The seizure of nine Singapore Armed Forces armoured vehicles by Hong Kong Customs has produced disquiet, partly because the shipping details and reasons for detention have not been released. Going by its reputation, one would assume the shipping line that SAF engaged routinely complies with the rules and procedures of all ports of call. If something is amiss, the Hong Kong authorities have as much reason to act as Singapore has when ships within its jurisdiction contravene regulations.
But not enough is known on how exactly the shipping of SAF's military vehicles is in breach of rules. The vehicles were training platforms and bore no ammunition. And the use of commercial shipping lines is in keeping with a peacetime norm. Whatever comes next in this episode, it should be placed in the larger context of the longstanding ties between Singapore and China. The city-state was China's largest foreign investor last year, various government-to-government economic projects have been undertaken in China, and Singapore helped the West to understand China better during earlier years. Last year, Singapore proved its facilitative role in cross-strait relations again when the top Chinese and Taiwanese leaders met here face to face for the first time since 1949.
The constancy of relations has been matched by Singapore's openness about its dealings with all friendly nations and the principles it has long upheld. Where multilateral links hold the potential for friction, Singapore has strived to resolve this - for example, underlying its friendship towards both China and Taiwan is its consistent support for the "One China" principle. That bears mentioning because recently strained cross-strait ties have been cited as a reason for the detention. The SAF Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles were returning from a military exercise in Taiwan - the site of training space which was granted in 1975. Land-scarce Singapore has to conduct military training in about a dozen countries, and this is done in an above-the-board manner.
As long as the vehicles remain detained, various theories and motives will no doubt continue to be circulated, with hardliners urging drastic action like melting down the impounded vehicles. This is precisely why it should be emphasised that an incident of this nature should not be allowed to mar bilateral ties. Singapore has a long record of being an honest broker, good friend and constructive collaborator, as Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan put it, in its dealings with not just China but also other countries that it has sound ties with. Singaporeans know this all too well and would find it unacceptable if the vehicles were being held as part of a wider strategy to assert power or make other geopolitical points. Among old friends, such discussions are best done diplomatically.