It is almost a month since nine Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles (ICVs) were seized in Hong Kong on Nov.24, as the Singapore-bound cargo ship transited through the port.
The ICVs belong to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), which contracted APL as the commercial shipping line to transport the ICVs and its associated equipment from Taiwan to Singapore. They do not contain any ammunition or sensitive equipment on board.
MINDEF has announced today that the Government has communicated its formal position to the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) on the issue, adding that they “await a full resolution of this matter and return of our property by the Hong Kong SAR Government”.
Here are three reasons why the 9 Terrex vehicles won’t be home for Christmas.
1. Unlike the Chinese, the Hong Kongers are showing a lack of urgency in the issue. Or maybe it’s Christmas.
Compared to the war of words between the US and China over the underwater drone, Beijing had been pretty hands-off over the ICVs issue.
China’s Foreign Ministry’s last statement was on Nov 28, where the spokesperson asked Singapore to “strictly abide by the relevant laws of the government of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and to cooperate with the SAR government in handling follow-up work”.
If we were to take the statements at face-value, it could perhaps be bureaucratic red tape in Hong Kong that is prolonging the process.
The Chinese ministry of defence told South China Morning Post on Monday there was no progress to report.
While Singapore is taking the issue seriously with the involvement of the Singapore Consulate General in Hong Kong and an SAF team, the Hong Kong authorities appeared to be mired in long meetings with APL.
Afterall, three meetings were conducted between APL and the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department, with the last meeting being conducted for 6 hours on Dec 6.
And yet, no formal reasons were given for the detention of ICVs. Hong Kong authorities has kept silent on this matter to date to the general public.
Holiday mood or everyone away for the year-end holidays maybe?
2. The drone return to US is not a like-for-like comparison with the Terrex vehicles.
On Dec 15, the Navy underwater drone was seized in front of the Americans’ very eyes when a Chinese navy submarine rescue vessel dispatched a small boat to pick it up in the waters off the Philippines.
The drone belonged to the USNS Bowditch — an unarmed oceanographic survey ship.
It took less than a week (Dec 22), since the drone was seized, for the Chinese government to return the apparently intact drone back to the US.
But this incident is very different from Singapore’s.
The difference is that the incident occurred in the international waters, unlike Singapore’s case where our vehicles are stuck in a free port linked to China.
In fact, New York Times noted that the drone was captured not only in international waters but also beyond the marker China uses to delineate its claims in the South China Sea.
In other words, Pentagon Press Secretary was right to argue for its return because China had “unlawfully seized” it. Hence, it would be embarrassing for China if it did not comply with all of its obligations under international law.
3. A previous case in Hong Kong took nearly two months to be resolved.
While the Singaporean public is understandably impatient about how long the return process is taking, a previous stand-off involving a South Korean armoured vehicle in Hong Kong took 51 days to resolve.
And we are only in Day 29.
Hoo Tiang Boon, a foreign affairs expert at Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University told South China Morning Post that returning military vehicles, unlike the civilian technology-US drone case, would involve a complicated legal process, using the South Korean stand-off in 2010 as an example.
While this doesn’t mean that Singaporeans shouldn’t be concerned about the long wait, one is sure that Hong Kong’s reputation as a free port is worth more than the cost of 9 Terrex vehicles.
Merry Christmas, Hong Kong.
Top photo from Munshi Ahmed/Bloomberg via Getty Images.