Hong Kong has agreed to return nine Singaporean armoured vehicles that it seized in transit from Taiwan two months ago, but is likely to prosecute the shipping company responsible.
The return of the Singapore military’s Terrex troop carriers signals an end to the diplomatic row that has left relations between Beijing and the city state at a low point.
Hong Kong customs announced yesterday that the shipment of the military vehicles would be returned to the Lion City following the completion of investigations over a suspected breach of local laws governing the import, export and transhipment of strategic commodities.
“The action by the Hong Kong Customs on November 23 was taken because there was a suspected breach of the Hong Kong law,” Commissioner of Customs and Excise Roy Tang Yun-kwong said in a statement.
He warned that the investigation “might lead to criminal prosecution”, while a security source told the Post that APL, the shipping company transporting the vehicles from Taiwan to Singapore via Hong Kong, was likely to face criminal charges. The vehicles would be returned in the next few days, the source added.
The company said it was working with “the relevant authorities and various stakeholders” to ship the vehicles and related equipment back to Singapore.
The city state’s foreign ministry said Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying had written yesterday to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to confirm the return of the vehicles. He was replying to an earlier letter by the Singapore leader urging a speedy end to the dispute.
“This is a positive outcome. Prime Minister Lee has replied to Chief Executive Leung to thank him for Hong Kong’s cooperation in resolving this matter,” the ministry said.
Some Singaporeans leaders took to social media to hail the resolution of the row.
“Glad to hear that our Terrex will be coming home,” wrote Tan Chuan-Jin, the social and family affairs minister.
Tan, a former army brigadier-general, said “firm, quiet efforts, often behind the scenes, have served us well over the years”.
Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen also posted a message on Facebook. “SAF Terrexes are coming home to Singapore. Looking forward to this happy reunion with all Singaporeans in the Year of the Rooster,” Ng wrote.
Foreign policy experts said the amicable resolution suggested Singapore and Beijing were intent on smoothening ties amid rising geopolitical uncertainty brought on by US President Donald Trump’s erratic Asia policy.
The November 23 seizure of the vehicles at the Kwai Tsing Container Terminals on their way back to Taiwan triggered a sharp reaction from China. Beijing has long frowned upon Singapore’s close ties with Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province. Land-scarce Singapore, in turn, says it needs to conduct overseas exercises to keep its forces battle ready.
Throughout the dispute, however, Beijing maintained that Hong Kong customs – and not mainland authorities – were responsible for the detention of the vehicles. The shipment had first transited through Xiamen before the pit stop in Hong Kong.
“I think the signal here is that both sides see a greater need to maintain stable relations than to let a single issue upset the range of issues they cooperate over,” said Chong Ja Ian, a Chinese foreign policy expert at the National University of Singapore.
“This consideration may be especially key given the uncertainties that remain over the Trump administration’s approach to the Asia-Pacific.”
Xu Liping, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said it was a “goodwill gesture from Beijing ahead of the strategic dialogue, from an overall perspective of the China-Singapore relationship”.
A high-level forum attended by the two countries’ deputy premiers is scheduled for next month following ministry-level talks between the two sides last week.
Additional reporting by Clifford Lo and Liu Zhen