Three nations coordinate flights to spy on Malacca pirates

Fresh attacks on cargo ships in strategic Strait prompt new security efforts.

Half the world's oil and a third of its commerce travels through the Malacca Strait, a narrow channel of water off Indonesia. So when a major maritime underwriter in London added the Malacca Strait to its list of high-risk war zones, global traders took notice.

The decision in June by Lloyd's Market Association's Joint War Committee threatens to raise the cost of international business by driving up ship owners' insurance premiums. The move follows a resurgence of pirate attacks in the Strait, which had enjoyed a brief period of calm during the presence of international navies conducting tsunami relief operations. Concerns have also mounted since Sept. 11, 2001, that terrorists may target the shipping bottleneck using similar tactics as pirates.

These concerns have forced the three principal states sharing the Malacca Strait, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia, to propose adding aerial reconnaissance to a joint naval patrol program put into place last year. While critics doubt this latest step, announced this month, will dramatically improve security, the measure represents a greater willingness among the three countries to work together.

"If you look at the political context of the region, there was friction. To get the Malaysian, Singaporean, and Indonesian navies together was a very big step," says an official at the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore, who requested anonymity.

Sovereignty has been a key sticking point in the effective patrolling of the Strait of Malacca. Both Malaysia and Indonesia have been wary of signing on to any program that would require a curtailment of their sovereign rights over areas of the waterway, which some 50,000 ships pass through every year. Singapore, however, has been more open.

Up to this point, the current patrol operations have not been truly joint, says Alan Chan, a ship owner in Singapore. The patrol forces of each state stay more or less within their own borders, leaving significant gaps for pirates - and by extrapolation, terrorists - to penetrate, according to Mr. Chan.

At least eight violent attacks have taken place in the Malacca Strait since February, according to the International Chamber of Commerce. Pirates target vessels carrying anything that can be easily sold. Attacks typically happen close to the coast.

The possibility of US intervention has put pressure on all three countries to work together more closely to combat the problem. "If they didn't do something, then the Americans would come in," says Mr. Ong.

That's a prospect that many people here regard as more dangerous than helpful.

"Presence of American troops in the Strait of Malacca could lead to some kind of reaction from terrorists," says Chan. And if there is violence in territorial waters, he says it could lead to diplomatic squabbles and standoffs. "Once people start shooting in territorial waters, then the question of sovereignty is sharpened."

Both Ong and Chan question the effectiveness of the proposed air surveillance operations. Pirates in the Strait strike at night in small vessels disguised as fishing boats, says Chan. "How can you tell which is a real fishing boat and which is not from up in the sky at night?"

In any case, the three countries do not have enough aerial surveillance equipment for the program. They are scouting around for it from countries like the US and Japan, which are interested in helping secure the waterway, particularly since many of the Southeast Asian terrorist outfits operate close to the Strait.

A major terrorist strike, such as blowing up an oil tanker in the Strait, could force a major rerouting of international shipping. However, Rohan Gunaratna of Singapore's Institute for Defense and Strategic Planning doesn't think an attack in the waterway will have more than "medium" repercussions. "It will not cripple sea transportation."

According to Ong, the probability of a terrorist attack is less than 1 percent. "But you can only be unlucky once. The waters here are not secure enough."

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