Kuala Lumpur (CNSNews.com) - Government officials in Malaysia have confirmed that they are discussing the possibility of allowing "hot pursuit" agreements that would allow regional navies to chase suspected terrorists and pirates across international maritime boundaries.
The latest discussions between Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines are supported by the U.S., and are aimed at combating terrorism and piracy in the area, especially in the Malacca Strait waterway.
The U.S. has been pressing Southeast Asian governments in recent years to do more to secure the piracy-prone waters, but amid concerns about sovereignty has made it clear it does not intend itself to launch armed patrols.
Running between Malaysia and Indonesia, the narrow channel accommodates 50,000 vessels a year, carrying between one-fifth and one quarter of the world's sea trade. Half of all oil shipments carried by sea go through the Strait - in 2003 an estimated 11 million barrels a day.
Fears of terrorism center on the possibility that a large ship could be pirated and sunk at a shallow point in the Strait -- which is just 25 meters deep in places -- blocking the waterway and having a devastating effect on world trade.
Malaysia's Maritime Enforcement coordinating director, First Admiral Abdul Rashid, told reporters "hot pursuit" agreements were actively under discussion.
Malaysia's coast guard would soon be set up to enhance security in the area, he added.
Tourism Minister Leo Michael Toyad said: "Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines are working on this and enforcement also has been stepped up.
Toyad played down the risk in the area, though, saying piracy happened "all over the world" but was not reported.
He called for more international and local confidence in anti-piracy measures and said "the more vessels in the area, the less likely a pirate is to attack."
International Maritime Bureau (IMB) director P. Mukundan echoed this view: "If this is a multi-million dollar industry, it will be protected," he said.
"Pirates often operate along territorial borders because they know there is no right of pursuit across territorial waters. We want to see some mechanism within the region to improve bilateral cooperation."
Mukundan warned, however, that international shipping companies should not consider using hired help to increase security.
"Malaysia has made it clear that it will not tolerate armed vessels going through its waters for this purpose. Security personnel on board a ship also need the permission of the ship's flag state to carry arms."
At least two companies have recently set up in Singapore to offer such security.
Mukundan singled out Indonesia as a weak link in the region due to its lack of resources.
Last year, the IMB recorded 37 pirate raids in the 600-kilometer channel despite coordinated patrols by Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.
The three navies have also launched a new radar surveillance system in the Strait to improve the fight against piracy and terrorism.
Singapore Navy chief Rear Admiral Ronnie Tay said the system would allow more efficient monitoring.
"This will in turn enable the navies to deploy their assets more optimally, and to respond more decisively should any incident in the Straits develop," he said.
The threat of maritime terrorism is a growing concern for the U.S. and other countries.
There is a worrying history of terrorist suicide attacks using small, explosive-laden boats against larger ships, even pre- 9/11.
The USS Cole was targeted in such an attack in October 2000, costing the lives of 17 of the U.S. Navy destroyer's sailors.
In 2002 the French oil tanker, Limburg, was rammed in Yemeni waters, killing one and wounding 12.
See earlier story:
Maritime Terror Concerns Prompt New Initiatives in SE Asia (Mar. 02, 2005)
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