HONG KONG’S seizure of a small fleet of Singaporean armoured troop carriers last week appears to have triggered another diplomatic row between the Southeast Asian city state and Beijing, amid the flaring tensions over the South China Sea territorial dispute.
Last Wednesday, the Customs department in Hong Kong impounded nine Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles (ICVs) belonging to Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) while they were being shipped back to Singapore from a military joint-training exercise with Taiwan.
The discovery of the shipment of ICVs stored in several containers left Beijing incensed by Singapore’s military cooperation with self-autonomous Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province.
On Monday, a Chinese spokesman said China has sent a diplomatic note to Singapore, expressing its strong opposition to any form of official exchanges with Taiwan, including military cooperation. China also urged all countries intending to provide military cooperation with Taiwan to abide by the One China Policy.
According to Reuters, a Chinese state newspaper strongly criticized Singapore over the city state’s military training agreement with Taiwan, holding the Southeast Asian country responsible for the latest incident.
The Global Times, which is run by the communist party, said in an editorial Tuesday that Singapore was “careless” with the armoured vehicles, adding the incident reflected a failure to take seriously China’s displeasure over its military relationship with Taiwan.
“Singapore’s image in China is now so rotten that ordinary Chinese people think the best thing to do with the ‘confiscated’ armoured vehicles that ‘walked right into our trap’ is to send them to the steel mills to be melted down,” it said in the editorial.
China’s sovereign claim over Taiwan has been a long-standing one, dating back to 1949 after Communists forces won the Chinese civil war while Nationalists under Chiang Kai-Shek retreated to the island.
Although holding Singapore responsible for the incident, the paper gave no details about what laws or regulations have been broken by the shipping of the armored vehicles from Taiwan.
Over the weekend, Singapore’s defense ministry said it sent a team to Hong Kong to ensure the security of the vehicles and “assess the situation.”
Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said on Tuesday that his government will exercise its “full rights” in recovering the armoured vehicles, adding the SAF was monitoring the situation closely to determine an “appropriate course of action” after shipping contractor APL meets with Hong Kong authorities, Channel News Asia reported.
“After this meeting, the reasons and legal basis for detention will be made clear. We have to wait for the outcome of the meeting.
“MINDEF (Ministry of Defence) and the Singapore Government will then commence proceedings to recover assets. We aim to comply with all regulations and then exercise our full rights in recovering our assets,” Dr Ng was quoted as saying.
Singapore’s military cooperation with Taiwan extends back to the 1970s and joint-exercises between the two countries were not uncommon.
However, the latest incident has fueled tensions that have already strained in recent months as Beijing has repeatedly warned Singapore against getting involved in the South China Sea disputes.
China has asserted its sovereignity over most of the waters despite territorial claims by Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
Although it has no official claims over the waters, Singapore, which has the biggest port in Southeast Asia, has insisted the importance of free navigation in the area which was vital to its open economy.
Additional reporting by Reuters and the Associated Press