Long acknowledged as a strategic sea lane over the centuries, the Strait of Malacca today still attracts more than its fair share of superpowers’ attention.
As far back as 1995, Yossef Bodansky, Special Consultant on International Terrorism for the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies, and former Director of the Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare of the US Congress, as well as author of several books on terrorism, has described the Strait of Malacca thus:
“The Strait of Malacca is one of the world’s hottest and most crucial strategic choke points. It is considered by experts to be one of the 10 most vulnerable objectives which neutralization by hostile forces not only will cause tremendous harm to the well-being, perhaps very existence, of the economy of the West, but is also very easy to accomplish. Controlling the Strait of Malacca is presently a key strategic objective of the PRC to the point of risking armed conflict with the regional states and even the US.
Virtually the entire commercial sea traffic between the Far East and Europe, the Middle East, and India passes through the Strait of Malacca. The entire fuel and gas shipments purchased from the Persian Gulf for the Far East passes there. Furthermore, the region’s largest oil fields are virtually in the eastern mouth of the Strait. Moreover, Singapore — the region’s largest commercial and communications center and key port — lies at the eastern mouth of the Strait of Malacca.
The Strait of Malacca dominates more than the commercial and economic life lines into and out of the rapidly expanding economies of East Asia. The global strategic growth and expansion of aspiring powers can be contained and regulated through the mere control over the movement of their naval forces through the Strait of Malacca.”
“THE MALACCA DILEMMA”
That’s how important the strait is – and 20 years on, China is still looking for solutions to its self-dubbed “Malacca Dilemma”.
According to The Diplomat, Beijing has always been concerned about the security of its oil and gas imports from the Middle East and Africa transiting through the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca. Of greater concern is the reliance on American forces to secure the sea lines of communications (SLOCs) and chokepoints along the route. With no sustainable presence in the Indian Ocean, Beijing’s energy imports are highly vulnerable in the event of a military standoff with New Delhi or Washington.
Former Chinese President Hu Jintao called it the “Malacca Dilemma” and the need to secure China’s strategic and economic interests in the region. Either they find a way to reduce their dependency on the Malacca Strait or they maintain a credible presence in the Indian Ocean to equally secure the SLOCs. This is perhaps one of the driving factors behind China’s aggressive pursuit of good relations with the island nations in the Indian Ocean. In an effort to avoid attracting attention, Beijing is relying more on economic initiatives to strengthen its ties with small but critical islands in the Indian Ocean.
THE MYANMAR SOLUTION
In a small port town in Myanmar called Kyaukpyu lies possibly Beijing’s answer to its “Malacca Dilemma.” The Chinese presence in Myanmar and the Bay of Bengal is too close for comfort for policymakers in New Delhi. However, undeterred by Indian concerns, China has continued to invest in Myanmar, resulting in two gas and oil pipelines ferrying Chinese energy imports straight from the Indian Ocean without crossing the Straits of Malacca.
The first project to materialize was the gas pipeline connecting Kyaukpyu to Kunming in 2013. The pipeline enables Beijing to completely avoid using the Malacca Strait and tap directly into Myanmar’s offshore gas fields.
The second project is an oil pipeline starting from Maday Island in Kyaukpyu and transiting to China’s Yunnan province. The oil pipeline entered its operational stage since January 2015. This oil pipeline runs parallel to the gas pipeline, directly transferring Beijing’s oil imports from West Asia and Africa.
While the gas and oil pipelines have helped solve China’s “Malacca Dilemma,” the pipelines have great economic benefits for Myanmar as well.