Singapore sought to play down the impact that the seizure by Hong Kong’s customs authorities of armored troop carriers being shipped from Taiwan could have on its relationship with Beijing, even as Chinese media pointed to growing anger over the incident.
The troop carriers were impounded last week as they passed through Hong Kong. The exposure of Singapore’s military ties to Taiwan — which Beijing views as a breakaway province — sparked a rebuke from China’s foreign ministry.
In his first comments on the matter, Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan was quoted by the Straits Times’ website on Tuesday as saying it was “not a strategic incident.”
“I wouldn’t overreact to that … we expect commercial providers of services to strictly comply with the law,” Balakrishnan was quoted as saying.
“It will be a footnote on how to do things strictly, carefully and by the law. It’s not a strategic incident.”
China-Singapore ties have been strained in recent months, particularly over the disputed South China Sea. China claims most of the sea as its territorial waters, which if accepted would give it control over one of the world’s busiest trade routes. Beijing suspects Singapore of siding with the United States, accusing Washington of stoking tensions by sailing naval vessels close to islands that China says it owns.
On Monday, the Chinese foreign ministry said it had lodged a protest to Singapore over the vehicles and demanded the island abides by Hong Kong’s laws.
Singapore and Taiwan have a longstanding military relationship that began in the 1970s and involves Taiwan being used as grounds for Singaporean infantry training.
Beijing has grudgingly tolerated this agreement since China and Singapore reestablished diplomatic relations in the 1990s.
“We all know, and China knows, that we’ve had special arrangements with Taiwan for a long time, and what we are doing there is no longer a secret,” Balakrishnan said. “If you are truly close, there will be things you disagree about from time to time.
“Fortunately or unfortunately for Singapore, we are very transparent, we call a spade a spade. It doesn’t mean we are shifting our position or deliberately trying to poke people in the eye.”
China’s influential state-run tabloid the Global Times said the vehicles should be “melted down,” in its second swipe at Singapore in two days.
The newspaper, published by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, blasted Singapore’s “carelessness” with the troop carriers, which it said reflected a failure to take seriously China’s displeasure over relations with Taiwan.
“Singapore’s image in China is now so rotten that ordinary Chinese people think the best thing to do with the ‘confiscated’ armored vehicles that ‘walked right into our trap’ is to send them to the steel mills to be melted down,” it said.
In September, the paper embarked on a war of words with Singapore’s ambassador to China, Stanley Loh, over a report that said Singapore had raised the South China Sea at a summit in Venezuela, which the ambassador denied.
China has repeatedly warned Singapore against getting involved in the territorial dispute in which China asserts sovereignty over waters and islands claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
Singapore has no claims, but as the biggest port in Southeast Asia, the city-state’s open economy depends on continued free navigation in the area.