Dire Straits?

There is an old saying among military experts that "amateurs talk strategy; professionals talk logistics." I was reminded of that while reading a recent commentary from my friends at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. The somewhat arcane subject was the "carrying capacity" of the Straits of Malacca/Singapore, a vital maritime artery ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
575503_walt_boat2.jpg
575503_walt_boat2.jpg

There is an old saying among military experts that "amateurs talk strategy; professionals talk logistics." I was reminded of that while reading a recent commentary from my friends at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. The somewhat arcane subject was the "carrying capacity" of the Straits of Malacca/Singapore, a vital maritime artery in South East Asia, and it reminded me that there are a host of issues in our globalized world that rarely get much elite or public attention, yet are absolutely vital to "business as usual." As this example suggests, a lot of them have to do with the principles, procedures and infrastructure that enable people and things to move from place to place cheaply and relatively efficiently.   

At its narrowest point, the Straits of Malacca and Singapore are about 2.2 kilometers wide. Nearly 100,000 vessels transit the Straits each year -- carrying about a quarter of the world's traded goods -- and several recent studies project that as many as 150,000 vessels could be moving through the Straits by 2020. That many ships would exceed the Straits’ current "carrying capacity" (i.e., the number of ships that could move safely through it).   

The key takeaway, however, is that "carrying capacity" is not a fixed number: The number of ships that can safely transit the Straits can be increased by timely government action to remove shipwrecks, improve navigation aids, tidal monitoring, and meteorological information, increase towing capacity, and other rather straightforward measures.  

There is an old saying among military experts that "amateurs talk strategy; professionals talk logistics." I was reminded of that while reading a recent commentary from my friends at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. The somewhat arcane subject was the "carrying capacity" of the Straits of Malacca/Singapore, a vital maritime artery in South East Asia, and it reminded me that there are a host of issues in our globalized world that rarely get much elite or public attention, yet are absolutely vital to "business as usual." As this example suggests, a lot of them have to do with the principles, procedures and infrastructure that enable people and things to move from place to place cheaply and relatively efficiently.   

At its narrowest point, the Straits of Malacca and Singapore are about 2.2 kilometers wide. Nearly 100,000 vessels transit the Straits each year — carrying about a quarter of the world’s traded goods — and several recent studies project that as many as 150,000 vessels could be moving through the Straits by 2020. That many ships would exceed the Straits’ current "carrying capacity" (i.e., the number of ships that could move safely through it).   

The key takeaway, however, is that "carrying capacity" is not a fixed number: The number of ships that can safely transit the Straits can be increased by timely government action to remove shipwrecks, improve navigation aids, tidal monitoring, and meteorological information, increase towing capacity, and other rather straightforward measures.  

The good news, according to the RSIS commentary from which I gleaned this information, is that the three littoral states (Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore) have adopted a proactive policy on this issue. As a result, "projects are already underway, or are being proposed, to address the safety of navigation issues in order to improve sea lane conditions, with the participation of all interested stakeholders." If only the negotiations in Copenhagen were this easy.

The broader lesson here has to do with the importance of maintaining public infrastructure — roads, bridges, air terminals, electrical grids, maritime waterways, rail lines, etc. — the sinews upon which global commerce depends. These policies aren’t exactly sexy, but they aren’t frivolous luxuries either. Indeed, they are essential ingredients that make the modern world work. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing if world leaders got asked more questions about what they were doing to improve national and global infrastructure, at least as often as they get asked about where they are planning to send troops or what they think about the latest celebrity scandal.

AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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