The sudden seizure of Singapore’s nine Terrex infantry carrier vehicles (ICVs) has sparked mixed reactions in the city state. Some have asked for Singapore to apologise to China and accede to the superpower’s demands. Others have insisted that it escalate the row to recover the hardware.
Still others, including Singapore Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Professor Wang Gungwu of the National University of Singapore, think the incident is merely a ripple on the tide of Sino-Singapore relations, and will subside soon enough.
Yet the signs of strain are showing between the two nations. Some Chinese bristle at the reminder that Singapore keeps up official relations with Taiwan, which it views as a renegade province. Some Singaporeans chafe at the perceived petty bullying by a more powerful country.
Now, more than a week after the seizure, are there signs of an early resolution?
Hong Kong: a deliberate choice
That the seizure took place in Hong Kong hints at China’s intentions. Singapore has been using APL to transport its military hardware for years and APL’s Kaohsiung-Singapore route passes through Xiamen
(廈門) and Hong Kong before going to Chiwan, Malaysia and then Singapore.
The vehicles had already been earmarked at Xiamen for seizure in Hong Kong, according to news agency FactWire, and it was sources in Chinese customs that tipped the press off about the seizure. The situation is too coincidental to ignore and appears to be a calibrated bilateral blow-up in Hong Kong, where it would be easier to contain any escalation.
WATCH: What’s going on with the Singaporean military vehicles in Hong Kong?
Pouncing on what appears to be a case of botched paperwork, China thought it opportune to use Hong Kong as a stage to send a message to both Singapore and Taiwan.
The three “Asian Tiger” economies have much in common but have three very different relationships with China. Hong Kong is indisputably Chinese territory. Taiwan has set its face against the influence of mainland China and the current government has refused to acknowledge the one-China policy. Independent Singapore maintains friendly relations with both mainland China and Taiwan but abides by the one-China principle. Singapore is a key influencer for diplomacy in Asean and beyond, and therefore integral to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) “One Belt, One Road” strategy.
A three-way dance
Taiwan’s relationship with China soured when President Tsai Ing-wen failed to disavow calls for Taiwanese independence and acknowledge China’s view of the one-China policy. Beijing cut off communications with Taipei in June after years of warming relations under the Kuomintang’s Ma Ying-jeou. This tactic of isolation is now being extended to Taiwan’s friends.
This is not to say China doesn’t want to use the Terrex incident to impose itself on Singapore as well. Beijing still bristles from Singapore’s stand of supporting an international ruling that rejects China’s claim over parts of the South China Sea, and will want to pressure the city state to reconsider its position. But will Singapore buckle? It seems unlikely. This incident will most likely spur Singapore to cling resolutely to the rule of international law to recover its lost armoured carriers and resist bullying. After an initial shock, Singaporeans will galvanise against what is seen as petty meddling.
Severe consequences await Singapore if it gives in to China on either Taiwan or the South China Sea.
Singapore’s military relationship with Taiwan goes back to its early post-independence years – Operation Starlight began in 1975 and is an open secret. In the early days, at least two Taiwanese officers held the top posts in Singapore’s air force and navy.
Asean is Singapore’s backyard, and a bloc that the country benefits from being a part of. If Asean interests are jeopardised, then Singapore stands to lose out as well.
Singapore is stuck between a rock and a hard place, and will have to move very delicately to preserve its well-being. Singapore will stay calm and simply wait for China to release the ICVs once it feels that the diplomatic capital from the seizure has been milked dry.
It may not be a quick resolution.
Singapore’s relationship with Taiwan will have to be pursued with more caution. Its physical constraints of having only 719 sq km of land have meant that it conducts overseas training exercises in several other countries, including Australia, Thailand and the United States.
This year, for example, it made a pact to expand training in Australia, more than doubling the 6,000 troops a year to 14,000.
Troop deployments in Taiwan under Operation Starlight have already come down to 3,000 a year from a peak of 15,000. It is unlikely that they will drop any further as this would hamper Singapore’s ability to conduct the large-scale training exercises it needs on Taiwan’s shores. Shipments for Starlight will have to steer clear of China’s shores. As Singapore is among the largest foreign investors in China, the fates of both economies are intertwined.
It is possible that, quietly, so as not to upset Taiwan and Asean neighbours, Singapore will increase its military exercises with the People’s Liberation Army, a trend it has followed over the last decade, and one that is especially prudent now with doubt hanging over America’s international role under President-elect Donald Trump. But Singapore cannot afford to fully ally itself to one world power or another. Not only would that ultimately result in vassaldom, it would also close it off to options to pursue international political, economic and social opportunities that serve its own national interest.
Daniel Yap is the publisher of The Middle Ground, an independent news portal based in Singapore