Singapore wants ‘full rights of recovery’ on seized military vehicles, while looking to cool tension with China
Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan said Singapore “will not deviate” from the One-China principle
Singapore reassured China that it “will not deviate” from the One-China principle while making it clear the city state hopes to exercise its “full rights of recovery” available after a meeting today between the Hong Kong government and shipping company APL.
The remarks by Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan and Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen came the day after China’s foreign ministry said China had lodged a diplomatic protest to Singapore over the saga, demanding the Lion City to strictly abide by the One-China principle.
Observers said the protest was a warning to both Singapore and Taiwan, as Singapore has been carrying out military exercises on the self-ruled island—a practice that has long angered Beijing.
“We all know, and China knows, that we’ve had special arrangements with Taiwan for a long time, and what we are doing there is no longer a secret,” Dr Balakrishnan said at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum, according to the newspaper.
The minister said he has already told his Chinese counterpart that Singapore values its longstanding relationships.
“One thing in Chinese culture is you never forget your old friends, people who were there with you in the beginning, people who were there with you through thick and thin, and surely in Chinese culture you appreciate this concept of loyalty to old friends,” he said.
“And at the same time, you know full well where I stand, that I believe in One China and we will not deviate from that.”
The saga started last week when nine Singapore military vehicles – on a cargo ship from Taiwan to Hong Kong – were impounded in Hong Kong. The Customs and Excise Department said that in a routine ship search on the ship, “suspected controlled items” were found on board the vessel.
Sources with knowledge of the matter said the military vehicles did not have the permits required by the Hong Kong government. The vehicles were subsequently impounded in Hong Kong.
Mainland agents reportedly tipped off Hong Kong customs about the vehicles. The vessel carrying the cargo docked in the mainland port of Xiamen but mainland customs did not take any action.
A team from the Singapore Armed Forces has since arrived in Hong Kong to handle the matter.
Military ties between Singapore and Taiwan go back more than four decades. In 1974, Singapore and Taipei initiated “Project Starlight”, which gave Singaporean troops much needed physical room to carry out exercises on the self-ruled island.
On Tuesday, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said that staff from APL, the shipping company responsible for the vehicle deliveries, would meet Hong Kong officials the same day.
“After the reasons and legal basis are made clear for the detention of SAF Terrexes by the Hong Kong authorities, [the ministry] and the Singapore government will commence proceedings to recover our assets,” he said.
“[The ministry] aims to comply with all regulations and laws as well as exercise our full rights to recovery available to us”.
He stressed that officials will be monitoring the meeting between APL and Hong Kong government closely and decide on the appropriate actions to take. He declined to speculate on why the vehicles have been seized.
He reiterated that Singapore fully respects and supports the One-China policy.
The minister said Singapore has played a role in improving cross-strait relations, citing the meeting in Singapore last year between Chinese President Xi Jinping and then-Taiwan leader Ma Ying-jeou.
Also speaking on Tuesday, Chief of Army Major-General Melvyn Ong said Hong Kong is a “common international port of call for many foreign militaries and many companies”, adding “there have been been no issues in the past, so this is a first”.
He also said that the shipping firm, APL, is responsible for ensuring all regulatory requirements are met to bring the vehicles back to Singapore via Hong Kong.
Foreign minister Dr Balakrishnan, for his part, said senior officials on both sides are aware that their relationship is “longstanding, multi-faceted and mutually beneficial”.
Singapore will not allow any single issue to hijack the relationship with China, he said.
“I wouldn’t overreact to that ... we expect commercial providers of services to strictly comply with the law,” he said. “It will be a footnote on how to do things strictly, carefully and by the law. It’s not a strategic incident.”
Asked about the meeting between APL and the customs department, a department spokesman said:“The case is under investigation and no further information is available.”
Both APL and the Singapore consulate in Hong Kong offered no comments about the meeting.
Before Dr Balakrishnan made the remarks on Tuesday, Euan Graham, director of the international security programme at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, said the protest by Beijing was aimed at “killing two birds with one stone”.
“On one hand, it is a punishment intended to deter Singapore from being outspoken on the South China Sea,” Graham said. “On the other hand, it is aimed at further isolating Taiwan’s new DPP-led government.”