Can China Escape the Malacca Dilemma?

May 30, 2023 Topic: China Region: Asia Tags: ChinaMalacca StraitsTradeChokepointBlockade

Can China Escape the Malacca Dilemma?

Beijing is quite conscious that the Strait of Malacca can act as an effective chokepoint in China’s economic network, and is trying to find a solution to this thorny geopolitical problem.

Despite China’s growing assertiveness in the competition for marine resources, Beijing has openly discussed its vulnerabilities in the Strait of Malacca. In November 2003, then Chinese president Hu Jintao coined the term “Malacca Dilemma,” referring to China’s vulnerability to a naval blockade at the strait—the shortest sea route connecting the Middle East and East Asia. Although imposing a naval blockade could incur high economic and diplomatic costs to all involved, intensifying tensions in the Indo-Pacific region increase its possibility of happening. This is of great concern to China’s leaders, as the Malacca Strait is an effective choke point in China’s economic network because of Beijing’s huge dependence on importing energy and its lack of reliable allies in the region. Seeking to remedy this situation, China, by promoting its recently proposed Global Security Initiative (GSI) to expand its security partnership with countries around the region, can potentially minimize the impact caused by the Malacca Dilemma.

The Malacca Dilemma

The Strait of Malacca is an 805-km stretch of water that falls between the Malay Peninsula on the northeast and the Indonesian island of Sumatra on the southwest. It connects the Andaman Sea in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea in the Pacific Ocean, making it an important marine route for hydrocarbon, container, and bulk cargo shipments between Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. About a quarter of the world’s traded goods and one-third of total global petroleum and other liquids production transported using marine routes pass through the strait annually, making it the second-largest oil trade chokepoint in the world after the Strait of Hormuz. Additionally, 80 percent of China’s exports pass through here, meaning China’s economic destiny is heavily tied to the strait’s stability.

The strait, however, is itself a narrow stretch of water only 65–250 km wide, meaning that it could easily be blocked by nearby nations with sufficient force. To China, this is especially threatening because of the political dynamics in the region. The strait is surrounded by neutral countries like Malaysia, U.S. allies like Singapore, and geopolitical rivals like India, which also recently joined the United States’ Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Some of these countries have a central geographic location in the region and possess outlying islands like the Andaman and Nicobars (controlled by India), which could allows said nations project naval power and control the strait more easily. Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy (the 7th and 5th Fleets), which operates in the Indo-Pacific and the Middle East, is the only force capable of guarding the strategic sea lines of communication stretching from the shores of Africa to East Asia. As such, the United States still maintains tight control over the Strait of Malacca—something Beijing is ever conscious about.

In contrast, China’s navy operates at a farther distance from the strait. If geopolitical tensions between China and the United States or the Indo-Pacific countries escalate (e.g., if China decides to invade Taiwan), the latter can weaponize this essential chokepoint by imposing a blockade, resulting in a disruption of trade, energy resources, and raw material flows. This would significantly increase China’s costs in pursuing its great power ambitions or waging a war in the Indo-Pacific region, to say nothing of the calamitous consequences to its economy.

Can China Avoid the Malacca Dilemma?

Admittedly, China has attempted to minimize the impact of a potential blockade by diversifying its energy sources. Beijing has been establishing alternative land links and energy partnerships with Russia, Pakistan, Myanmar, and other Arabic and Central Asian countries which are politically distant from the United States so as to ensure access to key resources in volatile times. Besides, China has allocated more resources to developing renewable energy to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and thus oil imports. For example, China’s fourteenth Five-Year Plan has indicated that it will continue to develop green technologies.

Yet ultimately, China’s economic success is largely derived from its energy-intensive manufacturing sector, and the developmental pace of renewable energy technology can hardly catch up with its growing demand for energy. Thus, China still relies on foreign energy imports. It is now the world’s largest net oil importer and the second-largest oil consumer. Research also suggests that, with an increasing demand for energy, China’s foreign oil dependence level will rise from 65 percent in 2016 to over 80 percent in 2030. In short, it is unlikely that China can avoid importing energy from foreign countries using marine routes in the near future.

