharing" is a major challenge, Rosenberg noted, as user and littoral states must decide who finances both environmental protection and maritime security projects. This challenge is becoming more urgent with traffic in the strait increasing and vessel sizes growing, imposing an added burden on the strait's environmental resources.

Bronson Edwards Percival addressed future challenges for maritime security in the Malacca Strait. He posited that piracy has declined, maritime terrorism has not occurred, and safety and environmental concerns are misplaced—yet regional cooperation is still wanting. Percival praised initiatives such as the Eye in the Sky arrangement (which emphasizes the littoral states' aerial surveillance of the strait), but he lamented Malaysia's lack of leadership; Indonesian elites' lack of attention; and the absence of U.S.-Japanese cooperation on maritime security. Another key challenge over the next three to five years is how to improve the rapid response capabilities of the littoral states. And above all, Percival concluded, the world must determine how to accommodate the "energy angst" of India and China.

Drafted by Michael Kugelman and edited by Robert M. Hathaway.