Hong Kong: China has been making significant diplomatic inroads into degrading American influence in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly with the Philippines and Malaysia.
However, there are reasons why countries should be cautious about spurning erstwhile supporters like the U.S.A. and moving into the “loving” embrace of China.
On 5 November, Malaysia surprised many by signing on the dotted line for four Littoral Mission Ships for the Royal Malaysian Navy. Cost was touted as a major factor in the decision to buy from China, but it also reflected geopolitical realities.
Besieged Prime Minister Najib Razak, under fire at home and abroad for implication in the 1MDB funding scandal, boasted of a “comprehensive strategic partnership” between the two countries.
This was Malaysia’s largest ever military acquisition from China, and such a move is not taken lightly considering, the difficulty in integrating Chinese and Western sensors and weapons onto naval platforms.
China routinely uses arms exports as a form of soft diplomacy, as it makes countries reliant on its technology and spare parts, so, it will be pleased to scoop this Malaysian naval contract.
Likewise, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte was wooed by China during his visit to Beijing from 18-21 October, where he proudly announced, “America has lost.” He continued, “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow…” He even went so far as to announce a trilateral alliance between China, Russia and the Philippines as a counter balance to the U.S.A.
Yet, can China be trusted? It has only been a matter of months since China and its innumerable proxies lambasted Manila for taking its case against Beijing’s South China Sea territorial claims to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
Extremely acerbic and biting accusations were made against the Philippines, but how quickly Duterte has forgotten these in a major surrender to Chinese influence-peddling.
Yet another incident has highlighted the machinations of China against those who dare to disagree with it. In this instance, it was Taiwan and Singapore. The saga commenced when nine Singapore Army Terrex 8×8 infantry carrier vehicles (ICV) – built by ST Kinetics in Singapore – were impounded in Hong Kong on 23 November. They were being transported from Kaohsiung in Taiwan to Singapore aboard the commercial ship APL Qatar 041, and were confiscated for allegedly being undeclared military equipment without the appropriate documentation when the ship berthed in Hong Kong.
As well as the interdiction itself, what is interesting are the circumstances that led to the APL Qatar 04 being searched far more thoroughly than usual? Indeed, instead of the normal two or three customs officers, the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department dispatched a whole team to search the ship’s cargo. Hong Kong Customs originally stated it was a “routine inspection”, but this did not turn out to be the case at all.
Instead, the Chinese authorities were responsible for this tipoff, for the container ship had stopped in Xiamen in China on 21 November before reaching Hong Kong two days later. Law enforcement in China had noted the presence of the Singaporean vehicles aboard the ship, but did nothing to apprehend them. Rather, they passed word to Hong Kong for it to do the dirty deed.
The question needs to be asked why China acted in this way. There were a number of factors involved, but at its heart there appears to be a Chinese ploy to both reprimand Singapore and to further isolate Taiwan. This was implicit in Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang’s statement that China “has long been resolutely opposed to official exchanges, including military exchange and cooperation, between Taiwan and any countries that have diplomatic ties with China”.
At the center of the issue is that Singapore conducts military training in Taiwan. Singapore’s secretive Starlight training program was instituted following a 1975 agreement, and it has continued unabated over the years. These Terrex ICVs were returning to Singapore after a round of training, and they even featured Taiwanese number plates to disguise the vehicles’ origins.
This training is unilateral rather than bilateral and, while China dislikes the idea of any country training in or with Taiwan, it has maintained a stony silence over the years regarding Singapore’s sensitive mission in Taiwan. But no more, it seems!
Why this change of heart? It relates to Singapore’s more vocal disagreement with China’s assertive claims in the South China Sea, and its resistance to China’s narrative about the regional security architecture.
Of course, Singapore hosts U.S. Navy warships – currently one Littoral Combat Ship but building up to four – as well as P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft that have operated from Singaporean runways, which is cause for further Chinese angst.
Clearly a tipping point was reached, and Beijing has decided to remind Singapore of its place in the hierarchy.
An editorial in China’s often inflammatory Global Times newspaper reveals the annoyance China has been accruing against a pesky Singapore. The editorial claimed, “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.”
