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Maritime review 'highlights S'pore's naval diplomacy'

President Tony Tan Keng Yam will be reviewing about 50 warships from 21 countries, including Singapore, during the inaugural International Maritime Review (IMR) hosted by the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) today.

Staging one of the largest gatherings of naval ships in the region is the centrepiece of RSN's 50th anniversary events, but naval experts say it will also indirectly highlight Singapore's adept use of naval diplomacy, which is critical to the Republic's security.

Dr Euan Graham, director of the international security programme at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, said Singapore, being a small state, has had to be proactive in its naval diplomacy efforts because it wants to avoid being isolated.

"If a country like Singapore is passive, it will quickly find itself strategically compromised or marginalised," he added.

"So it has to constantly build its relationships in the region, where there are still trust issues and territorial disputes, making sure those don't bubble up to the surface."

The South China Sea territorial disputes between China and four Asean nations, which have intensified since 2012, have posed concerns for trade-dependent countries like Singapore, whose trade is three times that of its economy.

Maritime expert Collin Koh from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies described the IMR - held at Changi Naval Base - as a manifestation of the growing maturity of Singapore's naval diplomacy, which could become more important amid maritime tensions.

"Especially in these times of maritime disputes, the review signals that Singapore is willing to play a role in engaging diplomatically with regional players. The message is: Singapore may be small, but that does not mean it cannot be a constructive player," Dr Koh told The Straits Times.

In a 232-page book A Maritime Force For A Maritime Nation: Celebrating 50 years Of The Navy, the RSN said it has contributed to the expansion of Singapore's policy space through maritime diplomacy, which began with its first bilateral exercise in 1974 with Indonesia.

Over the decades, its engagements have grown to include multilateral exercises, information-sharing and joint patrols, with some held outside the region.

Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh, one of seven contributors to the book, wrote that one of the RSN's three roles is to foster practical cooperation on issues of common concern between navies, in support of a rules-based international order. In a piece titled Peace At Sea, he cited how the RSN, along with 20 other regional navies, had in 2014 adopted the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea.

The code - signed by 21 members of the Western Pacific Naval Symposium, including China and eight Asean states - guides how military vessels should react to situations to reduce the risk of incidents.

It was put into practice by participating countries of the IMR, which include China, the United States and Japan, with their warships travelling to Singapore since last Tuesday from the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea.

Of the 46 vessels at the IMR, 16 will be from the RSN and two from the Police Coast Guard.

Most of the foreign vessels will also be at the Imdex Asia maritime defence show from tomorrow till Thursday.

Experts also pointed out limits to naval diplomacy, as "decision-makers are not the chiefs of navies, but the political leaders in the various countries", said Lowy's Dr Graham.

"But there is a limited aim and in that, Singapore is trying to position itself and steer the region towards a more coordinated and cooperative direction," he added.