Managing the Strait of Malacca

Transnational Security Threats in the Straits of Malacca

Because it links the Indian Ocean with the economies of East Asia, the Strait of Malacca remains a major artery of international trade. Felipe Uma√±a analyzes Indonesia’s, Malaysia‚Äôs and Singapore‚Äôs current attempts to manage security threats in this strategically important waterway.

By Felipe Umaña for Fund for Peace (FfP)

Excerpted from¬†“Transnational Security Threats in the Straits of Malacca

The Straits of Malacca consist of a narrow but lengthy waterway that extends more than 500 miles from the eastern limits of the Andaman Sea to the South China Sea in Southeast Asia. Straddling the sea route between the Indonesian island of Sumatra, the Thai-Malay Peninsula, and the small citystate of Singapore, the Straits of Malacca are known globally for their economic, political, environmental, and strategic importance. The Straits themselves link the Indian Ocean to some of Asia’s most powerful economies, as well as many other trade-influential countries, like the United States, Germany, and Russia. More than 60,000 vessels traverse the critical chokepoint per year, carrying more than a third of global trade.[1] Due to the amount of traffic, the region is also home to some of the busiest ports in the world, particularly in Singapore.[2] The Straits attract foreign investment with the amount of commerce and trade it supports. The Straits are also the focal point of legal and political issues, such as the sovereignty of territorial waters and the responsibility to secure the waterway. Likewise, the waterway is a source of environmental concern for the littoral countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. The maintenance of the environment is important to all three states in order to not deter tourism or development projects in the area, both of which can in turn influence the economic and political sectors directly. Finally, the Straits are crucial for worldwide communication and resource exchange, making them internationally significant. Unfortunately, however, the Malacca Straits have become notorious for maritime robbery and pirate attacks, as well as for being a transit hub for myriad black markets and a haven for belligerent non-state actors. Indeed, in the area around the Straits of Malacca, porous borders and poorly monitored ports allow these threats to infiltrate the coastal nations. A lack of strong government control pervades in certain pockets and gives rise to corruption. In this governmental blind spot, crimes burgeon and f lour i sh, and due to economic marginalization, individuals frequently turn to a life of crime, fueling hidden, black market economies. In addition, a number of separatist organizations and terrorist cells occupy land far from the control of governments, adding to the already high levels of state insecurity. To add to this slew of security threats, the South China Sea’s contested territorial disputes compound the stress and tension surrounding the Straits of Malacca. Needless to say, the Straits of Malacca face multiple security issues that affect the three littoral states and the Straits’ user nations. In fact, its geographical position makes it not only valuable to the states that border the waterway, but also an intensely critical region for foreign countries dependent on trade passing between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Security of these sea-lanes is therefore of paramount importance for state actors and should be galvanized on numerous levels. Firstly, it is essential for Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore to gather national and international resources and implement ways to combat the multitude of threats facing the Straits of Malacca. Secondly, extra-regional actors should cooperate with nations in the region in various capacities to ensure that global trade is not adversely affected. Similarly, extra-regional actors can play a role in ensuring that the root causes of these problems are treated effectively. Lastly, shipping companies, non-governmental organizations, and other non-state actors with a stake in the Straits should band together and assist their home governments in fostering greater security. Although state capacities differ greatly in some respects, it is still crucial for all actors involved to come together and discuss what can be done to secure the Straits of Malacca. Though incidences of piracy and prominent terrorist activity have largely diminished in the past few years, it is still important to acknowledge their persistence and decide upon ways to combat these and other security problems directly. Transnational threat trends like these are organic and fluctuate with the passing of history and time. Thus, a leveling off does not signal a complete and total disappearance. Therefore, security in the Malacca Straits must remain on the radar of global actors in order to properly and efficiently protect this very important waterway.


Littoral, User and Non-State Security Capacity

The numerous initiatives taken over the years to fight maritime piracy differ greatly due to economic discrepancies and differences in governmental capacity between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.