The complaint continued, “Singapore claimed it was not picking sides in the South China Sea disputes, but its remarks about the issue are far from neutral; instead, it has actually complicated and expanded the scale of the case.” It went so far as to say Singapore was a puppet, “a platform for Washington to contain and deter Beijing”.
In the latest twist, on 28 November, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang revealed that China had lodged a formal protest with Singapore over the incident.
Among his comments, he said, “We call on Singapore to act in accordance with the laws of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in handling the matter,” and that Singapore needed to “abide by the one China principle”.
At the same time, perhaps China feels that now is a good time to isolate Taiwan. Relations with Taipei soured after the election of Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, with the incoming leader not bowing to Chinese pressure the way the preceding Kuomintang party did. China perhaps saw and seized an opportunity to both slap Singapore over the wrist and to marginalize Taiwan even further.
It was notable that China used Hong Kong as a proxy to execute the detention of the Singaporean military vehicles. Such a move helps deflect responsibility from Beijing itself and onto another party. Of course, the Hong Kong government simply does Beijing’s bidding nowadays, but it is less inflammatory for Hong Kong to do it than China.
Questions remain over whether representatives or associates of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will gain or have gained access to the nine vehicles. The Terrex as a design has been around for about a decade, so it is not new.
However, Singapore Army examples are typically fitted with an advanced indigenous battlefield management system. Such digital technology would be of infinite interest to the PLA. In a statement, Singapore’s Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) said “no sensitive equipment” was on board the Terrex ICVs.
However, Singapore was concerned enough to send a team to Hong Kong to help secure the vehicles, although the damage would likely have been done long before they arrived.
Another aspect worth considering is that the Terrex has participated in international competitions. ST Kinetics entered the Terrex 3 in the Australian Army’s Land 400 Phase 2 competition to find a new 8×8 armored vehicle, although it was later rejected. Elsewhere, the Terrex 2 is currently one of two contenders in the U.S. Marine Corps ACV1.1 requirement for a new amphibious combat vehicle.
China now has ample opportunity to keep Singapore on tenterhooks and to drag out this saga. On 24 November, MINDEF said in a press release that it expected “the shipment to return to Singapore expeditiously”.
However, this could be a rather premature and naive sentiment. The future of these nine vehicles hangs in the balance, and their final fate will depend on how negotiations with China’s Foreign Ministry proceed.
Another consideration for Singapore from this debacle is the vulnerability of its military logistics network. Many of its assets are distributed around the world – since it conducts training in places as diverse as Australia, France, Taiwan and the U.S.A. – so it would need to return them home if the island ever comes under threat. The ease with which China interdicted this cargo ship -legally too, it must be stressed – illustrates that a hostile power could relatively easily exert political pressure or block supply routes.
This lesson should be particularly pertinent for China’s protagonists such as Japan and South Korea, who are reliant on sea lines of communication. Beijing is becoming more vociferous in its criticism of Seoul due to the latter’s approval for an American THAAD missile defense battery to deploy to the Korean Peninsula.
Yet, just over 12 months ago, President Park Geun-hye was a guest of honor at President Xi Jinping’s spectacular military parade in Beijing. How quickly one can fall out of China’s favor!
Minnows like the Philippines and Malaysia should also take note too of Chinese machinations too. As soon as either country deviated from the script book or disagreed with China on some matter, how easy it would be for Beijing to show its displeasure and to exert undue pressure. While the country might now offer a hand of friendship, that could very quickly clench into an angry fist.
Singapore had already publicly announced a major pivot in its strategic and military relations. In May, it revealed it would invest USD 1.66 billion to upgrade military training facilities in Australia and at the same time enjoy greater access to them. The removal of nine armored vehicles, while it may have been a regular rotation of equipment, could have been part of an associated draw down from Taiwan. Certainly, utilizing Australia instead of Taiwan for military training is strategically and militarily more sensible for the lion city.
Certainly, the chance of Sydney seizing Singaporean military assets is far less than China doing so.
Therein is a lesson – countries should exercise caution in their dealings with China. Yes, pandas are cuddly and cute, but they can also bite, scratch or roll over the top of you! (ANI)