Will Singapore give up Taiwan to please Beijing?

October 12, 2017 10:02
Last year, Hong Kong seized nine Singaporean armored personnel carriers in a sign that Beijing was toughening its stance toward the tiny Southeast Asian state. Photo: Reuters/Asiaone

The seizure of nine armored personnel carriers belonging to the Singaporean military by Hong Kong customs last year was an unmistakable indication that Beijing was toughening its stance toward the tiny Southeast Asian state.

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

However, as the master of the so-called hedging diplomacy and known for its ability to navigate among great powers without committing itself to any of them, Singapore is unlikely to allow its sour relations with Beijing to go on indefinitely given China's growing economic and military might.

In my opinion, perhaps it would be in Singapore's best interests to play the “Taiwan card” in its bid to mend fences with Beijing.

The question is, is Singapore likely to sacrifice its special friendship with Taiwan that has lasted for decades in order to please Beijing? My answer is a resounding “yes”.

In fact, the close but low-profile military alliance between Singapore and Taiwan has remained an open secret in the international community over the years.

After Singapore gained independence in 1965, Premier Lee Kuan Yew was desperate to seek foreign aid so as to build his country's national defense  and find overseas training facilities for his army given Singapore's tiny size. Meanwhile, President Chiang Kai-shek of Taiwan was also desperate to find allies in order to break out of his diplomatic isolation, and the two of them simply hit it off.

During his visit to Taiwan in 1974, Lee sealed an agreement with Chiang Kai-shek's son Chiang Ching-kuo. According to the agreement, the Singaporean military would carry out regular joint military exercises with the Kuomintang forces on Taiwanese soil starting in 1975 under a program known as “Project Starlight”.

The program was also intended by Lee as a “hedge” against Israel, on which Singapore relied heavily as a weapons supplier, in an attempt to downplay and dilute the military ties between his country and Tel Aviv so as not to upset his Southeast Asian Islamic neighbors.

However, things have changed a lot ever since the end of the Cold War. And given China's unstoppable rise to superpower status, it has become increasingly apparent that Beijing is determined to rewrite the rules in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as change the approach of “hedging diplomacy” commonly adopted by Southeast Asian countries and bring them more into line.

Since Singapore has long been the “brain” of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), it is inevitable that Beijing would make an example of the tiny city-state in order to let the rest of ASEAN know who the new boss is.

And Singapore has got that message loud and clear, and is aggressively looking for something on which it can compromise in exchange for Beijing's goodwill. Obviously, scrapping “Project Starlight” or at least calling an indefinite halt to the program is among the handful of options that are currently on its table.

In fact, it is both rational and logical for Singapore to give up Taiwan in exchange for a closer relationship with Beijing.

It is because the economic ties between Singapore and Taipei are now much less important than it was during the 1970s. Currently, Taiwan is only the sixth largest trading partner of Singapore, whereas China has already replaced the US and become the No.1. Therefore, it is a no-brainer for Singapore as to which side it should take.

Since all the Cold War elements that prompted Singapore to ally itself with Taipei and the strategic need to use Taiwan as a hedge against Israel have disappeared, Singaporean leaders may simply find it difficult to justify keeping the military alliance with their Taiwanese counterparts.

Besides, there is actually no shortage of substitutes for “Project Starlight” as far as the Singaporean military is concerned, since it has already acquired a number of overseas training facilities and been embarking on regular training exercises with the armed forces of several other countries.

Last year, Singapore also concluded an agreement with Australia, under which the existing training facilities for the Singaporean army in Queensland will be expanded, and so is the number of Singaporean military personnel stationed there. All these have rendered the “Project Starlight” redundant and outdated.

David Lee Tawei, the foreign minister of Taiwan, recently said that “Project Starlight” is on course and on schedule as usual. However, perhaps leaders in Taipei just know full well how much longer the program can actually last.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct. 10

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