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Could improved ties between Singapore and Beijing bring an end to city state’s military links with Taiwan?

Starlight training project has long been a thorn in China’s side, but it might soon fade into darkness, experts say

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 September, 2017, 9:33pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 September, 2017, 11:31pm

The visit of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to China could result in a decades-long military training programme between the city state and Taiwan – long a thorn in Beijing’s side – being put on hold, according to military observers and people familiar with the matter.

The Starlight project was established in 1975 in a deal between Singapore’s late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Taiwan’s then Premier Chiang Ching-kuo. Given the city state’s limited land and airspace, the pair reached an agreement to allow its armed forces to train in Taiwan.

However, according to a Beijing-based retired senior colonel, who asked not to be named, the project might now be suspended, as relations between China and Singapore get back on track after a difficult few months.

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“The Starlight project is a thorn between Singapore and China that should be removed as soon as possible,” he said.

He said that with Singapore keen to boost its economic ties with China, and Beijing hoping Singapore could help it to improve its ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations resolving the Starlight issue would be of benefit to both.

Lee arrived in China on Tuesday for a three-day visit. In a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday, he said Singapore opposed Taiwanese independence and supported the one-China policy, Xinhua reported.

A source close to the Chinese military said Beijing had been pressing Singapore to terminate Starlight, but thought a full termination of the programme was unlikely given the city state’s security and political considerations.

“A suspension is likely,” the person said.

Taiwan’s defence ministry spokesman Major General Chen Chung-chi refused to comment on the matter, while the defence ministries in Beijing and Singapore did not respond to calls.

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Taiwan’s former deputy defence minister Lin Chong-pin said that if Starlight were suspended, it would be “another advancement by Beijing to limit Taiwan’s international space”.

Lee’s visit to China is a good sign that relations between the two countries are returning to normal after several months of uncertainty.

In November, Beijing demanded the city state respect its one-China policy and end its military ties with Taiwan after nine armoured troop carriers were intercepted in Hong Kong for not having an import licence. The vehicles were en route to Singapore from the Taiwanese port of Kaohsiung after being used in a military exercise under the Starlight project.

They were released on January 27, after Hong Kong’s former customs chief Roy Tang Yun-kwong said there was no evidence of the Singapore government being to blame for breach of licensing requirements.

Relations between China and Singapore were also damaged when Beijing criticised the city state for siding with the United States on the subject of disputes in the South China Sea.

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Lee Chih-horng, a research fellow at the Longus Institute for Development and Strategy in Singapore, said that aside from Beijing wanting to bring an end to Starlight, the project was not ideal from the city state’s point of view as it was too vulnerable to the vagaries of Taiwanese politics.

“If Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party pushed for Taiwanese independence ... Singapore would be forced to terminate the Starlight project immediately,” he said.

“When Lee Kuan Yew was prime minister [of Singapore], he cut his visits to Taiwan when Lee Teng-hui came to power to avoid any misunderstanding with the mainland, because he knew Beijing believed that Lee Teng-hui was planning Taiwan’s independence.”

He added that Singapore also now had more overseas training bases, and as a result, the scale of Starlight programme in Taiwan had been falling steadily in recent years.

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The Singapore Armed Forces conduct overseas training in many countries, including Australia, Brunei, Germany, India and the United States. Earlier this year, Singapore and Australia signed a A$2.25 billion, 25-year deal to allow the city state’s troops to use a training field in Queensland, according to a report by Singapore’s The Straits Times.