By Jason Szep
ABOARD THE MV AVATAR (Reuters) – Lee Khai Leong, a lieutenant-colonel in Singapore’s navy, surveys the Malacca and Singapore straits from the bridge of a Russian-built container ship, and speaks of a maritime nightmare.
Pointing to a narrow sea lane south of Singapore that carries a quarter of global trade and nearly all oil imports for Japan and China, Lee says one big attack there could hit the world economy by crippling one of Asia’s most critical waterways.
«If a big ship ever grounds itself there, it would close the whole straits. There are a few other scary scenarios. But that is a big concern,» he said aboard the 16,000-ton MV Avatar, a commercial ship leased by Singapore’s navy for drills.
Maritime analysts have long warned of the far-reaching perils of such an attack: Freight rates could surge 500 percent or more as ships carrying much of Asia’s oil requirements make a detour of around 600 miles through the Indonesian archipelago.
Lee prefers not to discuss threats to waters that carry about 55,000 ships a year. «We wonder if we are putting ideas into these people’s heads,» he says.
But Singapore’s navy is preparing for the worst after violent and sophisticated pirate attacks, based largely out of Muslim neighbor Indonesia, heightened fears at Asian and Western security agencies of a seaborne terrorist strike.
Shortly after Lee spoke, the Avatar steamed past the world’s largest container shipping port on Singapore’s southeastern coast to within view of the oil refineries on its west coast, before slowing its engines.
FEARS OF A FLOATING BOMB
Lee began preparations to demonstrate a new elite unit of soldiers, police and engineering specialists who in March began boarding and securing ships deemed at the highest risk of attack.
Tankers laden with liquefied petroleum gas fit the category, as do those with large explosive, toxic or polluting cargo that could turn a commercial container ship into a floating bomb.
As Lee gave commands over a walkie-talkie, a small police boat pulled up alongside the Avatar, whose crew dropped a wooden ladder over its side. One by one, marshals in commando gear — clad in bullet-proof vests and armed with sub-machine guns or side-arms — clambered aboard.
Shadowed by fewer than a dozen journalists invited for the demonstration, they fanned across the ship, checking the engine room and securing the captain’s bridge. They would stay aboard for about an hour, possibly more or less, depending on the ship.
«At the moment we alert the ships in advance and let them know we are coming. But in the future we won’t alert them,» said Lee, declining to say how many times the new Accompanying Sea Security Teams (ASSeT) were deployed this year.
«What I can say is that we haven’t had any incidents yet.»
Indonesia and Malaysia — which also share the Malacca Strait — are considering allowing weapons on ships after several pirate attacks this year revealed a bolder and more violent streak of the sea piracy that has bedeviled Southeast Asia for centuries.
Foreign ministers from Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia will meet on the Indonesian island of Batam next month to discuss allowing commercial vessels to arm themselves, but Singapore and Malaysia are alone in providing armed escorts in their waters.
«Within Singapore’s section, I would say that is well guarded, well patrolled and very safe,» said Michael Richardson, author of «A Time Bomb for Global Trade,» a book about the Malacca and Singapore straits.
«The problem is when you get into particularly the Indonesian controlled section of both the Singapore Strait and the Malacca Strait,» said Richardson, now a researcher at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
The International Maritime Bureau recorded 37 attacks in 2004 on vessels in the Malacca Strait, second only to Indonesia, which has the world’s most pirate-infested coast line. Most Malacca Strait attacks occur in Malaysian or Indonesian waters.
A hijacking by gun-wielding pirates of a shipload of tin worth $4.6 million in Indonesian waters last month highlighted the lawlessness that analysts say terrorists could exploit. The ship was ransacked while en route to Singapore.
Security analysts say the attacks highlight the need for tougher — possibly international — intervention. But Malaysia and Indonesia have cited concerns in the past over sovereignty, pointing out that the waters — just a few nautical miles wide in places — are mostly national, not international.
Fears among some states that the United States was seeking a policing role were a factor behind the launch last year of coordinated patrols by Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore
A private company, Background Asia Risk Solutions, has provided armed escort services in the region for a year, but Malaysia and Indonesia are staunchly opposed to armed mercenaries in their waters.
Few are as alarmed as Singapore, which relies heavily on sea trade for its $110 billion economy and has warned repeatedly of possible links of piracy and terrorism after uncovering a plot in 2001 by Jemaah Islamiah militants to attack U.S. naval ships in its waters.
«All it takes is one incident and the confidence of all the nations who use the ports in the region will be shaken, not to mention the economic impact,» said Lee, a 25-year navy veteran with leathery tanned skin who oversees the ASSeT operation.
© Reuters 2005. All Rights Reserved.
By Jason Szep