Meanwhile, China could face difficulties in searching for alternative routes. While the Malacca Strait has been known as a shallow strait, the Sunda Strait is even more difficult to navigate, due to a strong tidal current and it having a minimum depth is only 20m in parts of its northeastern end. The Lombok/Makassar Strait is a longer route, which can increase shipping costs. And although China can in theory also use the Northern Sea Route, not only is there a discernable lack of infrastructure, but the route is often covered by ice, so the navigation season is short and insurance costs would be high. For now, the Malacca Strait route remains irreplaceable.

Compounding the situation is the fact that, Beijing does not have any regional military allies which could guarantee firm support in a geopolitical crisis. Although China has formed partnerships with countries like Pakistan, the security provided is minimal. It is uncertain whether these countries would give up neutrality during wartime, especially because they could become vulnerable to wartime military threats and retaliatory sanctions. China’s ties with its partners in the Indo-Pacific region were also weakened by its economic exploitation. China’s investments and loans, especially those provided under the Belt and Road Initiative, have prompted countries like Pakistan and Sri Lanka to surrender sovereignty over some of their ports, which has led to backlash and triggered a rise in domestic anti-China sentiment. Developments like this may make it more difficult for China to secure support during wartime unless Beijing expands its security cooperation or improve its ties with these countries.

The Global Security Initiative

Though the Malacca Dilemma poses a threat to China’s economic and strategic security, Beijing’s recently announced Global Security Initiative (GSI) could potentially help avoid it.

At the 2022 Bo’ao Forum for Asia, China proposed the GSI, with a concept paper released in January 2023. The initiative contains six core values and principles: (i) pursuing common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security; (ii) respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries; (iii) abiding by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter; (iv) taking the legitimate security concerns of all countries seriously; (v) peacefully resolving differences and disputes between countries through dialogue and consultation; and (vi) maintaining security in both traditional and non-traditional domains. The aforementioned values reflect China’s growing emphasis on cooperation to maintain international security. It also attempts to create an impression that China desires to help other countries stabilize their political situation. It goes without saying that China is apparently eager to be more active in the security sphere.

Meanwhile, in the concept paper, China has stressed that more engagement with regions like Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and the Middle East is needed. These regions are, however, core players in the Strait of Malacca. By expanding its security ties with these regions under the GSI, China can potentially build up mutual security commitments and weaken the United States’ security partnerships with countries around the strait. In the long term, China could even build up an opposition force against American hegemony in the security sphere with states which have tensions with Washington. This would help China exert pressure on the United States and dissuade Washington and its Indo-Pacific allies to impose a blockade on the Malacca Strait.

Furthermore, with more engagement, Beijing might be able to operate foreign military bases in these regions to enlarge its military presence and establish an overseas military network. At present, China has already strengthened its alliance with the Solomon Islands and formed a strategic deal that allows it to “make ship visits to, carry out logistical replacement in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands,” therefore possibly opening the door to a Chinese naval base. Further military build-ups promoted by the GSI will enhance China’s capability to interfere with American naval capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region.

It must be noted that China’s growing aggressiveness has led to the distrust of some countries against Beijing’s GSI initiative, especially those which have territorial and marine disputes with China like the Philippines. The United States may appear to be a more trustworthy security partner than China, since the former does not have any territorial claims that threaten these countries’ geographical interests. China’s escalating competition with the United States also places the Indo-Pacific countries in a dilemma of their own. Joining China’s security partnership and architecture can potentially be considered an act of “taking sides,” which could worsen Indo-Pacific countries’ relations with Washington. As such, not all Indo-Pacific countries will be incentivized to join the GSI to form security partnerships.

Nonetheless, China can make use of the loose ties between some Indo-Pacific countries with Washington to promote the GSI, so as to tackle the Malacca Dilemma. Some Indo-Pacific countries like Myanmar are less inclined to offer comprehensive human rights protections or implement democratic accountability mechanisms which Washington has always desired them to put forward. The divergence of their values could hinder these countries to form close ties with the United States, which would thus deter cooperation during a conflict.