Marines and Malacca Straits

Print edition : June 04, 2004

The U.S. proposal to intervene in the Strait of Malacca in order to prevent any traffic of cargo relating to weapons of mass destruction raises the hackles of some littoral states.

in Singapore

STRATEGIC game plans are the basic stuff of the "initiatives" proposed by the United States from time to time as part of its "global war on terrorism". The latest such proposal is for a Regional Maritime Security Initiative (RMSI), which is considered a logical corollary to, or indeed as an intrinsic part of, the ongoing Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) project.

Some operations envisaged under the PSI are forbidden under existing international law. This view is shared, in varying degrees, by China and India, among other countries. In question is the validity of interdicting suspected "rogue ships" on the high seas by the member-states of the PSI.

Several European countries, besides Japan, Australia and Singapore, which are along the Asiatic Rim of the Pacific Ocean, have joined the U.S. under the PSI framework. "Most recently" India too "has indicated to us [the American authorities] that they would like to be part of [the] PSI", the U.S. Pacific Command chief, Admiral Thomas Fargo, said in his March 31 congressional testimony in Washington - an indication of India's latest stance on the PSI, the legality of the initiative notwithstanding.

The PSI, as the name suggests, is intended to prevent the transfer of manufacturing equipment and components of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by state or non-state entities to other countries or terrorist networks.

It does not obviously cover the WMD-related activities of the five designated nuclear powers and the members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Proliferation-conscious India is in a unique category. However, nuclear Pakistan is of concern to the PSI countries in view of Islamabad's suspected nexus with North Korea.

It is significant that much of the PSI's focus has so far been on North Korea as the suspected WMD-producer, although no findings, if any, of Pakistan's involvement as a proliferator have been made public. Much of the PSI's exercises and actual operations have so far remained confined to the maritime zone, although plans for WMD-related interdictions across the skyways and along the land routes have not been given up.

The Strait of Malacca, whose littoral states are Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, is strategically a pivotal waterway for the PSI. It is against this background that the RMSI has been conceived. It is primarily to interdict suspected terrorists, pirates, human traffickers and drug-peddlers as also their sea vessels.

As proposed tentatively by the U.S, the RMSI will be designed for interdiction activities other than those dealing with WMD-related transfers across the seas.

Fargo's testimony to the U.S. House Armed Services Committee has, therefore, attracted criticism from Malaysia. The strategic bottom line, in Malaysia's view, is that there is no need for the U.S., an extra-regional force, to get involved in matters of security across the strait. Indonesia, which can hardly be expected to be enamoured of the U.S. move, is too preoccupied currently with national elections to join issue with Washington.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar with Indonesian Foreign Minster Hassan Wirayuda at a meeting in Jakarta on May 7 to discuss the U.S. proposal .-BEAWIHARTA/REUTERS

On the other hand, Singapore Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean said on April 26: "What is in place today is not adequate, as it is an intensive and complex task to safeguard regional waters against maritime terrorism." Maintaining that "the primary responsibility for the safety and security of the Malacca Strait lies with the three littoral states", he noted: "No single state has the resources to deal effectively with this threat." While "the full effects of maritime terrorism extend far beyond the littorals", all the users of the immensely busy strait "have a strong economic if not strategic interest" in ensuring that the waterway "is kept open and safe". In Teo's perspective, progress on this front could be achieved if all the "stakeholders... proceed on the basis of consultation and within the bounds of international law".

As for the inviolability of international law with regard to RMSI, Western diplomatic sources maintain that Fargo never really outlined a totally unilateral military initiative by Washington to safeguard the Strait. In his testimony, Fargo did say: "We are looking at things like high-speed vessels, putting Special Operations Forces on high-speed vessels, putting, potentially, Marines on high-speed vessels so that we can use boats that might be incorporated with these vessels to conduct effective interdiction." While the Marines and the Special Operations Forces would certainly mean U.S. personnel, Fargo did, it is pointed out, preface the reference to them with his own expectation about a multilateral initiative. His prefatory remark was as follows: "With respect to the Regional Maritime Security Initiative, I expect a very broad range of support.... We need to gain control of the sea space. I think you will find that all of the countries in the region have an equity here and a means to make a contribution, however modest."

In significant contrast to the current controversy, the incident-free military escort that India extended to U.S. vessels nearly two years ago for the safe passage of "high value" American cargo across the strait, produced no adverse effect on the region. On the occasion, the "capability of India" was matched by its "acceptability" to the regional powers, according to Western sources.

The overall challenge for South-East Asian states, as pointed out by analyst Alan Collins, is that their "desire to keep extra-regional powers at arm's length is complemented, or perhaps contradicted, by the region's need and desire to involve the great powers for economic and security purposes".

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