Considering the Future of the World’s Oceans

A Cooperative Framework for Maintaining Safety in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore

About a third of the world’s crude oil and more than 80% of Japan’s oil imports pass through the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. Ensuring the safe passage of ships in these waters, with their many narrow and shallow spots, is a task that exceeds the capabilities of the three littoral countries bordering the waters. Recognizing this, the Nippon Foundation has for more than four decades assisted measures to enhance safety and protect the natural environment.


Record Maritime Traffic

A 2012 survey undertaken jointly by the Nippon Foundation and the Institution for Transport Policy Studies in Japan revealed a sharp rise in recent years in the number of vessels and volume of cargo that pass through the Straits. According to the survey results, which were released in February 2014, the number of vessels that now use the Straits annually stands at 127,000, 35% more than in 2004. And total deadweight, or carrying capacity is 6.9 billion tons, 74% more than in 2004.

The Straits of Malacca and Singapore are a 1,000-kilometer-long channel of water set between the Malay Peninsula and Singapore on the north, and Sumatra and other Indonesian islands on the south. About half of all global trade and a third of the world’s crude oil use this route, making it one of the most important in the world. It is also a lifeline for Japan, since more than 80% of the country’s oil imports are transported through the Straits.

Map of Straits of Malacca and SingaporeAt its narrowest, the channel tapers to just 600 meters, about the width of a single sea lane. At its shallowest, it is less than 25 meters deep. Despite such far from ideal conditions, more than 300 ships—among them very large crude carriers (VLCC) measuring more than 350 meters long, 60 meters wide, and with a more than 20-meter draught ply the waters every day, according to the survey.

Large Tankers Crowd the Straits of Malacca and Singapore.” is a photographic essay of these waters.

Responsibility for the Straits


How has it been possible to ensure the safe passage of ships on the congested Straits? Sakai, the Deputy Managing Director of the Singapore-based Nippon Maritime Center, which collects information on navigational safety and undertakes negotiations between governments, describes the administration of the Straits until now.

“The Malacca and Singapore Straits are within the territorial sea limits of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. In line with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was ratified in 1992, the safety administration, including the maintenance of aids to navigation, is the responsibility of these three countries. Because Singapore is home to a large number of trading companies, it enjoys the economic benefits of the Straits and has built and maintained lighthouses and buoys. But Malaysia and Indonesia benefit far less and feel the expense burden more. Recognizing that Japan is a main stakeholder, the Nippon Foundation has taken on some of the burden and for more than 40 years, provided cooperation for the safe navigation and protection of the marine environment.”

In 1969, when the foundation began providing support, accurate nautical charts of the Straits did not even exist. The first job was drawing up such charts. Following this, surveys of the sea lanes were undertaken, sunken ships removed and lighthouses, buoys and other navigational equipment were installed. Buoy Tenders and other practice vessels, as well as support for antipiracy countermeasures, were also provided. To date, more than 15.5 billion yen in support has been provided by the Nippon Foundation, which has also organized a large number of conferences on maritime issues with related organizations.


Rapid Transformation

There were 35% more vessels using the Straits and 74% greater loading capacity in 2014 compared to 2004.

PhotoSakai details some of the changes. “Vessels today are much bigger than before. This is true of very large capacity carriers as well as container ships. Container ships used to have just three stacks as deck cargo, but today they usually have at least six. In addition, whereas most of the traffic on the Straits used to be oil tankers traveling west to east, today fully loaded container ships traveling east to west can be seen. This is because an enormous volume of goods is being shipped from China, which has become a “global factory,” and from South Korea, another big exporter. The situation on the Straits is changing day by day.”

Changes are being brought not only by world economic trends but environmental conditions. Large sand waves are occurring at the bottom of the Straits, causing changes in the topography. Safeguarding the vessels that pass through the Straits is not something that begins and ends with the establishment and maintenance of sea lanes.

As Sakai says, “The administration of the sea lanes alone will require constant financial outlay since the buoys and lighthouses for the route must be maintained. Right now, there is a deep water route for easterly traffic, but it may be necessary to establish a similar route for the opposite direction. The water depth will change if large sand waves occur, and nautical charts will need to be revised. In recent years, the amount of liquefied natural gas, chemical substances and other hazardous materials transported through the Straits has increased. However, we still have not established guidelines for dealing with an accident. We are going to need new measures and training against accident.”


A New Mechanism for Cooperation

The increase in the number of ships means greater responsibility for maritime safety measures and a bigger financial burden for countries bordering the Straits, even though their economic benefits from the Straits are minimal. Clearly, ensuring the safety of the Straits is not something that can be easily accomplished by the bordering countries alone.

In response to this situation, the Nippon Foundation has proposed that all stakeholders contribute to measures ensuring the safe passage of vessels and the preservation of the marine environment, based on a concept of social responsibility. In 2007, it formulated a plan for a Cooperative Mechanism under which it would provide support for the bordering countries, and the following year it established the Aids to Navigation Fund. Since then, in order to ensure long-term safety, the users of the Straits—including national governments, international institutions, nongovernmental organizations, international maritime transport industry associations and private-sector firms—have cooperated with each other to voluntarily contribute to the fund from the standpoint of social responsibility.

PhotoShirasaki, the Managing Director of the Nippon Maritime Center, describes the importance of the cooperative mechanism. “In many cases, talks among the bordering countries hit a standstill because of the positions taken by individual countries and issues of sovereignty. The Nippon Foundation, upon setting up the fund, announced that it would assume a third of the costs of the fund’s operations in the first five years, or $6.24 million, up to 2011. The foundation’s willingness to collaborate and its long-term support over four decades have won the trust of these countries and has made the cooperative mechanism possible.”

Seven national governments and institutions have followed the lead of the Nippon Foundation and contributed a total of $5.5 million to the fund. The new connections being forged as a result of the fund are bringing stakeholders closer to realizing the goal of safety of the Straits now and into the future.

Photographs by Shinji Yamada