China-Singapore tensions spill into open after customs spat

By BLOOMBERG (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE) Published: December 1, 2016

For decades, Singapore has walked a careful line between the U.S. and China. Now, the tiny Southeast Asian state is finding itself in Beijing's cross hairs.

China has gone public in recent months to chastise Singapore for a perceived alignment with the U.S. against China's actions in the disputed South China Sea. For Singapore, which the American Navy uses as a launch point for patrols of the strategic Strait of Malacca, the tensions cast doubt on its long-cherished ability to steer clear of political spats and focus on trade and investment.

The latest episode has the added wrinkle of Taiwan, which China considers its territory. Nine Singaporean armored personnel carriers were seized by Hong Kong customs last week, with the vehicles en route from Taiwan on a commercial ship after being used in training exercises. Singapore army chief Maj. Gen. Melvyn Ong said the military was still seeking to ascertain the exact reason the vehicles were impounded.

While Ong said Hong Kong was a common port of call for foreign militaries and noted "there have been no issues in the past," the shipment elicited a formal protest from Beijing, which warned Singapore to abide by Hong Kong law and the One-China principle that China uses to guide its affairs with Taiwan.

"This is not the first time Singapore ships equipment from Taiwan through Hong Kong," said Bilahari Kausikan, an ambassador-at-large for Singapore. The fact this particular consignment was picked up shows China wants to "send a signal not only to us, but to all" Southeast Asian nations. China's long-term strategy is to turn Singapore into an ally and "mouthpiece" for its positions, he said.

China might be seeking to gain the advantage ahead of Donald Trump's January inauguration as president -- and amid questions about the future of President Barack Obama's military and economic "pivot" to Asia -- by prodding countries like Singapore to stay out of political disputes like the South China Sea.

The spat highlights the difficulty for smaller Asian nations amid the broader tussle for regional influence between China and the U.S. Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has warned several times that the region's nations don't want to take sides. While countries are building economic links with China, some have also sought the buffer of strategic relations with America.

Singapore has strong historical and cultural ties to China, since the ancestors of many residents were traders from the mainland. The late Lee Kuan Yew -- the former prime minister and current leader's father -- was regarded as a conduit for China to the rest of the region. Singapore last year hosted the first summit between presidents of China and Taiwan since their civil war.

"For quite some time, Singapore has been pretending to seek a balance between China and the U.S., yet has been taking Washington's side in reality," China's state-run Global Times newspaper said in an editorial on Monday. "This has turned Singapore into a platform for Washington to contain and deter Beijing."

Singapore has strengthened military ties with the U.S. over the past year, allowing Poseidon surveillance aircraft to operate out of its territory, as well as littoral combat ships. Neither Singapore nor the U.S. are claimants in the South China Sea.

The Global Times warned that Singapore's actions could deal a "huge blow to bilateral ties, result in a possible adjustment to Beijing's foreign policies and profoundly impact Singapore's economy." Singapore has said it wants a diplomatic solution to the maritime disputes, and for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to take a joint position.

China is Singapore's largest trading partner, closely followed by the U.S. More than a fifth of Singapore's gross domestic product is linked to China, according to Natixis SA. Singapore has a growing role as a gateway to Southeast Asia for President Xi Jinping's "One Belt, One Road" initiative, which aims to revive ancient trading routes to Europe. Still, the tensions won't necessarily hit economic ties.

"The issue between Singapore and China needs to be handled between the two governments in accordance with the applicable laws and in the context of a deep and wide-ranging relationship,'' Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said in a statement.

The military vehicles seized in Hong Kong lacked appropriate permits, and weren't specifically declared on the ship's manifest, the South China Morning Post reported Thursday, citing an unnamed person with knowledge of the matter. The Singaporean Defense Ministry said in a statement Thursday that Hong Kong authorities gave the shipping firm no formal reason for the seizure. It urged cooperation with the investigation.

For now, Singapore is reacting cautiously. No single issue would hijack Singapore's "longstanding, wide-ranging relationship with China," Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said at a forum this week in Singapore, according to the Straits Times.

Singapore hasn't said it if plans to alert or stop military training in Taiwan. It has used the island for decades, in part because of its own limited size. China's relationship with Taiwan has deteriorated since January, when the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party swept the more conciliatory Kuomintang from power.

Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said the seizure "kills two birds with one stone by demonstrating China's displeasure with Taiwan's military engagement with other countries."

The risk now is other behavior that was previously tolerated becomes a problem, said Jia Xiudong, former counselor for political affairs with the Chinese embassy in Washington.

"It's getting really hard for Asian nations to balance between China and the U.S. when the two powers have shown growing signs of friction," said Jia, a senior research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies under the foreign ministry. "One may have to pick a side, or at least it has to be very careful to not damage the core interest of any side."