The Supremacy of the Strait
By James Lewis
Efforts to mitigate the importance of the world’s most important seaway have floundered, and it continues to be a serious military concern. However, it is unlikely to spark a conflict itself.
Separating the island of Sumatra and the Asian mainland is a narrow stretch of ocean so shallow in parts that the world’s largest ships cannot go through it. It is notoriously crowded and often riddled with pirates. Nevertheless, it is the most direct route from Indian Ocean and East Asia and carries a whopping quarter of all global trade. It is without question the most important sea line of communication, or SLOC, in the world. All alternatives require an extensive, fuel consuming detour around Sumatra, and still must travel through comparably narrow and militarily sensitive waterways – such as Lombok or Sunda. As regional economies continue to grow, its importance has only increased. It is no surprise then that the Strait has increasingly come up as a strategic matter for the world’s policy makers and military planners. But despite the aura of concern, efforts to mitigate this flashpoint have largely faltered, and will likely continue to do so. However, the status-quo, free trade, is a benefit for all and will likely remain for as long as peace reigns in East Asia.
China, has a particularly strong reliance on the Strait of Malacca. In 2003, then president Hu Jintao acknowledged this inconvenience calling it “The Malacca Dilemma.” His concern, and the concern of his successors in Chinese politics, is well-warranted. The narrow geography of the area allows a relatively small force to blockade the Strait and its alternatives, effectively isolating China from important sources of energy in the Middle East. In 2006, retired U.S. Marine Corps Col. Thomas X. Hammes openly proposed this option in a hypothetical Sino-U.S. conflict, no doubt contributing to the U.S. history of inadvertently fueling insecurities in Beijing.
Efforts to circumvent the Strait have largely been lead by China, and tie-in strongly to its One Belt, One Road Initiative. Part of those plans have been pipelines, and although pipelines have reduced the overall percentage of oil imports going through the Strait, China still gets a staggering 80 percent of its imported petroleum products through it. Shipping has always had more carrying capacity than terrestrial pipelines and can carry a greater variety of materials. In short, SLOCs will continue to be king in the world of trade and the Strait of Malacca will not be rendered less relevant by pipelines.
Another option may be a canal. Though ambitious, the payoff would provide an attractive alternative. The isthmus of Kra in Thailand provides a good location, and the concept has been explored by both Thai and Chinese officials as a joint project. The Kra Canal would give China an opportunity to exercise diplomacy with Thailand, alone. A bilateral agreement such as this would allow China to use its sheer economic weight more easily than in a multilateral project – a time-tested tactic proven by Chinese foreign policy throughout history. This is might be an easier alternative to any deal regarding the Strait of Malacca, which would likely involve Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. But the Kra Canal has no formal announcement, and has been over 200 years in the making. As of now, there is no comparable alternative. While Chinese policy makers continue to explore these options, more pragmatic assurances are also being explored by placing forces along the Indian Ocean, which could enforce Chinese interests from the West.
But China is by no means the only nation with such vested interest in the Strait. Almost any nation east of it receives a massive deal of energy and commodities via the Strait of Malacca. It may be no coincidence that countries such as Japan and Korea, both of whom receive a great deal of natural gas through it, have made more extensive outreaches to the Strait’s neighboring nations. And although modest, Japan has even made recent forays into amphibious lift weaponry that could potentially be used to bring forces to the region, even if the defense legislation has yet to catch up with that fact. Korea, on the other hand, has made grander ventures into naval projection over the past decade, no doubt with the Strait in mind. West of the Strait is India, who has less vested interest than its eastern neighbors, but could exploit the situation via an increasingly blue-water navy.
This, of course, says nothing of the ASEAN community of nations, who have the greatest vested interest of all. The collective modernization of ASEAN armed forces often has the Strait of Malacca in the center of discussion. ASEAN has also been spearheading joint-capacity efforts in response to American sequestration and isolation, and is closer to providing a combined, independent, and formidable fighting force.
With the prospects for mitigation dim, the opportunity for conflict may seem imposing. But the power of profit seems to overwhelm military insecurities and the best thing preventing conflict in the Strait is the strength of the status-quo. Free trade has been good to Northeast Asia and there is no reason for any party to stop it now. Military expeditions in the area have focused on cooperative counter-piracy operations, and interstate tensions shelved in favor of commerce. But these are convenient conditions of peacetime. Though the Strait of Malacca itself is unlikely to spark a war for this reason, it will be an important battleground should there be one. China has a particular interest in this fact as it completes its inevitable rise to regional hegemony and has already begun to take the opportunity to establish the relationships needed assert a degree of control over the area. Xi Jinping’s latest diplomatic ventures break the old models of bilateral diplomacy, and the disdain for alliances. This new model of multilateralism is more accessible to neighboring countries, and still allows China some maneuverability in defense, both now and in a war scenario.
The realities of Southeast Asian geography mean the Strait of Malacca is unlikely to be easily circumvented. Ships will remain the superior mode of goods transportation, and the Strait is the fastest route for them. On the surface, this shows itself to be a brutal opportunity for armed conflict, but the strength of free trade cannot be overstated. For as long as the flow of goods continues to be unimpeded, the Strait of Malacca will unlikely serve as the cause of a conflict. Should war come, however, the role of the Strait is simply too vital for militaries to ignore.
James Lewis is an analyst based in New York City, focused primarily on East Asian defense affairs. In 2011, he graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in Social Science and a specialty in Diplomacy and War.