Singapore military vehicle seizure
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Soldiers with the 7th Singaporean Infantry Brigade take part in a joint training mission with US Marines in 2014 at Camp Pendleton, California. Beijing has expressed displeasure over Singapore holding training in Taiwan. Photo: Alamy

Singapore’s refusal to halt military ties with Taiwan ‘prompted Beijing response to seizure of military vehicles’

Military observer says China repeatedly offered to host Singapore exercises on Hainan, to no avail

Beijing’s response to the seizure of Singapore’s military vehicles in Hong Kong may stem from its frustration over failed attempts to have the city state sever its military ties with Taiwan, an analyst has said.

Beijing had previously offered the southern island of Hainan to Singapore as an alternative location to conduct its military training exercises, but Singapore repeatedly turned down the offer under pressure from the United States, according to Macau-based military expert Antony Wong Dong.

Regarding the nine Singapore-bound armoured military vehicles impounded in Hong Kong last week, Wong Dong said Beijing had years ago tried to convince Singapore to replace its “Starlight Project” military training bases in Taiwan with alternatives on Hainan Island, but to no avail.

Army officers train in Singapore. Beijing has reportedly offered a site on Hainan Island for the Singapore army to use for training purposes. Photo: Alamy

“The mainland side promised to provide the Singaporean military with a closer and larger place in Hainan [than that used in Taiwan] for military exercises, but Singapore rejected the offer,” Wong said.

Singapore rejected the offer because of strong opposition from the Pentagon, which was concerned that Washington’s military secrets could be leaked as Singapore uses American weapon systems, he said.

The Starlight Project dates back to early 1974, when the late Singaporean Premier Lee Kuan Yew signed a secret deal with his Taiwanese counterpart Chiang Ching-kuo during a visit to Taiwan.

Based on that confidential agreement, Singapore has sent nearly 20,000 troops to Taiwan for training on a yearly basis. Joint military exercises went on even after Singapore shifted its formal diplomatic relations from Taiwan to mainland China in 1990.

Singapore is the only country that sends its troops to Taiwan for training.

The military training programme came to light for the first time in early 2007, when two Singaporean soldiers died and nine others were injured as a result of a fighter jet accident during the annual Han Kuang exercises in Taiwan.

Speculations were rife then that Beijing had asked visiting top Singaporean military leaders to stop the training programme in Taiwan, while offering Hainan as an alternative location.

Five years later, relations between Taiwan and Singapore plunged to another low point when Taipei’s de facto envoy to the city state was sacked and a secret visit by Taiwan’s Defence Minister to Singapore came to light.

Singapore reportedly considered once again whether to shift its military training from Taiwan to Hainan when Beijing renewed their offer. Once again, the talks between Beijing and Singapore were fruitless.

Singapore, however, has gradually reduced the number of Starlight personnel sent to Taiwan for training in recent years to as few as 3,000, but there are still at least three military bases in Taiwan for use by the project.

Wong said that although there were occasionally joint military drills between the People’s Liberation Army and its Singaporean counterparts, the level was much lower than that of the Starlight Project.

Oh Ei-sun, a senior fellow with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said Beijing was becoming less tolerant of Taiwan’s ties and cooperation with other countries now the self-ruled island was under the administration of Tsai Ing-wen and her independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party.

“Taiwan’s space for international manoeuvreing has been increasingly constrained under the DPP administration, which maintains an ambiguous position on the 1992 consensus,” Oh said.

The 1992 consensus is an understanding between Beijing and Taiwan that there is only one China, but each side could have its own interpretation of what constitutes “China”.

Lee Chih-hong, a research fellow at the Longus Institute for Development and Strategy in Singapore, said present circumstances showed the row between Beijing and Singapore was inevitably escalating as both sides stuck to their own points of view.

“Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan insists that Beijing has known of Project Starlight for a long time and that Singapore has always stuck to the one-China policy,” Lee said.

“What Balakrishnan said is aimed at refuting Chinese media and the Chinese foreign ministry’s accusations about Singapore’s failure to abide by the one-China principle.”

Additional reporting by Catherine Wong and Minnie Chan

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Beijing frustrated by Singapore snub to train in Hainan