The Submarine Race in the Malaccan Strait

Along with the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf near Iran and Oman, the Strait of Malacca is the world’s most important shipping chokepoint.

Linking the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean, the Malacca Strait is by far the shortest maritime route connecting Persian Gulf energy producers to their largest consumers in countries like China, Japan, and South Korea.

50,000 merchant ships carrying 40 percent of all world trade pass through the 900-km long (550 miles) strait each year. It’s particularly strategic for regional energy supplies. According to the U.S. government’s Energy Information Agency (EIA), in 1993 about 7 million barrels per day (bbl/d) of oil and petroleum products—at the time about 20 percent of global seaborne traded oil— transited the Strait of Malacca. By 2011, this number had risen to 15 million bbl/d or 33 percent of all seaborne traded oil.

Northeast Asia’s dependence on oil coming through the strait is remarkable. Japan relies on the Malaccan Strait for about 90 percent of its oil imports. As recently as 2010, China relied on the strait for some 80 percent of its imported oil. Little wonder then that former President Hu Jintao famously referred to China’s Malacca Dilemma.

Three nations—Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia— sit atop the Malaccan Strait, which is just 1.7 miles (2.7 km) wide at its narrowest point. While foreign navies like the United States have traditionally operated in the area, and China’s navy has increasingly taken a strong interest in doing so, the naval forces of these littoral states should not be overlooked.

Indeed, taking stock of their strategic location, all three countries have acquired submarine forces, with Indonesia in particular possessing considerable subsurface ambitions for the future.

The Republic of Singapore’s Navy (RSN) has one of the most formidable submarine forces in the region, commissioning its sixth vessel in May. All six of the vessels were purchased from Sweden in two different batches.

Indonesia also recently completed a new military base on Palu Bay, which will serve as the country’s submarine base. The base took two years to build and cost US$717,000, according to Jakarta Post. The newspaper also said that Palu Bay is “10 kilometers wide and its coastline stretches for 68 kilometers while its depth reaches 400 meters.”

Collin, the researcher at RSIS, explains it this way:

“The primary reasons for selecting Palu have surely got to do with geography. It’s located first of all astride the Strait of Makassar and the Palu Bay is a narrow, deep inlet (reportedly 400m) which provides maximum security for the submarine force in terms of concealment and defense against attacks. Besides its sitting astride the strategic waterway, Palu offers direct access northwards into the Sulawesi Sea, where Indonesia still has outstanding dispute with Malaysia over the Ambalat offshore oil block.”

Overall, Collin describes the purpose of Indonesia’s submarine fleet as one of deterrence in peacetime, and sea-control or at least sea-denial in times of war.

“Submarines certainly form a major facet of the whole game plan” of Indonesia’s Navy, he says. “Their role is intended largely in peacetime to constitute a ‘fleet-in-being’ deterrent to any potential foe. In wartime, due to the multiplicity of possible sea approaches the adversary may undertake, it is necessary to carry out effective sea denial using submarines, by focusing them on the strategic SLOCs of the highest priority.”

Owing to its geography, “Palu base certainly serves as a ‘force multiplier’ in this respect,” Collin adds.

Full article: The Submarine Race in the Malaccan Strait (The Diplomat)

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