Half the world’s oil shipments move through the Strait of Malacca, framed by the coasts of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. If terrorists were to launch coordinated attacks on the tankers there, the shock to the commodities markets might just push a shaky world economy into a recession. It is therefore understandable that the countries lining the straits—and a lot of others, too—want to head off the threat by building a marine electronic highway.
The proposed highway would use electronic navigational charts, display and information systems, and differential global positioning technology to track all ships to within 5 meters and automatically broadcast the identities of vessels above a certain size. It would help ships to share information with each other and with shore facilities, lessening the chances that they might collide, run aground, or wander into inclement weather. Finally, it would allow authorities to respond more quickly to hijackings and to incidents, such as oil spills, that could endanger marine life.
Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore support the idea; the World Bank has financed two feasibility studies; and the London-based International Maritime Organization has recruited a management team to sort out the issues that remain. Technology is not likely to be one of them—the waters off the coast of Singapore are already on the electronic navigational charts, and more devices are being rolled out to cover the rest of the Strait.
The real problem is politics. The countries whose ships navigate the Strait have conflicting economic and environmental agendas, making it hard to put together a single system that can plan for emergencies and respond to them. There is no word yet on what will prevent a country that disagrees with a ruling from stalemating the process or opting out of the partnership altogether. And if the aim is to check piracy and thwart terrorists, then it may be counterproductive to give every fellow at the helm of a boat detailed information on the movements of large cargo ships and tankers.
More information is available at http://www.imo.org/includes/blastDataOnly.asp/data_id%3D3668/marineelectronichighwayarticle.pdf