The Malacca Dilemma: Geopolitical Implications and Future Scenarios

The Strait of Malacca is the shortest sea route to move goods from the Persian Gulf to Asian markets. Roughly a quarter of all oil transported by sea (15.7 million barrels per day) passes through the Strait, making it second only to the Strait of Hormuz in oil transport by volume. The Strait of Malacca is 880 km long and runs past Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. At its narrowest point, the strait is only 2.5 km wide. China’s national economy relies heavily on oil imports that pass through the Strait, so open access through it is key to its economic security. Currently, 80% of China’s oil passes through the Strait. In the event of a conflict, the Malacca Strait could easily be blocked by a rival nation, cutting off China from crucial energy resources. Such danger has been dubbed the “Malacca Dilemma”.

The “Malacca Dilemma”: strategic considerations

In the last decade the People Liberation Army Navy has steadily increased its power projection capabilities and is transitioning from a green-water navy to a regional blue-water defensive and offensive navy. The goal is to expand its fleet and establish a network of naval bases in strategic positions, elements that would prove critical to the defence of the Strait of Malacca against an eventual blockade. As of today the PLAN can count on 50 destroyers, 49 frigates and 19 replenishment ships. Adding the two aircraft carriers in active service, its growing amphibious fleet and a decent number of attack submarines, it is a force to be reckoned with. Moreover, China has developed a series of Chinese naval bases in the Indian Ocean, commonly referred to as the String of Pearls, that provides an additional set of deployment points for the PLAN. Finally in support of the PLAN, the Chinese Air Force could deploy its H-6K bombers which have a sufficient range to launch incursions on the strait taking off from bases in the south of  the country.

Nevertheless, to defend the strait in case of hostile action would prove extremely difficult for China. To begin with, just reaching the area of the strait would be challenging for the PLAN which could use only Woody Island and artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago as forward bases, all of which would presumably be the first to be neutralised by an enemy force in case of military confrontation. To make matters worse, Chinese units could be met with hostility by littoral states of the area which could deny transit permission (especially if pressured to do so by the US). Finally, once reached, the Strait of Malacca itself would be a highly challenging environment in which to maintain the constant presence needed to guarantee the security of supply lines. Its own geographic configuration makes the strait the ideal setting for Anti Access/Area Denial operations enforced by an eventual enemy, the US and India being the most obvious candidates. India in particular would probably be willing to lay mines along strategic routes and to adopt measures ranging from conventional warfare to purposely sinking cargo ships in shallow waters in order to disrupt Chinese operations in the strait and the transit of Chinese merchant ships. Of course every permanent form of interdiction of the strait (mines and obstacles) would be to some extent a double-edged sword, preventing anyone’s, not only Chinese, shipping and alienating the littoral states in the area, but depending on the situation it may be considered a necessary action. 

As for submarine operations the shallow waters of the Strait would expose Chinese submarines operating in the area to high risks of detection or collision, leaving only a few predictable areas suitable for deployment. In addition to that, both the US and India possess capable submarine-detection platforms (P-8 Poseidon aircrafts principally) in numbers. With such premises it is unlikely that submarines would have a meaningful role in the Strait area.

Any confrontation in the Strait would also have to take into account the littoral states in the South Asia Region because of their strategic position. While all of them are reasonably opposed to any kind of military escalation in the Strait of Malacca, some of them have a preferred relationship with the US, as is the case for Singapore, which periodically trains its naval forces in joint-exercises with the US Navy. That is not to say that China doesn’t have influence over littoral states, but it is not as omnipresent and longstanding as that exercised by the US.

Chinese strategy: diversification and energy transition

Faced with the strategic threat represented by the Malacca’s dilemma and being unable to neutralise it through military intervention, the Chinese government has taken a number of steps to reduce the country’s over-reliance on the Strait of Malacca. These include the Kazakhstan-China Pipeline which connects the country to the oil-rich Caspian region and the Myanmar-Yunnan Pipelines which move oil and gas from the Bay of Bengal to the Kunming region of China.

But perhaps the most interesting and viable alternative is the Gwadar-Xinjiang Pipeline. As part of its Belt and Road Initiative, the Chinese government invested in a series of transportation and energy infrastructure development projects in Pakistan with an estimated cost of  $62 billion. The economic corridor would provide China access to Pakistan’s Gwadar port in the Arabian Sea, a deep-sea port in close proximity to both the Middle East and the Strait of Hormuz. The most important advantage of the Gwadar-Xinjiang pipeline is that it enables China to bypass the Malacca Strait altogether. Middle Eastern shipping tankers could simply dock in Gwadar where the oil would be extracted and further transported to China through a series of pipelines. 

However, despite China’s attempts at diversification, it will continue to remain dependent on the Malacca Strait in the short-term. The Kazakhstan-China and Myanmar-Yunnan provide only 400,000 and 420,000 barrels a day respectively, compared to the 6.5 million barrels that pass through the strait daily. 

Thus, the Malacca Dilemma is expected to remain unsolved for the next decade. Attempts at diversification as well as a constant growth in PLAN’s capabilities and number of active units will probably only have a marginal impact on the problem and will not by themselves prove to be enough to solve it. Despite that, in the long run a possible solution is becoming more and more promising: energy transition. Enormous efforts are currently underway globally to bring about a shift from using oil, natural gas and coal toward renewables. China is posed to be the big winner in this transition thanks to its control over reserves of materials, such as lithium, that are at the base of the production of batteries; it is estimated that China already has 80% of the world’s battery manufacturing capacity.  It is clear that reducing the country’s dependence on imported oil would be a big strategic win for China and, even if transitioning to different forms of energy takes time as well as substantial investments, it is the direction the world has already taken: China only has to follow it, or, in the best possible scenario for Beijing, to lead it.

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