19 March 2018
Nine armored personnel carriers that belong to the Singaporean army were seized by Hong Kong customs on Nov. 24. Photo: AP
Nine armored personnel carriers that belong to the Singaporean army were seized by Hong Kong customs on Nov. 24. Photo: AP

Sino-Singapore tensions: How long will these last

Relations between China and Singapore have been turbulent in recent months since the tiny Southeast Asian country took sides with the US over the territorial dispute in the South China Sea, angering Beijing.

And the recent seizure of nine armored personnel carriers that belong to the Singaporean army by Hong Kong customs is an unmistakable indication that Beijing is determined to teach Singapore a lesson.

The armored vehicles were in fact seized when they were on their way back from Taiwan to Singapore after a military exercise under a training program, known as “Project Starlight”, agreed by Singapore and Taiwan in the 1970s.

The dispute over the seized vehicles has once again brought to light the longstanding but low-profile military alliance between Singapore and Taiwan.

When Singapore gained independence in 1965, it was desperate to seek foreign aid and build its own national defense amid the potential threat posed by its two Islamic neighbors — Malaysia and Indonesia.

However, after its appeal for help had been turned down by other Southeast Asian countries which did not want to risk angering Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, as well as by both the US and the UK, Singapore turned to Israel and Taiwan for assistance.

Singapore relied heavily on Israel as a weapons supplier and approached Taiwan about forming some sort of an alliance in order to hold regular bilateral military exercises on Taiwanese soil given the tiny space in Singapore.

After rounds of secret talks, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew signed an agreement with president Chiang Ching-kuo of Taiwan in 1975 under which “Project Starlight” was launched.

Under the project, Taiwan agreed to provide grounds and bases for the Singaporean military for weapons testing and military training purposes. In return, Singapore would guarantee Taiwan access to some of the latest weapons technology from western countries through Israel.

For decades Beijing has been looking the other way as far as “Project Starlight” is concerned thanks to Lee Kuan Yew’s masterful diplomatic skills and Taipei’s acknowledgement of the “One China” principle.

In fact, over the years China, Taiwan and Singapore have reached an unspoken consensus that as long as “Project Starlight” remained low-profile, Singapore strictly followed its “One China” policy and Taipei did not seek independence, Beijing would not interfere.

Unfortunately, as Tsai Ing-wen, the independence-leaning president of Taiwan, has refused to publicly endorse the so-called “1992 consensus”, and Singapore has been increasingly toeing Washington’s line over the South China Sea dispute after Lee Kuan Yew’s death, the tripartite agreement among Beijing, Singapore and Taipei over “Project Starlight” appears to be no longer applicable, and hence Beijing’s sudden hard-line approach.

However, I believe the currently tense diplomatic relations between Singapore and Beijing will not last long.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan. 24

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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