Asia's interest in the Middle East - The Straits of Hormuz

Michael Richardson | 21 Nov 2020

The United States recently led the first multinational naval exercise in the Persian Gulf to practice interception of ships suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction. Iran responded by holding its own military manoeuvres near the mouth of the Gulf – the third such show of strength this year. Both operations served to remind Asia of its interests in the Middle East. These go beyond Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terror.

The Gulf is a huge energy export hub. There is only one way into and out of it by sea - through the 34-mile wide Hormuz strait, between Iran in the north and Oman in the south. The giant tankers passing through the strait carry about 40% of all the crude oil traded in the world each day. The US draws about 22% of its oil imports from the Gulf. This meets 12% of its total oil consumption. America's NATO allies in Europe buy 30% of their imported oil from the Gulf.

Most of the rest of the oil goes to Asia, mainly to US allies and friends in the region. Japan imports all its oil and 89% comes from the Middle East, defined as the Gulf oil exporters plus Oman and Yemen. Asia's two emerging economic giants, China and India, are also heavily reliant on the Middle East for their oil supplies, India for about 70% of its imports and China for around 46%. South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and the Philippines each depend on the Gulf for over 70% of their oil imports.

Overall, the Middle East supplies nearly 75% of Asia's oil import needs, making the region by far the most import customer. This relationship is expected to strengthen even further as Asian oil production plateaus and demand rises.

What could threaten this oil lifeline, which is closely guarded by the US and partner navies? The Bush administration has said it will not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran. However, Teheran has vowed to continue its nuclear activities, insisting the program is for peaceful purposes. It has warned that any attack on Iran would endanger the region's oil supplies. In April, and again in August this year, the Iranian military held naval manoeuvres and fired torpedoes and missiles near the Hormuz strait, evidently to show how easily it could be blocked.

Iranian forces are the strongest local fighting units in the Gulf. Using the country's oil wealth, they have been re-equipped, modernised and re-organised since their nadir at the end of the eight-year war with Iraq in 1988. They could, at least temporarily, halt commercial shipping traffic through the Hormuz strait. But if Iran were to try to close the strait with its mines, missiles, submarines, small attack craft and larger naval vessels, coastal artillery and aircraft, it could expect widespread international condemnation and retaliatory strikes if the blockade was not ended promptly. The economic and other costs to Iran itself would also be high.

However, there is a parallel threat to US and allied assets from non-state actors in the Gulf. This threat, too, appears to be on the rise. Iran has been bolstering fellow Shiites in the Lebanese Hezbollah with arms and money. The guerrilla group is regarded by the US, Britain, Israel and several other countries as a terrorist organisation. Among the new weapons that have been transferred to Hezbollah by Iran and Syria are long-range anti-ship missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles and closer-range armour-piecing missiles and rocket-propelled grenades – all capable of causing varying degrees of damage to ships. For example, in July Hezbollah used a Chinese-designed C-802 radar-guided cruise missile supplied by Iran to severely damage one of Israel's most modern warships. The missile is one of the most lethal of its kind in the world.

In September, as Hezbollah trumpeted its claimed victory over Israel in the fighting in southern Lebanon that ended in an uneasy cessation of fighting, al-Qaeda warned that it would be making Israel and the Gulf Arab states its next targets in a campaign it said would seal the West's economic doom in the world's top oil exporting region. The implication of this call to arms is that Sunni radicals intend to compete with their Shiite counterparts for control of the Palestine-Israel-Lebanon heartland and the Gulf region.

This threat from Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's second-in-command to Osama bin Laden, must be taken seriously. Al-Qaeda has been responsible for a series of maritime-related attacks in and around the Gulf in the last six years. With arms trading and smuggling rife in the region, both al-Qaeda and Hezbollah now have access to much better weapons than in the past to strike at shipping.

Michael Richardson, former Asia editor of the International Herald Tribune, is Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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