Terrexes: Are we being held hostage by a bully?
by Wan Ting Koh
THE questions were asked in Parliament earlier today with Members of Parliament (MPs) using some pretty strong words. Cut to the chase of the 40-minute discussion over the detention of the nine Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Terrex vehicles by Hong Kong authorities in November and the issue is really whether China had anything to do with it. And, of course, the other critical question: When will Singapore get them back?
The answer to second question: Don’t know, but they should be returned at some point or other. That is, they cannot be confiscated or forfeited because of “sovereign immunity“.
It’s a new term thrown up in the Terrex affair by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen. Since the vehicles and equipment were the Singapore G’s property, they are protected “by sovereign immunity, even though they were being shipped by commercial carriers”, he said.
“This means that they are immune from any measures of constraint abroad. They cannot legally be detained or confiscated by other countries.” It is a legal principle that is “well-established” under international law and the law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), added Dr Ng.
Hong Kong has been told that the equipment “belong to the Government of Singapore and are therefore immune from any measures of constraint”, said Mr Ng.
That the G has made clear its sovereign rights over the seized equipment is new information. The Ministry of Defence (Mindef) had only previously said that it had conveyed its formal position to the Hong Kong SAR counterpart on the detention of the armoured vehicles.
What isn’t new information: That Hong Kong authorities responded that the ongoing investigation would need time and the matter would be handled in accordance with Hong Kong’s laws.
This was the answer Mr Ng gave in response to some very pointed questions asked by Members of Parliament (MP). Workers’ Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang had asked if Hong Kong had “imposed conditions” for the return of the vehicles while Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan wanted to know whether Hong Kong Customs had “openly stated problems of import declaration” with the Terrexes.
The shipment of nine Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles and associated equipment were impounded while in transit in Hong Kong late last November. The vehicles were en route to Singapore following an SAF military exercise in Taiwan.
According to the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong Customs had said it impounded the shipment because shipping company APL had failed to provide appropriate permits for the vehicles.
But despite attempts to recover the Terrexes on the G’s part, the SAF vehicles remain stuck in Hong Kong. No estimate or timeline was given for the vehicles’ return in Parliament.
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The issue had drawn the attention of China which, in late November, said that it was opposed to “any form of official exchanges with Taiwan, including military exchanges and cooperation”. Its foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that Singapore should “stick to the One China principle“. China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since 1949.
China’s involvement was mentioned by MP Zaqy Mohamad, who asked what the state of the Singapore-China relationship was in view of the seizure. Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong also asked on what grounds the G had made the assumption that China had not weighed in with the Hong Kong authorities.
To this, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said that he didn’t want to “engage in conspiracy theory” and that both China and Hong Kong had said the situation would or should be handled in accordance to Hong Kong’s laws. He added that the G has always been adhering to the One China policy and would continue to do so in the future.
He also said that there was no need to engage in”megaphone diplomacy“. Chinese media and commentaries have been critical of Singapore, suggesting that Singapore should give up its military training in Taiwan or compromise its relationship with China.
Mr Low asked if China’s progress as a superpower had made it “arrogant, aggressive, and to become a big bully?”
In response, Dr Balakrishnan said that China’s rise brought “enormous benefits”. He said: “We have to focus on the opportunities, whilst at the same time, recognising that there will be issues to resolve from time to time. Now, this is where we have to learn to take things in our stride.”
“We have to focus on the opportunities, whilst at the same time, recognising that there will be issues to resolve from time to time. Now, this is where we have to learn to take things in our stride.”
It is not the first time Hong Kong Customs has seized military equipment belonging to other states, said Mr Ng in response to a question by MP Sun Xueling about Singapore’s experience with Hong Kong authorities. In 2010, it detained a K21 light tank and armoured military carrier belonging to South Korea, apparently due to a missing Customs document.
According to ST, the vehicles were returned to South Korea through China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs two months later.
So if it only took two months in South Korea’s case, is it about time the nine Terrexes were returned to Singapore?
Following Mr Ng’s address in Parliament, China has said that all parties should be “cautious with their words and actions”. In response to a reporter’s question during a regular briefing, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Lu Kang said: “It is hoped that all relevant countries, including Singapore, can earnestly respect the one-China policy, which is the fundamental prerequisite for China to develop ties with other countries.”
“Second, we hope the Singaporean side can respect the laws established by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR),” he said, adding that the Hong Kong SAR is handling the issue in accordance to relevant laws.
Featured image from TMG file.
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