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Making sense of the Terrex incident

On Nov 23, nine Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles (ICV) en route to Singapore from the southern Taiwan city of Kaohsiung were detained by the authorities at Hong Kong’s Kwai Chung Container Terminal, after what appears to have been a routine inspection by its Customs authorities.

Making sense of the Terrex incident

Terrex armoured troop carriers, belonging to Singapore, are seen at a cargo terminal in Hong Kong, China in this November 28, 2016 file photo. Photo: Reuters

On Nov 23, nine Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles (ICV) en route to Singapore from the southern Taiwan city of Kaohsiung were detained by the authorities at Hong Kong’s Kwai Chung Container Terminal, after what appears to have been a routine inspection by its Customs authorities.

The Terrex ICVs were being shipped from Taiwan back to Singapore, having taken part in routine training exercises that the SAF conducts in Taiwan.

There is ostensibly “nothing unnatural” about the SAF shipping military equipment by commercial carriers through Hong Kong, said the SAF’s Chief of Army, Maj Gen Melvyn Ong. Many military organisations use commercial carriers to move their heavy equipment and military organisations in the region often ship their heavy equipment through Hong Kong. Shipping heavy equipment by commercial carriers is often the most cost-effective and efficient way to move such equipment.

Nor is the impounding of the SAF’s ICVs unprecedented. In September 2010, a South Korean K-21 light tank and armoured personnel carrier was impounded by Hong Kong’s Customs while being shipped from Saudi Arabia back to South Korea.

The equipment was subsequently returned to South Korea through China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Nevertheless, it may be counter-intuitive to see the impounding of the SAF’s ICVs as business (or politics) as usual. Instead, it is likely that two separate political developments are part of this incident.

First, this incident occurred in the midst of a dip in China-Singapore relations, which started after the July 12, 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the South China Sea and Singapore’s subsequent response — which the Chinese interpreted as an anti-China stance.

The relationship further deteriorated after Singapore’s Ambassador to Beijing, Mr Stanley Loh, issued an open letter to the editors of China’s Global Times newspaper on Sept 26, rebutting its report of the Non-Aligned Movement Summit earlier that month, which alleged that the Singapore delegation raised the issues of the South China Sea and the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling. Since then, a series of angry exchanges between the two countries, involving both public officials and private netizens, has ensued.

Second, the election of Tsai Ing-wen as President of Taiwan clearly rankled Chinese sensibilities, judging by the number of times her Facebook account was spammed, ostensibly by Chinese netizens.

President Tsai pointedly omitted any mention of the 1992 “One China consensus” in her inaugural address. Cross-strait relations have since been frosty.

By impounding the SAF’s ICVs, China may have been sending messages to both Singapore and Taiwan, a less-than-friendly reminder of the One China policy.

Singapore’s responses have been restrained. No mention has been made of the cooling in China-Singapore relations. Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan asserted: “Singapore will not allow any single issue to hijack its long-standing, multifaceted relationship with China.”

At a forum on Nov 29, he added: “It’s not a strategic incident; I don’t lose any sleep over it.”

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen reiterated Singapore’s commitment to the “One China” policy; he was also careful not to speculate, at least in public, on the reasons for Hong Kong’s Customs to inspect the cargo.

Nevertheless, his response can be seen as somewhat more muscular, as he stated that Singapore will “exercise our full rights in recovering our assets”.

Could this incident have been avoided? The short answer is yes. Given the current state of China-Singapore relations, it beggars the imagination that the SAF would have shipped the Terrex ICVs to Singapore using a carrier that would transit Xiamen, Hong Kong and Shenzhen.

At the same time, however, moving goods from one point to another is an exercise in risk management. The movement of goods through multiple stopping points introduces new levels of risk.

The security of the cargo should have dictated that it be shipped directly from Taiwan to Singapore, without any stopovers. Surely, cost effectiveness needs to be balanced by security considerations.

ASSESSING THE FALLOUT

An aspect of China-Singapore relations affected by this incident is Singapore’s long-standing relationship with Taiwan.

Singapore has maintained a special relationship with Taiwan that stretches back to 1975, when the SAF was granted access to Taiwanese military training grounds and facilities.

Taiwanese senior officers were instrumental in helping the SAF build up its naval and air forces. Over the years, a number of SAF personnel have been injured or killed while training in Taiwan and these incidents have been reported by the media. Hence, there is nothing secret about SAF training exercises in Taiwan.

China had adopted a studious silence with regard to Singapore’s unofficial relationship with Taiwan and the SAF’s regular training in Taiwan. No longer.

The side effects of the Terrex incident are an open call from China’s Foreign Ministry for Singapore to respect the “One China” principle and not-so-subtle hints that Singapore needs to terminate military cooperation with Taiwan.

No doubt Singapore’s refusal of China’s offer of training space in Hainan to replace Taiwan further rankles Chinese sensibilities.

The latter point, however, is disingenuous. Singapore and Taiwan have retained their informal relationship, and Taiwan continues to permit Singapore to conduct military training there, even though there is no military relationship between the two islands.

The damage, however little, is done. While Singapore will exercise its “full rights” in recovering the vehicles currently impounded in Hong Kong, it is difficult to see what instruments Singapore can use as leverage to expedite their recovery.

That the vehicles will be returned to Singapore is beyond doubt; It is merely a question of how long Singapore will have to wait before they are returned. That waiting time is a message from China to Singapore.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Bernard F W Loo is Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Master of Science (Strategic Studies) degree programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies. This piece first appeared in the PacNet Newsletter, published by the Pacific Forum CSIS.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this commentary had misspelt SAF’s Chief of Army, Maj Gen Melvyn Ong's name. We are sorry for the error. 

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