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China makes representation to Singapore over military ties to Taiwan

Six of the nine armored troop carriers belonging to Singapore, from a shipment detained at a container terminal, are seen in Hong Kong, China, November 24, 2016. Photo: Reuters

China said on Monday that it had lodged a protest to Singapore over its military ties with Taiwan after Singaporean Armed Forces (SAF) vehicles were seized in Hong Kong.

The nine armored troop carriers were en route from Taiwan to Singapore when they were impounded by Hong Kong customs as "suspected controlled items" last week.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a press briefing on Monday that China has asked Singapore to "strictly abide by the laws of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), and cooperate with the SAR government on all necessary follow-ups".

"The Chinese government has always firmly opposed countries that have diplomatic ties with China to have any form of official exchanges with Taiwan, including military exchanges and cooperation," he said.

"We asked that the Singapore government strictly abide by the one-China principle," he added.

The Global Times, China's nationalist state-owned newspaper, warned that Singapore's "hypocrisy" over its military relationship with Taiwan could harm its relations with China.

"It is no longer reasonable for Singapore to continue any kind of military exchange with Taiwan," said an opinion article in the paper, written by a commentator identified only as Ai Jun, which is a homonym for "love the army".

Earlier this year the Global Times and Singapore became embroiled in a public spat after the newspaper accused Singapore of unnecessarily pressing the issue of the disputed South China Sea at a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Venezuela — a charge Singapore denied.

For decades Singapore sought to remain neutral in the confrontation between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan, and hosted a landmark summit between their leaders last year. But it continues to have defense ties with Taipei despite strong Chinese objections.

The armored carriers appeared to be part of training exercises held in Taiwan by Singaporean troops, which have taken place regularly under a previously secret defense agreement signed by the two sides in 1975 and reported in the Chinese and Taiwanese press.

However, Beijing has said that it is losing patience with this practice, particularly since Singapore and China established diplomatic relations in 1990.

Singapore did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the seized vehicles. Hong Kong's customs agency said that the case was "under investigation".

Analysts said that Beijing's protest did not come as a surprise as the issue of defense cooperation between Singapore and Taiwan came to light.

"For Beijing not to state its position robustly would jeopardize its longstanding position on Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province," David Boey, who is a member of Mindef's Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defense (Accord), told the Straits Times.

Given the recent unhappiness among certain quarters of Chinese society with Singapore recently, it is inevitable that Beijing has to openly chide Singapore for this, according to Jinan University South-east Asia expert Zhang Mingliang.

While this move is a warning directed at both Taipei and Singapore, cross-strait expert Wang Weinan of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences said this appears to be more targeted at Taipei.

"Under the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, cross-strait tensions have slowly heightened.

"This should ring an alarm bell for Taipei as it is yet another way for Beijing to constrain its international space," Wang added.

The spat over the military vehicles also comes as Beijing is showing a new assertiveness towards its Asian neighbors. After decades of following a foreign policy of "keeping a low profile", China has begun to actively court US allies such as the Philippines and Thailand, while putting pressure on countries such as Singapore and South Korea that are deepening ties with Washington.

Singapore has strengthened its military ties with the US over the past year, agreeing to boost co-operation on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions as well as cyber-security. Singapore allowed US Poseidon surveillance aircraft to operate from the city-state last December.

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