The Strait of Malacca

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Podcast Transcript

As you probably know, the Earth is 70% water and 30% soil. However, not all of these pieces of water and land are the same.

Some of them are of great strategic importance as they serve as choke points for people who want to move from place to place.

A one and a half mile body of water is perhaps the largest body of water in the world. Around 25% of world trade passes through this small strait.

Learn more about the Strait of Malacca and its importance in this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

It is amazing how much shipping and trade passes through a few very small areas.

Everything entering and leaving the Black Sea must pass through the Bosphorus Strait. Everything entering and leaving the Mediterranean must pass through the Strait of Gibraltar.

25% of the world’s oil must pass through the narrow Strait of Hormuz, which is the entrance to the Persian Gulf.

Similarly, although man-made, the Suez and Panama Canals are also strategic choke points for much of world trade.

It is a waterway that is larger than the Suez and Panama Canals combined. The Strait of Malacca.

The Strait of Malacca is the narrow body of water that lies between the island of Sumatra in Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula. It also passes just below the small city-state of Singapore through the Singapore Strait, which is generally considered part of the Strait of Malacca.

It is the main waterway between the Indian and Pacific oceans.

If you want to understand why the Strait of Malacca matters, just look at a map of the world.

Suppose a ship wants to sail from the port of Yokahama in Japan to Rotterdam in the Netherlands. The shortest route to the Indian Ocean would be to bypass Singapore and enter the Strait of Malacca.

If you haven’t taken this route, your alternative is a much longer route.

If you look at a map, you might think there are many other routes. To start, you can simply sail between the islands of Sumatra and Java through the Sunda Strait.

However, the water here is too shallow for most large ships to pass through. Plus, it would add days to any trip to have to take that route.

How about sailing between some of the other islands in the archipelago?

You could sail through the Lombok Strait, between the islands of Bali and Lombok. It’s deeper and wider than the Strait of Malacca, but it’s an even longer trip. This is the actual route that many of the larger ships have to take if they are going between Asia and the Indian Ocean.

The Lombok Strait and the Sunda Strait are controlled by a single country: Indonesia. This means that if Indonesia does not want to let you pass, you will not pass.

The importance of the Strait of Malacca dates back thousands of years. All maritime and trading cultures, from East Asia to East Africa, pretty much had to cross the Strait of Malacca if they wanted to circumnavigate Southeast Asia.

These traders were responsible for spreading the different religions in the region. The first were traders from southern and eastern India who brought Hinduism with them. Between the 3rd century BC. and the 1st century, Hindu traders came to what is now Southeast Asia and spread Hinduism.

This was later supplanted by Buddhism, which began to spread in the 5th century and was adopted by the Srivijaya Empire, based in Sumatra from the 7th to the 12th century.

Arab traders then brought Islam to the region in the late 13th century, and it remains the dominant religion in Indonesia and Malaysia today.

From the 14th century, Chinese traders came south on trade missions. Many of them settled in the area, taking local Malay wives and adopting Islam. These traders, having mixed with the locals, created what is known as the Peranakan culture, which still exists in pockets around the Straits of Malacca.

Chinese Admiral Zheng He crossed the Strait of Malacca with his huge treasure ships.

From the 16th century, Europeans passed through the region, creating colonies and bringing Christianity with them.

All these different cultures and religions have passed through this one place due to geography and trade. All of the religions I have mentioned still have at least a small number of adherents in the region.

This made the strait, even centuries ago, one of the most important economic, cultural and strategic sites on the planet.

A series of commercial ports have sprung up on either side of the strait, including Ache, Kedah, Penang, Medan, Malacca, Johor and Singapore. Some of them are still big trading towns today.

The name Malacca comes from the Sultanate of Malacca, which existed in the 15th and early 16th centuries. The port of Malacca was one of the most important ports during Zheng He’s voyages, as he stopped there on every trip across the strait to stock up on supplies before sailing further east or west. .

As you can probably guess, piracy was a huge problem due to all the shipping and trade in this region.

The British have always had a knack for capturing small towns of great strategic importance. This is why the British controlled Gibraltar and Malta and built the Suez Canal.

