Singapore is ready to take part in joint patrols in the Sulu Sea in any way needed, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said yesterday.
It also welcomes indications from Malaysia and Indonesia that they want it to play a bigger role in combating maritime crime in the waters off the southern Philippines, amid concerns that terrorist elements could gain a foothold in the region.
Speaking to reporters at the end of the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, Dr Ng noted that Singapore had offered to participate in the patrols at any time that Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines think is appropriate.
It has also offered the assistance of its Information Fusion Centre at Changi Naval Base.
"I'm glad Indonesian Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu as well as Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein have said that when they are more settled, they will ask Singapore," Dr Ng said.
"My reply to them is, we stand ready to assist in the Sulu Sea patrols or in other counter-terrorism initiatives when asked by others. It is in our interests to do so," he said.
MEASURE OF SUCCESS
We judge whether the Shangri-La Dialogue has been useful or not, in terms of not how little disagreements it has. Sometimes, the fact that disagreements have been aired and different positions taken, is in itself a measure of success
DEFENCE MINISTER NG ENG HEN
Dr Ng met his counterparts over the weekend, and Datuk Seri Hishammuddin said joint sea patrols would kick off on June 19, and air patrols later.
Mr Ryamizard also told a panel that the Sulu Sea patrols were mooted to combat piracy, but could now be a platform to fight terrorism.
Dr Ng said it is imperative to prevent terrorists from exploiting networks in the Sulu Sea that facilitate the illegal smuggling of weapons, humans and drugs.
Referring to the ongoing crisis in the southern Philippine city of Marawi, Dr Ng reiterated that if terrorists gain a foothold in this region, they will be able to spread their violence to other Asean cities.
This is why Singapore is a participant in the US-led international coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terror group, even though the threat in Iraq and Syria is far away, he said.
About 400 militants linked to ISIS overran Marawi on May 23, and Philippine forces are still trying to retake the city.
In the interview, Dr Ng noted that apart from the global terror threat - underscored by last Saturday's attack in London - key issues raised were North Korea's nuclear weapons programme and what the rules of the future security order will be. "Everyone agreed on a rules- based order but what the exact rules are, who benefits, whether it is accepted by more or less, and how do you accommodate, if you would like, regional interests, minority interests, were all questions raised."
Dr Ng also said that at a US-Asean defence ministers' meeting with US Defence Secretary James Mattis yesterday morning, Asean ministers voiced support for continued US presence in the region.
Asked about the level of representation from China, which sent its lowest-level chief delegate since 2012, Dr Ng said Lieutenant-General He Lei was very open during ministerial discussions.
He added: "From what I hear, Lt-Gen He gave a very good account, as well as other Chinese representatives, so I am very happy with the Chinese contributions this year. I look less at level of representation than what the messages are."
Dr Ng also noted that the topic of US-China relations featured less this year compared with previous editions of the forum, as it was overshadowed by the instability on the Korean peninsula as well as the ongoing situation in Marawi.
Retired general Ricardo A. David Jr, the Philippine Undersecretary for Defence Policy, told a panel that talks were under way with militant groups in the southern Philippines.
He also said Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was considering greater autonomy as a political solution to counter extremism.
Mr Ryamizard also said intelligence sharing and cooperation were crucial, noting that Singapore had shared information on possible terror suspects, and Indonesian agencies would begin investigations. "Hopefully, in a short time, we can disclose these networks," he said.
Dr Ng noted that most participants said they benefited from the dialogue.
He added: "We judge whether the Shangri-La Dialogue has been useful or not, in terms of not how little disagreements it has.
"Sometimes, the fact that disagreements have been aired and different positions taken, is in itself a measure of success," he added.
• Additional reporting by Danson Cheong