Nine armoured vehicles belonging to Singapore are seized in Hong Kong en route from Taiwan. Is it a chance swoop by dutiful customs officials on top of their game, or part of a carefully laid trap set years ago by scheming officials in Beijing?
Much as the latter may sound like a conspiracy theory, it’s exactly the conclusion being reached by a growing number of analysts – that the action was an attempt to “kill two birds with one stone” – or, as Beijing might see it, to punish a former friendly neighbour while isolating a renegade province. According to these experts, Beijing hopes to teach the city state a lesson following a slew of what it sees as diplomatic slights, ranging from its ‘secret’ military links with Taipei to its stance on the South China Sea sovereignty disputes.
Meanwhile, in stepping up the pressure on Singapore to sever those military links, Beijing hopes to cast Taipei further adrift internationally – enough perhaps for the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, to rethink her refusal so far to recognise the ‘1992 consensus’. That consensus was an agreement between Beijing and Taiwan’s then ruling party, the Kuomintang, that there is only one sovereign Chinese nation (the ‘one China’ principle) – and Tsai’s refusal to acknowledge it has raised Beijing’s displeasure towards her independence-leaning Democratic Progressive party (DPP).
William Choong, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore, said Beijing’s displeasure at the DPP’s victory over the Kuomintang in January, together with its struggling relationship with Singapore, had raised suspicions over the seizure in Hong Kong.
“Both Taiwan and Singapore are not in Beijing’s good books at the moment. Tsai Ing-wen is out in the cold because she has not mentioned the 1992 consensus, and Singapore has been in China’s spotlight for the past few months,” he said, referring to the fallout that followed a July ruling by an international tribunal ruling that favoured the Philippines over China. To Beijing’s manifest dismay, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was viewed by many Chinese as appearing to back the ruling when he said it was a “strong statement” about international law and its application to maritime disputes.
Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, said Beijing had seen “an opportunity to advance two goals – pressure Singapore to respect Chinese interests and further isolate Taiwan”.
The nine Terrex infantry carrier vehicles were found by Hong Kong customs in a container en route to the Lion City from the Taiwanese port of Kaohsiung on November 23. The seizure was Hong Kong’s biggest regarding “strategic commodities” in two decades.
Soon after, the Chinese foreign ministry lodged a diplomatic protest to the city state; Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, meanwhile, said it would wait on the shipping company and Hong Kong customs to decide on an appropriate course of action.
Jack Midgley, Deloitte’s director of Asia-Pacific Defence Consulting , said the seizure was “unusual” because “organisations moving defence equipment are normally very cautious about complying fully with arms export control regulations”. “In this case, the Chinese actions might best be read as a clear statement that Beijing intends to control transhipments of military equipment through Chinese ports,” he said.
No formal reasons yet for seizure of military vehicles in Hong Kong, Singapore’s defence ministry says
“Because Singapore’s equipment is now in Chinese hands, the Chinese government may gain some intelligence advantages if it chooses to exploit this apparent oversight by the Singapore authorities. But it is hard to see China’s actions as unreasonable or inconsistent with accepted international practice.”
WATCH: What’s going on with the Singaporean military vehicles in Hong Kong?
Song Zhongping, a retired instructor for the People’s Liberation Army’s former strategic missile force, said Beijing could not tolerate Singapore’s secret military ties with Taiwan, but it would stay within the law to embarrass the city state into changing course.
“Beijing will definitely teach Singapore a lesson because it has taken the wrong side on both the Taiwan and South China Sea issues – the core national interests of Beijing,” said Song, who is a commentator for Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV. “The seizure of the nine [military vehicles] is no happenstance, but a certain event. Singapore has ‘walked right into the trap’. Beijing has been waiting for this since 2012, when Singapore claimed it had cut all military ties with Taipei.”
His remarks echoed a commentary by the English edition of the nationalistic Chinese tabloid Global Times that said the seizure had revealed “Singapore’s hypocrisy” over its claims in 2012 that it would suspend military cooperation with Taiwan.
That year, according to Taiwanese media, Singapore had threatened to end its (previously top secret) Project Starlight, under which Singaporean troops trained in Taiwan, following a leak surrounding a visit to Singapore by Taiwan’s then defence minister, Kao Hua-chu.
Taiwanese premier Chiang Ching-kuo and former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew had signed up to Project Starlight in April 1975 so that Singaporean troops could escape the space restraints of the city state, making them the only foreign forces to train in Taiwan.
Cooperation continued in secret long after Singapore formally established diplomatic ties with Beijing in 1990, but the programme came to public attention in 2007, when two Singaporean soldiers died and nine were injured as a result of a fighter jet accident during the annual Han Kuang exercises in Taiwan.
