The Southeast Asian region looks set to see more regional powers manoeuvring, with India and Japan expressing their interest to assist with security in the Malacca Straits and disaster relief in Southeast Asia at the 5th Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual high-level forum for regional security officials and experts in Singapore last weekend.
India has offered its help to secure the busy Straits of Malacca, calling the move its part to ensure peace and stability in East Asia. India's Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee noted that there was a need to increase and strengthen regional cooperation to enhance maritime security, believing that through the coordination of individual efforts, the security of the sea lanes would be enhanced. “India has developed capabilities in various aspects of maritime security and would be most willing to share its expertise with countries of the region,” he said.
More than 50 per cent of India’s trade passes through the waterway, keeping India keenly aware of the importance of security in the straits. Though the number of pirate attacks in the Malacca Strait has dropped sharply in recent months, India remains wary.
While India is ready to help strengthen security in the straits, the minister stressed that India's participation in ensuring safe passage in the Malacca Strait will be subject to the approval of the littoral states. Malaysia and Indonesia have so far been reluctant to accept significant foreign involvement in strait security.
Mukherjee underlined India’s growing role in the region, calling it “crucial for ensuring and maintaining long-term peace, stable balance of power, economic growth and security in Asia.” He said India would increasingly become a key driver of Asian prosperity alongside other big countries.
Meanwhile, Japan is also looking into security in the Malacca Straits. Some 80 percent of Japan's oil imports pass through the strait.
While Japan has already given a helping hand in promoting maritime security in the strait through its Foreign Ministry and the Japan Coast Guard, Japan’s Defense Agency Director General Fukushiro Nukaga said the agency is studying further ways to cooperate with littoral states to combat piracy in the straits.
At the same time, Japan is seeking to coordinate disaster relief efforts in Asia. Nukaga urged Asian governments to beef up disaster relief cooperation among their armed forces in the wake of a spate of natural disasters that have hit the region in recent years.
Recalling the Japanese military’s recent participation in relief efforts, Nukaga said Japan is ready to continue to take the initiative to lead efforts to coordinate regional military responses in the field of disaster relief. Tokyo wants to propose strategies and procedures for faster, more efficient cooperation between militaries.
Nukaga’s statements are in line with Tokyo’s push to get its military more involved overseas—prompting concern in China, the Koreas and other Asian countries, where resentment remains strong over Japan’s brutal invasions and occupations in the 20th century. Japan’s forces have recently been at their most active since World War II, though always in strictly non-combat roles; with about 600 non-combat troops doing reconstruction in southern Iraq, Japanese ships giving logistical support to anti-terror operations in Afghanistan, and Japanese troops joining in UN peacekeeping missions in Cambodia, East Timor and elsewhere. Japanese forces also played a major role in relief efforts in Indonesia after the earthquake and tsunami in 2004. Most recently, Japanese troops provided medical and logistical support to Indonesia after a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck Java last week.
Malaysia also took the opportunity at the Shangri-La Dialogue to propose a regional-based humanitarian relief coordinating centre. Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak said training and contingency plans could be drawn out and the centre could be activated to quickly coordinate operations when a disaster occurred in the region or when help was needed. Under the proposal, member states would have to commit a set of forces made up of civilian and military personnel, in the event a disaster strikes in any part of the region, said Najib, who is also Defence Minister. He clarified that the proposal was still at a very preliminary stage, but that he had decided to toss it to the forum to get some reaction before crystallising thoughts on the best modality. If implemented, he said the centre should also involve other nations beyond South-east Asia. And it looks likely that the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) involving Malaysia,Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and Britain, is ready to jump in on this initiative.
India ready to help protect Malacca Strait (AFP, 3 June 2006)
India offers to help with security in Malacca Strait (The Straits Times, 4 June 2006)
Japan seeks to coordinate disaster relief efforts in Asia (AP, 4 June 2006)
Japan keen to take lead in Asian disaster relief (Japan Economic Newswire, 3 June 2006)
Malaysia calls for regional humanitarian relief centre (The Star, 4 June 2006)
M'sia proposes regional centre for disaster relief (The Straits Times/AFP, 4 June 2006)