Global Policy Forum

Patrolling Malacca Straits a Sticky Issue


Rumsfeld softened tone in Singapore,
but having US forces in the region remains contentious

By Matthew Clark

Christian Science Monitor
June 9, 2004

This past weekend, while much of the Western press was focused on the death of former US President Ronald Reagan and the UN resolution about the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was in Singapore for the tail end of the third annual Asia Security Conference.

"As [Rumsfeld] swooped into Singapore on Friday on a nuclear war-ready Boeing 747 dubbed the 'Doomsday plane', many observers expected [Mr. Rumsfeld] to get an earful from Asian countries weary of American unilateralism," reports William Choong in The Straits Times of Singapore. But, "at the end of three-day Shangri-La Dialogue, however, the 'lashing' turned out to be a lot more subtle - and subdued," writes Choong, who points out that Rumsfeld took a less heavy-handed approach to this conference.

What the 200 or so delegates at the conference saw over the weekend was a more dovish Defense Secretary - an established hawk - who was bent on debunking America's go-it-alone image.
The commander of the United States Pacific Fleet, Admiral Walter Doran, said Saturday that the US plans to enhance maritime security in Asia by sharing information that could lead to inspections of vessels carrying suspicious cargo in the vital Straits of Malacca, The Associated Press reports. Doran stressed, however, that the initiative did not include the use of US forces in the 900-kilometer waterway lying between Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia (see map). AP reports that this amounted to "backtracking on an earlier Pentagon suggestion that it could use its elite forces to help patrol the trade route, which carries half the world's oil."

In April, the commander of US forces in the Pacific, Admiral Thomas Fargo, suggested US Marines and special forces should protect the Straits, Voice of America reports.

A Jakarta Post editorial explains just how important the Straits of Malacca are to international commerce, and how the waters are threatened by piracy.

Problems affecting safe navigation in the ... [straits] will remain of international concern because, according to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), at least 50,000 ships sail through the narrow channel every year. They transport about 30 percent of the world's trade goods and 80 percent of Japan's oil needs.

Over the last several years, the IMO has regularly issued warnings about the rising threat of piracy in the straits...

Singapore proposed the idea of US Marines helping to patrol the Straits, the editorial points out, while stating that the "prosperous city state may sometimes fail to take into account the sensitivities of its larger but poorer neighbors when it settles on policies that also could affect them."

But Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak said at the final day of the conference last Sunday that US counterterrorism forces in the region would fuel Islamic fanaticism, reports HiPakistan. Mr. Najib said:

What we should avoid is the presence of foreign forces in Southeast Asia to help us deal with this threat, not because we distrust those outside the region, but because foreign military presence will set us back in our ideological battle against extremism and militancy.
Officials at the conference also tied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to terror in the region, reports Agence France-Presse. Singapore's Co-ordinating Minister for Defence and Security, Tony Tan, said that "a balanced approach by the United States towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is necessary if the Muslim world perceives the approach by the United States as unbalanced and tilted towards the Israelis." The US approach in the Middle East contributes as a "propaganda tool to the sense of outrage, to the sense of resentment. It inspires suicide bombers not only in the Middle East but also throughout the world," Mr. Tan said.

The Age of Melbourne, Australia reports that Thailand has joined Malaysia and Indonesia in rejecting a greater US military role in the region. Thai Deputy Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh has ruled out deployment of US forces to help combat a worsening Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand, reports The Age. "There is no reason for the US to deploy troops. It's usual for the US to comment on such things but we can manage the situation," Mr. Chavalit said.

He also backed claims by Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak that the regional terrorist threat was being exaggerated, and discounted the likelihood of another serious attack. "That's a US notion but I don't see any conditions leading to that kind of incident," said Chavalit.

Australia's Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, will visit Malaysia and Singapore this week and counter-terror cooperation will be on the agenda, reports the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Mr. Downer is scheduled to meet Najib to discuss defence and security and to visit the South-East Asian Regional Centre for Counter-Terrorism in Kuala Lumpur, reports ABC.

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