Indonesia, as the largest of the three littoral states, continues to struggle with the implementation of successful anti-piracy initiatives. In spite of some positive economic growth in recent years, Indonesia still suffers from a lack of consistent governmental authority. Because of its breadth – its entire coastline is twice the circumference of the earth – the control of the state does not reach all locations. This weakness, coupled with active Islamic fundamentalist groups, separatist movements, and a flourishing underground economy, has put pressure on the government’s already shaky capacities to combat maritime piracy and other threats. Jakarta has placed less attention to maritime piracy than in its desire to bolster economic development, increase environmental protection, promulgate greater political reform, defend national borders and resolve outstanding territorial disputes, and improve its burgeoning tourism industry. Indonesia may view pirate attacks as a nuisance for international ships only and thus place greater importance on land-based security concerns like those mentioned above. Predictably, Indonesia waters are reported to have suffered the most incidents of piracy in the 2000s.[3] Indeed, Indonesia may already have a lot on its hands regarding internal security. Placing it into perspective, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) received only 103 incidents of piracy in 2002. On the other hand, 1,687 murders, 9,000 cases of violent theft, and approximately 11,000 cases of serious assaults occurred on land – meaning less than 0.05% of its total reported crimes were pirate attacks.[4] Of course, reported crimes do not equate to actual incidents, but it is not hard to note the reasons why anti-piracy initiatives have, in general, received less attention and funding in the last decade. Another reason Indonesia focused less on the Malacca Straits is the fact that the Lombok and Sunda Straits handle most of its trade. Finally, as a growing regional power of its own, Indonesia is not amenable to its security problems being handled by other nations. The Indonesian government has specifically repudiated any foreign military presence in its waters, even if extra-regional powers offer to help secure the adjacent Straits of Malacca. The government in Jakarta has even been distrustful of initiatives proposed by Malaysia and Singapore, as it views both nations as direct economic competitors perhaps more so than strategic partners. In terms of state capacity, Indonesia does not possess the adequate naval training, equipment, and funding to handle its serious maritime piracy problems. The navy, for instance, lacks many of the estimated 262 patrol ships needed to efficiently guard Indonesian territorial waters. In fact, it is believed that only one-fourth of the Indonesian Navy’s 114 vessels are serviceable at any given time, impeding any progress from the security apparatus. Additionally, only 20 patrol boats were “seaworthy” in 2004.[5] Moreover, seven ports failed to comply with the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS Code), which is a security instrument of the International Maritime Organization. The ISPS Code delineates “a set of measures designed to enhance the security of ships and port facilities made mandatory under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea”, which Indonesia has agreed to observe.[6] Indonesia has also had significant problems in securing funding for maritime security initiatives in the Straits of Malacca. Immediately after the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, only 25-30% of military expenditures were covered by Jakarta’s military budget. It has been widely speculated that budget shortfalls were in part filled through illicit activities.[7] Intelligence agencies in Indonesia have likewise failed to properly relay security information to naval authorities in other countries and to communicate between national entities themselves. The nine maritime agencies in charge of naval and ocean security in Indonesia, for instance, do not share their intelligence or resources as often as would be necessary to develop a coordinated anti-piracy effort.[8] Singaporean partners have complained about the incompetence; sailors from Singapore have stated that when they relay information to the intelligence agencies in Indonesia, “it disappears into a black hole.”[9] Despite some shortcomings, the government of Indonesia has implemented several national programs to help improve security in its waters. Over the years, it has begun to receive more financial assistance from foreign countries, which has prompted more action on its own part to ensure security for international vessels passing through the Straits of Malacca. Although coordinated efforts with Malaysia and Singapore have not occurred without some hurdles, Indonesia has worked towards improving relations with extra-regional powers. This includes holding a biannual maritime patrol with India since September 2002 and expanding relations with neighbors, like Australia and Japan. It has also improved its security relationship with the United States, with which it has revived a couple of defense exercises, most notably the annual Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) model.[10]Over the last decade, Indonesia has agreed to cooperate more with neighboring nations. However, incentives for more participation need to be addressed as Jakarta continues to focus on other sovereignty threats more than maritime piracy.


Unlike its neighbor Indonesia, Malaysia has much more at stake in the Straits of Malacca and has begun to show some interest and flexibility in anti-piracy initiatives. Malaysia’s most populous region – Peninsular Malaysia – forms the entire northeastern border of the Straits of Malacca. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital and one of Southeast Asia’s most important financial centers, is only about 20 km away from the Straits and depends substantially on the cargo from those ports. Competition for resources, particularly fish and oil, push Malaysia to improve its security standing. Black markets, however, encumber any focus on piracy, and like Indonesia, the government of Malaysia tends to focus more on terrestrial threats. Malaysia has warmed to the idea of burdensharing procedures to counteract the levels of maritime piracy. Like Indonesia, Malaysia depends on its strong fishing industry, which is impacted by piracy. Government proposals, however, are primarily focused on the environmental or economic side of the trade more than the security aspects, similar to Indonesia’s policies. Coupled with a desire to limit the internationalization of the Straits, Malaysia saw its piracy problem worsen in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Despite the gradual acceptance of external assistance, Malaysia maintains that piracy is a national problem and should be dealt with by the littoral states. Malaysia’s Maritime Enforcement Agency, launched in 2006 after merging five maritime agencies in 2004, boasts 70 patrol craft and six helicopters that it can use for arrests and safeguarding the Straits. The Coast Guard-like organization has established a string of radar tracking stations along the Malaysian coastline where it can monitor vessel traffic. Similarly, the Malaysian Marine Police has increased its patrols of the high-traffic waterway. In 2005, the Marine Police foiled several attempted attacks, including one case that led to the prosecution of the would-be perpetrators.[11] With an improving technological sector and increased assistance from extra-regional powers, Malaysia now admits that burdensharing schemes could help improve security standards in the Malacca Straits and benefit the country and region as a whole.


