Examining the ‘Malacca Dilemma'

By Manasvi Shanker Sharma

By Manasvi Shanker Sharma

Examining the ‘Malacca Dilemma'

Contemporary literature on China’s security concerns often makes mention of the ‘Malacca Dilemma',  a phrase coined in 2003, by the then Chinese President Hu Jintao. This refers to a perceived strategic vulnerability of Chinese energy supplies from West Asia and Africa which need to pass through a narrow stretch of water between Malaysia and Indonesia known as the Malacca Strait. Around 70%-80% of China’s oil imports traverse this passageway, as well as a significant percentage of its raw materials for industry. One of the foremost proponents of this term was former Chinese President Hu Jintao, who alluded to this vulnerability in 2003. The thinking is that such a passage would be extremely susceptible to enemy action during the war, and as a result, its blockade could choke off critical supplies to the Chinese economy just at the time it needed it most. This article serves to explore the feasibility of such a scenario and the likely alternatives that Beijing would consider.

If a situation ever arose wherein conflict with Beijing seemed imminent, it is likely that one of the foremost considerations for war planners sitting in New Delhi and Washington would be how to go about preventing the supply of key warfighting materials to the Chinese economy. In the past, this has often involved enforcing a naval blockade of the adversary country, often to devastating effect. This was the case in World War II when the Allied countries affected a naval blockade of both Germany and Japan, which eventually contributed to their defeat. However, a similar operation would be near impossible to carry out successfully against a country the size of China, with its 14,500 km-long coastlines and the immense sea power it can project in its home waters. It would instead be much more feasible to choke off the supply closer to the source, and this is where the Malacca Strait comes in.


Such an interdiction operation would likely involve close cooperation of Indian and American navies, with the Indian base at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the American base at Diego Garcia likely serving as key staging points. Ships carrying key commodities to China could instead try and take a longer route, either through the Sunda Strait or through the Lombok and Makassar straits. However, both options come with their own challenges. Apart from the evidently longer distances and higher costs, the Sunda Strait is also narrower and shallower, which limits the size of the ship that can traverse the strait. The Lombok strait does not have this problem, but it is situated quite close to the Australian mainland and would thus be extremely susceptible to Australian intervention and possible naval action. Australia, along with India, the US, and Japan, is part of the larger Quad grouping. While there does not yet exist any concrete security element to this formation, this could quickly change if the threat perception from China were to sharply increase. Furthermore, Australia recently entered into the AUKUS military alliance with the US and UK, further entrenching itself within the American security framework. As part of the agreement, it will receive nuclear submarines, and there is an expectation that one of the conditions for such a transfer of technology was that Canberra would actively assist Washington in case a conflict broke out with Beijing.

Apart from the military manoeuvering and the coordination of various naval and air assets that a blockade would involve, such an operation would also require some deft diplomacy behind the scenes. For example, it would require non-interference from Indonesia and Malaysia, neither of which is a surety. Malaysia has acquired defense equipment from China in recent years in the form of large patrol vessels for its navy; and so does not seem to view Beijing as much of a security threat as saying Vietnam does. As for Indonesia, it recently accepted Chinese assistance in recovering submarine wreckage despite concerns that this might offer Chinese naval planners a chance to get a better understanding of waters near the Indonesian archipelago (and thus useful naval intelligence for Chinese submarines to hide in these passageways). These countries, while clearly uncomfortable with Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea, also recognize that while the US may eventually recede from the region, China will always be here by virtue of geography and as such will want to avoid being drawn into any conflict where they will need to explicitly take sides. 

China for its part certainly recognizes this strategic vulnerability and is actively seeking alternatives to lessen this dependency. One option is to bypass the Malacca Strait through the construction of overland transportation routes. Perhaps the most viable of these revolve around the Gwadar-Xinjiang belt as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This involves the construction of road and rail networks as well as oil pipelines which would connect West Asia to China through the use of Gwadar Port in Pakistan as a transit point for oil supplies coming in from the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf. However, the project has been bogged by delays and progress has been slow in recent years. The mountainous geography of much of the region poses significant logistical challenges to the construction of the necessary infrastructure. There are also significant security concerns emanating from insurgents and militant groups active across Pakistan which pose a continuous risk to energy assets in the region. This has been illustrated in recent deadly attacks which have targeted both Chinese and Pakistani workers and security personnel.

The second alternative is the Thai or Kra Canal. This refers to a proposed canal that would connect the Gulf of Thailand to the Andaman Sea through the Kra Isthumus. Such a sea passage would considerably shorten transit times and costs for cargo that currently goes through the Malacca Strait. Although the idea has been around for some time, various factors, including an estimated cost of $55 billion, have held back any serious attempts at its construction. And even if it were to become a reality, it would not fully assuage Chinese security concerns as the canal could still be vulnerable to blockade during a conflict and may instead become yet another chokepoint. 

A third alternative relates to the feasibility of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) as a viable energy corridor. The NSR is a trans-oceanic passageway that runs from the Barents Sea along the northern Russian coast to the Bering Strait between Alaska and Far East Russia. It was long considered unviable for commercial shipping due to the passage remaining frozen for much of the year. However, the advent of nuclear-powered icebreakers, and more importantly the melting of polar ice due to climate change, means that the NSR may become a much more attractive option in the coming years. It would drastically cut transit times and costs for various shipping routes. Recent incidents, such as the stranding of the Ever Given container ship in the Suez Canal earlier this year (which held up global trade for multiple days and led to costly delays in the global supply chain) may accelerate this transition. From a security point of view as well, the NSR would offer a much more secure route for China as it passes through the coastline of a friendly power in Russia. Any adversary attempts to intercept supplies here would be far more complicated and likely unsuccessful. However, at the moment traffic through this route is minuscule compared to the other key sea passageways of the world and significant work and investment are needed before it can become economically viable. 

In conclusion, it seems likely that China will continue relying on the Malacca Strait to meet a sizeable portion of its energy needs for the foreseeable future. It has taken steps to lessen this dependency, such as greater investment in alternative sources of energy as well as the building up of large strategic energy reserves or crisis stocks. It has also built up its naval power and made increasing forays into the Indian Ocean in order to provide a semblance of security to its sea lines of communication (SLOCs). But its ability to project sea power far beyond its shores still remains limited compared to what the US and its allies can bring to bear in case of a conflict. And although multiple alternative routes have been explored, from overland ones to the building of new canals, none are currently at such an advanced stage wherein they can replace the Malacca Strait as China’s primary energy route. As such, this dependency is likely to gradually decrease in the coming years but will not completely go away either.

About the Author:

Manasvi Shanker Sharma (ORCID: 0000-0001-7531-6964) is an alumnus of the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education. He holds a keen interest in the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific, with a particular emphasis on military balance and naval power.

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IndraStra Global: Examining the ‘Malacca Dilemma'
Examining the ‘Malacca Dilemma'
By Manasvi Shanker Sharma
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