Global Policy Forum

Malaysia Rebuffs US Sea Force Plan


By Mark Baker

The Age
April 6, 2004

Malaysia has rejected a plan by the United States to deploy marines and special forces troops to counter potential terrorist attacks against international shipping in the Strait of Malacca, one of the world's busiest sea lanes. The commander of US forces in the Asia-Pacific region, Admiral Thomas Fargo, last week revealed the plan to use troops aboard high-speed vessels to police the straits, which run between peninsular Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

Admiral Fargo claimed there was widespread support in the region for the Pentagon's proposed Regional Maritime Security Initiative, which would fight piracy and people smuggling as well as guard against possible attacks on shipping by terrorist groups. But in a curt rebuff, Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak said at the weekend that control of the straits was the sovereign prerogative of Malaysia and Indonesia and US military involvement was not welcome.

"In principle, ensuring the security of the Straits of Malacca is the responsibility of Malaysia and Indonesia and for the present we do not propose to invite the United States to join the security operations we have mounted there," said Mr Najib, who is also Defence Minister. "Even if they wished to act, they should get our permission, as this touches on the question of our national sovereignty."

A report by Singapore's Institute of South-East Asian Studies warned last month of the potential danger of al-Qaeda or affiliated terrorist groups hijacking a cargo ship and using it to deliver a conventional, chemical or radiological bomb against a large port city. The report said shipping in the Strait of Malacca - which carries a quarter of the world's trade and half its oil - were already prey to pirates and remained vulnerable to terrorist attacks without improved international security co-operation. Admiral Fargo told a congressional hearing in Washington that US military planners wanted to use marines and special forces, working with regional security forces, to combat terrorists and other criminals operating in the sea lanes. "We're looking at things like high-speed vessels, putting special operations forces on high-speed vessels, marines on high-speed vessels... to conduct better interdiction," he said.

"All of the countries are concerned about this transnational threat. This is a pretty vast space and no country can do this by themselves, so it's going to be a multinational, multilateral effort." The admiral claimed there was widespread support for the initiative. "I just came back from Singapore and had a very solid conversation with the Singaporeans, and they're going to help us with this," he said.

But Mr Najib denied that Malaysia and Indonesia needed help policing the straits which, despite periodic raids by pirates on smaller cargo vessels, were generally safe for shipping. He said Malaysia enjoyed good relations with the US, including joint military training, and that US vessels were free to use the strait. "They can use the waterway for their ships, including warships, but to launch operations they should have the concurrence of Malaysia and Indonesia."

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