This article is part of Evolving Threats to Southeast Asia’s Maritime Security, a series of analyses produced by experts convened by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

How has the navigation hazard threat evolved over the last 20 years?

The Straits of Malacca and Singapore (SOMS) and the South China Sea are vital water bodies for trade. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development estimated that roughly 60% of global maritime trade passes through Asia, with the South China Sea carrying almost one-third of global shipping in magnitude. The SOMS are recognised to be among the world’s most significant international maritime chokepoints, connecting the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Shipping provides the most convenient way to conduct trade across the vast expanse of the region, and carries inherent maritime security risks and challenges.[1]

Straits of Malacca and Singapore

Shipping traffic through the Straits has been estimated to increase at about three per cent annually (excluding the Covid-19 years). Increasing traffic in the narrow waterway creates risk to the littoral states (i.e., Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore) navigational safety and environmental protection. The Maritime Institute of Malaysia conducted a study in 2009[2] on the carrying capacity of the Straits that showed that their physical carrying capacity is about 122,640 vessels per annum. At the present rate of increase in traffic volumes, this capacity will be exceeded by 2024.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) considers shipping as an inherently risky activity. Accidents or casualties are common, particularly in constricted waters like the SOMS. The consequences of a maritime accident include severe economic and environmental problems. While major accidents are rare, more than 1,000 cases have occurred over the past 25 years, and maritime collisions represent the largest cause of casualties in the Straits. Therefore, the potential for disaster should not be underestimated, especially when more than 60 percent of the cargo passing through the Straits consists of oil. Most of the major oil and hazardous and noxious substance spills in the Straits occurred between 1975 and 2010. Since then, preparedness and surveillance actions have led the occurrence of generally smaller and more manageable spills.

Navigational safety is often aggravated further by the presence of hazards in the congested and constricted parts of the Straits, for instance: heavy rain and squalls; sand waves, sand banks and islets; shipwrecks; high traffic; haze; as well as cross traffic shipping.[3] Efforts ensuring navigational safety in the Straits have reduced associated risks over the years, but some remain. For instance, cross-traffic shipping between Malaysia and Indonesia includes barter trade vessels that carry local commodities and passenger ferries. Most cross-traffic vessels are less than 300 gross registered tonnes and it is not compulsory for them to follow navigational safety rules. The increasing cross traffic in relation to through traffic requires that they be given due consideration in navigational risk assessment. General risk of ships movement in the Straits involves the volume of traffic, types of vessels, layout of navigational routes, human error, existence of ports, navigational aids, navigational procedures and practices, local and regional bathymetry, hydrographic and other environmental conditions.

South China Sea

Records show that more than 250 shipping incidents occurred in the South China Sea, Indonesia, and the Philippines region between 2007 and 2017, the largest number of incidents by region in the world.[4] Most of these losses in the South China Sea were from cargo and fishery vessels. The main causes included structural failure, flooding, fire on board, human error, as well as extreme weather, which led to foundered vessels, wrecked/stranded vessels, and fire or explosion. Discussions maritime issues in the South China Sea often focus on territorial disputes, with less attention given to navigational hazards that threaten the safety of cargo and fishing vessels.

What are the primary governance tools that are being used in response to the navigation hazard threat?

SOMS littoral states are bound by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Specifically, Article 43 of UNCLOS calls for the user states and states bordering a strait by agreement to cooperate:

  • In the establishment and maintenance of navigational and safety aids or other improvements in aids of navigation, and
  • In the prevention, reduction and control of pollution from ships.

With steadily increasing navigational traffic transiting the Straits, it was crucial that ship routing systems be established in these waterways. The littoral states, with the assistance of members of the international community, have since put in place measures to ensure navigational safety in the Straits such as:

  • the Traffic Separation Scheme in 1977
  • the extension of the Traffic Separation Scheme in 1998,
  • the Vessel Traffic Management System in Malaysia in 1997,
  • the Mandatory Ship Reporting System in the Straits in 1998

A fundamental principle that the littoral states must follow in legislating for the passage of vessels in the Straits is that these laws must not hamper, deny, or impair, the right of transit passage. The littoral states are permitted to make laws by giving effect to applicable international regulations and to refer these regulatory measures to the IMO. Once implemented, transiting ships and vessels are expected to observe and comply with these measures.

There is an ongoing Cooperative Mechanism[5] between the littoral states and users to enhance navigational safety and protection of the marine environment of the Straits. The littoral states and the user states have worked together in developing maritime technology to enhance safer shipping and ensure that aids to navigation facilities are up and running. The Cooperative Mechanism includes:

  • Cooperation Forum for dialogue and discussion;
  • A Tripartite Technical Experts Group on the safety of navigation to facilitate cooperation between littoral states in developing measures to regulate safer shipping in the Straits;
  • A Project Coordination Committee on the implementation of projects in cooperation with sponsoring users/stakeholders; and
  • Aids to Navigation Fund to receive direct financial contributions for renewal and maintenance of aids to navigation.

Under the above platform (which included an established framework for annual regional meetings) projects[6] are continuously discussed, considered, and funded by the parties to support navigational safety.

What are the primary harms the navigation hazard threat poses to regional stakeholders?

