Strait of Malacca

The Strait of Malacca is a narrow stretch of water, 500 mi (800 km) long and from 40 to 155 mi (65–250 km) wide, between the Malay Peninsula (Peninsular Malaysia) to the northeast and the Indonesian island of Sumatra to the southwest, connecting the Andaman Sea (Indian Ocean) and the South China Sea (Pacific Ocean).[2] As the main shipping channel between the Indian and Pacific oceans, it is one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. It is named after the Malacca Sultanate that ruled over the strait between 1400 and 1511, the center of administration of which was located in the modern-day state of Malacca, Malaysia.

Strait of Malacca
The Strait of Malacca connects the Pacific Ocean to the east with the Indian Ocean to the west
LocationAndaman Sea-Strait of Singapore
Coordinates4°N 100°E
Native name
  • Selat Melaka (Malay)
  • سلت ملاک (Malay)
  • Selat Malaka (Indonesian)
  • ช่องแคบมะละกา (Thai)
  • மலாக்கா நீரிணை (Tamil)
  • Malākkā nīriṇai (Tamil)
  • मलक्का जलडमरूमध्य (Hindi)
  • 馬六甲海峽/马六甲海峡 (Chinese)
EtymologyMalacca Sultanate (present day state of Melaka, Malaysia)
Basin countries
Max. length930 km (580 mi)
Min. width38 km (24 mi)
Average depth25 metres (82 ft) (minimum)[1]


The International Hydrographic Organization define the limits of the Strait of Malacca as follows:[3]

On the west. A line joining Pedropunt, the northernmost point of Sumatra (5°40′N 95°26′E), and Lem Voalan, the southern extremity of Goh Puket [Phromthep Cape on Phuket Island] in Siam [Thailand] (7°45′N 98°18′E).

On the east. A line joining Tanjong Piai (Bulus), the southern extremity of the Malay Peninsula (1°16′N 103°31′E), and The Brothers (1°11.5′N 103°21′E), and thence to Klein Karimoen (1°10′N 103°23.5′E).

On the north. The southwestern coast of the Malay Peninsula.

On the south. The northeastern coast of Sumatra as far to the eastward as Tanjong Kedabu (1°06′N 102°58′E), thence to Klein Karimoen.


The Strait of Malacca as viewed from the city of Malacca, Malaysia. Pulau Besar ('Big Island') is visible in the distance.

Early traders from Arabia, Africa, Persia, and Southern India reached Kedah before arriving at Guangzhou. Kedah served as a western port on the Malay Peninsula. They traded glassware, camphor, cotton goods, brocades, ivory, sandalwood, perfume, and precious stones. These traders sailed to Kedah via the monsoon winds between June and November. They returned between December and May. Kedah provided accommodations, porters, small vessels, bamboo rafts, elephants, as well as tax collections for goods to be transported overland toward the eastern ports of the Malay Peninsula such as Langkasuka and Kelantan. After the tenth century, ships from China began to trade at these eastern trading posts and ports. Kedah and Funan were famous ports throughout the 6th century, before shipping began to use the Strait of Malacca itself as a trade route.

In the 7th century the maritime empire of Srivijaya, based in Palembang, Sumatra, rose to power, and its influence expanded to the Malay peninsula and Java. The empire gained effective control of two major choke points in maritime Southeast Asia: the Strait of Malacca and the Sunda Strait. By launching a series of conquests and raids on potential rival ports on both sides of the strait, Srivijaya ensured its economic and military domination in the region, which lasted for about 700 years. Srivijaya gained great benefits from the lucrative spice trade, e.g. the tributary trade system with China, and trade with Indian and Arab merchants. The Strait of Malacca became an important maritime trade route between India and China. The importance of the Strait of Malacca in global trade networks continued well into later centuries with the rise of the Malacca Sultanate in the 15th century, the Johor Sultanate, and the modern city-state of Singapore.

Since the 17th century, the strait has been the main shipping channel between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. Various major regional powers have managed the straits during different historical periods.[4]

In the early 19th century, the Dutch and British empires drew an arbitrary boundary line in the strait and promised to hunt down pirates on their respective sides; that line went on to become today's border between Malaysia and Indonesia.[2]

Economic importance

A ship sailing on the Strait of Malacca, as seen from Bukit Melawati in Kuala Selangor.

