The parliamentary discussion this week of the Terrex detention issue clarified a major point, that this is an issue of law. As Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen explained, the seizure of the nine Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Terrex infantry carriers in Hong Kong does not comply with international or Hong Kong law. The fact is that the vehicles are the property of the Singapore Government, and hence protected by sovereign immunity, meaning that they cannot legally be detained or confiscated by other countries. This principle, being well established under international law, is also the law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR). Hence, it is only natural that Singapore looks forward to the carriers being returned.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's letter to Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying underlines the need for the return. The Hong Kong authorities' assurance, that the SAR government would handle the matter according to its laws, is a welcome response which would make Singaporeans hope that the return of the Terrex carriers is a matter of administrative time only. Clearly, whether the shipping company carrying the Terrex vehicles complied with the rules of Hong Kong port is a matter between the company and the Hong Kong authorities, which should follow the due process of Hong Kong law. That issue does not affect the legal reality that the Terrexes are the property of the Singapore Government.
In spite of the legal clarity of the issue, the detention of the Terrex vehicles has raised questions in the public mind about whether the move is an act of Chinese retribution for Singapore's perceived defiance of their interests. These could do with China's relations with Taiwan, where the Terrex carriers participated in a military exercise before their journey to Singapore was interrupted in Hong Kong; or Singapore's stance on the South China Sea dispute. The truth is that neither Singapore's long-established military exercises in Taiwan, nor its principled position on a peaceful resolution of the maritime dispute consonant with international law, subverts a fundamental and abiding commitment to its "one China" policy.
After all, the military exercises have co-existed with Singapore's growing economic and political relations with China since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1990. As for the South China Sea, Singapore cannot be faulted for having adopted a consistent and clear line on the dispute despite not being a claimant state. Instead, it is international law that Singapore turns to, issue after international issue, because it is that law which enables small states like itself to exist in the interstices of international relations. Nations such as the United States and a resurgent China no doubt play a leading role in the evolution of international power politics, but Singapore must believe in the power of law over the law of power.