China has made an official protest to Singapore over its military ties with Taiwan after nine Singaporean military vehicles were seized in Hong Kong, in a sign of escalating tensions as the city-state draws closer to Washington.
The Terrex armoured personnel carriers were en route from Taiwan to Singapore when they were impounded by Hong Kong customs as “suspected controlled items” last week.
“China has already made representations over this to the Singapore side,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a press briefing on Monday. China also “demanded” that Singapore abide by Hong Kong’s relevant laws and co-operate with the local government on follow-up work, he added.
The spat over the military vehicles comes as Beijing is showing a new assertiveness towards its Asian neighbours. After decades of following a foreign policy of “keeping a low profile”, China has begun to actively court US allies such as the Philippines and Thailand, while putting pressure on countries such as Singapore and South Korea that are deepening ties with Washington.
Singapore has strengthened its military ties with the US over the past year, agreeing to boost co-operation on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions as well as cyber-security. Singapore allowed US Poseidon surveillance aircraft to operate from the city-state last December.
For decades Singapore sought to remain neutral in the confrontation between China and self-governing Taiwan, and hosted a landmark summit between their leaders last year. But it continues to have defence ties with Taipei despite strong Chinese objections.
The armoured carriers appeared to be part of training exercises held in Taiwan by Singaporean troops, which have taken place regularly under a previously secret defence agreement signed by the two countries in 1975 and reported in the Chinese and Taiwanese press.
However, Beijing has said it is losing patience with this practice, particularly since Singapore and China established diplomatic relations in 1990.
Singapore did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the seized vehicles. Hong Kong’s customs agency said the case was “under investigation”.
Meanwhile on Monday, China’s Global Times, a hawkish state-owned newspaper, said in an editorial that Singapore was supposed to have suspended its military co-operation with Taiwan in 2012. “However, the recently detained vessel with its cargo of armoured vehicles reveals Singapore’s hypocrisy,” it said.
“For quite some time, Singapore has been pretending to seek a balance between China and the US, yet has been taking Washington’s side in reality,” the newspaper said. “It is no longer reasonable for Singapore to continue … any kind of military exchange with Taiwan.”
Earlier this year the Global Times and Singapore became embroiled in a public spatafter the newspaper accused Singapore of unnecessarily pressing the issue of the disputed South China Sea at a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Venezuela — a charge Singapore denied.
A Singapore military team arrived in Hong Kong on Saturday to ensure that the army personnel carriers are being held securely amid fears military secrets were at risk. The nine vehicles are being held in a Hong Kong customs depot.