From an economic and strategic perspective, the Strait of Malacca is one of the most important shipping lanes in the world.

The strait is the main shipping channel between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, linking major Asian economies such as India, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, China, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. The Strait of Malacca is part of the Maritime Silk Road that runs from the Chinese coast towards the southern tip of India to Mombasa, from there through the Red Sea via the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean, there to the Upper Adriatic region to the northern Italian hub of Trieste with its rail connections to Central Europe and the North Sea.[5][6][7][8] Over 94,000 vessels[9] pass through the strait each year (2008) making it the busiest strait in the world,[10] carrying about 25% of the world's traded goods, including oil, Chinese manufactured products, coal, palm oil and Indonesian coffee.[11] About a quarter of all oil carried by sea passes through the Strait, mainly from Persian Gulf suppliers to Asian markets. In 2007, an estimated 13.7 million barrels per day were transported through the strait, increasing to an estimated 15.2 million barrels per day in 2011.[12] In addition, it is also one of the world's most congested shipping choke points because it narrows to only 2.8 km (1.5 nautical miles) wide at the Phillip Channel (close to the south of Singapore).[12]

The draught of some of the world's largest ships (mostly oil tankers) exceeds the Strait's minimum depth of 25 metres (82 feet). This shallow point occurs in the Singapore Strait. The maximum size of a vessel that can pass through the Strait is referred to as the Malaccamax. The next closest passageway to the east, the Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java, is even shallower and narrower, meaning that ships exceeding the Malaccamax must detour a few thousand nautical miles and use the Lombok Strait, Makassar Strait, Sibutu Passage, and Mindoro Strait instead.

Shipping hazards

Piracy has been a problem in the strait. Piracy had been high in the 2000s, with additional increase after the events of September 11, 2001.[13] After attacks rose again in the first half of 2004, regional navies stepped up their patrols of the area in July 2004. Subsequently, attacks on ships in the Strait of Malacca dropped, to 79 in 2005 and 50 in 2006.[14] Attacks have dropped to near zero in recent years.[15]

There are 34 shipwrecks, some dating to the 1880s, in the local TSS channel (the channel for commercial ships under the global Traffic Separation Scheme). These pose a collision hazard in the narrow and shallow strait.[16]

On 20 August 2017, the United States Navy destroyer USS John S. McCain lost ten of its crew's lives in a collision with the merchant ship Alnic MC a short distance east of the strait whilst full steering capabilities had been lost. The ship had made a series of errors in attempted mitigation, its external lights being changed to "red over red" ("vessel not under command").[17]

Yearly haze from the smoke of raging bush fires, limiting visibility.

Another risk is the annual haze due to wildfires in Sumatra, Indonesia. It may reduce visibility to 200 metres (660 ft), forcing ships to slow in the busy strait. The strait is frequently used by ships longer than 350 metres (1,150 ft).[18]

Proposals to relieve the strait

Thailand has developed plans to divert much of the strait's traffic and hence some of its economic significance to a shorter route: the Thai government has several times proposed cutting a canal through the Isthmus of Kra, saving around 960 kilometres (600 mi) from the journey between the two oceans. China has offered to cover the costs, according to a report leaked to The Washington Times in 2004. Nevertheless, and despite the support of several Thai politicians, the prohibitive financial and ecological costs suggest that such a canal will not be built.

An alternative is to install a pipeline across the Isthmus of Kra to carry oil to ships waiting on the other side. Proponents calculate it would cut the cost of oil delivery to Asia by about $0.50/barrel ($3/m3). Myanmar has also made a similar pipeline proposal.

