The Straits of Malacca: Safe Again but whose Responsibility?

Vijay Sakhuja | 02 May 2020

In 2004, the Strait of Malacca was the center of tension between the littoral states and the US Admiral Thomas Fargo, Commander-in-Chief, US Pacific Command, (CINCPAC) who announced that under the Regional Maritime Security Initiative (RMSI), the US was planning to deploy Marines and Special Forces troops in and around the waterway to combat terrorism, proliferation, piracy, gun running, narcotics smuggling and human trafficking. Malaysia and Indonesia were averse to the US initiative and positing that such a deployment raised serious concerns over sovereignty.

Close on its heels, in 2005, Lloyd's Market Association's Joint War Committee (JWC) declared the Straits of Malacca along with several maritime areas in West Asia and Africa as highly prone to piracy, war, strikes, terrorism and related perils. It was feared that Al Qaeda could exploit piracy in the Straits of Malacca to attack ships and this JWC declaration resulted in the imposition of higher insurance premiums for ships transiting through the strait.

The littoral countries i.e. Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand responded admirably through the "Eyes in the Sky" initiative and the International Maritime Bureau acknowledged that the sea and air patrols undertaken by the littoral states had proved effective and incidents of piracy had reduced drastically.

Today, however, there is a shift in the way the Straits of Malacca is viewed by the international maritime community. Significantly, as a result of considerable improvement in the security, issues of safety of navigation in the straits have taken priority and begun to dominate discussions.

In the coming years, traffic density in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore is projected to increase from 94,000 ships in 2004 to 141,000 ships in 2020, and in dead-weight tonnage, from 4 billion to 6.4 billion tons. Given this phenomenal increase in traffic, the quality of navigational aids in the straits will have to be enhanced for a smooth flow of traffic and to prevent any accident. Under Article 43 of UNCLOS (1982), it is the responsibility of the littoral states to maintain navigational aids in the straits, as it is to prevent pollution.

The littoral states have held several Track I and II interactions on improving the safety of navigation in the straits: An August 2005 ministerial level tripartite meeting of the Straits of Malacca littorals and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) sponsored discussions in Jakarta (September 2005) and in Kuala Lumpur (September 2006). The recently concluded "Symposium on the Enhancement of Safety of Navigation and the Environmental Protection of the Straits of Malacca" called for sharing the cost of maintenance of navigational aids, and preventing environmental hazards that could severely impact on the livelihood of coastal communities - including the fishing and tourism industry. The littorals states have vehemently argued that with a manifold increase in traffic, the costs of maintenance are expected to be as high as US$300 million in the next decade, and they should not bear this burden on their own.

Japan has long contributed financially for the upkeep and maintenance of the straits and in recent times, India, South Korea, and the United States have pledged assistance. China has offered to restore/repair navigational aids damaged during the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Over and above these voluntary offers, the Nippon Foundation of Japan has suggested that all ships transiting the straits contribute a voluntary fee of US 1 cent / dwt (dead-weight ton). This contribution could generate US$40 million a year and will help support and upgrade navigational aids in straits. Another approach suggested is by way of shipping companies making contributions based on the practice of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

The "all user pay" suggestion has been gathering momentum and received a mixed response from the shipping community. The International Chamber of Shipping, The Association of Independent Tanker Owners (INTERTAKO), and the Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO) have agreed to discuss the issue of voluntary contributions. The Singapore Shipping Association (SSA), an association of 300 members, has urged the Asian shipping industry to participate in discussions but has noted that ships visiting ports in the littoral states pay their Ôport and lightÕ dues and this should be utilised for the maintenance and upkeep of the navigational aids in the Straits. It is of interest to note that bulk of the shipping traffic transiting the Straits is "long haul, through traffic" i.e. most of the vessels transiting the straits do not call at any ports of the littoral states and thus do not pay any port charges.

It is evident that there are several stakeholders involved in the safety of navigation in the Straits: littoral countries, user states, shipping companies, insurance agents, and above all the International Maritime Organisation, the top maritime body under the United Nations. The littoral countries are desperate to seek support from other stakeholders but user states and their companies are not forthcoming, and argue that the responsibility of lies solely with the littorals. There are also fears that the "all users pay" demand could set a precedent, and would naturally tempt other littoral countries that straddle narrow sea passages and choke points through which global shipping transits to impose similar charges.

These overriding issues notwithstanding, the ongoing discussions both at the Track I and II levels have raised the issue of safety of navigation in the Straits of Malacca as a number one priority. The proposal by littoral states of burden sharing will not be smooth sailing, but could yet yield some fruitful results. The IMO could become a central repository of an international fund with contributions made by flag states to extend disbursements to needy countries. This approach is bound to be very slow, time consuming and peppered with politics and bureaucratic hassle. On their part, the flag states can raise such funds from registered shipping companies whose ships are engaged in international shipping. Since this burden is not likely to be very large, the shipping industry can pass it to the suppliers and the end users.

But all stakeholders must appreciate that a safe and secure environment in the Straits of Malacca cannot be achieved by the efforts of littoral countries alone, but instead requires mutual understanding and cooperation of all parties. For that, it is necessary to start by sharing common values on the benefits of burden sharing, to be provided for and enjoyed by the entire maritime community.


Vijay Sakhuja is Visiting Senior Reseach Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. A former Indian Navy officer, he received his doctorate from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. 

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