With an accident waiting to happen in Asia's congested waters, there is an urgent need for regional militaries to create a set of guidelines that would better regulate how they operate their submarines, said Singapore's navy chief Lai Chung Han.
Speaking to 23 navy chiefs and vice-chiefs at a defence conference yesterday, Rear-Admiral Lai proposed that regional countries work together to set up a framework that will govern how submarines can operate safely.
Countries could begin by sharing information on the movements of oil rigs and very large crude carriers through the Singapore-based Information Fusion Centre in Changi, said RADM Lai. The centre would distribute the information to naval ships, he said.
RADM Lai was speaking at the International Maritime Security Conference, held in conjunction with the 10th International Maritime Defence Exhibition and Conference (Imdex) Asia at Changi Exhibition Centre.
Countries can also come up with common operating principles on how they certify their submarines, material safety and underwater medicine.
Noting that Asia-Pacific navies are estimated to operate more than 130 diesel-electric subs by the end of this decade, RADM Lai said the underwater environment would become more crowded.
The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN), for instance, will add two new German-made Type 218SG submarines to its fleet by 2020.
"With the increasing number of submarines operating in the congested and confined water space, it is, perhaps, no exaggeration to say that it is an accident waiting to happen," he said.
To keep the conversation going and build ties among navies, RADM Lai said the RSN is planning to hold the second Submarine Operational Safety Conference next year to cement the discussions on submarine operations conducted over the last two days.
He said such multilateral platforms, including the ASEAN Ministers' Meeting-Plus, will not only help build trust and understanding but also establish behavioural norms and foster co-operation among navies.
Echoing RADM Lai's point on building trust and understanding, the People's Liberation Army Navy's South Sea fleet commander Shen Jinlong said countries should "never deal with maritime security issues with a zero-sum mindset". Rear-Adm Shen said: "A new security concept should be unfolded - keep yourself safe while making others safe, and jointly build a harmonious and stable environment."
Tensions still simmer in the South China Sea. Beijing's land-reclamation efforts in the disputed waters continue to raise concern among United States and ASEAN leaders.
Rear-Adm Shen said China pursues a defence policy that is defensive in nature while actively developing friendly military relations with the rest of the world.
Professor Geoffrey Till, a British naval historian and a visiting professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said while countries are now acknowledging the territorial issues, they should also start to discuss how to move forward.
This article was first published on May 21, 2015.
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