Known to be one of the economically powerful Asian Tigers, Singapore is one of the world’s most important centers of commerce. Singaporean ports are amongst some of the busiest in the world, and have sustained that title for decades.[12] Its closeness with other economic powers, especially other Western nations, has helped the tiny nation-state acquire powerful instruments to guard its ports from seaborne attacks. Despite these pros, the country is still plagued by maritime crime and has sought desperately to inspire cooperative measures between the three littoral states. As the region’s best performing economy, Singapore has much to lose to maritime piracy and its effects. Singapore’s government has been very willing to cooperate on both regional and extraregional levels. Such enthusiasm to work with other nations has benefited the island both economically and strategically. So strong was its desire to bring in outside help that then deputy prime minister, Tony Tan, said at a 2004 conference on maritime security: “It is not realistic to unilaterally confine such patrols only to countries in this part of the world … We can do more if we galvanize the resources of extra-regional players!”[13] By 2011, the Information Fusion Center – a multinational collaborative effort organized by the Singaporean Navy – had already deployed International Liaison Officers from ten different countries, including Australia, India, Malaysia, the United States, and Vietnam. Noticeably absent from this effort, however, is Indonesia.[14] In terms of state capacity, Singapore is by far the most organized and technologically advanced out of the three littoral states. It is one of the 20 foreign ports listed on the Container Security Initiative, a U.S.-led program that fosters intelligence-sharing in order to help partners identify potentially dangerous or suspicious cargo, improve detection methods, and enhance container security overall.[15] Additionally, Singapore’s ports also possess state-of-the-art vessel tracking systems designed to track the paths of 70,000 ships simultaneously. Aside from strong technological capabilities, Singapore has also established numerous formidable national initiatives to improve maritime security in the Straits of Malacca. The Interagency Maritime and Port Security Working Group, for instance, invovles three nautical agencies – the coast guard, navy, and port authority – to keep an eye on vessel traffic and ship movement near the seaports.[16] Individually, nonetheless, the navy and police coast guard have proven very effective against threats out at sea. The navy is reported to be able to monitor up to 5,000 ships at one time, while also employing extra features like electronic navigational displays and data recordings. Similarly, in early 2007, Singapore announced that it was going to construct a command and control center that would house the Singapore Maritime Security Center, an Information Fusion Center, and a Multinational Operations and Exercise Center. These organizations provide information sharing framework and an infrastructure through which multinational exercises and security operations out at sea could be more efficiently organized.[17]

User Countries

Countries like China, India, Japan, and the United States have a vested interest in protecting the valuable trade sea-lanes of the Straits of Malacca.

• China: As the second largest energy consumer in the world, China depends on the Malacca Straits for 85% of its imports,[18] including 80% of its energy imports.[19]Beijing has primarily provided financial assistance to the littoral countries. Wary of a minimized regional presence, China has rejected greater Indian and Japanese security involvement, going as far as rejecting propositions for security patrols from Japan.

• India: India is the external (non-littoral state) power with the longest involvement in the Straits. The Indian Navy, for instance, has carried out joint anti-piracy exercises with its Singaporean counterpart for more than ten years, and with Indonesia and other nearby nations – like Thailand – for over five years.[20] It is estimated that over 40% of India’s imports come through the Straits of Malacca. In order to secure transit heading towards South Asia, India uses its Far East Command in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to study shipping threat trends.[21] [22] On June 30, 2012, India opened a key naval station, named the INS Baaz, aimed at enhancing the country’s ability to monitor the chokepoint and also extending its strategic reach in the region. [23]

• Japan: 80% of Japan’s petroleum imports and 60% of its imported foodstuffs pass through the Malacca Straits, making Japan one of the most dependent user nations.[24] Japan has invested millions of dollars in enforcing security in the Malacca Straits due to its significance to the Japanese economy. The Nippon Foundation (a Japanese non-profi t focused on humanitarian work and maritime development) has worked with and donated money to the Malacca Straits Council. The Nippon Foundation estimates that piracy costs Japan around US$10-15 million per annum.[25]

• United States: The U.S. has stated its interest in helping secure the waterway, but has met a lot of resistance from Indonesian and Malaysian authorities. Both countries believe that an overstated presence would raise sovereignty concerns and could threaten the “regional balance of powers.” China has also been a vocal opponent to greater Amer ican intervention.[26] Although American patrols and rapid-response units have been immediately rejected by Indonesia and Malaysia, both nations have agreed to accept assistance in the form of advice, equipment, and training.[27]

