In the broader context of ties between Singapore and China, last week's seizure of nine Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) armoured vehicles by the Customs authorities in Hong Kong was not an incident of strategic significance, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan has said.
Dr Balakrishnan, the keynote speaker at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum yesterday, was responding to questions about recent frictions in the relationship between the two countries.
Touching on lessons learnt from the episode, Dr Balakrishnan said: "It will be a footnote on how to do things strictly, carefully and by the law. It's not a strategic incident; I don't lose any sleep over it."
He said officials on both sides understand that the relationship is "longstanding, multifaceted, mutually beneficial" and will not allow any single issue to hijack it.
"I wouldn't overreact to that... We expect commercial providers of services to strictly comply with the law, and we expect the law to take its course," he said at the forum at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
One thing in Chinese culture is, you never forget your old friends: people who were there with you in the beginning, people who were there with you through thick and thin. And surely, in Chinese culture, you appreciate this concept of loyalty to old friends. But at the same time, you know full well where I stand, that I believe in 'one China' and we will not deviate from that.
DR VIVIAN BALAKRISHNAN, Singapore's Foreign Minister.
The forum was organised by The Straits Times and presented by OCBC Premier Banking, with Mercedes-Benz as a partner.
Last Wednesday, Hong Kong Customs officials seized the SAF Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles and related equipment on board a container ship belonging to shipping firm APL.
The SAF vehicles were bound for Singapore after a military exercise in Taiwan.
The SAF conducts overseas training in a dozen or so territories and hires commercial shippers to transport military equipment.
On Monday, China said it made representations to Singapore voicing unhappiness over the incident. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Singapore should "strictly abide by the 'one China' principle".
Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore has believed in the "one China" policy since establishing diplomatic ties with China over 25 years ago.
"If you are truly close, there will be, from time to time, things you disagree about," he said.
"Fortunately or unfortunately for Singapore, we are very consistent, very transparent, and we call a spade a spade. It doesn't mean we are shifting our position or deliberately meaning to poke people in the eye."
Replying to a question from the audience on how Singapore will respond to Beijing's call to adhere strictly to the "one China" policy, he said Singapore does not conduct foreign policy by reflex.
Singapore's training arrangements with Taiwan are long-running and not a secret, he said, pointing to the large number of Singaporean men who have trained there since 1975.
"You all know, and in fact everyone, including China, knows, that we've had special arrangements with Taiwan for a long time and what we are doing there is no longer a secret," he said.
It would be a "surprise" if China kept silent about this arrangement, he said, but added he has told his Chinese counterpart that Singapore values its longstanding relationships.
"One thing in Chinese culture is, you never forget your old friends: people who were there with you in the beginning, people who were there with you through thick and thin. And surely, in Chinese culture, you appreciate this concept of loyalty to old friends," he said.
"But at the same time, you know full well where I stand, that I believe in 'one China' and we will not deviate from that."
On an issue like the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Singapore's own circumstances and history inform its position on the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight, sanctity of agreements and access to peaceful resolution of disputes, he said.