NATIONAL sovereignty and maritime security are issues that Malaysia has sought to harmonise by insisting that foreign ships passing through the Straits of Malacca can only be protected by the littoral states, with external help if need be.
Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Najib Razak told the participants of the "Shangri-La Dialogue" on June 5 that the sovereignty of the littoral states - Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore - could not be compromised for the purpose of providing security in the Straits of Malacca in tune with the wishes and sentiments of any particular user of this globally important trade route.
Najib Razak said that Malaysia could not agree to the notion that the narrow Straits of Malacca should be treated as an international waterway, in the same sense as the high seas, along its entire stretch. Ruling out permission to the navy of any foreign state to provide protection to its own vessels or those of its friends and allies along this trade route, he said: "You help us to help you."
The message was not lost on the United States, which has generally insisted that the Straits of Malacca should be treated as an international passage route and that the foreign stake-holders, namely the users other than the littoral states, should also play roles commensurate with their capabilities to ensure the stability of the narrow water-course. One of the issues that came up during last year's "Shangri-La Dialogue" was the U.S.' proposal for a Regional Maritime Security Initiative (RMSI) in regard to the Straits of Malacca. The Malaysian stand this year was designed to float a counter-proposal. Prior to the initiation of the RMSI idea, Indian Navy vessels had provided security-related escort for U.S. ships laden with "high value cargo" along the Straits of Malacca for about six months. The entire operation went off without being marred by any incident, and the littoral states had, at that time, agreed to the role of the Indian Navy, an external player.
Now, with Malaysia taking the line that no foreign navies could operate along this waterway for providing security to the vessels of any country, the three littoral states and other participants later reached an informal "consensus", at the ministerial level, on three principles: The littoral states bear primary responsibility for ensuring the security of shipping along the Straits (meaning anti-terror and anti-piracy operations and the like); the sovereignty of the littoral states must be respected; and any foreign assistance to them must be compatible with their sovereign rights and prerogatives. If these parameters are effectively adhered to, the U.S. may have to come to terms with the limits that could apply to even superpower assertiveness.