To deal with a resurgence of piracy, navies of the littoral states - Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia - are in discussions to extend joint patrols to the lower reaches of the South China Sea where piracy hotspots are, Chief of Navy Rear-Admiral Lai Chung Han told TODAY.
However, the extension of these patrols - which have been successful in curbing piracy in the Strait of Malacca - is complicated by competing territorial claims in these waters.
“When will (the extension) be realised, we hope (it will be) sooner rather than later,” RADM Lai told the media in an interview last Friday (May 8) at Changi Naval Base, where he also talked about the terrorism threat and congested waterways in the region.
“There is concern with the proximity to the contested claims of South China Sea, and we certainly don’t want those issues to be conflated. We are very focused on dealing with the piracy situation and none of us really benefit from letting this situation fester.”
RADM Lai, 42, was giving his maiden interview as navy chief since his appointment nine months ago.
He also expressed concern about the possibility of terrorists and pirates joining hands, despite their different motives. Terrorist organisation Al Qaeda had recently urged its followers to conduct attacks on Western economic interests at strategic sea lanes, including the Strait of Malacca, he pointed out.
RADM Lai said it would be a challenge to distinguish between a pirate attack and a terror incident in the sea lanes. Nevertheless, the Singapore Maritime Crisis Centre is monitoring the situation, he added.
“Of course when there is any doubt, we never rule out the possibility that the pirates on board, or the ship that has been commandeered could also be used for terrorist purposes, and we have ... means to deal with that,” said RADM Lai.
Terrorists could hijack a fuel tanker, for example, and turn it into a floating bomb. “I think that is something that we watch very carefully, working very closely with police coast guard,” he said, adding that the strategy is to detect the situation early, and deal with it while the threat is still at a distance from the Republic’s shores.
RADM Lai also spoke about the prospect of increased military presence in the region: “In 10 years, there will be more than 100 electric diesel submarines operating in the South China Sea. The South China Sea is a small body of water if you compare it to larger oceans and for the kind of shallow waters that (are) in some parts less than 50m (deep) ... I think it is a matter of time, if it remains unregulated, for there to be an underwater incident.”
Efforts in the past to regulate the underwater space include bilateral agreements signed between Singapore and its neighbours to help submarines in distress.
For example, Singapore and Indonesia signed a submarine rescue support and cooperation agreement in 2012, under which both countries would support each other in the event of a submarine disaster.
RADM Lai said there is a need to extend such existing regulations into a regional framework for submarine safety. This can involve the sharing of best practices for certifying boats, and also sharing information about other underwater craft which are not submarines.