Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen told Parliament today (9th January) that the detention of the 9 infantry carriers in Hong Kong does not comply with international or Hong Kong law. He says that the Singapore Government has asserted sovereign rights over the SAF’s Terrexes and looks forward to their return.
Under the principle of sovereign immunity, property belonging to a country cannot be seized or forfeited and consequently, must be returned. All that sounds very fanciful but the problem is this: will China or Hong Kong bother? It wasn’t too long ago that they brushed aside the results of the International Arbitration Court regarding the South China Sea claims, why would they pay any heed to this assertion?
It has long been argued in the realm of jurisprudence that “international law is not law”. If China doesn’t want to return the tanks, there is no organisation/country/body/person that can make them. Without the presence of a supranational system of coercive sanctions, without an enforcing body, it is hard to see how these claims can be of any use.
But does this mean that Singapore’s claim is merely procedural?
Although coercive threat on China is not going to happen, the nation faces a different kind of threat if it continuously fails to respect the rule of law; trade and relevance will be affected if not on a national scale then at least on a private level.
When I was working in China, you never fail to see a contract being disputed for one key clause. The one that says “This contract will be enforced by the Courts of XXX”. Our firm would insist on it being enforced by a Chinese Court, the client would insist on it being enforced by an American/European/British Court or it is a no go. Of course the client always wins and the terms will be governed by the Western power.
You see, it is very hard for a trading partner to take “Chinese law” seriously.
The country is plagued with piracy and counterfeit goods. Corruption is rampant. Chinese roads are one of the most dangerous in the world and road traffic rules are loosely enforced. And now, even the shipping lanes have no law: they draw up boundaries as they wish, they confiscate goods at whim and fancy.
Without the Rule of Law, banks would have no confidence providing loans, companies would not have the assurance to invest, businesses would not take disproportionate trading risks. Further, the business community today has more options than it did before: it doesn’t need to turn only to China for cheap manufacturing, many rising South East Asian countries can take its place.
Worse, the Trump administration is seen to be on a mission to take off-shored manufacturing home. Maybe that is why they released the American underwater drone so quickly – the U.S. is after all, one of China’s largest trading partners. That event can also be misinterpreted as a sign of weakness – fighting not the strong, but the very small.
Singapore’s claim may be just a little sting on China. But like a mosquito borne virus, a little sting if left untreated can turn deadly.
And like we’ve all learned in mosquito infested Singapore – take care of your waters, keep them clean and disease will be kept at bay.
Rango is an esteemed blogger and globetrotter. He’s gone around the world, lived life fiercely independent yet still finds time to care for family. He blogs at Rangosteen.
Article republished with permission.