Beijing then asked Singapore to bring an end to the programme and offered it closer and larger alternative facilities in Hainan ( 海南 ). This option was discussed several times, including in 2012 when Singapore’s ties with Taipei were at their lowest ebb. But the offer came to nothing because of US opposition.
“Singapore troops have been fully integrated with the US military system, so it was impossible for the US to allow Starlight troop to move to Hainan due to the risk of leaking military secrets,” said Lee Chih-horng, a research fellow at the Longus Institute for Development and Strategy in Singapore.
Singapore has gradually reduced the number of Starlight personnel in Taiwan from 15,000 troops on a yearly basis to around 3,000 today. It has moved them to countries including Australia, India, Thailand and Brunei, Lee said.
Under pressure from Beijing, Starlight troops in Taiwan operate relatively independently, with Taipei authorities now only providing training space, and allowing them to take part in humanitarian aid exercises.
But Beijing’s anger over the issue has never fully dissipated – instead the seizure of the combat vehicles in Hong Kong has brought it bubbling back to the surface at a time of already fraught tensions.
On Monday , China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang called on Singapore to “stick to the one China principle”, and reiterated Beijing’s strict opposition to Singapore’s military ties with Taiwan.
In response, Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan told a public forum his country had “not shifted from its support of the one China policy and that it values its longstanding relationships”. Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen echoed Balakrishnan’s remarks.
Despite such seemingly conciliatory remarks, Lee Chih-horng at the Longus Institute said the responses of Singaporean senior officials had indicated a lack of political sensitivity. “It seems the haloes of Singaporean elites with American and European educational backgrounds are fading now they are dealing with a rising and assertive China... because many of them still can’t adapt to a diplomatic and political model with Chinese characteristics,” Lee said.
Singapore wants ‘full rights of recovery’ on seized military vehicles, while looking to cool tension with China
An early omen, observers said, was the war of words that broke out in September between Singapore’s ambassador to China, Stanley Loh, and the chief-editor of Global Times Hu Xijin over the South China Sea row in which Singapore was widely perceived by the Chinese as backing the Philippines position against China. Singapore has maintained it does not take sides in the overlapping claims China has with the Philippines and three other Asian states in the sea and that it has been, and will continue to be, neutral on the claims.
They also point to Chinese defence adviser Major General Jin Yinan’s suggestion in October that Beijing should impose sanctions on Singapore to make it “pay the price”.
Lin Chong-Pin, a former deputy defence minister for Taiwan, said such outbursts only fuelled the speculation Beijing was behind the seizure.
“These unofficial or semi-official sentiments are now taking form in the recent shipment seizure by Hong Kong,” said Lin. “Beijing is doing this skilfully and indirectly, so it can send a message of displeasure to Singapore without souring the chances for Singapore to turn around with dignity.”
Security surrounding the shipment should have been high, said Lee Chih-horng, given Singapore supplies the Terrex vehicles, which are among its most advanced home-grown military equipment, to overseas buyers.
According to a newsletter from the Singapore Technologies Kinetics, the developer and manufacturer of the Terrex series vehicles, the company and its partner Science Applications International Corporation are scheduled to supply 13 units of advanced “Terrex 2”to the US Marine Corps this year for testing, in a contract worth US$121.5 million. A source at ST Kinetics said the stand-off between Singapore and Beijing would not affect the company’s deal with the US military because the carriers ordered by Washington were “a different variant” of the Terrex family, but refused to say whether the seizure meant the loss of technological secrets.
Singapore’s refusal to halt military ties with Taiwan ‘prompted Beijing response to seizure of military vehicles’
The seizure might even suggest Beijing’’s intelligence apparatus had now access to a battlefield real-time communication technology – a frequency-hopping radio communication system used by Singapore, Taiwan and US armies to avoid being intercepted, said Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong.
“At worst, Project Starlight will be scrapped and Tsai Ing-wen’s administration will be more isolated in the international community,” he said.
However, some in Taipei have been quick to downplay the incident. Chang Hsien-yao, a former deputy head of Taipei’s Mainland Affairs Council, which is responsible for cross-strait matters, said the seizure would not affect Taiwan’s military ties with Singapore.
“The military cooperation between Taiwan and Singapore has never been affected over the past four decades, including [the two occasions when the ruling political party changed],” Chang told reporters in Hong Kong on Tuesday. “[The seizure] is just an emergency issue, it doesn’t influence Taiwan’s intelligence system.”
And even if Singapore has indeed fallen into Beijing’s trap, Glaser said the city state prided itself on having an independent foreign policy and would not bow to Beijing. Taiwan on the other hand, would “continue to face greater pressure from Beijing”, she said.
“The mainland Chinese appear determined to constrain Taiwan’s interactions with the international community,” added Glaser. “Taipei is fighting hard to counter those pressures, but it is an uphill battle.” ■
Additional reporting by Eva Li