The Strait of Malacca is a stretch of water located between the Indian and the Pacific Ocean. Being the shortest route between the two, this waterway is of global significance, perhaps the most important maritime trade routes in the world.
Named after the historical Malaccan Sultanate in Malaysia, this coruscating waterbody, though coveted and excessively traversed, is not without its flaws. With it now being a chokepoint along with being subject to frequent piracy, nations find themselves seeking alternate trade routes in order to avoid using the Strait altogether. China being one such country.
Malacca Dilemma: The Term and the Troubles Tied With It
Despite being one of the few technologically advanced countries, China is heavily dependent on other nations for its energy resources. A recent study of the U.S Energy Information Administration shows that China being the second largest energy user in the world, thrives on 85% imports conducted through the Malacca Strait out of which 80% are energy imports. Therefore, it is undeniable that whoever controls the Malaccan Strait has a stranglehold on China’s economic progression; probably one of the primary reasons it has taken such extreme measures to remedy the status quo.
The Present Situation
Currently, China uses the Strait of Malacca to import extracted oil from the Persian Gulf, which caters to 60% of its oil and 80% of its total energy requirement. The Chinese freights carrying out this task are therefore, at the mercy of Indian navy fleets and reprobate Somalian pirate ships.
Geographically, the question arises as to why China doesn’t choose to redirect its trade route towards the neighbouring Straits of Lombok and Makassar? The answer to this lies in terms of travel time, cost and safety of transportation. The aforementioned Straits will not only increase the commuting hours by 5 days but will also add to the aggregate trade expenditure while possibly being too narrow in cases of high traffic.
China has been seeking to completely eliminate these lingering threats through various international modes, mediums and forums. To achieve their ends China has offered incentives of mutual growth, especially directed towards developing nations like Africa, Thailand and Pakistan.
In 2003, former President of China Hu Jintao while voicing his concerns on the Chinese energy situation termed the ordeal as “The Malacca Dilemma”, which has since become a universal term to address China’s predicament.
Initial Route Adopted By Chinese Freights
Primarily, China was forced to import oil from the Gulf in a time frame of 40 or more days. Navigating the Indian Ocean, transiting Indonesia, passing through the Strait of Malacca, and ultimately reaching Shanghai cumulates to a total distance of 13000Km.
Other Options for China
Notwithstanding that the only factors restricting Chinese involvement in Myanmar are internal communal uprisings and political instability, it checks the boxes of reasonable distance and time to be taken for Chinese developmental projects to set foot in Burmese lands. While another point of concern are the travels of Chinese freights in the Bay of Bengal which is a stronghold of Indian Naval Fleets and thus vulnerable to attack.
- Thailand’s Kra Canal
China has recently expressed its interest to include Thailand in its Maritime Silk Route Initiative. The development of the Kra Canal, as facilitated by the Belt and Road Initiative along with the Thai Canal Association is expected to be the manifestation of the mutual interests of both China and Thailand.
China views this development as a counter to its Malacca Dilemma while Thailand perceives it as a spring board for its global position. The Kra Canal will create a direct link between the Andaman Sea and the South China Sea. Although this provides a route with lesser obstacles, these high seas are under the stronghold of Indian Naval Fleets partnered with the U.S, hovering as a constant threat to the Chinese Cargo.
Gwadar’s Importance Highlighted
- Reduced Commute
Located on the west of China is the Kashgar Port, while Pakistan’s Gwadar Port lies between the Gulf and the comparatively underdeveloped Chinese city of Kashgar. When Gwadar and Kashgar are linked under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, the total distance will be decreased to 3000km travelled in merely 10 days.
- Safety of Transportation
Juxtaposed with the Andaman Seas, The Bay of Bengal and the Strait of Malacca, the Gwadar-Kashgar route provides a more protected trade passage to China.
- Less Traffic, Less Risk Factor
The Strait of Malacca is possibly the world’s busiest port edging on becoming a chokepoint. Notwithstanding that the strait is narrower than most it is also of supreme economic importance for the surrounding littoral states. Due to this, many ships are victim of its narrow passageway per year.
- Fulfilment of Mutual Interests
Abiding by its policies, China is careful not to appear as the only beneficiary in the China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor. Therefore, developmental projects have already begun to in redeem Pakistan’s economic position.
While it has other possible avenues of co-development, Gwadar stands supreme in China’s list of possible solutions. It can be viewed as China’s way out of a unique geographical predicament and provider of alleviation from hovering international threats.
Under these circumstances any nation who has a possible way out would naturally want to pursue it. Similarly, China also seeks to use geographical factors to the best of their abilities consequently eliminating all potential hazards to its economy.
The piqued Chinese interest in Gwadar ultimately translates in to an economic upsurge in Pakistan. Therefore, where Gwadar may be the answer to China’s Malacca Dilemma it is also the saving grace for Pakistan’s economy.