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"China’s Raised Threat Level for the Malacca Straits Causes Puzzlement" by Ian Storey

2019/58, 9 July 2019

On 2 July, China’s Ministry of Transport (MOT) raised the threat alert for Chinese-flagged ships transiting the Straits of Malacca (SOM) to Security Level 3, the highest security setting under the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS).  Security Level 3 applies when there is credible information that a security incident is probable or imminent and requires vessels to strengthen security measures.

Because China receives 80% of its oil imports through the SOM, it has always been concerned about security in the 900-kilometre long waterway. However, China’s recent decision has caused puzzlement across the region. The MOT did not explain why it had raised the threat level. Neither of the two major piracy reporting centres in Southeast Asia—the Information Sharing Centre (ISC) belonging to the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combatting Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) in Singapore, and the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre (IMB-PRC) in Kuala Lumpur—have issued warnings for shipping in the Malacca Straits. Over the past several years, both organizations have reported a sharp drop in the number of piracy and sea robbery attacks in Straits. The IMB-PRC has not reported a single attack since 2015, while the ISC reported 8 attacks in 2018 and only 2 in the first quarter of 2019. However, both the ISC and IMB-PRC have continued to advise ships to exercise vigilance when sailing through the SOM.

In response to media inquiries, the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore said it had received no information on immediate threats to shipping in the area and would maintain its security setting at Security Level 1, the level at which ships and port facilities normally operate. The maritime authorities in Malaysia and Indonesia have thus far not commented on the reports. Japan and South Korea, which are also heavily dependent on energy supplies through the SOM, have not raised the security levels for their ships.

Two possible explanations have been advanced to explain China’s raised threat level.

First, the Chinese authorities may have obtained intelligence that a radical Islamic group in Indonesia is planning attacks against Chinese ships in the SOM, possibly in response to Beijing’s repressive policies in Xinjiang Province. However, if China has received intelligence on planned attacks it does not appear to have shared it with the littoral states or international maritime organizations.

Second, the warning may be linked to growing tensions between the US and Iran and a spate of attacks against oil tankers in the Straits of Hormuz (SOH) in May and June. However, heightened tensions in the SOH have had no impact on the security situation in the SOM 5,000 kilometres to the east. Curiously, despite the recent attacks in the SOH, the MOT’s threat level for the area remains at Security Level 2, one below that for the Malacca Straits where there have been no major incidents.

Since the mid-2000s, Southeast Asian countries have improved port security, established coordinated naval patrols and information-sharing networks, and received capacity-building support from non-regional powers such as the US and Japan. As a result, acts of maritime violence have dramatically declined. The littoral states will thus be troubled by China’s decision to raise the threat level in the SOM as it calls into question their ability to provide a secure environment for international shipping. If the warning remains in force, Chinese vessels may face higher insurance rates, forcing shipping companies to seek alternative routes which bypass major ports, including Singapore. In order to protect the region’s reputation and maritime industries, China should therefore explain its warning or else lower its security setting back to Security Level 1.

Dr Ian Storey is Senior Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.