From the point of view of the littoral states, security in the Straits goes beyond the traditional notion of maritime security and navigational safety and encompasses human and environmental security as well as economic security. This stems from the multiple functions that the Strait performs for the littoral states and communities. The Straits are not only conduits for the movement of trade but also providers of livelihoods, sources of nutrients, and habitats for living. The uneasy relationship between the many functions of the SOMS to the littoral states and the international community is an interesting backdrop against which the issue of comprehensive security in the Straits is often discussed.

How has maritime awareness developed to reduce the navigation hazard threat?

Hazards to navigation also relate to other salient maritime threats, especially piracy, terrorism, and marine environmental protection. Because of their high profile, these issues tend to dominate the headlines and attract attention to the SOMS. International concern about the issue prompted action by the IMO and offers of assistance from the users of the Straits. The littoral states also took initiatives to address the problem including launching coordinated patrols and initiating joint aerial surveillance of the Straits of Malacca – the “Eye-in-the-Sky” initiative.[7] Further to addressing these threats, the Batam Joint Statement in 2005 further emphasised for the need for wider cooperation in maintaining the safety of navigation, environmental protection, and maritime security in the SOMS in accordance with UNCLOS 1982.

The statement indirectly paved the way for further cooperative arrangements in the Straits and contributed to reducing differences among the littoral states concerning how cooperation could be implemented[8] and between the littoral states and user states concerning the position of the littoral states vis-à-vis the involvement of other countries.[9] There is a need to take cooperative arrangements beyond official ceremonies to a level where meaningful and effective efforts are put on-the-ground, while still recognizing the sovereignty of the littoral states.

What additional context is necessary to understand the threat posed by navigation hazards?

Navigation hazards in the Straits and South China Sea are not one-dimensional issues, but a milieu of several interconnected issues: navigational safety, maritime security, environment protection, economic security, and human security. Any discourse on the subject needs to take into account these issues and their linkages.

For example, oil pollution prevention from ships in the region is addressed through navigational procedures, ratification and compliance to international conventions, as well as standard operating procedures for combatting oil spills in the SOMS, and the ASEAN Oil Spill Response Plan (ASEAN-OSRAP) in the South China Sea area. Notwithstanding these crucial elements regulating marine environmental protection, other complicated and sensitive factors will determine the impact and the required scale of response when an oil spill occurs. A small spill close to an ecologically sensitive area will have substantially more impact than a large spill in the middle of the South China Sea, requiring different levels of response and urgency. Incidental environmental threats posed by piracy and maritime terrorism, for instance, also pose further need to consider enhanced preparedness in handling crises by the littoral states.

There have often been deliberations on the nature of the assistance to be further extended to the littoral states by the international community of user states. It could be an opportune time to produce a common “wish list” of what is needed from a regional and country standpoint. This would provide the littoral states with the opportunity to drive cooperative efforts in the area by determining what is needed as opposed to receiving what is available from donor countries. But coming up with a regional wish list may be easier said than done. The requirements of the littoral states may differ from one another, and the wish list would have to be agreed upon by all parties concerned.

Whatever the future outlook, it is safe to say that the discourse on navigation hazards in the Straits has progressed over the years. There is probably a need for more emphasis on the same issue in the South China Sea.

[1] HM Ibrahim & Hairil Anuar Husin (Eds.) 2008. Profile of the Straits of Malacca: Malaysia’s Perspective. Maritime Institute of Malaysia (MIMA), 215 pp.

[2] HM Ibrahim & Mansoureh Sh. 2009. Carrying Capacity and Critical Governance Strategies for the Straits of Malacca. MIMA Research Paper, unpublished.

[3] Mohd. Arshad, A. M (Ed.) 2014. The Paradox of the Straits of Malacca: Balancing priorities for a sustainable waterway. Maritime Institute of Malaysia (MIMA). 360 pp.

[4] Muhammad Taufan. 2019. Traversing the South China Sea: Safety First. The Diplomat

[5] Cooperative Mechanism on Safety of Navigation and Environment Protection in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore

[6] Sekimizu, K., J. C. Sainlos and J. Paw. 2001, “The Marine Electronic Highway in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore – an Innovative Project for the Management of Highly Congested and Confined Waters.” Tropical Coasts 8(1): 24 – 31.

[7] Air Patrols for Malacca Straits

[8] Basiron, M.N. 2005, Exploring Modalities for Co-operation in the Straits of Malacca: An Environment Perspective. Paper presented at the Jakarta Meeting on the Straits of Malacca and Singapore: Enhancing Safety, Security and Environmental Protection. 7 – 8 September 2005. Jakarta.

[9] Jianhua, C. 2005, “The Straits of Malacca and Challenges Ahead: China’s Perspective” in Basiron, M. N and Amir, D. (Eds.), Building a Comprehensive Security Environment in the Straits of Malacca. Maritime Institute of Malaysia (MIMA), Kuala Lumpur.

About Cheryl Rita Kaur

Cheryl Rita is a policy research analyst at the Maritime Institute of Malaysia based in Kuala Lumpur, currently the Research Fellow and Head of the Centre for Straits of Malacca. She specializes in marine environmental and resources management, ocean governance, marine pollution control, and green maritime industry practices (especially in the ports and shipping sector), locally and abroad.