Singapore and Hong Kong are making a concerted effort to bring their bilateral relationship to an even keel after ties became strained late last year due to seizure of some military vehicles by Hong Kong.
On Tuesday, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean arrived in Hong Kong for a two-day visit aimed at improving mutual ties.
It marked the first such trip by a top Singapore dignitary to Hong Kong since a high-profile spat between the two governments last November when Hong Kong customs detained nine Singapore armored personnel carriers that were transiting through a local port.
The seizure of the Terrex infantry vehicles, which were being transported on a commercial ship back to Singapore after being deployed in training exercises in Taiwan, triggered a war of words between the two sides.
Hong Kong authorities said at the time that they were investigating possible breach of laws in transport of the military vehicles, while Singapore said the equipment was sovereign property and that Hong Kong had no right to detain it.
Hong Kong eventually returned the vehicles in January, but the preceding events led to a chill in bilateral relations and prompted observers to wonder if things will get back to normal between the two Asian economic rivals.
But with Teo, who is Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s direct deputy, now making a trip to Hong Kong, it seems the two governments have put the recent tensions behind them.
Teo was received with a high level of hospitality and meetings have been arranged with Hong Kong’s former, present and incoming leaders and the business community.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Singapore deputy PM met with Hong Kong’s incumbent leader Leung Chun-ying at the Government House, after attending a lunch hosted by Chief Executive-elect Carrie Lam.
“DPM Teo and CE Leung reaffirmed the longstanding friendship at all levels between Singapore and Hong Kong and expressed appreciation that officials from both sides continue to have frequent exchanges to share experiences over the years,” Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
During the lunch with Lam, who will take over as Hong Kong’s top leader in July, Teo invited her to visit Singapore for reciprocal exchange.
On Wednesday, Teo will catch up with former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, among other engagements.
Teo’s visit represents a thaw in relations between Singapore and Hong Kong following the military vehicles seizure saga.
Hong Kong Customs intercepted and subsequently impounded the armoured fighting vehicles when they were in transshipment from Taiwan at Hong Kong’s Kwai Chung container terminal.
Lack of proper entry permit for strategic goods was blamed for the detainment that caught Singaporean authorities off guard.
Given the scarcity of land in Singapore, the city-state’s military had been conducting drills and exercises in Taiwan for decades and Hong Kong has been used as a transshipment point for equipment.
There were no problems with such activities before, but it was a different picture in November 2016. Given the sudden tough stand, observers have speculated that Beijing may be trying to exact revengeon Singapore for the city-state’s unsolicited interposition in South China Sea disputes.
Singapore’s military cooperation with Taiwan, now ruled by the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, was also seen as an irritant for Beijing.
Singapore’s defense ministry expected a swift conclusion to the crisis, yet the Terrex carriers ended up spending almost three months in a depot in Tuen Mun.
During the time, it was rumored that experts from the Hong Kong Garrison of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army made a thorough inspection of the vehicles in custody.
On the surface, governments in the three places sought to downplay the saga, but commentators in Singapore castigated Hong Kong for “acting on behalf of and at the behest of Beijing”.
The turnaround came when Hong Kong’s leader Leung told his counterpart in Singapore in January that all the equipment would be released when the Hong Kong Customs finishes its investigation.
The assurance came after Singapore PM Lee wrote a letter to Leung demanding that the vehicles be returned without any further delay.
Lee admitted in an interview earlier this year that his government had been in close liaison with Beijing to recoup the detained vehicles stuck in Hong Kong.
Last month, Hong Kong Customs laid charges against the logistics company commissioned by Singapore’s defense ministry, accusing the firm of shipping military goods into Hong Kong without securing prior approval.
It stressed that the Singaporean government had never been a subject of investigation.
“There are over 50 direct flights per day between Singapore and Hong Kong, and Hong Kong has one of the largest overseas Singaporean communities… There are ups and downs in ties… [the seizure] is over and should not stand in the way when both sides have agreed to look forward to further cooperation, as anyhow, both sides have substantial stakes in each other’s place,” a member of the Singapore Chamber of Commerce Hong Kong, who declined to be named, told EJ Insight.
It’s worth noting that Teo, the high-ranking Singapore official who is visiting Hong Kong, is also Singapore’s Co-ordinating Minister for National Security.
It’s believed that Teo may use the opportunity to explain to Hong Kong officials future transshipment arrangements of military equipment, given that Singapore plans to follow its usual routine and conduct military drills again in Taiwan this year.
Teo visited Beijing in February, a trip seen as mending fences with China after the military vehicles incident.
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