Malacca Dilemma was a term coined in 2003 by the then Chinese President Hu Jinato. It refers to the potential threats that could hinder China’s oil imports and therefore, its economic development. It is a significant concern for China as one of the world’s largest Importer of oil; it imports 80 percent of the total oil used by the country, which is mainly secured from the United States.
The strategic Strait of Malacca which lies between Sumatra Islands and Malay peninsula, with Singapore to its east is a narrow stretch of water, which accommodates 80 percent of the oil imports. It is highly vulnerable as it could easily be blocked by any external actor.
With the recent developments in the US Indo-Pacific Strategy which is inclined towards controlling Chinese Hegemon rise, Singapore is playing an important role in this situation. As an ally of the US, Singapore is susceptible to be influenced by the Quad alliance. China conceives it as a looming threat and remains cautions in the contemporary, dynamic world of international politics. It worries that such developments could halt the “China dream” that it so passionately pursues.
In its search for alternate routes, China has been largely disappointed. Sunda Strait as well as Lombok and Makassar Straits have proven dissatisfactory as the former is too shallow and the latter are longer routes that could incur huge financial burden, estimated at around USD 220 billion per year.
Instead, China had sought land route alternatives and developed various steps to reduce its dependency on Malacca Strait. One such is the Gwadar-Xinjiang port which is a part of its USD 50.6 billion investment in CPEC in Pakistan. It is being developed with a focus on importing oil through Gwadar port which would give China an access to the warm water port, linking it with the Potential West Asian sources of Oil.
However, it seems that China has been deluded and did not take into account the landscape and terrain along the proposed route of Karakoram Ranges. These ranges are prone to frequent earthquakes, landslides and extreme temperatures which raise concerns about whether it is a suitable terrain for oil to be imported through. The proposed route is also plagued with terrorist groups which could disrupt the supply. In addition, there is added problem regarding the increased cost of transport. Whilst it costs only USD 2 to transport a barrel of oil through a sea route, the cost of a pipeline can be estimated somewhere between USD 12 to 15.
Another issue the CPEC project faces is the international obstacles. The supposed route passes through the disputed regions of Jammu and Kashmir which India views as impeding its sovereignty and national territory. These numerous factors make it uncertain whether the project will wholly materialize or not.
To conclude, we can say that in this COVID-19 scenario the established norms of traditional geo-politics is changing at a rate never seen before. With an increasing potential of a kinetic conflict between US and China in the Indo-Pacific theatre, we can be sure to say, that the Malacca Dilemma is no longer a Dilemma. China can be sure that the Strait of Malacca can and will be choked for Chinese traffic in time of a conflict. Hence it is high time that China works towards realising its alternatives in order to sustain the changes.