3 unambiguous takeaways from Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen’s parliament speech on the Terrex issue

We will soon know whether Hong Kong (or China) care about its free-port reputation.

By Chan Cheow Pong | January 9, 2017

Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen’s reply in Parliament on Monday has stated unambiguously Singapore government’s position on the recovery of the nine Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles (ICVs) detained in Hong Kong.

His widely reported remarks and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s letter to Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying are the latest signs that our government is stepping up efforts to resolve the issue.

For Singaporeans who are following the developments closely, we offer three takeaways from Ng’s speech:

1. MINDEF has to up its game at political risk assessment

Ng said that the SAF moves over 700 military platforms yearly and uses commercial carriers to all parts of the world. Moreover, it has been shipping military equipment based on established procedures for over 30 years without any significant incidents.

To ship all military equipment directly from point-to-point, he noted, would cost three to four times more, and add “several hundred million dollars” to MINDEF’s annual budget.

Exceptions not to use commercial shipping lines or special considerations are applied only in rare cases and the ICVs did not fall into the special category defined by security risk assessments, which necessitates special measures to be taken.

These special measures include chartering whole ships, mandating direct shipments, deploying protection forces or even converting the commercial ship to a State Marine Ensign.

Reflecting on the ongoing terrex incident, it is quite clear that there are gaps in MINDEF’s political risk assessment and asset protection plans.

Our recognition of the “One China Policy” and our long standing military relations with Taiwan taken together do not imply a natural state of affairs in perpetuity, given the complicated history of Cross-Strait relations.

A constant review of established plans and procedures, taking into account the latest developments in Singapore-China relations and the rising strength of China, could have picked up the increasing sensitivity of continuing with the indirect shipment of military equipment from Taiwan via China and Hong Kong.

In this case, cost considerations should not be the only overriding concerns that prevented special measures to be taken.

Ng said that the SAF has since reviewed its shipping procedures comprehensively “to reduce the risk of SAF equipment being taken hostage en route.”

“Where we think the risk of detention of SAF assets has gone up, whether in Asia or any other part of the world, we will impose extra precautions even if this means incurring higher freight charges. Alternatively, the SAF may consider housing that equipment at overseas training sites to avoid shipping them altogether, and procure additional units to meet operational requirements, where necessary.”

These are belated but necessary corrective measures though the evolving geo-political environment will continue to test our adaptive capacities.

There is certainly no room for complacency in the post-Trump world.

2. The implications resulting from the application of international law

The invoking of international law adds a new dimension to the understanding of the ongoing incident and has raised the stakes for resolving it.

MINDEF had not explicitly articulated its official position before Monday. The sovereign immunity principle under international law when applied, will mean that Hong Kong authorities should not treat it as a straightforward case for customs law enforcement.

Hong Kong authorities has since responded to PM Lee’s letter stating that the investigation is ongoing and will take some time to complete, and the Hong Kong Government will handle the matter in accordance with their laws.

Not unexpectedly, Ng’s speech has drawn a response from Beijing. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang has called on Singapore to “watch its words and actions”(谨言慎行) as the Hong Kong government is handling the issue according to the relevant laws.

(*The paragraph above has been updated to include quotes from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.)

Lu Kang said,

“I want to stress that China hopes other nations, including Singapore, follow the one-China principle. This is the foundation for bilateral ties between China and any other nation. I hope the relevant parties can follow the laws of Hong Kong, China.”

At this moment, no one is expecting or hoping for the issue to escalate further.

A diplomatic solution remains the best course of action, as the option of letting the issue be adjudicated in a domestic or international court will mean a drawn-out process that doesn’t do any favours to all parties.

3. Hong Kong’s free-port reputation is at stake

Our ICVs have been seized for more than a month.

Three unproductive meetings between the SAF-contracted shipping line APL and the Hong Kong Customs have not yielded any new information. No formal reasons have been proffered for the detention of the ICVs.

As what Ng said in parliament,

“Whether APL, the shipping company in this case, has complied with the rules of Hong Kong port is a matter between APL and the Hong Kong authorities, which should follow the due process of Hong Kong law. That issue between APL and Hong Kong Customs affects neither the legal position of the Terrexes nor Singapore Government’s rights. “

The incident has been widely perceived as China flexing its muscles to exhibit displeasure towards Singapore, who had not fallen in line on the South China Sea issue like a few of the Southeast Asian countries.

It was also an opportunity for China to signal its disapproval of Singapore’s military training in Taiwan.

The curious lack of urgency from Hong Kong customs to resolve the issue can only lead observers to conclude that non-commercial considerations were responsible for the impasse.

As Ng hinted in his speech, Hong Kong is “one of the busiest and most established transhipment points”.

And the ICVs?

“The terrex issue does not pose an existential threat or even a potential threat as say, terrorism does today. And the SAF must not lose focus or allow that one issue to dominate all else”, he said in an earlier Facebook post on the eve of New Year’s eve.

Obviously, it is not good news for Singapore if the “Hong Kong’s free-port status is being weaponised“.

But surely, the reputational damage to Hong Kong as an established free-port also increases as each day passes with no progress on the issue.

Top photo from MINDEF.

Related Articles:

9 APCs allegedly being shipped from Kaoshiung to S’pore, held at Hong Kong: HK media

Are we being “bullied” into submission by China over this Terrex incident?

Three reasons why our 9 Terrex vehicles won’t be home for Christmas

3 observations from MINDEF’s latest update on S’pore’s detained Terrexes

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About Chan Cheow Pong

It took Cheow Pong two decades to recover from the trauma of memorising General Paper essays before he was ready to be an English writer. In between affliction and recovery, he thoroughly enjoyed his time writing in Chinese and doing Chinese translations.

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