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Maritime Indonesia Is Girding Up to Oversee Precious Straits 

By Philip Bowring - International Herald Tribune 

KUALA LUMPUR - President Abdurrahman Wahid's interest in maritime affairs, reflected in his appointment of an admiral to head the armed forces and the creation of a maritime research ministry, will be closely watched by neighbors and by users of the key straits which Indonesia wholly or partly controls.

 Emphasis on the navy diminishes the army and its internal security role, which has earned it so much obloquy. It underlines the armed forces' role in external defense, in particular of Indonesia as an archipelagic state joined, not divided, by water. This status, as much as its population and resources, enables it to play a larger role in international affairs and serve as a new focus of nationalism.

 Mr. Wahid's election came within days of an International Maritime Organization conference in Singapore on issues affecting the most important of those waterways, the Malacca and Singapore straits, in the territorial waters of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.

 Malaysia and Indonesia favor charges for use of these straits to cover costs of navigation aids etc. To date, only Japan has made any contribution, and that was many years ago in the wake of an oil spill by a Japanese tanker. Japan is the largest user followed by South Korea, China and Taiwan. 

Indonesia and Malaysia believe that transit rights for all countries' ships through this narrow, shallow and crowded waterway cannot be absolute, given that their own security could be at risk from major accidents. Some 250 ships transit the straits every day, one-third of them tankers, in addition to coastal traffic and fishing boats. A single major tanker accident could block the entire straits and be a pollution disaster.

 In signing the 1982 UN Law of the Sea Convention, Malaysia made interpretive declarations to protect its positions. Officials also point out that compensation for pollution and other damage is very difficult to collect, especially from flag-of-convenience vessels.

 Singapore cooperates with its neighbors on navigation issues, including policing traffic lanes and compulsory ship reporting. It would be agreeable to charges, whether on user states or on specific vessels, if internationally approved. But it has no desire to restrict use of straits to which it owes much of its livelihood.

 As a small maritime state it needs to maximize freedom of the seas. It also does not want to encourage ideas for alternative routes bypassing Singapore.

 Indonesia has mostly left navigation management of the Malacca straits to Singapore and Malaysia. But with Aceh's future becoming a pivot of Indonesian affairs, the role of these straits will get closer attention.

 Jakarta also knows that the only viable alternatives routes from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and the Pacific are straits - Lombok, Sunda, Makassar etc. - which are entirely in its territorial or archipelagic waters. These are deep if narrow straits and do not require channel markers and other navigation aids, so there is nothing that can be charged for.

 The UN convention does not allow tolls on what are deemed to be international straits. ''Transit'' rights through them are unrestricted. But nothing is crystal clear. There are different rules for the Bosporus dating back to the 1930s. As for more general rights of ''innocent passage'' through territorial seas and archipelagic waters, they are subject to various qualifications involving security and pollution concerns.

 The bottom line is that the UN convention is sufficiently open to interpretation to give the riparian states bargaining power, and none more than Indonesia. The question now is whether Indonesia and Malaysia will take a more active stance.

 It is unlikely that Indonesia will immediately start to leverage its straits' geography against the interests of friendly maritime powers such as the United States and Japan, or neighboring Singapore. But internal security, protection of fishing and offshore oil interests, prevention of piracy and the desire for a shield against Beijing's claims to the whole South China Sea will make Indonesia more conscious of itself as a maritime nation.

 It will begin to exploit the archipelagic status granted it under the UN convention. Its islands have often been keys in the global strategic struggles of the past 500 years. Most of the empires of island Southeast Asia have been based on sea power, and peoples such as the Bugis of Sulawesi have remarkable seafaring traditions. Watch these straits.