India has been asked to join the Malacca Straits Patrol (MSP) framework, and will commence naval operations to patrol the area, which acts as an oceanic gateway to and from the South China Sea, and also links the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean. From an economic and strategic perspective, the Malacca Straits is one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. It serves as the main shipping channel between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, and links major Asian economies such as India, China, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea.
In 2006, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand formed the MSP to provide maritime security to the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. The MSP comprises of the Malacca Straits Sea Patrol (MSSP), the “Eyes-in-the-Sky” (EiS) Combined Maritime Air Patrols, as well as the Intelligence Exchange Group (IEG). The Straits of Malacca is one of eight major oil chokepoints throughout the world, and the MSP was initiated in the wake of an upsurge in pirate attacks on ships in the region in the early 2000s. About 80 percent of China’s crude and oil imports from the Middle East and Africa passes through these straits.
Former Indian Navy Commander Abhijit Singh is quoted stating, “If India does manage to join the MSP, it will be a very significant development. The four countries involved in patrolling the Malacca Straits have acute sensitivities about each other’s maritime activities closer to their own territorial waters. They are also inherently wary of extra-regional contributions to the patrolling effort. Part of the problem is that three of the four states have competing territorial claims in littorals adjoining the Malacca Straits. Now, as armed robbery and militancy in Southeast Asia are on the rise, there is a clamor for outside assistance in the maritime security effort. But India must be aware that joint maritime operations in the region will come with its share of challenges.”
The Straits of Malacca are considered a weak point in China’s maritime strategy, and India wants to assert itself more with such a strategic move as becoming part of the MSP. Once India is authorized to patrol the Malacca Straits, it will have access to real-time data of commercial ships and naval platforms.
The move is certain to upset China, whose own occupation and development of various disputed reefs around the South China Sea has caused regional criticism. India’s involvement in the MSP will essentially limit the extent of any further Chinese expansion and could be used to blockade supplies to China in the event of a conflict. India has a powerful navy, including nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers. The move also signals that India is ready to take on greater responsibilities in acting as a counterweight to the perceived Chinese naval might. This comes as the United States looks to withdraw from the region, and puts India in a possible position of influence, especially with respect to how some of the ASEAN nations can counter perceived territorial threats from Beijing.