Waiving the rules threatens the seas
A key concern is the different rules nations adopt for using the global maritime commons, including their views on freedom of navigation and maritime resources. The good news is the adoption in 2017 by Asean and its international counterparts of a code for unplanned encounters at sea.
Two conferences last week brought into focus the abiding salience that the seas provide for the economic and physical security that many here and in the region take for granted. The International Maritime Security Conference, which just ended its sixth edition, has turned into a valuable platform to debate the security landscape. The other event, the International Maritime Defence Exhibition and Conference (Imdex) Asia, gathers service chiefs and top officials from more than 40 navies and maritime agencies. That Imdex has grown from five participating navies in 1997 to its current size speaks volumes for how maritime issues have moved to be front and centre in strategic thinking. More on those considerations will be heard when regional security chiefs meet at the Shangri-La Dialogue at the end of this month.
Sitting at the confluence of two key arterial networks - the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea - Singapore has both an enviable and unenviable perch. Fully a quarter of all traded goods globally pass through the Singapore Strait, with the ship numbers climbing to a thousand a day sometimes. Nine of the 10 busiest ports in the world are in this region. Despite global uncertainty, there is no let-up in the growth of trade volumes transported by sea. The seas, therefore, are both lifeline and lifeblood for the Singapore economy.
There is also a flip side when a nation is maritime-dependent. Crime and the threat from terrorists in the waters are a continuing worry. So too is the potential for conflict over territorial claims, which may include existing or newly constructed features, and even the exclusive economic zones. A third worry lies in the ambitions of regional players seeking domination, or control over waterways.
On crime, the response has been effective. Initiatives such as the Malacca Strait Patrol and the trilateral cooperation agreement in the Sulu Sea drastically cut piracy and armed robbery in the waters. Lloyd's also no longer lists the Malacca Strait as a "war-risk area", which means reduced insurance charges and shipping costs. The tackling of terrorism is a work in progress. The "Our Eyes" intelligence initiative among six Asean members is a welcome step in this direction.
A key concern is the different rules nations adopt for using the global maritime commons, including their views on freedom of navigation and maritime resources. As navies bulk up, the frequency of military and law enforcement-related incidents increases. The good news is the adoption in 2017 by Asean and its international counterparts of a code for unplanned encounters at sea.
Such initiatives are building blocks for more substantive cooperation. But the global maritime commons will remain under threat if countries waive the rules and fail to abide by existing international laws.
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