SINGAPORE: There are “dark storm clouds” that could threaten maritime security in the region, and these include countries adopting different rules when staking territorial claims or conducting freedom of navigation exercises at sea, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said on Tuesday (May 14).
“We need calm seas in this region to ensure that global commerce continues and good relations between countries are maintained,” he said. “But there are dark storm clouds on the horizon that can threaten the global maritime commons and our shared prosperity.”
Dr Ng was speaking at the opening ceremony of this year’s International Maritime Defence Exhibition and Conference (IMDEX) Asia, attended by top-level officials from more than 40 navies around the world.
“Of concern too in this maritime region are the different rules adopted by various countries that govern the use of the global maritime commons,” he stated. “Not least rules that relate to freedom of navigation but also extending to maritime territorial claims on fisheries and other resources.”
On May 6, the US sailed two of its warships near islands claimed by China in the latest flashpoint in the South China Sea, a move Beijing slammed as undermining peace and violating its sovereignty. China claims almost all of the strategic South China Sea.
Not far away, Singapore sits at the confluence of two “key arterial networks” formed by the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea, meaning a quarter of all traded goods in the world pass through the Singapore Strait on more than 1,000 ships each day.
“They carry every kind of product and commodity that are essential for modern economies to live, function and thrive,” Dr Ng said. “Maritime history teaches us that whenever and wherever there is conflict on the seas, surrounding countries and their common folk invariably suffer.”
Dr Ng said the number of military and law enforcement-related incidents at sea has increased over the years, noting that disputes have also led to death, like the fisherman from Taiwan who was fatally shot in 2013 by a Philippine Coast Guard vessel carrying out enforcement duties.
“Because so much depends on the seas, we need a strong consensus from all countries for common rules for the seas and their use,” he added. “For the South China Sea disputes, the Code of Conduct (COC) can pave the way for agreement on international maritime norms and conflict prevention.”
Last August, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China agreed on a single draft document that will form the basis of negotiations for a COC in the South China Sea. In November, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said he hopes COC consultations would be completed in three years.
“It is good that ASEAN and China have come to an agreement on a single draft negotiating text, and all of us urge quick progress and an expeditious conclusion of a meaningful and impactful COC,” Dr Ng said.
Militaries can also do a lot to build confidence and trust through cooperation and collaboration, Dr Ng said. For instance, the ADMM-Plus navies have adopted and practised the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) during several maritime exercises.
The ADMM-Plus nations comprise the 10 ASEAN states and Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia, China and the US.
“These military initiatives between regional navies reduce the risks of misunderstandings and unintended escalation between our warships,” Dr Ng added.
MARITIME TERRORISM AND TRAFFICKING
Piracy and terrorism are among other threats to maritime security, Dr Ng said.
While the number of piracy and armed robbery incidents along the Strait of Malacca fell from 20 in 2007 to eight so far this year, “more work needs to be done” on terrorism threats, he said.
For example, he said experts believe that most of the weapons used by militants during the recent conflict in Marawi came from the sea.
Other Islamic State-linked terrorists like the Abu Sayaff group also continue to abduct the crew of transiting ships in the Sulu-Celebes Sea and the waters off East Sabah in exchange for ransom.
“Collectively, we need to step up our intelligence efforts as the centre of gravity of global terrorism shifts away from the Middle East and moves to other regions of the world, including this region, which have been susceptible to radical ideologies,” Dr Ng added.
One solution is the Republic of Singapore Navy’s Information Fusion Centre, which hosts liaison officers from all over the world and strengthens maritime security through information sharing.
Last year, the centre tracked a fishing boat in the region for three months and worked with the Indonesian Navy to facilitate its capture in the waters off Batam. The boat was found to contain one tonne of crystal methamphetamine hidden in rice sacks.
“Over the past 10 years, (the centre) has consistently delivered actionable information to various maritime agencies,” Dr Ng said.