What's behind detention of Singapore armored vehicles?


China Military
Zhang Tao

This armored vehicle without the canvas has a plate number reading "Military X-15245" in traditional Chinese character, and the "Military X-1" series of plates are said to be belonged to the Taiwan "Defense Ministry". Based on analysis of the exposed armored vehicle, it is the eight-wheeled AV-81 Terrex made by Singapore. (File photo)


According to information released by various sides, the detention wasn't a carefully designed "plot". In terms of shipping route, the cargo ship didn't go from Taiwan directly to Singapore, but somehow berthed at Xiamen and Hong Kong.


The armored vehicles didn't have to apply for customs clearance as long as they didn't "land". But, the carrier not only landed and stocked those military equipment, but also didn't apply for clearance.


Was it a careless mistake or a self-injuring trick? The combination, rise and decline of the national forces are reshaping the international landscape today.


BEIJING, Dec. 20 (ChinaMil) -- The Hong Kong customs had a routine inspection of ships berthing at the Kwai Chung container terminal as usual on November 23, 2016. On a cargo ship from Taiwan to Singapore via Hong Kong, the Customs officers detected simulated military goods in three containers and nine real armored vehicles in other nine containers.


"The Chinese side has lodged representations with the Singaporean side, asking them to act in strict accordance with relevant laws of the Hong Kong SAR and cooperate with the SAR government to properly deal with follow-up matters," said China's Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang at a regular press conference on November 28.


However, while Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan claimed "we won't allow any individual event to hijack the Singapore-China relation", he also emphasized that the military cooperation with Taiwan was a "special arrangement".


In response, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang said at the regular press conference on December 7 that "we hope Singapore can fully abide by the One-China policy as well as relevant laws and regulations of the Hong Kong SAR."


Singapore and China's Hong Kong and Taiwan have been dragged into this Rashomon where truth, imaginations and lies are intertwined.


"Ghost ship carries mysterious weapon"


By Southern Weekly's press time, the Singaporean military and foreign ministry had assigned a mediation team to Hong Kong and had at least three rounds of negotiations for the sole purpose of retrieving the detained military equipment.


The Singaporean defense ministry issued a brief statement on November 24, claiming that the detained equipment was mainly Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles (ICVs) used by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) for routine overseas training, but they didn't mention where the "overseas training" was carried out.

从港口以及相关航运组织提供的航运记录来看,运载装甲车的货船(编号APL QATAR 041)是11月21日从台湾高雄出发,中途曾在厦门海天码头停泊,原定29日抵达新加坡。

According to the shipping records provided by the terminal and relevant shipping organizations, the cargo ship carrying the armored vehicles (numbered APL QATAR 041) set off from Taiwan's Kaohsiung on November 21, berthed at Xiamen's Haitian Port on the way and was scheduled to arrive in Singapore on November 29.


But before the cargo ship's strange shipping route was explained, there were many conjectures about "China coveting Singapore's military secrets in the advanced armored vehicles".


"The AV-81 is doubtlessly trump card equipment independently developed by Singapore and is favored by the US Marines for its good performance. Singapore secured a contract of more than USD100 million in March this year to sell 13 such vehicles to the US for testing," said Martin Oei, a Hong Kong pundit.


Martin Oei wrote an article on Singapore's Lian He Zao Bao, saying that "given the Chinese military's strong interests in America's cutting-edge military technologies, high-level officials in the PLA definitely want to know the technical details of AV-81."


Battlefield communication and electronic interference are critical in modern warfare. It is said that the detained Terrex vehicles are equipped with frequency-hopping radio communication system, which is related with the "battlefield real-time communication system" currently built between Singapore and US, Singapore and Taiwan, and Taiwan and US.


But a military expert from Beijing didn't agree to this. "The US military just bought several Terrex vehicles for partner training. To say that China wants the technical details of 'Singapore's advanced armored vehicles' shows how arrogant they are. Chinese armored vehicles and communication systems are in no way inferior."


"Almost all conjectures assume that the detention was conducted by Hong Kong Customs under the order of the Chinese government, but people who hold this view made a fundamental mistake and know nothing about the relation between the central government and Hong Kong government under the 'one country, two systems' framework," said Wang Jiangyu, associate professor at the Faculty of Law of National University of Singapore, and deputy director of its Asian Law Institute.


