by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: AP

HONG KONG’S seizure of Singaporean armored vehicles returning from training exercises in Taiwan in late November raises the question whether China is applying pressure and putting a wedge between Singapore and Taiwan. Like many other nation-states, Singapore attempts to balance between China and other powers, but is cautious of China. As such, given the limited amount of space in the city-state of Singapore for military exercises, Singaporean armed forces carry out training drills in both Taiwan and China and not exclusively with one or the other.

With reports that the arms seizure in Hong Kong may have come after a tip off from Chinese authorities, some question whether the arms seizure was orchestrated by the Chinese government. That would not be altogether surprising, although it is also questionable why the armed vehicles were in Hong Kong to begin with. The armed vehicles’ presence in Hong Kong may have been an accident due to the Singaporean armed forces employing a civilian transport company. Regardless of why the event happened, the event has been seized upon by the Chinese government for its own purposes, with state-run media outlets using the incident as an occasion to drum up nationalism. It is to be questioned whether the armored vehicles will be returned by China, as with the US naval drone seized in recent days.

Singapore shares similarities with Taiwan in that both are small nation-states in the Asia-Pacific caught between the larger competing powers such as China and the United States. As such, it is not surprising that the Singaporean armed forces enjoyed strong ties with the ROC military in the past, although Singapore diplomatically recognizes only China as part of its One China policy.

The seizure of armored vehicles in Hong Kong is probably a fairly minor event which will not seriously affect the relationship between Singapore and China or even cross-strait relations between Taiwan and China. But, if the seizure of Singaporean military equipment was deliberately orchestrated by China in order to seize an unplanned opportunity,, it begs the question whether China intends to adopt strong-arm tactics regarding other Asia Pacific nation-states for future arms shipments that pass through territory under its control. While somewhat unlikely, this could seriously disrupt regional trade and greatly influence diplomatic relations between Asia-Pacific countries such as Singapore and China.

One of the seized armored carriers. Photo credit: SCMP

China has a notably wide definition of what it defines as its legitimate sovereignty, as well as a definition of sovereignty which sometimes shifts quite rapidly. This can be observed in China’s expanding claims over South China Seas islands as well as periodic outbursts from nationalistic netizens claiming parts of other nations, such as assertions of Chinese sovereignty over Okinawa because it paid tribute to the Ming and Qing dynasties. China’s claims over Taiwan are just the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, if one goes by past tributary states of various dynasties of imperial China, most of East Asia could be opened up to China’s specious claims of historical sovereignty.

Likewise, the definition of China as a “Han” nation, a nation of the ethnic “Chinese” race (中華民族), or a nation of the cultural “Chinese” (中華文化) is also prone to expanding. We can see this with attempts in contemporary popular entertainment to assimilate Genghis Khan as a “Chinese” emperor, never mind that Genghis Khan was emperor of the Mongolian empire, as well as claims that Tibetan Buddhism is fundamentally Chinese, even though Buddhism itself is originates from India, and nationalistic reactions against attempts to study the Qing dynasty’s Manchu rulers that take into account the fact that Manchus were not Han people.

While China does not presently extend its claims to Singapore, a Han majority political polity which runs its society according to claimed Confucian values, Singapore is particularly vulnerable to expanding claims about sovereignty or culture. Though Singapore may be tempted to throw Taiwan under the bus in favor of China, given that Taiwan is small compared to China, Singapore is understandably also wary of China, or that China’s claims about its rightful sovereignty might one day come to encompass Singapore.

But Singapore’s actions in handling a potential political crisis with China may set a precedent for other nations in the Asia Pacific caught between China, America, and other powers, as well as future regional political developments.