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Protecting the Sea lanes of communication

Updated On: May 18, 2007

The issue of piracy is what brings together all the regional powers in a two-day exercise in Singapore which will involve more than 3,000 sailors and pilots, 18 warships and several patrol aircraft and helicopters from 19 navies. The naval games are preceded by shore exercises designed to response to different security needs. AustraliaFranceIndonesia, the United States and China along with observers from BangladeshIndia and Peru are some of the participants. The exercise is being hosted by Singapore in conjunction with the biennial International Maritime Defence Exhibition and Conference (Imdex) Asia.  What is significant is not the scale of the exercise but the first time that China participated in such “naval” exercises in Southeast Asia.

The focus of the exercise is on countering piracy to enhance security of the sea lanes of communication.

It was not too long ago in 2004 that US Admiral Thomas Fargo, commander in chief of US Pacific Command, announced the US was planning to deploy marines and special forces in and around the Malacca strait to combat terrorism, proliferation, piracy, gun-running, narcotics-smuggling and human-trafficking. Fed up with piracy and other criminal activities, the US was keen to step in big, particularly with the threat of terror hanging overhead.

Traffic density is projected to increase from 94,000 ships in 2004 to 141,000 in 2020. Regional powers in Northeast Asia with stakes in the waterway have chipped in to help. Japan has long contributed cash to fund the policing of the Strait. IndiaSouth Korea and the United States have also pledged their assistance and help.China offered to repair navigational aids damaged during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The Nippon Foundation of Japan has suggested that all ships transiting the strait contribute a voluntary fee of 1 US cent per deadweight ton of cargo, adding up to $40 million annually.

Piracy problems however, are not unique to Southeast Asia. Pirates fired grenade launchers and machine guns at a merchant ship in the Indian Ocean. Fortunately, the Qatar-flagged cargo ship, Ibn Younus, managed to escape. The difference, however, is that the Straits of Malacca is vital for the region’s industrial powers in Northeast Asia and the energy crunch which is a limiting factor for their economic growth pushes these powers to take an active interest in the Straits. 

This naval exercise is expected to showcase East Asia’s rising naval power. The region's navies will more than double their submarine capabilities over the next 10 years, replacing obsolete and ageing submarines from the 1970s. China makes the gigantic addition to its existing fleet of seven nuclear and 69 conventional submarines with the inclusion of five more nuclear missile submarines and 30 attack submarines by 2016, making its fleet the largest in Asia.  South Korea has also just endorsed a S$4.1 billion  project to develop its own technology to build 3000-ton submarine. India in catching up by planning to buy up to two more nuclear submarines as well as five conventional French submarines to add to its current fleet of 16. About US$55 billion (S$84 billion) of the total US$108 billion in defence contracts on offer at Imdex Asia are submarine-related. All these could be extra help for the Southeast Asian waterways. (17 May 2007)

Sources:

Mission: Work together to destroy pirates, terrorists (Straits Times, 17 May 2007)

Biggest-ever naval exercise to be held in S'pore (Straits Times, 16 May 2007)

Malacca: Who's to pay for smooth sailing? (Asia Times, 16 May 2007)

Pirates open fire on cargo ship; key routes threatened (Straits Times, 15 May 2007)