China pressures Singapore with seizure of military hardware

Euan Graham writes in the Nikkei Asian Review on the seizure of several Singaporean armoured vehicles being shipped through Hong Kong. 

  • Euan Graham

Euan Graham writes in the Nikkei Asian Review on the seizure of several Singaporean armoured vehicles being shipped through Hong Kong. 

  • Euan Graham

The seizure of several Singaporean armored vehicles being shipped through Hong Kong is at the center of a simmering diplomatic row between Singapore and China over the city-state's relations with Taiwan, and its policy stance on the South China Sea.

On Nov. 23, Hong Kong customs authorities impounded nine Singaporean army Terrex infantry carrier vehicles, together with three containers of firearms and military equipment, from a ship docked at the container terminal while they were in transit from Kaohsiung, Taiwan to Singapore. Singapore had been using the vehicles in military training exercises for its military forces, conducted in Taiwan as part of long-standing arrangements preceding Singapore's recognition of China in 1990.

China used the seizure to officially protest that Singapore's military contacts with Taiwan were inconsistent with the "One China" principle. In a swift response, Singapore insisted its "One China" commitment was unwavering, and its Singaporean Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen retorted: "People know where we train openly... and any training matters between us and other countries are bilateral."

Singapore has sought to play down the incident, but the geopolitical overtones are obvious. It bears the hallmarks of a well-planned Chinese operation aimed at multiple targets. The implications go well beyond the immediate headache for the Singaporean authorities of recovering the vehicles. With the impounding of the vehicles, China is using Hong Kong to make a geopolitical point to Singapore and Taiwan as well as to Hong Kongers about who is boss in the region.

Singapore said it would launch proceedings to recover the confiscated vehicles. Not all of the facts have yet emerged, including what exactly was listed on the ship's cargo manifest. But it seems likely that Hong Kong officials received a tip from China after the ship passed through Xiamen port. The vehicles were then forcibly offloaded in Hong Kong allegedly because the Singapore-based shipping line, APL, lacked the necessary permits and clearances for transshipment of strategic commodities. However, no formal explanation has yet been given for the seizure.

While the move caught APL and Singapore by surprise, the security risks of taking a circuitous route from Taiwan to Singapore via Xiamen, Hong Kong and Shenzhen instead of shipping the vehicles directly now appear embarrassingly obvious. The simple explanation is likely to be cost reduction efforts.

Given that Singapore lacks space for large-scale military exercises, the city-state has maintained training access for its armed forces in Taiwan, as one of several overseas locations, over decades. Periodic frictions with Beijing over the issue had been successfully managed, leading to the belief that a tacit acceptance had been reached. The Terrex seizure has overturned such assumptions.

This was a clear, escalatory shot across the bows of the bilateral relationship. So, what abruptly hardened Beijing's position?

Strained relations

Singapore's relationship with China has become increasingly strained in the past year as Beijing has taken exception to the city-state's pursuit of enhanced defense relations with the U.S. as well as its principled rules-based stance on dispute resolution and support for freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. Ties have frayed more dramatically since Singapore tried at the recent Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Caracas to raise the July ruling by an international tribunal at the Hague against China's excessive claims in the South China Sea. This triggered a blast from China's hardline Global Times newspaper, which has fueled the diplomatic spat.

Beijing is also seeking to further isolate Taiwan by targeting Taipei's defense ties with Singapore. China wants to deter other Southeast Asian countries from responding to the "southbound" policy of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, which she hopes will invigorate relations with the region. Singapore's status as an ethnic-Chinese majority state marks it out for special treatment, reflecting Beijing's increasingly chauvinistic attitude toward the Chinese diaspora.

The decision not to act in Xiamen, but to wait until the shipment arrived in Hong Kong reinforces the message that Beijing is in charge of defense and security matters in Hong Kong. Action launched by the territory's customs authorities gives Beijing a veneer of deniability and a layer of legal remove from which China's leaders can ratchet up or dial down pressure depending on the situation.

Access to the Terrex vehicles could also yield intelligence gains for China. The Singapore-produced Terrex, which was introduced in 2009, is equipped with German-derived modular armor that will be of potential reverse-engineering interest to Chinese military officials, since their country is still subject to a Western arms embargo.

Another worry is if the seized vehicles included their battle management system, which allows crews to communicate with commanders, sensors and other platforms. If the Terrex's software or hardware is suspected of being compromised, it could dash hopes of export opportunities to the U.S., where the U.S. Marine Corps is a potential customer. In theory, the vehicles should have been stripped of their sensitive communications equipment before shipping. Singapore's partners, including Australia, which is exploring bilateral defense industrial collaboration, may need assurance on this score.

Australia beckons

The incident could accelerate Singapore's plans to consolidate military training in Australia. The scale and duration of the recently concluded 25-year, 2.25 billion Australian dollars ($1.67 billion) agreement under the bilateral Comprehensive Strategic Partnership suggests that will be the case. Taiwan was always the most politically sensitive among Singapore's overseas training sites. China repeatedly offered Singapore the use of training facilities on its island of Hainan to try and lure it away from Taiwan. Taiwan, however, still offers some niche training and exercise activities that would be hard to replicate elsewhere. More important, ending military links with Taiwan would be seen as Singapore giving into Chinese pressure.

Singapore faces difficult choices and the certainty of more pain ahead as it attempts to recover its armed vehicles from Hong Kong. China is likely to press Singapore for concessions. But on the fundamental issue of how to respond to bullying from Beijing, Singapore is unlikely to back down. It is vitally important that the city-state is seen to hold its geopolitical ground to counter concerns that Southeast Asia is sliding toward a strategic accommodation of China in the South China Sea. Amidst heightened uncertainty over the consistency of U.S. security commitments under incoming President Donald Trump, the region will be watching Singapore closely.