In 1819 they purchased land from the Sultan of Johor to establish a port in what was called Singapura, now known as Singapore. Its strategic location, as well as its heavy fortifications, have earned it the nickname of Gibraltar of the East.

Singapore was so important because it is where the strait is narrowest. The Phillips Channel, located right next to Singapore, is only 1.7 miles or 2.7 kilometers wide.

During World War II, Singapore was a major target for the Japanese. In February 1942, the Japanese captured Singapore in what was the greatest military defeat in British history. Over 80,000 British and Allied troops surrendered to around 35,000 Japanese who traveled to Singapore overland.

Singapore basically ensured that the Japanese could control shipping and trade in the region.

As important as the Strait of Malacca has been over the centuries, its importance has only grown over time. Today, it is the world’s biggest choke point for international trade.

25% of all international trade and 60% of all shipping passes through the 1.7 mile wide channel off Singapore. In 2017, 84,456 ships passed through the strait.

That’s 213 a day, or one every six minutes entering the strait.

If you ever visit Singapore, try to visit one of the tallest buildings in the city. About 20 years ago, I had tea near the top of One Raffles Place, which was Singapore’s tallest building at the time. From there you could see dozens of ships off the coast.

If you can’t get to Singapore, just zoom into Google Earth or another satellite mapping service. No matter when the image was taken, you’ll see dozens of ships in the water just south of Singapore.

As global trade and container shipping has increased, the Strait of Malacca has only grown in importance, leading to several problems.

The first is the age-old problem of piracy. Although the strait is not the worst place in the world for piracy, it does happen. As recently as 2004, 40% of all acts of piracy in the world took place in the strait. Since the creation of a multinational anti-piracy force made up of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and India, piracy has fallen to almost nothing. However, it remains a threat and could quickly rebound if anti-piracy efforts are reduced.

The second problem is that of collisions. Again, this is not common, but it does happen. An accident in 2017 killed ten men on a US Navy ship that struck a commercial vessel. The risk of collision increases dramatically when wildfires burn in Sumatra, which can cover the strait with a blanket of smoke.

The biggest threat, by far, is what would happen if a country blocked the strait. A huge part of the world’s economy would come to a screeching halt if the Strait of Malacca were ever to be subject to a naval blockade.

The economies of many countries, including manufacturing nations like Japan, South Korea and China, as well as oil-exporting nations like Saudi Arabia and Iran, would be hit hard economically.

Many major powers such as China, the United States and India have all drawn up plans on what to do in such an eventuality. While there’s little immediate risk of something like this happening, it’s something everyone has a reason to make sure never happens.

No ship can cross the Strait of Malacca. The water in Phillips Channel is quite shallow, which limits the size of ships that can pass. The shallowest part of the strait is 25 meters or 82 feet deep.

Vessels that have a draft of 20.5 meters or 67.3 feet are certified as Malaccamax vessels. This is similar to other certifications for ships that can pass through canals, such as Panamax and Suezmax ships.

With the increase in traffic in the strait, there was talk of creating a competing route. This could not only reduce the pressure on the strait, but also create an alternative in case the strait is ever blocked.

One of the proposed plans would be the construction of a canal through the Isthmus of Kra in Thailand. The Thai Canal was first proposed over 300 years ago by the then King of Siam. The idea never went away.

The Thai government currently has a group working on plans for the creation of the canal. The most recent proposal would have the Thai Canal 102 kilometers long, 400 meters wide and 25 meters deep.

This would reduce the route for ships bound for China or Japan by 1,200 kilometers, reducing the journey by two days.

Another proposal is the creation of one or more pipelines to avoid the strait. One idea would be a pipeline across the Isthmus of Kra, where oil would simply be pumped from side to side.

The other idea would be a pipeline from Myanmar’s coast to China, which would completely bypass most shipping around Southeast Asia.

The Strait of Malacca is unquestionably the most important trade route and the most vital strategic choke point in the world today. Just because you don’t hear much about it in the news doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. It just means that if you hear about it, there’s probably a big problem.

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