China raises alert for Malacca Strait as regional tensions threaten global shipping lines

By Chu Daye Source:Global Times Published: 2019/7/4 21:18:40

China raises alert for Malacca Strait

A cruise liner passes through the Strait of Malacca near George Town, Malaysia in January. Photo: VCG

The Chinese government has raised the security level for its ships passing through the Strait of Malacca to the highest level, Level 3, the Ministry of Transport (MOT) told the Global Times on Thursday, as tensions in the Middle East cast dark clouds over global strategic shipping lines.

The ministry advised that starting at 10 pm Beijing time on Tuesday, Chinese vessels heading toward the Strait of Malacca, one of the world's busiest trade waterways, should take precautionary security measures to ensure their navigational safety. 

The ministry's confirmation to the Global Times came one day after a photocopy of a government circular dated Tuesday was widely noticed by Chinese social media on Wednesday, causing heated discussion on possible security deterioration in the important Asian strait. 

Security of the strait, a prime waterway for trade linking Asia with the Middle East, Europe and Africa, is frequently debated among Asian leaders. Chinese maritime strategists often call this issue the "Malacca Dilemma.''

Lin Boqiang, dean of the China Institute for Studies in Energy Policy at Xiamen University, said that some 80 percent of Chinese crude imports and some liquefied natural gas imports go through the strait, making it a geographic choke point for the Chinese economy.

"Half of China's cars would have to stop running if the strait was blocked," Lin said.

China's is the world's biggest importer of crude oil, bringing in a record high of 460 million tons last year, data from the National Bureau of Statistics showed in January.

However, the energy expert said that the MOT warning only refers to the threats of pirates, who have in recent years shifted their operation model from seizing cargoes to hijacking entire ships for sale.

Wu Minghua, a Shanghai-based independent shipping industry analyst, said that the circular will not only affect Chinese-flagged ships but also other ships directly or indirectly operated by Chinese companies.

"It is a necessary warning given the changed security situation of the energy and goods conduit, and it will raise the wariness of shipping companies and ships' crews to prepare for security risks," Wu said, noting that containerships will also be threatened.

"There is a contagion of security pressure from the recent attacks on tankers in the Strait of Hormuz," Wu said. 

The warning from China comes after a string of attacks since May on tankers near Hormuz.

Japan and South Korea are also heavily dependent on the smooth traffic of the Strait of Malacca, but Lin said China is more dependent on it for many reasons including its larger economy.

Piracy risks

Some media in Southeast Asian countries speculated that many shipping tanker units had been warned of possible attacks from local pirate gangs.

There were eight reported piracy and armed robbery incidents in 2018 in and around the strait, according to ReCAAP Information Sharing Centre, which tracks piracy and attacks on ships in Asia.

Wu said that piracy has shown signs of abating in the Gulf of Aden since 2018, after a crackdown by the joint efforts by navies of many countries. But piracy in the Malacca Strait has been on the rise.

Pirates are only able to target a few ships out of the thousands that transit the channel, and there are naval vessels from nearby countries that can act as escorts, Lin said, depicting the background of the MOT warning.

State-owned shipping giant China COSCO SHIPPING Corp did not reply to a Global Times request for comment on Thursday.
Newspaper headline: China raises alert for Malacca Strait

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