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US, Malaysia to Boost Security in Asian Shipping - 2004-06-21


Malaysian officials have accepted an offer from the U.S. Navy to help improve security in the Strait of Malacca, the sea lane that carries nearly one-third of the world's trade. U.S. naval patrols of the Strait have been ruled out. Admiral Thomas Fargo, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, met with Malaysian Defense Minister Najib Razak for an hour on a critical issue: the security of the narrow sea channel that runs past Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, and is felt to be highly vulnerable to terrorist attack.

At the end of the meeting, Mr. Najib accepted the U.S. offer to share intelligence and maintain joint training exercises to help prevent a terrorist disruption in the channel, which is formally known as the Strait of Malacca.

The Malaysian minister said the agreement would improve maritime security and address concerns about both piracy and terrorism in the Strait.

But both sides made clear there will be no joint patrols of the waterway, and the United States will not try to usurp Malaysia's territorial primacy there.

The importance of the Strait was highlighted in Hong Kong last week by Rodolpho Severino, former secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, who said any attack on the waterway could damage economies around the world.

"So all of us have a stake in it, and all of us should be cooperating in terms of agreeing on measures to take, exchange of intelligence, exchange of information and whatever else the armed forces and police authorities of the countries involved should be cooperating on."

More than 50,000 commercial ships and most of East Asia's crude oil supplies pass through the 800-kilometer-long sea lane annually. Fears of a possible terrorist attack there have risen in the past few years, due to the amount of traffic and the narrowness of the channel.

Singapore has warned of a possible attack on fuel tankers by Jemaah Islamiyah, the al-Qaida linked group responsible for a bombing on the Indonesian island of Bali in October 2002 that left more than 200 people dead.

Admiral Fargo was quoted in April as suggesting the United States was considering sending U.S. Marines to the Strait to conduct unilateral patrols.

That suggestion angered Malaysian and Indonesian leaders, who said the United States should respect their sovereign control of the Strait. Malaysia warned that a U.S. military presence in the region would inflame anti-U.S. sentiment, and increase the threat of terrorist attack instead of lessening it.

The United States has denied developing such a plan, and has been at pains to improve relations with the two countries. Washington considers Malaysia and Indonesia important moderate Muslim allies in the War on Terror.

Admiral Fargo is due to visit Singapore and Thailand later this week to continue discussions on regional security issues.

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