Feather in the cap for Hong Kong’s rule of law

The case of Singapore’s military vehicles being impounded here could have had a messy ending if not for strict adherence to international norms

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 February, 2017, 1:15am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 February, 2017, 1:15am

It is a recipe for a diplomatic conflict: improperly documented military vehicles from one country are discovered while in the port of another with which relations are already testy. But the full-blown row that should have been expected between Singapore and China when nine armoured cars belonging to the armed forces of the former were found by Hong Kong customs officers on a ship bound for the island nation from Taiwan did not eventuate. That is because our city’s adherence to laws ensured that politics was kept apart from controlling the flow of cargo. The manner in which the case was handled highlights the virtues of our “one country, two systems” model.

The Singaporean-built armoured vehicles were returning to the Lion City from regular military training exercises in Taiwan and the ship they were on had first stopped in the mainland port of Xiamen (廈門). Had authorities there intervened, a major diplomatic dispute would likely have erupted. The Singaporean armed forces’ use of Taiwanese soil ignores the one-China principle, a matter that Beijing has been especially vocal about since Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen, who refuses to acknowledge the 1992 consensus, took office last May. Beijing has in the past suggested to Singapore’s military the land-strapped nation could instead use Hainan (海南) for training; the island state’s authorities would do well to take greater care and better consider their options in light of the incident.

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As it was, the ship came to Hong Kong on November 23, the vehicles were detected and administrative procedures took over. The foreign ministry in Beijing made its displeasure with Singapore known, but did not interfere in the customs process. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying told Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong on January 24 that the investigation had been completed and the vehicles were back in the island state six days later. Customs officials have said criminal proceedings may be initiated against the commercial shipping company involved, APL, although they have cleared the Singapore government of wrongdoing.

Military vehicles and equipment carried without proper documentation from one country to another have on several times in the past been intercepted in Hong Kong. On each occasion, the cargo was, as with the Singapore carriers, delayed for about two months. Quiet diplomacy and cool-headedness were opted for ahead of all else. In doing so and abiding by international and domestic laws, Hong Kong has upheld its reputation as a world-class port and transshipment centre.