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‘Malacca Dilemma’ a major security challenge for PRC


Reliable alliance and partner networks around the Malacca Strait, one of the world’s busiest shipping passages, would present economic and security challenges for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the event of a naval blockade.

Ships ferry 90% of Chinese trade and much of it — especially oil and natural gas — travels through the strategically critical, 800-kilometer-long Malacca Strait separating Malaysia and Singapore from Indonesia. The comparatively narrow strait is the most direct maritime route between the Indian Ocean and South China Sea and is a lifeline connecting Africa, Europe and the Middle East with Indo-Pacific nations and territories including the PRC. About a quarter of the world’s traded goods and one-third of its global petroleum deliveries transit the strait, National Interest magazine reported in May 2023.

An oil tanker at anchor in September 2022 in the Malacca Strait near Port Klang, Malaysia. (CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES)

“It is a challenge with few easy solutions for Beijing,” the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs reported in March 2023, noting the PRC’s dependence on sea lines of communication. “Despite growing Chinese power and its efforts to acquire military access and basing, win over partner countries, establish alternate routes and build up its naval capacity, the Malacca Dilemma remains in a hypothetical wartime scenario.”

The congested waterway is only 2.7 kilometers wide at its narrowest point, creating a chokepoint susceptible to piracy, theft and blockades, and making control of the vital passage a priority.

The Malacca Strait is one of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) primary security concerns. Hu Jintao, a former CCP general secretary, introduced the “Malacca Dilemma” concept in 2003 to emphasize how reliance on the waterway opens the PRC to serious vulnerabilities. Xi Jinping, the current general secretary, identified security challenges in 2014 and called protecting economic assets the “foundation.” “Xi takes the paranoia that has been endemic to Chinese politics since Mao Zedong’s rule to an extreme,” Foreign Policy magazine reported in October 2022. “Xi’s fixation on security betrays his persistent feelings of vulnerability.”

The PRC’s insatiable demand for energy resources leaves it heavily dependent on imports, and the Malacca Strait is essential to ensuring those deliveries, National Interest reported. Beijing’s One Belt, One Road infrastructure scheme encompassing highways, railways, ports, and oil and gas pipelines is largely an attempt to provide alternative routes. Clandestine military outposts and heavy-handed tactics in the South China Sea, along with a disregard of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provisions, reflect Beijing’s desire to control shipping lanes around the strait.

The United States and its Allies and Partners assure economic prosperity via safe and secure sea passageways such as the Malacca Strait, which is bordered by like-minded nations able to exercise greater naval control over the waterway than the CCP.

“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,” National Interest reported. “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.”

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