Sunday, November 18, 2001

Piracy, unrest
imperil shipping
in straits

Fears mount that terrorists
will block vital shipping lanes

By Joseph Morgan
Special to the Star-Bulletin

The MV Aloha Star is under way from Kuwait to Yokohama, Japan, with a full load of crude oil. The ship has cleared the narrow Strait of Hormuz, with its ticklish navigation, and steams across the Indian Ocean risk free. The most difficult part of the voyage will be through the Strait of Malacca between Singpapore and Indonesia and into the South China Sea, where dangers abound.

Aloha Star is 800 feet long, displaces 205,000 tons, of which 175,000 tons is the cargo of crude. She has a draft of 62 feet, enabling it to clear the strait --but only by a few feet and with careful navigation. With its powerful twin engines and propellers, it takes four miles to bring the vessel to a stop from a speed of 15 knots. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore have cooperated to establish traffic separation schemes and better navigational aids in the strait. In 1974, Japan carried out hydrographic surveys that produced large-scale nautical charts.

With navigation safer, the dangers arise from piracy at sea and political and military conflict ashore.

Piracy has become more abundant. In the first nine months of this year, there were 128 acts of piracy in the straits, the South China sea and adjacent waters, down from the 159 in 2000 but up from the 101 committed in 1999, according to the International Maritime Bureau in Malaysia. Perhaps most common, the pirates came up from astern of large tankers in speed boats, boarded, and force the master to open the ship's safe.

Despite this, Indonesia, reported to be the scene of 71 episodes, has been uncooperative with other nations bordering the strait, maintaining that the illegal activities occurred in Singaporean waters. This might technically have been the case, but the confined waters beg for cooperative efforts by Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Adm. Dennis Blair, who commands U.S. military forces in most of Asia and the Pacific, has advocated establishing a Malacca Straits patrol. Blair's concerns are twofold: Unimpeded navigation by tankers carrying oil to the United States and friendly nations, and free passage of U.S. naval vessels transitting from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean. Many countries have offered to cooperate, but the key lies with the three nations alongside the strait.

Indonesia may become a serious problem. In the nation with the world's largest Muslim population, extremism has recently appeared. For decades the Indonesian government stressed freedom of religion and allowed the small Chinese and Christian communities to carry out their economic and religious activities peacefully. In the past year there have been violent attacks on these communities, resulting in destruction of property and loss of life.

The numbers of victims have been small, but they manifest anti-U.S. and anti-Western sentiment. On Sept.11, a Muslim couple educated in the United States e-mailed to acquaintances in the United States saying: "It served you right -- supporting that terrorist Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon." An estimated 30,000 Indonesians support radical Islam, small when considering a population of 228 million, but nevertheless important.

Last year, the Laskar Jihad was formed, became vocally active, and has been attracting members from the ranks of unemployed youths. In addition, several secessionist movements have divided the nation. Aceh at the northern tip of Sumatra is of greatest concern, since it guards the opening of the Malacca Strait. Repression of the secessionists by Indonesian military forces has spawned a noticeable tilt toward Islamic extremism.

The threat is that pirates, secessionists, or terrorists could capture large tankers and scuttle them in the strait, blocking it for months. Ships could sail through other straits in Indonesia, or around the entire archipelago, or even around Australia to reach the Pacific and thence East Asia or North America. But that, plus a probable increase in marine insurance rates, would send the costs of shipping soaring, doing severe economic damage.

Terrorists in Indonesia could also put pressure on shipping through alternative straits. Sunda and Lombok Straits are wider, deeper, and without serious navigational hazards, but both are within the Indonesian archipelago. Lombok Strait has served as an alternative for tankers unable to navigate the Malacca route because they have deeper drafts than those permitted.

While that route added 1,000 miles and about three days of steaming, it was useful. But it, and passage through the Sunda Strait in the middle of the archipelago, would also be vulnerable to terrorist disruption. Thus Blair's call for a naval patrol of the straits has undoubted merit but would be difficult to achieve without the cooperation of Indonesia.

Joseph Morgan, a retired naval officer, teaches
geography at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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