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Piracy in the Straits of Melaka

By Geoffrey Hills - posted Wednesday, 30 March 2005

The recent pirate attack on a Japanese tugboat in the Straits of Melaka on March 14 demands an urgent focus on the security of shipping lanes in the Straits. Japan’s immediate response was to establish a crisis taskforce, headed by Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura, in order to secure the release of Japanese and Filipino hostages. The success of those efforts on March 22, when the hostages were released, must not obscure the need for a long-term, preventative solution, given the frequency and potential of such attacks.

With 80 per cent of its oil passing through the Straits, Japan’s vital interests in the region are obvious. However, with some estimates indicating that as much as half of the world’s oil and one-third of world trade in goods pass through the Straits, Japan is not alone in having economic interests at stake.

Alarm about the security of trade routes has been amplified by the potential for terrorists to use a hijacked vessel to attack transport infrastructure targets, most probably in Singapore, where many Western countries (and in particular Australia), have important trade interests and assets deployed in defence co-operation.


With 37 pirate attacks in the Straits last year, according to the International Maritime Bureau, it is clear that the region needs a multilateral framework through which to establish a co-operative coastguard. As long ago as November 2001, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi proposed a regional anti-piracy agreement at the ASEAN+3 summit. (The summit groups South-East Asian leaders together with China, Japan and South Korea.) However, more than three years later, progress has been next-to-nothing.

ASEAN's sclerotic institutions, coupled with regional sensitivities to the involvement of outside powers in the maritime security of the Straits, have combined to frustrate progress. Of the three Straits powers - Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia - only Singapore can be expected to advocate a robust Japanese or US role during ASEAN's internal deliberations.

Domestic political pressures on the Abdullah and Yudhoyono Governments make acceptance of a major US naval commitment to the Straits impossible. The shadow of historical aggression in the region continues to animate anxieties about allowing Japan a pre-eminent role in region-wide security architecture.

In this context, ASEAN is not an effective institution through which Japan can work to protect its vital resource security interests in the Straits. Instead, a diplomatic honest-broker is required to take the lead. As is increasingly the case in South-East Asia, Australia is the country best positioned to play a pivotal role.

Although Australia does not have the naval assets required to provide the majority of hardware deployments necessary in the Straits, its present level of co-operation in Indonesian security, combined with historically close defence ties to Singapore and Malaysia, and its position as the southern anchor of the United States' security alliances in the Asia-Pacific, mean it is well-endowed with diplomatic capital.

After reaching a low point during the international intervention in East Timor, Australia's relations with Indonesia are at an historic high, following the intensification of counter-terrorism and reconstruction co-operation after the election of President Yudhoyono last year and the tsnunami catastrophe. The bombings of nightclubs in Bali (October, 2002) and outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta (September, 2004) provided opportunities for law enforcement collaboration between the Indonesian National Police and the Australian Federal Police.


When this is coupled with disaster relief efforts under the Partnership for Reconstruction and Development, signed by the two countries on January 5 this year, Indonesia’s co-operation with Australia is its most intensive with any Western country. This US$790 million contribution to tsunami reconstruction, over five years, is tied to a continued Australian role in overseeing its grant and loan financing projects in conjunction with relevant Indonesian ministries. From Australia’s perspective, such co-operation is developing know-how of domestic governance and bureaucratic politics in Indonesia that is unique among any countries outside ASEAN.

After a period of atrophy at the leadership level during the premiership of Mahathir Mohammed, Australia's traditionally close relations with Malaysia are being restored, and Prime Minister Adullah Badawi's April visit to Canberra (the first by a Malaysian Prime Minister in 21 years) will follow hot on the heels of President Yudhoyono. Despite the superficial oscillations caused by Dr Mahathir’s thorny relationship with two Australian Prime Ministers, Paul Keating and John Howard, the foundations of the bilateral relationship remained sound, given the strength of trade, investment and defence links. Notably, Australia still maintains a combat support squadron at Butterworth Malaysian Airforce Base, near Penang.

Canberra, in taking seriously its commitments to Malaysian-Singaporean security under the 1971 Five Power Defense Arrangements (with the UK and New Zealand), should use the Arrangements, and its periodic defence talks with Indonesia, as the occasion to propose a new regional institution, charged with providing coastguard services in the Straits.

Australia’s over-the-horizon radar technology, used to monitor its vast and sparsely-populated northern coastline may be useful, as would be its experience as a frequent interlocutor, with Indonesia, in the surveillance and boarding of illegal fishing and people-smuggling vessels in similar maritime conditions off Indonesia’s southern maritime boundary. Combining such technical experience with the political trust and confidence given it by the Malay states and Singapore squarely places Australia in a position to initiate discussions on the idea of a regional coastguard. Japan's trade and energy interests in Straits shipping offer a cogent reason for Japanese financial commitment to be conveniently married with Australian political impetus in such a new institution.

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About the Author

Geoffrey Hills is a Sydney litigation solicitor.

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