How Gulf shipping dangers threaten Asia

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 January, 2008, 12:00am

Could an anonymous radio operator cause a war between the United States, the world's most powerful nation, and energy-rich but radical Iran? Perhaps not. But it now appears that someone - maybe a prankster - almost triggered a shoot-out this month in the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. It could have escalated into a wider conflict with global reverberations, particularly for oil-importing Asian countries.

The latest incident involving Iranian challenges to US warships as they pass into and out of the Gulf also highlights how the relative risks to Asia's vital oil shipments have shifted west from Southeast Asia to the Gulf in the past few years.

Tensions between Iran and the US and its allies have risen over Iranian nuclear ambitions and activities in Iraq, while the perceived security threats have lessened in the Malacca Strait, another strategic chokepoint on the energy supply line from the Gulf to Northeast Asia.

The International Maritime Bureau said recently that closer security co-operation between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore had helped cut the reported number of pirate attacks and thefts in the waterway to just seven last year, down from 11 in 2006 and 38 in 2004.

Iran has played down the latest incident, accusing Washington of deliberately stoking tensions while President George W. Bush was in the Middle East trying to rally a regional Arab coalition against Iran. Teheran says that the Iranian boats were only trying to identify the US vessels.

But such challenges to the right of unimpeded passage by warships through a strait used for international navigation are dangerous. A miscalculation or overreaction by either side could lead to the use of force.

Radio exchanges between Iranian and US vessels are common in crowded Gulf shipping lanes. With Iran's regular navy, these exchanges are usually professional. This is not always the case with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which has well-equipped units that specialise in tactics to inflict heavy losses on more powerful enemies. These include sea mining, cruise missile barrages and deploying armed speedboats to attack conventional warships.

The US navy has been acutely aware of the danger of speedboat attacks since al-Qaeda operatives rammed a small boat packed with high explosives into the destroyer USS Cole while it was docked in Yemen in October 2000, killing 17 US sailors, wounding 40 and causing around US$250 million in damage.

Asia's stake in Gulf security is high and growing. Each day, some 17 million barrels of oil - 20 per cent of the world's total - is shipped in giant tankers to Asia and the west. About 16 per cent of Gulf oil exports go to Europe and only 11 per cent to the US. By contrast, some two-thirds go to Asia, mainly to Japan, China, South Korea and Southeast Asia. Just because the threat of a disruption to shipping and energy supplies has moved to the Strait of Hormuz does not mean the danger is any less acute for Asia.

Michael Richardson is a security specialist at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.