By Mahendra Ved
Kuala Lumpur : The US wants it, and India, China and others may be waiting to move in, but Malaysia continues to maintain that there is no need for "outsiders" to patrol the Malacca Strait.
Stating that piracy and other crime on the Malacca Strait has reduced in the last three years in the vital sea lane, a senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity here, said emphatically: "There is no need for outsiders to come in."
"There is no real danger. Piracy and other crime have to be settled by the navies, the marine crew and maritime agencies," he said in response to questions about security in the Malacca Strait through which at least 600 ships pass daily.
The 960-km narrow sea lane, sandwiched between Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, is one of the world's busiest waterways with about 50,000 ships plying the route annually, carrying half of the world's oil and one-third of the world's trade.
While piracy has persisted for centuries, the issue of curbing it, if not eliminating it totally, has gained international prominence after the US mooted the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI).
"We are not against PSI," the official said, adding that it had been discussed by the cabinet of Prime Minister Ahmad Abdullah Badawi. "There is no decision," he said.
The Asia Pacific region is divided, with Malaysia and Indonesia opposed to the participation of any "outsiders", while Singapore, the third littoral nation, along with Australia and others, think that what is in place is not enough.
The US has for some time been keen on a role for India. India has indicated its readiness, provided it is welcomed by the littoral states.
The "no outsiders" stance has been variously attributed to the anti-US sentiments in Indonesia and Malaysia, both Muslim nations, in the wake of 9/11, and to anxiety to prevent an international maritime rivalry in the region.
If India is welcomed, there would be pressures to allow China too, according to some analysts.
The Indian government has been closely monitoring the situation and has rendered help, when called upon. In 1999, Japan sought help to rescue a sea-jacked ship.
When India extended help to US vessels in 2002 for the safe passage of "high value" American cargo, it produced no adverse effect on the region. On the occasion, the "capability of India" was matched by its "acceptability" to the regional powers, according to Western sources.
After the US mooted the PSI in 2004 in the wake of several incidents of piracy, Malaysia and Indonesia said they would manage the problem themselves. Both have since floated or strengthened their maritime agencies, coordinating patrolling with Singapore.
The Malaysia Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) began patrolling from December 2005. It has plans for 72 ships and an air wing, with more than 4,000 personnel, since it needs to expand its operations to cover Malaysia's other territorial waters.
Malaysia's top policeman, Inspector General Musa Hassan, told a conference of maritime industry security experts here Tuesday that the threat was "real and plausible" and that there was need for vigilance to battle maritime terrorism, including attacks on ships, the hijacking of ships carrying dangerous materials and the use of vessels to attack ports.
Such attacks on the crucial trade route would cripple economies globally, he said.
The problem is especially acute in Indonesia. There were 325 reported pirate attacks worldwide in 2004, while nine occurred in Malaysian waters and eight in Singaporean waters, a total of 93 occurred in Indonesian waters.
On June 4, Indonesia's Defence Minister Juwono Sudarsono called on Japan, China and South Korea to help, including by providing technical assistance to his cash-strapped nation secure the vital Malacca Strait.
"What we lack in Indonesia is effective capacity to deploy resources, equipment, ships," he said at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, a regional security conference.
According to the International Maritime Bureau, worldwide pirate attacks fell for the third year in a row in 2006. Attacks on ships at sea in 2006 fell to 239 vessels, down from 276 in 2005.
That same trend echoed in the Strait of Malacca where attacks dropped from 79 in 2005 to 50 in 2006. Nonetheless, in 2004, the region accounted for 40 percent of piracy worldwide.
A Malacca Strait Fund was mooted at a conference here in March by getting each ship to pay one US cent per dead weight tonnage.
"If every transiting ship contributed only 1 U.S. cent per DWT to the Malacca Straits Fund, it will generate US$40 million (euro33 million) annually to the fund," it said in its report.
The report said the burden-sharing measure must not impinge on the sovereignty of the littoral states.