Beijing Warns Against Taiwan Ties as Singapore Tries to Free Troop Carriers in Hong Kong
HONG KONG/SINGAPORE — Beijing on Friday warned countries against maintaining military ties with Taiwan, after Singaporean armored troop carriers were seized en route from the island that Beijing regards as a breakaway province.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that Beijing was verifying reports that Hong Kong customs had seized nine Singapore troop carriers and other equipment in 12 containers being shipped from Taiwan after military exercises.
Singapore’s defense ministry said on Thursday it was trying to free the carriers “expeditiously”, while Hong Kong customs said on Friday that its officers were still investigating the shipment.
Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs referred questions to the defense ministry. The defense ministry did not comment beyond its official statement.
“The entry and exit of foreign personnel and goods in the Hong Kong special administrative region should respect its relevant laws,” Geng said.
“I wish to reiterate that the Chinese government consistently and resolutely opposes any form of official exchanges, including military exchanges and cooperation, between countries with which we have diplomatic relations and the Taiwan region.”
The seizure comes amid mounting regional uncertainty and signs of rising tension between China and Singapore, which has deepened its security relationship with the United States over the last year and remains concerned over Beijing’s assertive territorial stance in the South China Sea.
Regional diplomatic sources say Chinese officials are particularly concerned at Singapore’s hosting of increased deployments of U.S. P-8 Poseidon surveillance planes, which are equipped with various sensors that can target China’s expanding Hainan-based submarine fleet.
Officials on both sides have unusually traded barbs in public in recent months, including an accusation by Singapore’s ambassador to China in September that a major state-run Chinese newspaper had fabricated a report about Singapore’s position on the South China Sea.
Chinese leaders have repeatedly told Singaporean counterparts not to get involved in the territorial dispute, in which China asserts sovereignty over waters and islands claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
Singapore has no claims, but as the biggest port in Southeast Asia, its open economy depends on continued free navigation in the area.
Manila and Kuala Lumpur are now the focus of Chinese diplomatic charm offensives, further complicating Singapore’s neighborhood just as the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency compounds strategic uncertainties, regional diplomats and analysts say.
CHINA MAY PRESSURE SINGAPORE, EXPERTS SAY
Singapore has had a longstanding if low-key military relationship with Taiwan, despite having a strong diplomatic relationship with Beijing as well as with a range of Western militaries.
It has gradually reduced that training, moving to other facilities in Australia and India, but is unlikely to pull out of Taiwan completely, experts said.
Singapore has also traditionally served as a venue for diplomacy between Beijing and Taipei.
Bernard Loo, a security expert at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said that while some kind of administrative mistake may have sparked the detention, he suspected that Chinese officials would be keen to use the case to send another signal of concern to Singapore.
“In the current climate between Singapore and China, this one is a real opportunity for Beijing to pressure Singapore a bit more,” he said.
Regional diplomats said that Chinese military officials could be expected to discreetly inspect the vehicles and other equipment.
While state-of-the-art, the Singaporean vehicles are not considered particularly sensitive military equipment.
While Hong Kong runs a separate government system from mainland China under the terms of its handover from Britain to China in 1997, including customs, Beijing has the right to get involved in issues related to foreign affairs and defense.
Singapore defense ministry officials said on Friday the shipment involved no ammunition or sensitive equipment, and had earlier contracted commercial shipping line APL to handle the cargo.
“APL was required to comply with all regulations including … obtaining the necessary permits required to transit through ports,” a ministry statement said.
APL staff are now working with Hong Kong officials to free the shipment, aided by Singaporean diplomats and military officials.
An APL spokesman confirmed the discussions.
“APL is committed to ensuring cargo security as well as full compliance with all regulatory and trade requirements in its conduct of business,” the spokesman said. APL is a subsidiary of the French-based CMA CGM Group.
(Additional reporting by Venus Wu and Watson Tan in Hong Kong and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Mike Collett-White)
From The South China Morning Post
The seizure of the military vehicles on a Singapore-bound cargo ship from Taiwan at the Kwai Chung container terminal on Wednesday afternoon has put the spotlight on an issue that has long irked Beijing.
Last night, Singapore’s Ministry of Defence confirmed ownership of the eight-wheeled armoured infantry vehicles and called for them to be returned “expeditiously”, describing the situation as a “delay due to a request for routine inspections by Hong Kong customs”.
“The Terrex ICVs were used by the Singapore Armed Forces in routine overseas training and shipped back via commercial means as with previous exercises. Singapore authorities are providing relevant assistance to Hong Kong customs and expect the shipment to return to Singapore expeditiously,” the ministry said in a statement.
Singapore’s armed forces conduct overseas training in about a dozen countries including the United States, Australia, Germany and India, and usually hire commercial shippers to transport military equipment, the statement added.
However, sources told the Post that the Singaporean authorities would need to contact the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to secure the return of the armoured vehicles.
The clutch of tarpaulin-covered vehicles is Hong Kong’s biggest seizure of “strategic commodities” in two decades.
“Customs officers raised suspicions when they saw the shapes of the vehicles under tarpaulin in an open-topped container,” a Hong Kong government source said.
Police bomb disposal officers were called in to check but no explosives were found.
“Initial investigation showed the consignment was destined for Singapore,” the source said, adding that it was being shipped back to Singapore after being used in training in Taiwan.
Under the city’s Import and Export Ordinance, a licence is required for the import, export, re-export or transshipment of strategic commodities. The maximum penalty for failing to obtain a licence is an unlimited fine and seven years’ imprisonment.
Last night, the armoured vehicles, wrapped in blue and grey covers, were being guarded by customs officers.
Taiwanese defence ministry spokesman Major General Chen Chung-chi denied on Thursday that the vehicles were made in Taiwan.
“I can tell you that those armoured military carriers … do not belong to the Republic of China,” Chen said. But he refused to say who owned the carriers or why Taiwan had shipped them to Singapore.
Macau-based military expert Antony Wong Dong said the military vehicles were AV-81s from Singapore which might have been involved in a military exercise in Taiwan. He said the AV-81 was Singapore’s most advanced military vehicle and the discovery could prompt a stern rebuke from Beijing.
“Singapore will probably be in big trouble this time because Beijing could use this chance to give the city state a hard time [in retaliation for] Singapore’s stand on the South China Sea issue,” he said.
Singapore is seen in Chinese circles as backing Manila in an international arbitration case on Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
“Worse still, the exposure of the carriers in Hong Kong could reveal Singaporean military secrets, including its communication system with the Taiwanese military,” Wong said.
Zhang Baohui, a political science professor from Lingnan University, said the armoured carriers issue would be a “weather vane” for ties between China and Singapore.
“Apparently, this is just a customs declaration incident, but these are military weapons that the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department can’t handle on its own and should report to Beijing,” he said.
“If Beijing gives the green light to let [the shipment go through], ties between China and Singapore will improve. If it doesn’t, it will become a complicated political issue.”
The armoured vehicles were due to be moved to a customs cargo examination facility in Tuen Mun.
A disarmed K-21 light tank and an armoured military carrier were confiscated in Hong Kong in September and October 2010 after being displayed at exhibitions in Saudi Arabia and shipped back to the South Korean city of Busan. South Korea later got back the military vehicles through China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
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