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The Battle for Control of Asia's Most Important Waterway


The Burma-China pipeline project has hit a snag just a few months before completion, Burmese officials report. Because the pipeline crosses territory where the state is battling armed independence armies, the pipeline won’t become operational for some time.

The delay highlights the importance of the Strait of Malacca for energy-hungry Asian countries. The sheer amount of oil that goes through the strait is remarkable: 75 percent of the oil consumed by Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan and 37 percent of China’s demand travels through this 1.5 nautical mile-wide stretch. The pipeline through Burma would ease China’s reliance on the strait somewhat. Currently, it is the second most clogged waterway in the world, and it’s going to get even more crowded in the near future.

The amount of oil moving over the sea, mostly to Asian customers, surged 10 percent last year, the Financial Times reports. This is mostly because of the US domestic energy boom, which has meant oil tankers from West Africa and Latin America that previously frequented American ports must travel to Asia in search of customers. Indian imports of Venezuelan crude, for example, jumped threefold since 2011.

As tanker traffic in the Strait of Malacca picks up, so too does the amount of naval policing in these clogged waters. India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and numerous other countries from South and Southeast Asia have made the sea a top security priority and boosted defense spending in recent years. Meanwhile, the US and China are in the midst of building up their own naval presences in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Though the East and South China Seas hog most of the media spotlight because of several simmering territorial disputes, the Indian Ocean and narrow but vital waterways like the Strait of Malacca are becoming the new maritime battlegrounds in Asia’s game of thrones. Many resources vital to Asia’s growing economies pass through these waters. Rival navies will seek to guard their countries’ fishing grounds and trade routes and fight off poachers and pirates. Let the games begin.

[Strait of Malacca image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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  • Jim Luebke

    I’ve often wondered if taking Singapore wouldn’t be more strategic for China than taking Taiwan. Last I heard (and it was a while back) the ethnic Chinese population of the city/state was in the “vast majority” range.

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