Letters |Asia’s busy straits must not become the playground of superpower navies

Asia’s busy straits must not become the playground of superpower navies | South China Morning Post (scmp.com)

Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia are the caretaker nations of one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes but with little regulatory power over the ships passing through. Military vessels must avoid provocative moves and respect territorial integrity

In the landmark 1949 Corfu Channel case, the International Court of Justice held that military vessels may pass through another state’s territorial sea without prior authorisation during peace time as long as the passage is innocent.

Then in 1982, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea codified the concept of transit passage, allowing ships to sail through straits used for international navigation.

While the stricter innocent passage regime empowers coastal states to temporarily suspend the navigation rights of recalcitrant foreign vessels, transit passage provides for unimpeded navigation rights for vessels, including military ones.

The Marine Department of Malaysia reports that annually, the Straits of Malacca and Singapore are traversed by about 100 foreign military vessels, which may include cruisers, frigates, destroyers and submarines.

This may pose challenges for the caretaker states of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia in ensuring these important waterways are open and safe for international navigation. It may even pose threats to the states’ security.

In February, Australia was concerned when a Chinese naval ship sailed through its Torres Strait. Then prime minister Scott Morrison said an Australian surveillance aircraft was doing its job when it was “put under threat” by the Chinese ship’s laser, rejecting Beijing’s assertion that the plane came too close.

That same month, China called an American military vessel exercising freedom of navigation through the Taiwan Strait “provocative”.

Last year’s mishap involving an American nuclear-powered submarine running smack into an undersea object in the South China Sea sparked safety fears in the region.

It would not be surprising for the littoral states of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore to have the same concerns, given that the straits are likely to see more nuclear-powered submarines in the coming years, and particularly when these states possess limited powers in regulating the ships passing through.

While international law has accorded the unimpeded right of transit passage for all vessels sailing through straits used for international navigation, the preamble of the Convention on the Law of the Sea also says the legal order established is to promote “peaceful uses of the seas”.

Military vessels, particularly those of superpower nations, must avoid provocative moves, especially in exercising their navigational rights under international law. The territorial integrity of the states bordering the straits must be respected at all costs.

Dr Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli, associate professor, faculty of sharia and law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia

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