What's behind detention of Singapore armored vehicles?

China Military
Zhang Tao


Staff members of the Hong Kong Customs inspect the nine armored vehicles detected at Kwai Chung container terminal on November 24, 2016. (File photo)

A desperate trick of "self-injury"?

"The military cooperation between Singapore and Taiwan has been in existence since the age of Chiang Kai-shek. It's open but on a very low profile. When Singapore established diplomatic ties with the People's Republic of China in the 1990s, it reached an understanding with Beijing," said Li Mingjiang, a Singaporean expert on international issues.

The then Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew made a request to Chiang Ching-kuo asking for Taiwan's help in training Singaporean troops, and the two sides launched the "Starlight Program" in 1973, whereby Taiwan military officers in service assisted Singapore in building the navy, air force and army, which led to the strange phenomenon that Singapore's navy, air force and army commanders were all from Taiwan.

In 1976, Singapore formally assigned a "Starlight troop" comprising infantry, artillery and troopers to be trained in Taiwan regularly. The "Starlight Program" reached a peak in the mid-1980s when 15,000 Singapore soldiers were trained in Taiwan every year.

Singapore was once called the "Israel in Southeast Asia" because when it was first founded, not only was it surrounded by Malaysia and Indonesia where Malayans made up the main population, but the Singapore-Malaysia separation also put their relation in tension.

"Although we won't be beaten by enemies, it doesn't feel good to be stung by a wasp, and the best way is to leave it alone." "We should be like a poisonous shrimp, using our bright colors to warn others that we have strong poison in our body."

According to Lee Kuan Yew's defense security design, Singapore implemented the "wasp strategy" and "poisonous shrimp theory" after it was founded, and conducted "Balance Diplomacy" among various international forces for survival, the "Starlight program" being an important part of it.

The "Starlight Program" has hurt China and the cross-strait relation from the very beginning. When Lee Kuan Yew first visited China in May 1976, Chinese leaders then explicitly expressed their doubt. "Singapore's development of military connections with Taiwan contradicts its stance on supporting the One-China policy."

But Singapore and Taiwan further expanded the "Starlight program". In addition to training, they held "starlight conference" every year covering equipment R&D, training and many other aspects, and signed the so-called "China-Singapore agreement" in February 2001 that upgraded the program comprehensively. Singapore sent soldiers using advanced weapons such as main battle tank and Hawk air defense missile to Taiwan for training, while Taiwan sent C-130 transport plane pilots to be trained in Singapore.

This cooperation was so secret that it wasn't exposed until May 11, 2007 when an F-5F fighter jet crashed in Taiwan and four people died in it, including two Singaporean soldiers.

The "Starlight Program" was in its heyday in the period of Chiang Ching-kuo and the early stage of Lee Teng-hui's reign. But on April 21, 2002, several members of Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party and also of the legislative body including Chai Trong-rong said that the program, which was carried out in Taiwan for many years, might be moved to the Chinese mainland due to opposition by local people and limited training space.

Chen Tang-san, the person in charge of foreign relations in the Chen Shui-bian administration, even used insulting remarks against Singapore, which infuriated it so much that it threatened to drive away all Taiwan officials working in its offices in Singapore and move the "Starlight Program" to Hainan.

But the US didn't want to see the performance parameters of US-made weapons leaked. Jane's Defence Weekly reported earlier that Singapore assigned people to Hainan for field survey and believed it had better conditions than Taiwan, but the US strongly opposed this move, and Singapore naturally dared not defy this super power. Against such a background, another conjecture emerged.

"Let's think backward. It's possible that Singapore 'intentionally' leaked the track of the new armored vehicles it retracted from Taiwan in order to express its wish to end the 'Starlight Program' gradually."

There is a rumor that the detention of Singapore's armored vehicles in Hong Kong was "a self-injuring trick by the Singaporean military to expose the 'Starlight Program' on purpose, so as to draw international attention and trigger Beijing's opposition, which will give it the opportunity to exit Taiwan completely."

But this conjecture isn't well-evidenced, although the Singaporean military was indeed to blame. It didn't carefully check the shipping schedule of CMA CGM Taiwan, and allowed it to berth at Xiamen and Hong Kong on the way to "carry more cargoes in order to make more money".

After the vehicles were detained, Singapore's "starlight troop" in Taiwan wasn't informed in a timely manner either, but just passed the buck to the Taiwan Customs broker, and didn't report to Singaporean defense ministry about the detention until the broker found itself unable to do anything.

But it was too late. The sensitive and secret "Starlight Program" evolved into a diplomatic event.

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