For Beijing, seizure of Singapore armoured vehicles is a low-risk shot across the bows
Michal Thim says China sees a good opportunity to challenge not only the long-standing partnership between Singapore and Taiwan, but also to bring the Singapore government ‘in line’ for what Beijing perceives as its pro-US position
The discovery of nine, allegedly undeclared, armoured combat vehicles belonging to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) set off a diplomatic storm as soon as it was revealed that the military machines were returning from regular exercises that the SAF conduct in Taiwan. Singapore authorities appear to be genuinely surprised and confused as stops like this has been a routine matter in the past. The question ultimately boils down to, “Why now?”
The answer is that, while Beijing has always known about the arrangements between Taiwan and Singapore and remained silent on the issue until now, seizure of the armoured vehicles provides it with an excellent opportunity. Whether this occasion is orchestrated or opportunistic is of secondary importance. The affair gives China floor to push back against the undesirable activity, drive a wedge between Singapore and Taiwan and give a lesson to Singapore for recent statements on the South China Sea and China’s role in the dispute.
Part of a broader debate that affects Singapore’s relations with China and Taiwan are rather fundamental differences between how states understand their respective “One China” policies and China’s demand to adhere to the “One China” principle. “One China” policy usually means that the respective country recognises the existence of only one state called China. The specifics of that policy are then subject to individual interpretations.
Beijing would naturally prefer that countries strictly adhere to the more explicit “One China” principle, which in short means that the mainland and Taiwan are part of the same state – the People’s Republic of China. Singapore’s official position is arguably close to how China would like it to be when it explicitly says that it recognises that Taiwan is part of China (the US, for example, merely acknowledges China’s position on the issue). However, that has not prevented the close relationship between Singapore and Taiwan from remaining viable alongside Singapore’s flourishing economic ties with China and security partnership with the US.
The crux of the matter is that states like to maintain flexibility. Singapore has mastered the art of balancing its foreign relations to secure its unique position as a major regional actor and global financial centre, despite its relatively small size.
Singapore’s refusal to halt military ties with Taiwan ‘prompted Beijing response to seizure of military vehicles’
Here is when the often underappreciated relationship between Singapore and Taiwan comes into the picture. Taiwan had been an instrumental partner for Singapore in terms of military assistance. Not only have Singaporeans been able to train in Taiwan since 1974 under the arrangements coded Operation Starlight, but Taiwanese military officers also assumed key posts in the nascent Singapore Armed Forces, which at one point included chiefs of the air force and the navy.
Mike Yeo, an Australia-based defence analyst, notes that Singapore sees its military training in Taiwan as ties that bind it to a friend that helped it set up its defence capability. “Moreover, Singapore has made no secret that its foreign policy is underpinned by a desire to maintain friendly relations with as many countries as possible, particularly in Asia.”
One may argue that Singapore’s gratitude to Taiwan is a matter of a long-gone past and that Taiwan is easily replaceable as a training ground for Singapore. However, the latter has always been the case and, yet, the partnership has lasted over 40 years. It has survived Singapore’s switch of recognition to China in 1990, uneasy moments in the mid-2000s as well as Beijing’s offer to host Singapore’s armed forces on Hainan. The affinity runs deep and is especially active on the level of military-to-military contacts.
The relationship with Taiwan is also valuable from the perspective of Singapore’s need for a strategic dispersal of its military, which precludes relying on one or two partners.
It is not difficult to see why the potential benefit of cutting off one of Taiwan’s long-term partnerships is appealing to Beijing. Likewise, potentially succeeding to put Singapore “in line” for what Beijing sees as a position that is too supportive of the US and the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling that flatly rejected certain aspects of China’s claim, despite avoiding the highly contested issue of territorial sovereignty.
That does not mean Beijing’s goal is to compel Singapore to align with China. That is both unrealistic and unnecessary; Singapore assuming a low profile on matters that are highly sensitive to China would perfectly suffice. Nonetheless, either of these outcomes will satisfy Beijing, and there is no significant risk in making an issue out of the armoured vehicles other than Singapore’s pushback.
In fact, if China sees Singapore as already too closely aligned with the US, that risk might well be worth taking. In this case, challenging Singapore’s ties to Taiwan is a proxy for challenging the relationship between Singapore and the US.
Singapore wants ‘full rights of recovery’ on seized military vehicles, while looking to cool tension with China
Singapore is not risking much by just standing its ground and reaffirming that its friendly and long-standing relationship with Taiwan is governed by Singapore’s “One China” policy. It has much more to lose if it appears to concede to blunt pressure. One persistent quality of Singapore’s foreign relations is its confident conduct.
In cases like this, pundits often point out that China could resort to punitive economic measures. That is a valid argument given the size of the Chinese economy. However, applying economic sanctions of any kind is rather an aggressive approach restricted to situations where states wish to apply pressure short of using force. Except actions mandated by UN Security Council resolutions, Beijing’s use of punitive economic measures has been limited to more or less symbolic actions, limited in scope and duration, and resulting in modest concessions at best.
Seizing the vehicles is another available course of action. However, taking nine modern armoured combat vehicles is still quite a hostile act. Beijing could point out that the seizure is well within the prerogative of Hong Kong’s authorities. However, such a claim would carry little credibility, given the ever increasing pressure on the city’s autonomy on other occasions.
Chinese decision-makers are likely to understand these limitations, which would explain their rather restrained reaction, considering that Beijing could make much more noise. The most likely outcome of the whole affair is that all parties concerned will return to business as usual as soon as the emotions, fuelled by the typically hawkish Global Times , dissipate.
Michal Thim is a Taiwan analyst at the Prague-based think tank, Association for International Affairs, and a member of the Centre for International Maritime Security