Both the Foreign Minister, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, as well as Singapore’s Chief of Army, seem to have shifted the blame for the seizure of the nine armoured vehicles by the customs department in Hong Kong to the commercial carriers engaged by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). Speaking at a forum organised by The Straits Times, Dr Balakrishnan said, “we expect commercial providers to strictly comply with the law.”
Singapore’s Chief of Army, Melvyn Ong, echoed the Foreign Minister at on the sidelines of an event to test an Aerostat system and said that the shipping company (APL) is responsible for ensuring all regulatory requirements are met.
Factwire which first published the news of the seizure quoted Hong Kong customs department sources and said that, the shipment was seized as it did not have an approval notice. Major-General Ong is however unsure about the exact reasons for the detainment of the armoured vehicles. He said that this would be clearer only in a day or two.
Maj-Gen Ong however defended the decision to ship the Terrex ICVs using commercial shippers justifying that it is the most cost-effective means of transporting large equipment for overseas training exercises. He added that SAF had worked with APL since the 1990s and the the shipping company’s customers include the United States Armed Forces.
China in the meantime has made representation to Singapore over the seizure. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Monday (28 Nov) that Singapore should “strictly abide by the laws of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), and cooperate with the SAR government on all necessary follow-ups.”
Adding: “The Chinese government has always firmly opposed countries that have diplomatic ties with China to have any form of official exchanges with Taiwan, including military exchanges and cooperation,” he said at a regular media briefing in Beijing. We asked that the Singapore Government strictly abide by the one-China principle.”
Dr Balakrishnan however feels that Singapore should not “overreact”, that the incident will have an impact on the Republic’s bilateral ties with Beijing. He reminded the forum audience that Singapore and China are “such close and long term friends” that there would be differences in view. He said leaders of both countries appreciate the long and wide ranging relationship they have and “will not allow any single issue to hijack it.”
In his comments, the Minister did not mention the South China Sea dispute or the Taiwan military training issue directly, but pointed out that the Singapore was very consistent and transparent. “We call a spade a spade,” he said to emphasise that the government’s believes that it is better to be upfront, and honest when different perspectives emerge from time to time, but in a non-provocative way.
Singapore has been trying to act as a mediator between China and the other ASEAN countries which have a claim on the South China Sea. In June of this year, it led in the drafting a joint ASEAN statement on the developments which was eventually retracted. Wire agencies quoting sources suggested that China had lobbied Laos, the current Asean chair, to withdraw the statement.
Breitbart Report claimed that the withdrawal of the strongly worded ASEAN statement angered Dr Balakrishnan so much that he “walked out of a press conference he was co-chairing with China’s foreign minister.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang however explained that the absence of Dr Balakrishnan at the joint-press conference with China in June was not due to any differences between China and ASEAN.
Singapore’s Foreign Minister issued a statement later noting “the serious concerns expressed by the Asean foreign ministers over the developments on the ground and called on Asean and China to continue working together to maintain the peace and stability of the South China Sea”.