China’s seizure of Singaporean tanks

A public relations crisis, but relations likely to return to normal

Stephan Ortmann

PHOTO: AP

International relations, National security, South China Sea | Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia

2 December 2016

Taiwan has long been a thorny issue in Sino-Singaporean relations, but is it behind China’s seizure of nine Singaporean tanks or is the incident more closely linked to the South China Sea dispute? Stephan Ortmann sheds light on the situation.

When Hong Kong authorities seized nine Singaporean tanks on 23 November, after supposedly having been tipped off by Chinese authorities, it evolved into a major public relations crisis for Singapore’s government and apparently strained the relationship between the Southeast Asian city-state and one of the world’s most powerful nations. The advanced military equipment, that had been shipped by a commercial company and passed through Xiamen, potentially exposed Singapore’s military secrets to Chinese authorities. Despite growing concern over worsening ties between China and Singapore, the incident should not be exaggerated.

Many suggested that the action might have occurred in retaliation for Singapore’s stance in the South China Sea dispute in which the city-state has not sided with China regarding the Nine-Dash Line. China claims ownership of most of the South China Sea, which overlaps with many other Southeast Asian countries including Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam. Although not involved in the territorial disputes, Singapore believes Chinese control over the seas is not in its national interest and might affect the free flow of goods.

Others have asserted that China might be punishing Singapore for having military relations with Taiwan, which the former regards as a renegade province. The opposition against Communism had formed the basis of the friendship between the two states during the Cold War. Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, visited the island state 25 times during his lifetime, once even after Chen Shui-bian became president in 2000. Singapore’s military relationship with Taiwan, known as Operation Starlight, began in 1975 and has lasted for over 40 years. As many as 15,000 conscripts are sent to Taiwan for large-scale military games annually. China has viewed the training camps with great concern over the years.

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Singapore has a long history of seeking to balance geostrategic interests in the region by maintaining a close relationship with the United States, while also seeking to improve its relationship with China. In 1971, Singapore voted in favour of admitting the People’s Republic China into the United Nations to take the place of the Republic of China (Taiwan) in the General Assembly. The Singaporean government has spent significant amounts of money to gain the goodwill of the Chinese government. This has included the development of special means of economic cooperation such as the China–Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park in 1994 and the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city. Both projects have gone beyond economic cooperation and have sought to transfer lessons for socio-economic and political development. As China sees the one-party dominant but economically successful Singapore as a possible role model, it has sent thousands of officials there on study tours.

The city-state has also tried hard to improve cross-strait relations between China and Taiwan. Singapore has hosted important talks between the two Chinese states twice, first in 1993 and second in 2015. These most recent talks, between Taiwan’s leader Ma Ying-jeou and China’s President Xi Jinping, were seen as a milestone in the relationship between the two and Singapore was praised for its role. The goal was to achieve peaceful dialogue to enhance cross-strait relations. At the same time, the Singaporean government has repeatedly emphasised its support for the ‘One-China Policy’, which is also in line with US

At the same time, the Singaporean government has repeatedly emphasised its support for the ‘One-China Policy’, which is also in line with US policy. In 2013, China did not object when Singapore signed a free trade agreement with Taiwan, showing China was no longer opposed to the idea.

One should also not forget that last month’s tank incident was not the first time Singapore has clashed with China over Taiwan. In July 2004, the Chinese government was furious when then Singaporean Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong visited Taipei. Most of the Chinese print media criticised the visit, and strong opposition was voiced online. The trip occurred at a time when the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was in power, leading some observers to regard it as an attempt to punish Taiwan. As such, the current escalation in tension is very similar to previous incidents, because the DPP has returned to power. But as Singapore reaffirms its commitment to the “One-China policy” and China prepares to return the military equipment, the relationship is likely to improve once again.

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