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Analysis: Terrexgate politics and defence collide

28th November 2016 - 8:33 by Gordon Arthur in Hong Kong

Analysis: Terrexgate politics and defence collide

Diplomatic telephone lines between Singapore and China were glowing red after nine Singapore Army Terrex 8x8 infantry carrier vehicles (ICV) were impounded in Hong Kong on 23 November.

Being carried aboard the commercial ship APL Qatar 041, nine vehicles and three containers holding ancillary equipment were en route from Kaohsiung in Taiwan to Singapore. They were confiscated for allegedly being undeclared military equipment.

What emerged is that the Chinese authorities were responsible for this act using the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department. The ship stopped in Xiamen in China on 21 November before reaching Hong Kong two days later. 

Hong Kong Customs originally said it was a ‘routine inspection’, but Chinese law enforcement agencies tipped them off. Furthermore, instead of employing the usual two or three customs officers, a whole team was despatched to search APL Qatar 041.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said goods arriving and exiting Hong Kong should abide by relevant rules. Tellingly, he added that China ‘has long been resolutely opposed to official exchanges, including military exchange and cooperation, between Taiwan and any countries that have diplomatic ties with China’.

This is the heart of the matter, for the Terrex ICVs were being used in Taiwan for Singapore’s secretive Starlight training programme, which was started following a 1975 agreement. Singapore has continuous troop detachments training in Taiwan, though unilaterally rather than bilaterally. 

Interestingly, a photo of one of the Terrex vehicles shows it sporting a Taiwanese number plate, a measure taken to disguise the vehicle’s origins whilst in Taiwan. Unsurprisingly, press releases issued by Singapore’s Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) continued to avoid any reference to Taiwan.

China has historically maintained a stony silence about Singapore’s training presence in Taiwan, even though it rankles. With Singapore now being more outspoken about China’s assertive claims in the South China Sea, clearly a tipping point was reached in Beijing’s relations with the island state.

An editorial reprinted by the People’s Daily lent strength to the political nature of the debacle. It asserted, ‘For quite some time, Singapore has been pretending to seek a balance between China and the US, yet has been taking Washington’s side in reality.’ In support, it referred to Singapore’s willingness to host US Navy assets and the operation of P-8A maritime patrol aircraft.

The editorial accused Singapore of being ‘a platform for Washington to contain and deter Beijing’. It added, ‘Singapore claimed it was not picking sides in the South China Sea disputes, but its remarks about the issue are far from neutral; instead, it has actually complicated and expanded the scale of the case.’

By confiscating these Singapore Army vehicles, and using Hong Kong as a proxy to help defray direct responsibility, China showed its anger against Singapore for the culminating ‘crimes’ of cooperating with Taiwan and daring to resist China’s narrative in the South China Sea.

The incident also raises questions about transportation of military equipment. Singapore has long been using commercial shipping to move assets internationally, including to and from Taiwan. 

However, MINDEF’s claim that shipping companies are ‘required to comply with stringent requirements for protection against theft and tampering of equipment’, and that there have been ‘no incidents of losses, theft or tampering over the years,’ is little consolation now. 

MINDEF pointed a finger of blame at the APL shipping company, saying it was ‘required to comply with all regulations including the declaration of transported equipment…’ However, it does reflect complacency Singapore’s part – should it not have recognised the risks in transporting military equipment from Taiwan via Chinese ports?

It certainly illustrates Singapore’s vulnerability if the island comes under threat, especially since many assets are distributed around the globe for training purposes. In any conflict scenario, it would appear relatively simple for China, or any other potential adversary, to block access or to apply pressure.

There are lessons to be learned here for other countries such as Japan, the Philippines, South Korea or Taiwan, where China could interdict foreign vessels to express political displeasure.

Is Hong Kong Customs likely to allow access by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) or its affiliates to examine the Terrex vehicles? Customs did not respond to Shephard’s query on this issue, but this is clearly a fear since Singapore despatched a team to help secure the vehicles.

While the Terrex is a decade-old design, of far greater interest to China would be any digital battlefield management system (BMS) aboard the vehicles. MINDEF stated there was ‘no sensitive equipment on board’ the Terrex vehicles, although this is a denial one would expect.

The Terrex has international connections too. ST Kinetics entered the Terrex 3 (Sentinel II) in the Australian Army’s Land 400 Phase 2 competition, although it was not selected. Elsewhere, the Terrex 2 is a contender in the US Marine Corps ACV1.1 requirement. 

For this reason alone, the Terrex and its underlying design philosophy should be of interest to Chinese engineers.

In a statement issued on 24 November, MINDEF said it expected ‘the shipment to return to Singapore expeditiously’. However, the fate of these nine vehicles is far from assured and will depend on negotiations with China’s Foreign Ministry. 

Hong Kong has previously permanently confiscated military vehicles transiting through the territory, including a WZ551 on its way back to China from a Thai defence exhibition. In 2010 five BTR-70 vehicles were intercepted on their way to China, and at least one now serves as a park ornament.

Two armoured vehicles, including a K21 – returning to South Korea after a demonstration in Saudi Arabia in 2010 – were given back to their owner after a missing customs document was supplied.

Singapore announced in May that it was investing $1.66 billion in a large upgrade and enhanced utilisation of military training facilities in Australia. The state is already in the process of pivoting more training to its southern ally. Whether the movement of nine Terrex ICVs from Taiwan was part of that transition or just a regular rotation is unclear.

Whatever the case, this Terrexgate incident is likely to only strengthen Singapore’s resolve to rely more on Australian training and less on Taiwan...which is exactly what China wanted in the first place anyway. Its goal is always to marginalise Taiwan at every opportunity.

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