To prevent "Hong Kong from becoming the means of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction", the Hong Kong SAR government has established a rigorous legal system over the years to restrict the import and export of strategic materials.


According to Wang Jiangyu, it's impossible for Beijing to directly command functional departments within the Hong Kong governments either legally or realistically, and Hong Kong Customs is independent when enforcing the export and import restriction on strategic materials according to law.


Based on information released by various parties, the detention was more likely caused by carelessness. In terms of shipping route, the cargo ship didn't go from Taiwan directly to Singapore, but somehow berthed at Xiamen and Hong Kong.


According to regulations of Hong Kong Customs, the armored vehicles didn't have to apply for Customs clearance as long as they stayed onboard and didn't "land", but the carrier not only landed and stocked the military equipment, but also didn't apply for clearance.


"The SAF has transported general military equipment through commercial shipment for tens of years and they often berthed at Hong Kong. There has never been any problem," Singaporean Defense Minister NG Eng Hen said in self-defense in an interview.

涉事船运公司“台湾达飞通运公司”隶属船运公司CMA CGM,至少两次转卖于法商之间,财务吃紧,管理混乱。仅运载装甲车的货船就没有归入“台湾达飞通运公司”名单,以至于最初有媒体误报“幽灵船载神秘军火”。

CMA CGM Taiwan, the concerned shipping company, belongs to CMA CGM. It has been sold to French companies at least twice and is in a financial strain and chaotic management. The cargo ship carrying the armored vehicles wasn't in its shipping list, which was why some media used the title "ghost ship carrying mysterious weapon" at first.


Now the nine armored vehicles and associated equipment have been transferred to a warehouse at an inland port, the opened containers were sealed again, and Hong Kong Customs provided 24-hour security. Because of the detention, the "Starlight program" came under the spotlight again.

Staff members of the Hong Kong Customs inspect the nine armored vehicles detected at Kwai Chung container terminal on November 24, 2016. (File photo)


A desperate trick of "self-injury"?


"The military cooperation between Singapore and Taiwan has been in existence since the age of Chiang Kai-shek. It's open but on a very low profile. When Singapore established diplomatic ties with the People's Republic of China in the 1990s, it reached an understanding with Beijing," said Li Mingjiang, a Singaporean expert on international issues.


The then Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew made a request to Chiang Ching-kuo asking for Taiwan's help in training Singaporean troops, and the two sides launched the "Starlight Program" in 1973, whereby Taiwan military officers in service assisted Singapore in building the navy, air force and army, which led to the strange phenomenon that Singapore's navy, air force and army commanders were all from Taiwan.


In 1976, Singapore formally assigned a "Starlight troop" comprising infantry, artillery and troopers to be trained in Taiwan regularly. The "Starlight Program" reached a peak in the mid-1980s when 15,000 Singapore soldiers were trained in Taiwan every year.


Singapore was once called the "Israel in Southeast Asia" because when it was first founded, not only was it surrounded by Malaysia and Indonesia where Malayans made up the main population, but the Singapore-Malaysia separation also put their relation in tension.


"Although we won't be beaten by enemies, it doesn't feel good to be stung by a wasp, and the best way is to leave it alone." "We should be like a poisonous shrimp, using our bright colors to warn others that we have strong poison in our body."


According to Lee Kuan Yew's defense security design, Singapore implemented the "wasp strategy" and "poisonous shrimp theory" after it was founded, and conducted "Balance Diplomacy" among various international forces for survival, the "Starlight program" being an important part of it.


The "Starlight Program" has hurt China and the cross-strait relation from the very beginning. When Lee Kuan Yew first visited China in May 1976, Chinese leaders then explicitly expressed their doubt. "Singapore's development of military connections with Taiwan contradicts its stance on supporting the One-China policy."


But Singapore and Taiwan further expanded the "Starlight program". In addition to training, they held "starlight conference" every year covering equipment R&D, training and many other aspects, and signed the so-called "China-Singapore agreement" in February 2001 that upgraded the program comprehensively. Singapore sent soldiers using advanced weapons such as main battle tank and Hawk air defense missile to Taiwan for training, while Taiwan sent C-130 transport plane pilots to be trained in Singapore.


