What's behind detention of Singapore armored vehicles?

China Military
Zhang Tao

"Ghost ship carries mysterious weapon"

By Southern Weekly's press time, the Singaporean military and foreign ministry had assigned a mediation team to Hong Kong and had at least three rounds of negotiations for the sole purpose of retrieving the detained military equipment.

The Singaporean defense ministry issued a brief statement on November 24, claiming that the detained equipment was mainly Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles (ICVs) used by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) for routine overseas training, but they didn't mention where the "overseas training" was carried out.

According to the shipping records provided by the terminal and relevant shipping organizations, the cargo ship carrying the armored vehicles (numbered APL QATAR 041) set off from Taiwan's Kaohsiung on November 21, berthed at Xiamen's Haitian Port on the way and was scheduled to arrive in Singapore on November 29.

But before the cargo ship's strange shipping route was explained, there were many conjectures about "China coveting Singapore's military secrets in the advanced armored vehicles".

"The AV-81 is doubtlessly trump card equipment independently developed by Singapore and is favored by the US Marines for its good performance. Singapore secured a contract of more than USD100 million in March this year to sell 13 such vehicles to the US for testing," said Martin Oei, a Hong Kong pundit.

Martin Oei wrote an article on Singapore's Lian He Zao Bao, saying that "given the Chinese military's strong interests in America's cutting-edge military technologies, high-level officials in the PLA definitely want to know the technical details of AV-81."

Battlefield communication and electronic interference are critical in modern warfare. It is said that the detained Terrex vehicles are equipped with frequency-hopping radio communication system, which is related with the "battlefield real-time communication system" currently built between Singapore and US, Singapore and Taiwan, and Taiwan and US.

But a military expert from Beijing didn't agree to this. "The US military just bought several Terrex vehicles for partner training. To say that China wants the technical details of 'Singapore's advanced armored vehicles' shows how arrogant they are. Chinese armored vehicles and communication systems are in no way inferior."

"Almost all conjectures assume that the detention was conducted by Hong Kong Customs under the order of the Chinese government, but people who hold this view made a fundamental mistake and know nothing about the relation between the central government and Hong Kong government under the 'one country, two systems' framework," said Wang Jiangyu, associate professor at the Faculty of Law of National University of Singapore, and deputy director of its Asian Law Institute.

To prevent "Hong Kong from becoming the means of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction", the Hong Kong SAR government has established a rigorous legal system over the years to restrict the import and export of strategic materials.

According to Wang Jiangyu, it's impossible for Beijing to directly command functional departments within the Hong Kong governments either legally or realistically, and Hong Kong Customs is independent when enforcing the export and import restriction on strategic materials according to law.

Based on information released by various parties, the detention was more likely caused by carelessness. In terms of shipping route, the cargo ship didn't go from Taiwan directly to Singapore, but somehow berthed at Xiamen and Hong Kong.

According to regulations of Hong Kong Customs, the armored vehicles didn't have to apply for Customs clearance as long as they stayed onboard and didn't "land", but the carrier not only landed and stocked the military equipment, but also didn't apply for clearance.

"The SAF has transported general military equipment through commercial shipment for tens of years and they often berthed at Hong Kong. There has never been any problem," Singaporean Defense Minister NG Eng Hen said in self-defense in an interview.

CMA CGM Taiwan, the concerned shipping company, belongs to CMA CGM. It has been sold to French companies at least twice and is in a financial strain and chaotic management. The cargo ship carrying the armored vehicles wasn't in its shipping list, which was why some media used the title "ghost ship carrying mysterious weapon" at first.

Now the nine armored vehicles and associated equipment have been transferred to a warehouse at an inland port, the opened containers were sealed again, and Hong Kong Customs provided 24-hour security. Because of the detention, the "Starlight program" came under the spotlight again.

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