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Strategic Importance of Strait of Malacca in Southern Asia

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Straits are narrow water passages which connect the two sides of the water in natural means, and highlights in the international shipping according to depth, length, width, and degrees of fragility. Straits that have geopolitical and strategic importance; they are also the subject of regional and global competition. That’s why, the actors who rules the straits are using them as a tool of foreign policy.[1]

The straits which have strategic importance in the period of colonization was rules by European colonials. In the Cold War, the Soviet Union was interested about only the geography of their territorial waters since they had limited maritime jurisdiction. In that period, the United States’ (the US) highest strategic aim was to protect the freedom of navigation of the naval in the strategic straits. In the Post-Cold War period, a change happened in strategic and political thinking. Globalization has led to orient of strategic focus to the straits.[2] That also contributed to straits to have geo-economic sense.

Strait of Malacca is the shortest transportation route between the Far East and Indian Ocean. That’s why, over that strait, there was a discussion about navigation techniques and building ships. In 1819, few years ago before Anglo-Dutch Agreement in 1824, British East India Company has established its first trade station on Strait of Malacca. Later, the geography has widened towards a huge trade port. At the end, in 1867, Strait of Malacca became a significant place for global geopolitics with Singapore’s declaration as a British Crown Colony.[3]

In the 20th century, from the mines and fields, tin and rubber were collected and transferred with Malacca Port to Europe. The British have chosen Kuala Lumpur, which is surrounded with the land, as a political center of Federal Malay States. However, nationalist leader, former Prime Minister of Malaysia Tunku Abdul Rahman (1903-1990), has used the word “Merdeka (freedom)” in 1956 which was sensational, and next year, Kuala Lumpur has declared her freedom next year.[4]

More recently, the Strait of Malacca has served as the main transit route, supplying vital goods to fuel the rapidly growing economies in Asia. Of the 87 million barrels of oil produced per day in 2011, approximately 15.2 million barrels were transported through the Strait of Malacca, the shortest sea route between African and Persian Gulf suppliers and Asian markets. This figure corresponds to approximately 19 times the oil passing through the Panama Canal and 4 times the oil passing through the Suez Canal in the same period.[5]

Approximately 60 percent of the world’s maritime transport passes through the Strait of Malacca; The strait is home to more than 150 ships a day and tankers, mostly from China and Japan. In this sense, the Strait of Malacca is on the transport route of approximately 25 percent of the oil transported between the Middle East and Asia. With the increase in the population and wealth of China and other regional powers, this ratio is increasing steadily. The Strait of Malacca plays a key geographical role for the entire Indo-Pacific region. For this reason, many countries in the region, including China and even the USA, are dependent on the Strait of Malacca.[6]

The truth is that; In the Malacca Strait region, there is a great rivalry between the two Asian powers, China, and India, also known as the “Malaccan Dilemma”. Due to China’s increasing interest in the Indian Ocean and its influence in the region, India has started to take measures to balance China and expand its influence from the east coast to the Strait of Malacca. In this context, India turned to the West to challenge the maritime interests of China, which placed more emphasis on the Strait of Malacca; that is, it moves towards the strait. India’s position in the Strait of Malacca causes panic in Beijing, which is trying to find an alternative.

Some analysts consider New Delhi as a potential threat for Beijing. Thus, in the case of possible war between the two regional powers, India could abolish the import of China by Strait of Malacca. That’s why, China taking new military maneuvers, especially with Malaysia on Strait of Malacca.[7]

On the other hand, China’s import of petroleum from Saudi Arabia, has reaching the mainland by Straits of Malacca. But this trade route is militarily vulnerable and could therefore endanger Beijing’s energy supply. The Chinese Navy launched the first aircraft carrier Liaoning in 2016 and the second aircraft carrier in 2017. According to the high officials of Chinese military, China should have at least four active aircraft carriers by 2030, each with dedicated fleets. Because 75 percent of the country’s oil imports come from these high seas. Therefore, it is essential for Beijing to ensure the security of the maritime trade routes in the Indian Ocean and the Straits of Malacca.[8]

