The Straits of Malacca: Gateway or Gauntlet?
One of the unhappy coincidences for international trade is that its busiest shipping lane happens to be the most dangerous. About one-quarter of the world's traded goods pass through the Straits of Malacca every year, including Mideast oil bound for Japan, Chinese manufactures headed for Europe, and Indonesian coffee destined for Amsterdam. In heavy traffic, ships must delicately weave their way through the narrow straits, only five [End Page 528] kilometres of navigable width at one passage, past shallow shoals and rocky outcrops. These natural hazards are compounded by man-made ones. Legions of pirates operate with impunity from the coves and deltas of Indonesia's many islands along the straits. Of the 445 piracies in the world in 2003, the plurality (121) occurred in Indonesian waters.
Donald Freeman has written a comprehensive overview of the environmental, economic, and political aspects of the Straits of Malacca. His focus is on role of the straits in the 'evolving patterns of regional and economic commerce over the past several millennia.' The book is organized as neither historical narrative nor geographical description. Instead, it is organized into themes pertaining to the commercial function of the straits. The first section describes the monsoon patterns and the early long-distance wind-dependent trade. The second section outlines a series of international trading systems, from the Greco-Roman era to the present. The third section analyses the 'gatekeepers,' the regional political institutions that have controlled or influenced the traffic through the straits. The fourth section reviews the environmental and social obstacles to that traffic. The final section charts the probable future trends in shipping, Asian economic development, and the management of the straits. Given the contents, the title of the book, presenting an either/or question, is misleading. Freeman writes of the straits as both a 'gateway' and a 'gauntlet.'
This book, based almost entirely on secondary sources, might be best considered a convenient compendium of information about the straits as a shipping lane. Many topics are addressed in thirty-four chapters but none is explored in much depth. For instance, there are neither detailed statistics on the volume of the current transit trade (the straits as a 'gateway') nor a careful analysis of the risks from collision and piracy (the straits as a 'gauntlet'). Although the Straits of Malacca are more dangerous than other chokepoints, such as the Strait of Gibraltar, the actual risks do not seem great. Out of the tens of thousands of vessels that pass through the straits every year (about fifty thousand, according to articles I have seen in the Asian business press), only a fraction of a percent meet with a mishap.
The first two sections of the book could have been drastically pruned, since they contain much tangential information. To explain the cyclical wind patterns influencing sailing through the straits, Freeman feels he must explain, in some technical detail, the meteorology of the entire planet. To explain the global circuits of trade, he recapitulates at length familiar facts of the Portuguese, Dutch, and British empires.
On occasion, the book's superficial approach leads to oversimplification. Indonesia's bellicose 'Confrontation' with Malaysia from 1963 to 1966 was not clearly motivated by territorial expansionism, as Freeman contends. President Sukarno's stated purpose for the cross-straits and cross-border hostilities - fighting 'neo-colonialism' - needs to be granted some credibility. [End Page 529] Malaysia's military at the time was little more than the British military. With 'Confrontation,' Sukarno hoped, among other things, to drive the British out of Southeast Asia. Freeman does not mention that the US, with British connivance, used Malaysia and Singapore as bases for its hostilities against Indonesia in the late 1950s.
One value of Freeman's book lies in its highlighting of the tension between the international use of the straits and their local management by the bordering nation states. Since the book was published, this tension has only intensified. The post-September 11 fears about a terrorist attack in this lightly policed shipping lane prompted a US admiral to propose in March 2004 placing marines on patrol there - a proposal angrily rejected by Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, who viewed it as an insult to their sovereignty.
John Roosa, Department of History, University of British Columbia