SAF Terrexes: It’s about who’s running Taiwan

Jan 16, 2017 04.20PM |

by Bertha Henson

WHEN you think about the SAF Terrex issue, what comes to mind? Perhaps, these points:

a. China must be really angry with Singapore to instruct Hong Kong to seize the vehicles. In other words, nobody believes that this is a Hong Kong administrative measure, no matter how the politicians spin it.

b. China doesn’t like Singapore training in Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province, but then again, we’ve been doing so since 1974… So what gives?

c. China bullies or bribes whatever countries it can and we happened to be on the bullying end.

A fourth point that has been ignored but should be part of the discussion is this: The annual Singapore- China Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC) meeting did not take place last year. Why?

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This council meeting, which started in 2003 and usually takes place in October, is co-chaired by Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli and Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean. It’s a pity that the question of why it didn’t happen wasn’t asked in Parliament when the SAF Terrex issue came up. Has it been cancelled or postponed and was the decision made pre- or post-Terrex?

A commentator said that cancellation of the meeting was the “biggest indication of Singapore-China relations falling to freezing point”. Mr William Zheng Wei, a Chinese national who became a Singaporean in 2003, posted a column on his WeChat account, which was translated into English and published in The Straits Times (ST) on Saturday. He used to be the editor of the online edition of Singaporean Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao and then chief editor of and, the online editions of the Hong Kong daily South China Morning Post.

He said: “By holding the armoured vehicles as a trump card, China chose to postpone the JCBC meeting and thereby not give Singapore a chance to raise the issue face to face, knowing full well Singapore would try to do so.”

Mr Zheng didn’t pussyfoot around whether China is responsible for the seizure. He said China was “smart” to have vehicles seized in Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

It’s playing weiqi or the Chinese chess game of Go, employing strategies that are indirect rather than confrontational to achieve an objective. 

Thus, the issue of the seizure is between the Hong Kong authorities and Singapore, with China hovering in the background like a shadow.

Singapore seems content to keep it that way. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong didn’t raise the matter with anyone in Beijing; he wrote to Hong Kong chief executive C Y Leung. In fact, Singapore has actually gone a notch up – or down. The problem should be sorted out between the shipper, APL, and Hong Kong customs. As far as Singapore was concerned, the nine vehicles are Singapore sovereign property and should be returned “immediately”.

“Immediately” is a demand that is usually accompanied by “or else”, but not in this case. That would be too confrontational. In any case, what leverage does Singapore have over Hong Kong or big brother China? To take a softer stance, however, would mean open season for any pirate (sovereign or otherwise) to seize Singapore’s property while it’s en route to some place. How do you tell someone to return your property when you’ve allowed someone else to keep the booty in the past?


A strategic game

Mr Zheng said that the Chinese move to make it Hong Kong’s problem means the seizure can be strung out using the excuse of delayed paperwork. It also means there is no reason for China and Singapore to “talk” about the issue since it isn’t really a “bilateral” one. Singapore and China can remain cordial and civil, giving both sides “room to manoeuvre without losing face”.

Is this happening?

Definitely, since Hong Kong hasn’t even said anything about why the vehicles were seized in the first place. Singapore officials have been running back and forth to discuss the status of the vehicles – and with nothing to show.

No dialogue has been opened between the two countries either.

It’s likely that a lot of back channels are being used among the triangle of Singapore, Hong Kong and China officials to get to the nub of the matter. And it’s not likely we’ll know what’s happening behind closed doors. Plus, the code word is “don’t speculate” – lest it jeopardise whatever is happening or not happening out of the public eye.

So let’s refrain from speculating and ask some questions instead. Does China want something from us in return for the Terrexes? (Read: blackmail). Maybe a more accommodating position on the South China Sea which China insists is its property even though an international tribunal say no? Or is this about Singapore’s relations with Taiwan?


Who rather than what

After all, when Singapore established diplomatic ties with China in 1990, Chinese Premier Li Peng had said Beijing would not be “too disturbed” by its continued use of military training facilities in Taiwan. “We sympathise with Singapore’s position and understand its need to build a strong defence force. On this matter, suitable arrangements will be made,” he said.

On this point, Mr Zheng offered a fresh perspective. It has to do with who is in charge of Taiwan.

He noted that the military co-operation between Singapore and Taiwan dated from the Kuomintang days.

“In China’s eyes, Singapore’s partnership with KMT was, of course, not so much of a problem, because KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have a consensus on ‘one China, two interpretations’.”

Mr Zheng noted that the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew visited Taiwan regularly without protest from China for 20 years from 1973. But between 1995 and 2000, Mr Lee stopped the regular visits, and after 2000, he never visited Taiwan again.

The year 2000 was when the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party led by Mr Chen Shui-Bian dislodged the KMT from power. The KMT, however, bounced back in 2008 under the leadership of Mr Ma Ying-jeou. Under Mr Ma’s presidency which lasted till May last year, “cross-strait ties were peaceful and stable, the possibility of war was extremely low, hence Singapore-Taiwan military exchanges were not a big issue,” said Mr Zheng. He might have added that Singapore even hosted a historic meeting between Mr Ma and Chinese President Xi Jinping in November 2015, the first meeting of leaders in 66 years.

Now, however, Taiwan has gone back to DPP rule under Ms Tsai Ing-wen, who rather infamously created waves when US President-elect Donald Trump took a congratulatory phone call from her.

Mr Zheng offered this advice: That Singapore distinguishes between the pro-independence and pro-unification camps in Taiwan.

He doesn’t say how. But it’s a neat idea, as it involves only re-calibrating Singapore’s relationship with Taiwan to demonstrate its commitment to the One China principle. It’s neat because it doesn’t involve Singapore compromising its position on other issues that have to do with China, such as over the South China Sea, and having to follow China’s lead all the time.

Then again, how do you do this?

And if done, will we get our Terrexes back?


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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