On the 2nd of July 2019, the Transport Ministry of the People’s Republic of China elevated its security level for vessels transiting the Strait of Malacca to ‘3’, the highest. As a frame of reference, during the recent Gulf flare-up between the United States and Iran, the Strait of Hormuz remained at ‘level 2’.
The Singaporean Maritime and Port Authority commented on the 5th of July that “it had not received any information on immediate threats to ships heading through the Straits of Malacca and Singapore”. Malaysia’s transport ministry said that it was aware of the announcement but declined to comment, while the head of the Indonesian Maritime Security Agency is “looking into the issue [but] doesn’t know why China raised the alert level.” For not one, but all three regional chaperones of the Strait to be clueless as to a specific threat seems nearly impossible. Compounding this, international shipping security experts have also metaphorically shrugged their shoulders.
Concerning the threat specifically, it is certainly lacking in body. China Cosco Shipping Group, an oil and gas transporter said that it had received information that “a certain Indonesian organisation is preparing to attack Chinese ships when passing through the Strait of Malacca”.
Most likely, the elevated threat warning has nothing to do whatsoever with non-state armed groups anywhere near the Strait, but rather, is a fait accompli which the PRC can activate to justify increased naval presence in the region. The Strait of Malacca is the linchpin of most Asian economies, particularly for oil imports from the Middle East, and product exports to Europe; rerouting around Sumatra would create all sorts of problems for Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, as well as China. In fact, the Strait is the 2nd most critical oil and gas conduit after Hormuz, and plays host to a quarter of all global trade.
The area is certainly vulnerable to traditional security actors, perhaps even more so than “a certain Indonesian organization.” A recent strategic paper on the Strait of Malacca highlights the twin-threats of conventional submarines, as well as light torpedo and anti-missile ship carrying craft capable of exerting control over the congested and narrow waterway.
Increased Chinese activity in the Strait of Malacca may also be symbolic of growing confidence in South China Sea positions, and a desire to project beyond their confines. Carl Schuster, a former US Navy Captain states “By controlling the South China Sea, China can project its air and sea power to the Pacific Ocean’s western entry points, Malacca, Sundra and Lombok Straits”. If true, then this recent announcement is only the opening salvo in a race to the choke points.
Additionally, parking forces in the Strait sends a clear signal to European powers, a la France, the UK and even (remarkably) Germany, who are re-engaging in the Pacific: the Chinese Navy holds the door from the West open, enter at your own risk. There is little denying that any force sailing from Europe to the South China Sea, or anywhere in the Indo-Pacific would transit through the Strait of Malacca (this is the exact route which the French Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier took on its recent June 2019 deployment to Singapore), so this message may be intended to offer a sharp rebuke before European powers grow too comfortable regionally.
Only future deployments or appearances of Chinese naval vessels will quantify the above hypothesis, however, geopolitically “marking” the Strait of Malacca establishes a de facto Chinese “sphere of influence”. Deployment, or similar announcements regarding other international arteries for trade and transport are not to be ruled out.