This cooperation was so secret that it wasn't exposed until May 11, 2007 when an F-5F fighter jet crashed in Taiwan and four people died in it, including two Singaporean soldiers.


The "Starlight Program" was in its heyday in the period of Chiang Ching-kuo and the early stage of Lee Teng-hui's reign. But on April 21, 2002, several members of Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party and also of the legislative body including Chai Trong-rong said that the program, which was carried out in Taiwan for many years, might be moved to the Chinese mainland due to opposition by local people and limited training space.


Chen Tang-san, the person in charge of foreign relations in the Chen Shui-bian administration, even used insulting remarks against Singapore, which infuriated it so much that it threatened to drive away all Taiwan officials working in its offices in Singapore and move the "Starlight Program" to Hainan.


But the US didn't want to see the performance parameters of US-made weapons leaked. Jane's Defence Weekly reported earlier that Singapore assigned people to Hainan for field survey and believed it had better conditions than Taiwan, but the US strongly opposed this move, and Singapore naturally dared not defy this super power. Against such a background, another conjecture emerged.


"Let's think backward. It's possible that Singapore 'intentionally' leaked the track of the new armored vehicles it retracted from Taiwan in order to express its wish to end the 'Starlight Program' gradually."


There is a rumor that the detention of Singapore's armored vehicles in Hong Kong was "a self-injuring trick by the Singaporean military to expose the 'Starlight Program' on purpose, so as to draw international attention and trigger Beijing's opposition, which will give it the opportunity to exit Taiwan completely."


But this conjecture isn't well-evidenced, although the Singaporean military was indeed to blame. It didn't carefully check the shipping schedule of CMA CGM Taiwan, and allowed it to berth at Xiamen and Hong Kong on the way to "carry more cargoes in order to make more money".


After the vehicles were detained, Singapore's "starlight troop" in Taiwan wasn't informed in a timely manner either, but just passed the buck to the Taiwan Customs broker, and didn't report to Singaporean defense ministry about the detention until the broker found itself unable to do anything.


But it was too late. The sensitive and secret "Starlight Program" evolved into a diplomatic event.


"Trick of balance" is out of place


"The Chinese side is firmly opposed to any form of official interaction between Taiwan and countries that have diplomatic relations with us, military exchanges and cooperation included. We require the Singaporean government to stick to the One-China policy," said Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang on November 28, 2016.


"That was also a warning to other countries not to get too close with the Taiwan authorities that support 'Taiwan independence'." According to Chinese naval expert Li Jie, Singapore's attitude toward the South China Sea dispute and Tsai Ing-wen has affected China's national interests.


For many years, the "Starlight Program" has not only benefited Singapore, but also enabled Taiwan to buy advanced weapons and equipment such as quick launcher and speed boat from Japan and European countries through Singapore. There is no doubt that Singapore has been the "arms broker" between China's Taiwan and other countries.


As a special nation that created the "big diplomacy for small country", Singapore has practiced a highly pragmatic diplomatic strategy aiming at "equilibrium". It wants the Chinese mainland and Taiwan to maintain the status quo most because that way it can seek maximal interests for itself.


"People with Chinese origin take a large proportion in Singapore, but it was the last country in Southeast Asia to recognize the People's Republic of China." Hong Kong pundit Martin Oei said that one of the two major topics during the Singapore-China negotiations on forming diplomatic ties in 1990 was whether the "Starlight Program" could continue, and the two countries have had several diplomatic engagements around the program since the diplomatic ties were forged.


"We won't allow any individual event to hijack the Singapore-China relation", Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan claimed, but he also emphasized at a forum organized by the Straits Times on November 29 that "it isn't a secret, and the form hasn't changed. Singapore cannot forget our old friend who helped us build the armed forces."


As some expert correctly pointed out, the combination of national forces and the rise and decline of them are reshaping the international landscape today. In today's world, Singapore's so-called "trick of balance" is obviously out of place.

Disclaimer: The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article are those of the author named Yu Dong from the Southern Weekly and do not reflect the views of eng.chinamil.com.cn. Chinamil.com.cn does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. If the article carries photographs or images, we do not vouch for their authenticity.


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