Not only must we take care to protect our own sources of oil around the world, we also must ensure that our main competitor, China, doesn’t trump us. The booming Chinese economy is the world’s second-largest energy consumer, with much of its oil coming by tanker from the Persian Gulf across the Indian Ocean, passing through the Strait of Malacca and into the South China Sea. The Strait of Malacca is one of the most heavily trafficked waterways anywhere in the world. Ships loaded with fuel heading east pass the tip of Aceh state on Sumatra, run down the strait, and exit past Singapore. This strait is a main focus of American military deployment in Asia and a potential choke hold on China, should we end up, as some neocons think, in a world struggle with Beijing.
Aceh, ground zero in the recent tsunami catastrophe, is also headquarters of Exxon-Mobil’s large liquefied-natural-gas plant and the center of a long struggle between independence-minded guerrillas and the central Indonesian government. In the past, the U.S. has maintained military relations with Indonesia. These were broken by human rights abuses in East Timor, but now have been resumed. We have no bases in Indonesia, but U.S. ships call at several ports, and we have joint counterterrorism investigations and training programs.
Near the strait is the tip of Thailand, a staunch U.S. ally. The Malaysian coast faces Indonesia across most of this narrow waterway; Malaysia backs the U.S. operations in Asia and supports the war on terrorism. It has shied clear of involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan on grounds that neither had U.N. backing. Still, Malaysia has welcomed U.S. ships under military agreements and has awarded blanket overflight clearance to U.S. military planes. The country’s also a center for counterterrorism training. Australia provides most of Malaysia’s military assistance, but the U.S. plays a major part in expanding and modernizing its air force. The U.S. regularly sends forces to Malaysia for jungle training, and Malaysia sends troops to Hawaii for training.
With the closing of U.S. bases in the Philippines, Singapore (at the bottom of the Strait of Malacca) has become a major forward deployment base in Asia and plays a key role in our Asian counterterrorism operations. We have access to wharves, including one for aircraft carriers, and air bases in Singapore. U.S. aircraft are regularly deployed to Singapore, and U.S. National Guard units are engaged in training the country’s troops. The Arizona Air National Guard trains Singapore F-16 pilots, while the Texas Air National Guard trains Chinook chopper pilots. Singapore is tied to the U.S. through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, along with Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, and India. Singapore helps train Iraqi police and has granted U.S. blanket overflight clearance for the Iraq war. We provide Singapore with more than two-thirds of all its arms.