Hong Kong denies Beijing role in seizure of Singaporean troop carriers
Customs chief says the enforcement action was based on Hong Kong law and also claims Singapore’s government was never a target for investigation
Hong Kong’s customs chief has categorically denied Beijing’s hand was behind the seizure of nine Singaporean military vehicles that are due to be returned to the Lion City after two months of diplomatic wrangling that plunged Sino-Singapore relations to a new low.
He also claimed on Wednesday that the Singapore government had never been a target for investigation since the Terrex armoured troop carriers were intercepted at Kwai Chung Container Terminals on November 23 on their way home from Taiwan.
Singapore also kept it bilateral yesterday, with Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen saying it reflected the “good and friendly relations” between the city state and Hong Kong. Beijing said it hoped Singapore had “learned a lesson” and urged it to respect the one-China policy.
A day after Hong Kong agreed to return the armoured vehicles – which Singapore is expecting by February 11, the last day of the Lunar New Year celebrations – Commissioner of Customs and Excise Roy Tang Yun-kwong shed some light on the dispute after two months of silence.
The seizure of the vehicles in transit on a container ship after a military exercise in Taiwan was widely seen as a warning from Beijing over military ties between Singapore and the island, which China considers a renegade province. Hong Kong has stuck to the official explanation that it took action over a suspected breach of laws governing the import, export and transshipment of strategic commodities.
When asked if his department had to report to the central government on the progress and decisions made during the investigation, Tang replied: “No, we are a Hong Kong law enforcement agency. The authority of the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department is based on Hong Kong law. No other institutions have been involved.”
Tang said his department completed the probe on Tuesday and found that the Singapore government could not be held responsible, as it was only the consignee of the military carriers.
“In the investigation process, we did not detect any role of the Singapore government in the possible breach of the licensing requirement,” Tang said. “So the Singapore government from the very beginning has not been the subject of investigation.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying reiterated on Wednesday that the issue of Taiwan was the core interest of China and no nation should have any official ties with the island.
“The Chinese government has consistently objected to nations that have relations with China having any official interaction with Taiwan, including military exchanges and cooperation,” Hua said.
“The Chinese side had made a representation to Singapore, and hopes Singapore can abide by the one-China principle.”
APL, the shipping company that was transporting the vehicles from Taiwan back to Singapore, is likely to face criminal prosecution over the matter. Tang would only say the responsible party would soon be taken to court, based on sufficient evidence that “someone” had violated import and export regulations.
The vehicles, which are currently impounded at the customs cargo examination facility in Tuen Mun, were seized in 12 containers en route to Singapore from the Taiwanese port of Kaohsiung without the required permits.
Tang said the shipping company could pick up the vehicles from Tuen Mun any time and send them to Singapore once it had obtained the right papers from the Trade and Industry Department.
While Singapore has insisted throughout that Hong Kong has no right to detain its property, Beijing-based academic Pang Zhongying said both sides had taken a step back to settle the dispute rather than escalate it.
“For Beijing, a message has been delivered that Beijing is displeased. However, relations with Singapore remain important to China, not just in economic cooperation,” he said.