See also

Geostrategic context
Local context


  1. Malaccamax. As the name suggests, Malaccamax ships are the largest ships that can pass through the Strait of Malacca which is 25 m (82 ft) deep at its shallowest. As per the current permissible limits, a Malaccamax vessel can have a maximum length of 400 m (1,312 ft), beam of 59 m (193.6 ft), and draught of 14.5 m (47.6 ft). Comparison of Tanker sizes
  2. Winn, Patrick (27 March 2014). "Strait of Malacca Is World's New Piracy Hotspot". NBC News. Archived from the original on 15 March 2017. Retrieved 14 March 2017.
  3. Limits of Oceans and Seas (PDF) (3rd ed.). International Hydrographic Organization. 1953. p. 23. Retrieved 3 December 2018.
  4. Pineda, Guillermo (2012). "The Strait of Malacca as one of the most important geopolitical regions for the People's Republic of China". Archived from the original on 30 January 2017.
  5. Marcus Hernig: Die Renaissance der Seidenstraße (2018) pp 112.
  6. Mantoan, Benedetta (2019). "The Maritime Silk Road in South-East Asia". Retrieved 7 February 2022.
  7. Sutton, H. I. (8 July 2020). "Could The Indian Navy Strangle China's Lifeline In The Malacca Strait?". Forbes. Retrieved 7 February 2022.
  8. "Can Singapore's shipping hub survive China's Maritime Silk Road?". Supply Chain Asia. 30 March 2019. Retrieved 7 February 2022.
  9. Ships collide off Malaysian coast. 19 August 2009. Archived 2011-06-05 at the Wayback Machine (in English)
  10. Strait of Malacca - World Oil Transit Chokepoints Archived 2014-11-22 at the Wayback Machine, Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy
  11. Freeman, Donald B. (2003). The Straits of Malacca: Gateway or Gauntlet?. McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 0-7735-2515-7.. A book review citing this information can be found at University of Toronto Quarterly, Volume 74, Number 1, Winter 2004/5, pp. 528-530
  12. "World Oil Transit Chokepoints" (PDF). U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). 2014. Archived (PDF) from the original on 22 November 2014. Retrieved 28 April 2018.
  13. Raymond, Catherine (2009). "PIRACY AND ARMED ROBBERY IN THE MALACCA STRAIT: A Problem Solved?". Naval War College Review. 62: 31–42 via Proquest.
  14. Piracy down 3rd year in row: IMB report Archived 2013-12-17 at the Wayback Machine, Journal of Commerce Online, January 23, 2007
  15. "Drastic drop in piracy in Malacca Straits". 21 April 2011. Archived from the original on 7 November 2017. Retrieved 28 April 2018.
  16. Ali, Sharidan Mohd Ali (2 January 2006). "34 wrecks in sealane threaten passing ships". Archived from the original on 12 October 2008. Retrieved 28 April 2018.
  17. Affairs, This story was written by U.S. 7th Fleet Public. "UPDATE: USS John S. McCain Collides with Merchant Ship". Archived from the original on 5 November 2017. Retrieved 28 April 2018.
  18. Nachmani, Amikam (8 November 2003). Turkey: facing a new millennium: Coping with Intertwined Conflicts (Europe in Change). Manchester, United Kingdom: Manchester University Press. ISBN 9780719063701.

Further reading

  • Borschberg, Peter, The Singapore and Melaka Straits: Violence, Security and Diplomacy in the 17th Century (Singapore and Leiden: NUS Press and KITLV Press, 2010).
  • Borschberg, Peter, ed., Iberians in the Singapore-Melaka Area and Adjacent Regions (16th to 18th Century) (Wiesbaden and Lisbon: Harrassowitz and Fundação Oriente, 2004).
  • Borschberg, Peter, ed. The Memoirs and Memorials of Jacques de Coutre. Security, Trade and Society in 17th Century Southeast Asia (Singapore: NUS Press, 2013).
  • Borschberg, Peter, ed., Journal, Memorials and Letters of Cornelis Matelieff de Jonge. Security, Diplomacy and Commerce in 17th Century Southeast Asia (Singapore: NUS Press, 2015).
  • Borschberg, Peter, "The value of Admiral Matelieff's writings for the history of Southeast Asia, c. 1600–1620", Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 48(3), pp. 414–435. doi:10.1017/S002246341700056X
  • Borschberg P. and M. Krieger, ed., Water and State in Asia and Europe (New Delhi: Manohar, 2008).
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