Non-State Shipping Actors

Aside from state actors, ship owners and shipping companies have also played a small – but significant – role in promoting greater security at sea. As the primary actors in charge of improving the overall security of privately owned shipping vessels and related equipment, shipping companies are responsible for adopting efficient security measures. Reinforced “safe rooms” and secret compartments are common inexpensive additions, as is the installation of tougher locks and bolts on cargo holds, security lights, and powerful hoses used against pirates attempting to board ships. Finally, improved global positioning devices are becoming customary, if not absolutely necessary, for safer and more efficient navigation.[28] Manufacturers have also positively impacted the security market, offering tracking technology like ShipLoc[29] or electrified (and non-lethal) protective measures, like Secure-Ship.[30] The company Secure A Ship even offers a private team of “ex-Special Forces and specialist UK military teams to accompany” ships in elevated threat areas like the Straits of Malacca.[31] Private military companies, such as Singapore -based Asia Risk Solutions, also offer special services for ships transiting the Malacca Straits. However, the presence of these traveling bands of armed individuals creates legal complications for the littoral states and the origin countries. When faced with the possibility of passing through dangerous locations, shipping companies and even governments can request armed escort services for valuable cargo. These escort services involve ex-police and current military personnel trained to protect, or in cases of escalation, defend shipping vessels. These guards can be on board or accompany the vessel on speedboats on either side. In order to alert regional law enforcement of their presence, guard boats are clearly marked. However, Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as some nongovernmental organizations like the International Maritime Bureau, generally oppose private military companies because of their armed nature. Treaties like UNCLOS liken private guards to “vigilantes” if they engage with pirates in territorial waters.[32] Singapore, however, does allow private military contractors to operate in its land and sea jurisdiction under certain legal conditions.[33]


[1] Simon, Sheldon W., Safety and Security in the Malacca Strait: The Limits of Collaboration. Rep. 24th ed. Maritime Security in Southeast Asia: U.S., Japanese, Regional, and Industry Strategies. The National Bureau of Asian Research.

[2] URL located at:

[3]¬†Sittnick, Tammy I. “State Responsibility and Maritime Terrorism in the Strait of Malacca: Persuading Indonesia and Malaysia to Take Additional Steps to Secure the Strait.” Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal Association 14.3 (2005): Print.

[4]¬†Rosenberg, David. “The Political Economy of Piracy in the South China Sea.”

[5] URL located at:

[6]¬†Raymond, Catherine Z. “Piracy and Armed Robbery in the Malacca Strait: A Problem Solved?”

[7] Liss, Carolin, “The Challenges of Piracy in Southeast Asia and the Role of Australia,” Austral Policy Forum, 07-19A, Global Collaborative, 25 October 2007,

[8] Simon, Sheldon W., Safety and Security in the Malacca Strait: The Limits of Collaboration.

[9] URL located at:

[10] URL located at:

[11] URL located at:

[12] Pillai, Jayarethanam S. Historical Assessment of the Port of Singapore Authority and Its Progression Towards a ‘High-Tech Port’. N.p.: Australian National University, Print.

[13] “Singapore Seeks Joint Patrols of Malacca Straits, involving Japan,” Asian Political News, May 2004.

[14]¬†Singapore Ministry of Defence. “The Information Fusion Centre: Challenges and Perspectives.” POINTER: Journal of the Singapore Armed Forces (2011). Print.

[15] URL located at:

[16] Simon, Sheldon W., Safety and Security in the Malacca Strait: The Limits of Collaboration.

[17]¬†Singapore Ministry of Defence. “The Information Fusion Centre: Challenges and Perspectives.”

[18] Simon, Sheldon W., Safety and Security in the Malacca Strait: The Limits of Collaboration.

[19]¬†Dela Pena, Joyce . “Maritime Crime in the Strait of Malacca: Balancing Regional and Extra-Regional Concerns.”

[20] URL located at:

[21] Sawhney, Rajeev. Redefining the Limits of the Straits: A Composite Malacca Straits Security System. Rep. Singapore: Institute of Defence and Strategic Stud, 2006. Print.

[22] URL located at:

[23] URL located at:

[24] Simon, Sheldon W., Safety and Security in the Malacca Strait: The Limits of Collaboration.

[25] URL located at:

[26]¬†Dela Pena, Joyce. “Maritime Crime in the Strait of Malacca: Balancing Regional and Extra-Regional Concerns.”

[27] URL located at:

[28]¬†Rosenberg, David. “The Political Economy of Piracy in the South China Sea.”

[29] URL located at:

[30] URL located at:

[31] URL located at:

[32] United Nations. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Rep. New York: UN, 1982. Print.

[33] URL located at:

Felipe Umaña is a research assistant at the Fund for Peace.


Original Article