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Singapore military vehicle seizure

On sovereignty, there can be no compromise

Impounded armoured vehicles in Hong Kong highlight the need for Singapore to pick sides: either it embraces Beijing or continues military drills in Taiwan

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 December, 2016, 12:29am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 July, 2017, 9:04pm

Good relations with Beijing require governments to recognise the principle that there is only one China. A nation with diplomatic ties cannot have official contacts with Taiwan. Singapore’s training of its military on the island ignores that deal. Amid so much regional tension and global uncertainty, seeking alternative arrangements makes sense.

Nine armoured vehicles found by Hong Kong customs officers on a ship that had been travelling from Taiwan to Singapore threaten to cause a diplomatic storm. The shipping company involved had failed to include them on the cargo manifest. They had been used for training exercises, which each year involve thousands of Singaporean soldiers. Singapore has been using Taiwanese soil for exercises since 1975, the island offering conditions not available at home. Beijing has quietly tolerated the arrangement, at times offering land on Hainan (海南) as an alternative. The Hainan proposal has been rebuffed, a military alliance with the US that includes use of American weapons systems deemed too sensitive to fall into Chinese hands being central to the decision. The time for tolerance has passed, though, circumstances having changed. Tsai Ing-wen’s election as president of Taiwan and her refusal to acknowledge the 1992 consensus with Beijing recognising that there is only one China has strained relations. Singapore’s ties with Beijing have similarly soured; Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong irritated earlier this year with remarks on the ruling by a UN tribunal against China’s South China Sea claim and expressions of hope that the US would continue its military engagement. US president-elect Donald Trump has caused economic uncertainty.

For Beijing, seizure of Singapore armoured vehicles is a low-risk shot across the bows

There is no good reason for a breakdown in relations between China and Singapore. The friendship between late leaders Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) and Lee Kuan Yew set a solid foundation for the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1990. China is Singapore’s biggest trading partner and Singapore is among the largest foreign investors in China. The island nation has also played an important role in ties between Beijing and Taipei, hosting the symbolic meeting between President Xi Jinping (習近平) and former Taiwanese leader Ma Ying-jeou last year, and bringing the rival sides together for landmark talks in 1993.

But such matters are of little concern where sovereignty is involved. Beijing has taken aim at both Singapore and Taipei over the combat vehicles. Given the uncertainties and the weak global economy, it is in the interests of all involved that the matter is handled quickly with the utmost pragmatism and diplomacy.