Competing interests

US-China rivalry in the Malacca Strait

For a nation that depends on other nations for its energy needs, it must ensure security and independence in the SLOC’s (Sea Lines of Communication). It is the mutual dependence of such crucial factors that translate geographical logistics into geopolitical choke-points.

Consequently, because the belief that dominant players in the global commons eventually command global affairs is widely considered as veracious, the relevance of such geopolitical points elevate because the battle for dominance among major international players adds to their strategic value.

The Straits of Malacca is a prime case in such a scenario. The 900 kilometer long strait links Asia with the Middle East and Europe, separating Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore and understood to be the heart of the Indo-Pacific region where the Indian and Western Pacific Oceans meet. The Strait carries 40% of the world’s trade. More than 50,000 merchant ships ply on the waterway every year.

Described as one of the six crucial narrow channels widely used as global sea routes, the strait is a critical part of global energy security due to the high volume of oil traded through the narrow strait.

Trade route

Being one of the most important sea-trade routes of the world, it has become a heavily contested waterway, where the strategic interests of competing economies are increasingly clashing.

Thus, a new geopolitical great game is unfurling for the control of this maritime choke-point, whose control and eased access will determine the real dominant power in the higher waters.

Currently, the world economy is experiencing a major shift as the epicenter of all major trade and commerce is shifting from the West to the East. This is marked by the gradual yet stupendous rise of Asian economies like China and India. Their growth has made them tremendously dependent on energy from the energy exporting regions of the world.

This makes the Malacca Strait the most crucial pass that carries the resources needed by the Chinese and Indian economies, and also where the USA has declared a permanent future presence through its ‘pivot to Asia’ policy. The USA is rebalancing its Asia policies primarily in order to militarily counter China’s rise and aspirations of being the dominant super power.

Almost 60% of India’s, 80% of China’s and 25% of USA’s oil is shipped from this region. The Indo-Pacific region is also home to a populous mix of diverse ethnicities, cultures, political systems and economies which catapults its importance.

Consequently, USA, the dominant international player and China, the rising challenger are aligning their policies and objectives to meet with these challenges. USA’s military ‘pivot to Asia’ and China’s expansion through the ‘string of pearls’ is altering the geopolitical and geostrategic game in the region.

Thus the military build-up by both these countries in and around the region is alarming. While keeping an eye on the Malacca Strait is high on the agenda, another reason for such a paranoid expansion is the South China Sea conflict.

Hence, while the US has stationed four littoral combat ships in Singapore, greater access to Australian waters, and stationed troops at Philippines, China, is militarily engaging with regional countries like Malaysia and Thailand through joint exercises. They are also diplomatically seeking more economic cooperation with ASEAN countries to establish relations to seek their interests in the South China Sea and its extensions.  In addition, China’s ‘string of pearls’, with military presence in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Cambodia also provides leverage.

The two are fully aware that the country which manages to exercise control on the strategic Malacca Strait will not only secure easy passage for a lot of their oil and cargo, but also, significant political clout in the region for being the big brother.  
Securing access

If USA manages to gain command over the strait by successful diplomacy with regional countries, then it will be able to regain its glory that seems to have faded in recent months, owing to diplomatic debacles like Obama’s absence in the APEC and ASEAN summit, mismanagement of the Syrian crisis and inability to restrict adamant Iran and North Korea.

If however, China manages to seize control of Malacca, a clear message will be sent to the region: China’s aggressive expansion will boom, as will its territorial claims, proportionate to a loss of ASEAN’s sovereignty and India’s claim to regional fame.

While China’s antagonistic policies are directed at USA on a global level as well, at the regional level, it has serious competition from the other giant Asian economy- India.

India in Asia is China’s regional enemy par excellence. It is the political and intellectual counterpart of China. Since both their stories of economic growth are driven by the massive input of imported energy resources, their fight for energy security and regional dominance has pitted them against each other. In addition, with USA declaring India as a ‘linchpin’ to its rebalancing to Asia policy, China’s maritime trade and energy security faces serious threats from such an alliance.

However, while both China and USA have engaged themselves in a power struggle for the strait by wooing their respective regional allies through increased economic and military cooperation.

They have still not extended their understanding to the simple fact that in order to truly control the Malacca Strait, it is indeed important to woo India, for it is the Indian territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands that international maritime transport must cross after heading west from the Malacca Strait and before entering the international waters of the Indian Ocean.

Even though the US-China rivalry in Southeast Asia operates on a much broader level, as far as its maritime ambitions are concerned, the buck stops at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are at a unique location at the junction of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.

Their vertical placement (from North to South) makes them a natural geographic barrier of sorts. Because of their proximity to many South East Asian countries like Thailand and Myanmar, they form a strategic bridge for India’s power play in the Indo-Pacific region.

India’s plans

With Increasing Chinese assertiveness, competing strategic interests of maritime stakeholders and maintenance of security along the SLOC’s, India is finally waking up to the need to upgrade and strengthen its command from these islands. Through an ambitious plan, India’s farthest corner is getting a military boost which will give India the much needed strategic edge in the Indian Ocean.

Last year, India formally opened its southernmost naval air station at Campbell Bay in Nicobar Islands-the INS Baez. With this, the country acquires increased ability to monitor the vital maritime channel of the Malacca Strait. The strategic location of Campbell Bay enables the Indian Navy to overlook traffic from the strait.

In addition, it also dominates the six degree channel, providing it an eagle eye view of the crucial waterways in the Indian Ocean. This is also accompanied by the presence of a tri-service command.  It is also expected that the air strip will be increased substantially from the present 3000 feet to 6000 feet. The ability of this station is commensurate with India’s responsibility of maritime surveillance, especially keeping its large coastline in mind.

Stepped up surveillance and strategic grounding by countries like China, India, USA and Japan comes at a time when military maritime traffic, oil and cargo trade and non-traditional security threats like piracy and climate change are on the rise in the region.

In a way, non-traditional security threats have given a legitimate reason to countries like China and USA to position their warships in the region. While this certainly tackles piracy and climate change disaster management, their continued presence is a source of legitimate insecurity to maritime countries.

Thus, the justified perception is that in the Malacca region, China is trying to restrict India from establishing itself as hegemony in Asia and eliminating US presence. The ‘string of pearls’ strategy is to limit India’s and US’s access in Southeast Asia, particularly in the Malacca Strait.

China indeed faces a real dilemma on the strait. It has become its energy jugular, for if the strait is controlled by any other power, it could become China’s Achilles heel. This is precisely why China is exploring other parallel energy routes to reduce its vulnerability in the region.

India holds high stakes in the Malacca region. Aspiring to become the regional power, control of the strait would only strengthen its status in the region and help make deeper ties with ASEAN. It would also boost India’s ability to help ASEAN countries against Chinese aggression, while securing healthy and profitable trade ties.

The rise of China and India and the relative decline of USA have been subject to intense analysis. Thus US would want to control the most important energy routes of the world to maintain its hegemony in the world and tackle China’s rise which has posed an overwhelming challenge for the US economy.

Of all their competing interests, India can indeed be the game-changer in the battle for Malacca. Its wise decision to strategically enable the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to control the Indo-Pacific ocean region means that both USA and China will have to succumb to India’s overarching presence in the Indian Ocean.

Thus, the battle for the Malacca Strait doesn’t end at the Malacca strait; rather, it ends at these islands. Neither USA nor China can independently operate through the Malacca Strait, because ultimately, right after the Malacca Strait stands the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.