On Tuesday, China’s transport ministry issued an advisory warning Chinese-flagged vessels to set the highest possible level of security when transiting the Strait of Malacca. Chinese operators were asked to immediately “raise security levels for relevant vessels and take security measures accordingly.”
The advisory provided no details of the nature of any potential threats, but it asked Chinese vessels to increase their ship-specific precautions to ISPS Security Level 3. This level, the highest, is intended to last “for the period of time when there is the probable or imminent risk of a security incident” – a more specific and likely threat profile than the “heightened” risk justifying Level 2.
National legislation, not the IMO or other international bodies, governs policies for setting the maritime security level in a given locality. At the nearby port of Singapore, the Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) did not update its port security status website or issue a notice to mariners with a comparable warning. Neither did the port authority for Port Klang, located at the center of the strait.
Maritime security consultancy Dryad Maritime said in a client advisory that the reason for the Chinese warning was unclear. “The regional dynamics within and surrounding the Malacca Strait are stable. Within the region, the nature of piracy has often been low level, and has involved the boarding of small barge craft for items such as scrap metal. It would therefore be a dramatic escalation were a Chinese vessel to be targeted,” Dryad said. “Sources have indicated that China may have raised threat levels due to a specific threat of criminality, in this instance linked to cargo theft, but there is no indication that this poses a wider threat to commercial vessels.” The firm added that it does not believe that Security Level 3 is a necessary requirement for other vessels transiting the strait.
Malacca is the second-most-important choke point for seaborne oil transport in the world, after the Strait of Hormuz. The majority of China’s energy imports pass through the strait, and if access were disrupted, shipping would be forced to divert south and east to the Sunda and Lombok Straits. In practical terms, this would increase ton-mile demand for crude tankers, leading to higher shipping costs and higher energy prices in East Asia, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
China is heavily dependent upon Middle Eastern oil, and Chinese President Xi Jinping has described this strategic vulnerability as Beijing’s “Malacca dilemma.” His administration has made several moves to mitigate the risk of disruption at the strait, including the construction of an overland oil pipeline connecting refineries in Yunnan Province with an oil receiving terminal in Myanmar – bypassing Malacca altogether.