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China Crisis: Singapore Armed Forces' Terrex ICV were detained in Hong Kong. Courtesy of Limkopi/Wikimedia.

Like Swatting a Fly? China Confronts Singapore

Lieke Bos
Commentary, 21 December 2016
China, Global Security Issues, Maritime Forces, Pacific
China’s seizure last week of a US naval drone in international waters has drawn attention to China's assertive approach throughout South East Asia. And that affects both big countries and small countries, such as Singapore.

At the end of last month, the Hong Kong Port Authority searched and detained an international container ship carrying nine Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles (ICVs) and other military equipment from Taiwan to Singapore.

The vehicles had taken part in an annual military exercise between the SAF and Taiwanese military.

The seizure of the ICVs is more significant than it might seem at first glance; it reveals a more assertive, perhaps even aggressive, approach by China towards its neighbours. It affects no fewer than three entities at the same time – Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. We can expect more of such conflicts and actions to arise in the future.

The incident embarrasses Hong Kong because it makes the city look like China’s puppet, despite the fact that the former British colony has its own administration, border and customs controls. Quoting unnamed customs sources, Factwire, the Hong Kong news agency which broke the news of the seizure, said that before the ship arrived at the Hong Kong port, mainland enforcement authorities informed customs that the shipment contained ‘undeclared military materials, and did not have approval notice’.

The affair also harms Taiwan and indirectly threatens all the countries with which it has unofficial relations. It is not as if the military exercise was a secret; it has been an annual event since 1975, when Singapore’s founding father and former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew signed the Project Starlight defence agreement.

Project Starlight allows up to 15,000 Singaporean troops a year to train in Taiwan alongside its armed forces. It is a boon to Singapore, which otherwise does not have the necessary land space to conduct the exercises on its territory.

The deal did not prevent Singapore from following to the letter the ‘One China’ policy since diplomatic relations were established between the island state and the People’s Republic of China 25 years ago.

Even during the ICVs row, Singapore has refrained from mentioning Taiwan in any of its public statements. Still, relations between Taiwan and Singapore are close and the agreement has been public for a long time, especially since a number of fatal accidents involving SAF personnel were publicised in the Singaporean media.

But by engineering the seizure of the military equipment, China has highlighted this ‘unofficial’ yet strong and friendly link between Singapore and Taiwan. The purpose of this gesture was clearly to remind everyone that China is fully aware of the military links between the two islands, and is watching the movement of their equipment very closely.

Last but not least, China’s objective is to rattle Singapore. The Singaporean government will need to beg to get its ICVs back, yet it must do so without looking like it is making any concessions to China.

That won’t be easy. If Singapore were to move more of its military exercises to other countries, such as Australia, it would look like it is giving in to China’s public humiliation and harassment.

In reality, this process is already well underway. Taiwan was initially a perfect training ground because of its much larger land mass. However, over time Singapore has established strong ties with other countries and it now conducts training in Australia, Brunei, Germany, India and the US, among others, with the number of SAF troops training in Taiwan dwindling.

But there is a difference between choosing to move your training to different countries of your own volition, and moving your training due to Chinese pressure.

However, this incident is not only to do with SAF training in Taiwan; it is part of a much bigger story. China seems eager to penalise Singapore because the city state, although a non-claimant in the South China Sea territorial dispute, has long advocated that ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations) should play a role in the resolving of disputes. This goes against China’s preferred approach – that is, leaving individual countries to settle their disputes on a bilateral basis.

Singapore also supported the recent verdict by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, dismissing China’s claims in the South China Sea. It also announced an enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement with the US, which led to the deployment of US Navy P-8A Poseidon aircraft to Singapore. These aircraft can be used for maritime surveillance patrols over the South China Sea.

The wedge that China is trying to drive between Singapore and Taiwan is therefore part of a broader warning to the city state. It is signalling to Singapore that it cannot continue to have its cake and eat it by making friendly noises to China while remaining closely aligned to the US.

Yet besides the public humiliation China wishes to inflict on Singapore, Beijing does not have the same leverage over the small state as it does over other neighbouring nations. Singapore has a highly developed economy and strong security relations with many countries around the world. Furthermore, Singapore is the largest foreign investor in China and has one of the biggest ports in the world – close to the Malacca Straits, through which 80% of China’s crude oil imports are transported.

Singapore may be very small, but it has the potential to be a not insignificant thorn in China’s side.

What can be said with some certainty, however, is that the seizure of Singapore’s military equipment is evidence that Beijing’s bullying policies are widespread, and directed against the vulnerable and the powerful in equal measures.

Banner image: Singapore Armed Forces' Terrex ICV were detained in Hong Kong. Courtesy of Limkopi/Wikimedia.

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