Japan urges Malacca Strait shipping safety

Jan. 17, 2005
Japanese Defense Minister Yoshinoro Ono, on a swing through Southeast Asia, has urged Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore to do more to protect oil shipping through the Malacca Strait from piracy and terrorism.

Eric Watkins
Senior Correspondent

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 17 -- Japanese Defense Minister Yoshinoro Ono, on a swing through Southeast Asia, has urged Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore to do more to protect oil shipping through the Malacca Strait from piracy and terrorism.

In April 2004, the US Energy Information Administration estimated that 11 million b/d of oil passed through Malacca Strait in 2003. About 50,000 vessels/year, both oil and nonoil, travel through the waterway, which is a narrow, 550 mile long passage between peninsular Malaysia and Indonesia's Sumatra island.

Rising Chinese imports are raising traffic through the strait. Most piracy takes in place in a section called Singapore Strait, which is 1.5 mile wide at its narrowest part.

Ono's request comes in the wake of storms in the region, which, experts say, may have altered the seabed of the strategic waterway as well as created new physical dangers.

Ono met with Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak to discuss counterterrorism cooperation, defense issues, and safety in the strait.

Ono "expressed hopes that the Malacca Strait will be as safe as possible for ships, especially oil tankers that carry supplies to Japan," Najib told a news conference. About 80% of Japan's oil imports transit the strait.

"He stressed the Malacca Strait is very, very strategic for Japanese interests," Najib said, adding, "He hopes the littoral states—Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore—will ensure safety there."

In 2004, the three Southeast Asian nations launched coordinated naval patrols along the strait. In December, however, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun newspaper reported that Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) plans to participate in a training exercise to prevent the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and narcotics to be conducted in the Strait of Malacca next summer.

The annual drill is part of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) promoted by the US, the UK, and Australia, among other countries. Japan has not participated in any of the earlier PSI drills, in consideration of the feelings held by Asian countries toward its militaristic past.

But the Defense Agency apparently based its decision to join this year's exercise on its a defense program unveiled Dec. 10 calling for Japan's military forces to engage in more joint activities abroad.

The drill will offer training in stopping a ship carrying a WMD on the high seas and confiscating it. In addition to the destroyer, MSDF will dispatch a P-3C patrol plane and an airborne warning and control system aircraft, the paper reported.

Tsunami damage
Ono's request of the three Southeast Asian nations came as US and other maritime officials noted potential changes in the physical configuration of the strait following the tsunami, which struck the region on Dec. 26.

The Marshall Islands Maritime Authority said that sand waves created by the Dec. 26 tsunami could have changed water depths following seabed movements in shallow areas of the strait.

That view is shared by the US National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGIA), which is working to gather information, warn mariners, and rechart altered coastlines and ports.

The agency has received an unconfirmed report that one area of the waterway had its depth reduced to 105 ft from 4,060 ft.

In another area of tsunami-affected waters, a merchant marine ship has logged that the depth was cut from 3,855 ft to just 92 ft.

In addition, thousands of navigational aids, such as buoys, were swept away. Old shipwrecks have shifted position and been joined by new wrecks, which will have to be salvaged, moved, or charted.

Ports of call might be heavily damaged "to include unknown new bottom configurations, shipwrecks, shoreline changes, and depth limitations," according to a Dec. 29 warning by NGIA.

"In addition," the notice said, "aids to navigation may be damaged, inoperable, off station, or even destroyed. Proceed with extreme caution."

Officials at the NGIA said efforts to render the Malacca Strait safe will require international cooperation over months if not years.