On the other hand, the security of the Strait of Malacca is also a matter of concern for India. Beyond countering all non-traditional threats, New Delhi’s main strategy regarding the Strait of Malacca relates to the strait becoming a gateway to its “East View Policy”. In addition, India attaches importance to the Strait of Malacca at the point of developing bilateral and regional relations through various cooperation mechanisms such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum. Because of the changing regional security environment, it has become difficult to strengthen these ties. Beyond all cooperation in the region, the establishment of the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) also shows that securing the strait has become a necessity.[9]

The Strait of Malacca is one of the world’s busiest canals, the transit point for merchant ships as well as giant oil tankers to the Middle East and Japanese ports and other parts of East Asia. In addition, the strait is of great economic importance for the countries of the region and the rest of the world. Therefore, the strategic advantages of the Strait of Malacca have been reflected in the national security policies of the states bordering the strait. Therefore, in parallel with the increase in conflicts in the South China Sea, there is a possibility that the region will turn into one of the main addresses of conflicts to be experienced. Because the Strait of Malacca is of vital importance for maritime trade with China and East Asia. In addition, the strait is the main route of the Chinese Navy to South and West Asia.

In the event of tension, crisis or war, the blockade of the Strait of Malacca may create an opportunity for India to block oil supplies to China. Therefore, it would not be surprising if Beijing takes steps to reduce its dependence on the Strait of Malacca and therefore on energy and raw materials.

[1] Hasan Kamran Dastjerdi, “Role of Malacca Strait with a Geopolitical and Strategic Approach”, Geopolitics Quarterly, 16(4), 2021, s. 266.

[2] Zahra Pishgahi Fard-Nasrin Khaniha, “Indian Ocean and Its Strategic Straits in the Globalization”, Journal of Geography, 3(10), 2009, s. 155.

[3] “The Strait of Malacca-A Historical Shipping Metropolis”, https://worldoceanreview.com/en/wor-5/living-with-the-coasts/coastal-functions/the-strait-of-malacca-a-historical-shipping-metropolis/, (Date of Accession: 03.01.2022).

[4] “When the World Came to Southeast Asia: Malacca and the Global Economy”, The Association for Asian Studies, https://www.asianstudies.org/publications/eaa/archives/when-the-world-came-to-southeast-asia-malacca-and-the-global-economy/, (Date of Accession: 03.01.2022).

[5] Tomas Hirst, “The World’s Most Important Trade Route?”, World Economic Forum, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2014/05/world-most-important-trade-route/, (Date of Accession: 03.01.2022).

[6] Mariam Verij Kazemi, “جایگاه تنگه مالاکا در رقابت استراتژیک میان هند و چین”, IPSC, https://peace-ipsc.org/fa/, (Date of Accession: 03.01.2022).

[7] Ibid.

[8] “تنگه مالاکا و چالش های چند جانبه”, IRIB, https://www.iribnews.ir/009mYA, (Date of Accession: 03.01.2022).

[9] “India’s Strategic Dimensions in Malacca Strait By Vithiyapathy Purushothaman”, CCCS,  https://www.c3sindia.org/defence-security/indias-strategic-dimensions-in-malacca-strait-by-vithiyapathy-p/, (Date of Accession: 03.01.2022).

Dr. Seyedmohammad Seyedi ASL
Seyedmohammad Seyedi Asl, 2008 yılında Urmiye Üniversitesi Edebiyat Fakültesi Klimatoloji Bölümü’nden mezun olmuştur. 2012 yılında Tahran Üniversitesi Coğrafya Fakültesi Jeopolitik Bölümü’nde savunduğu “Explanation of Geopolitical Relationships of Iran and Azerbaijan Republic with Constructivism Approach” başlıklı teziyle yüksek lisans derecesini almaya haz kazanmıştır. 2021 yılında Gazi Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Uluslararası İlişkiler Anabilim Dalı’nda sunduğu “İran’ın Dış Politikasında Şia Mezhep Faktörün Etkisi ve Kullanımı: Jeopolitik Bir Değerlendirme” başlıklı teziyle doktora eğitimini tamamlamıştır. Türkçe, Farsça ve İngilizce bilen Asl’ın bu dillerde yayınlanmış çok sayıda akademik çalışması bulunmaktadır.