The deployment of US forces along the narrow straits straddling Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia is part of Washington's new counterterrorism initiative to help Southeast Asia, said Admiral Thomas Fargo, the top US military commander in the Asia-Pacific region.
The Regional Maritime Security Initiative is being devised by the United States military to combat transnational threats like proliferation, terrorism, trafficking in humans and drugs, and piracy.
It allows sharing of information and intelligence that puts standing operating procedures in place with Southeast Asian countries for effective action against terrorists and other criminals, Fargo said.
"There is very large, widespread support for this initiative," said Fargo, who heads the Hawaii-based US Pacific Command, directing Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force operations across the vast region.
"I just came back from Singapore and had a very solid conversation with the Singaporeans, and they're going to help us with this," he told US legislators quizzing him this week on budget allocations for his command, the largest in the United States.
Asked whether the Pacific Command was adequately resourced to implement the initiative, Fargo said that while previous mechanisms used in the war against drugs would be relied upon, new approaches were being considered.
"You know, we're looking at things like high-speed vessels, putting special operations forces on high-speed vessels, putting Marines on high-speed vessels so that we can use boats that might be incorporated with these vessels to conduct effective interdiction," he explained.
He did not discuss specific plans. The Philippines is the only country in Southeast Asia where hundreds of American troops are stationed -- to train local soldiers to battle terrorists in the country's troubled south.
On whether Malaysia and Indonesia would extend cooperation to the US initiative, Fargo said: "I expect a broad range of support.
"All of the countries are concerned about the transnational threat. This is a pretty vast space and no country can do this by themselves. So it's going to be a multinational, mutilateral effort, if you will, to deal with this particular problem."
Fargo cited India as one of the first countries to provide patrols along the Straits of Malacca immediately after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States.
Southeast Asian waters, particularly in the Straits of Malacca near the Indonesian side, are the world's most pirate-infested region. More than a quarter of the world's trade and oil transits the straits.
Southeast Asia is also home to the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the regional chapter of the al-Qaeda terror network accused of deadly bomb attacks in Indonesia and the Philippines.
There are numerous other groups in the region that have been branded terrorist by the United States and local governments, including the Abu Sayyaf Muslim kidnap-for-ransom group in the southern Philippines.
Fargo said Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines have arrested more than 200 JI members, while Indonesia have prosecuted 34 JI members involved in the deadly Bali bombings, most of whom have been sentenced for their crimes.
Fargo said Southeast Asia was a "crucial front" in the US war on terrorism.
"Destabilization of the governments of this region, moderate, secular, and legitimately elected, and with large Muslim populations, would result in decades of danger and chaos," he said.