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Singapore

Singapore ‘assures’ Taiwan that military training agreement will stay, Taipei says

It’s business as usual, island’s foreign minister says, though analysts suggest city state may gradually pull back from decades-old deal

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 October, 2017, 6:08pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 October, 2017, 10:51pm

Taiwan said on Monday that it had been assured by Singapore that a long-term military agreement between the two sides would remain in place.

“[Singapore said] everything would be the same as usual,” Taiwan’s Foreign Minister David Lee said in reference to Project Starlight, a deal signed more than 40 years ago that involves Singaporean troops travelling to Taiwan for military training and joint exercises.

His comments came amid speculation that improving relations between China and Singapore might lead to the city state terminating the arrangement, which has long been a thorn in Beijing’s side.

During a legislative session on Monday, Lee was asked by opposition Kuomintang politician Johnny Chiang whether a visit by Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to Beijing last month might have had an impact on Project Starlight. The South China Morning Post cited military observers and others familiar with the matter as saying at the time that the trip might result in the agreement being put on hold.

The foreign minister responded by saying he had been visited by officials from Singapore (after Lee’s Beijing trip) who told him that there would be no change to the military arrangement.

His comments were the first by a senior Taiwanese official following the speculation over the future of Project Starlight.

Taiwan has been unnerved by suggestions that Singapore might end the agreement as it has been facing increased diplomatic isolation as a result of pressure from Beijing, which was angered by the refusal of the island’s President Tsai Ing-wen to accept its one-China policy.

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Beijing, which considers Taiwan a wayward province that it plans to reunify – by force if necessary, suspended cross-strait talks and exchanges with Taipei after Tsai took over the presidency last year. It has subsequently sought to isolate the island by wooing its diplomatic allies.

Project Starlight was signed in 1975 by Singapore’s then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Taiwan’s Premier Chiang Ching-kuo. The deal gives troops from the city state, which lacks land resources, the opportunity to train in more realistic combat situations.

Despite foreign minister Lee’s comments, analysts in Taiwan said that even if Singapore wanted to sever its military ties with the island it would be unlikely to do so in one fell swoop.

Former Kuomintang politician Lin Yu-fang said the city state would have to bear in mind the regional foreign policies of its allies.

“The United States would not be happy to see a sudden change,” he said.

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While Singapore was keen to keep Beijing happy and boost cooperation on projects under the “Belt and Road Initiative” – China’s massive infrastructure development plan – the city state would be respectful of its relationship with Taiwan.

“It will take time [to sever its alliance], given the long-term friendship between Singapore and Taiwan, and the impact [of doing so] on the region,” Lin said.

Yang Wei-li, a Taipei-based military expert and commentator, said that over the past decade, Singapore had scaled down Project Starlight as it had simultaneously built up its military partnerships with other countries, including Australia.

“Singapore used to send more than 15,000 servicemen a year for military training at an armoured car base in Hukou in northern Taiwan, an artillery base at Douliu in central Taiwan, and a combined forces base in Hengchun in the south,” he said.

“But in recent years, that number has been trimmed to about 3,000.”

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As well as the training exercises, Singaporean soldiers took part in joint drills with Taiwanese troops from the army, navy and air force, Yang said.

The Singapore Trade Office in Taipei – which represents the city state’s interests in Taiwan – declined to comment on the issue.