China recently executed a symbolic power play against Singapore, seizing Singaporean armored personnel carriers in Hong Kong after their use in training exercises with Taiwan. As Reuters notes, the dispute comes amid growing tensions between Beijing and the Lion City:
As the impounding of Singaporean troop carriers in Hong Kong exposes rising tensions between China and Singapore, the Lion City is unlikely to budge on core security interests concerning Beijing – its military relationship with Taiwan, worries over the South China Sea and its hosting of the U.S. military.
Singaporean officials, retired military officers and analysts stress that even while Singapore publicly plays down the spat, its leadership will not easily give in to what it sees as intimidation on matters of national importance.
All three points – Taiwan, the South China Sea and its deepening relationship with the Pentagon – reflect positions refined over decades as the tiny island state seeks to secure itself in a region now undergoing historic strategic shifts amid China’s rise.
As both Malaysia and the Philippines cozy up to Beijing, it is tiny Singapore that remains one of the more reliable surrogates for U.S. security interests in Asia. In some ways, this is nothing new: Singapore has long had a friendly partnership with the United States, with security links dating back to the Vietnam War. Singapore’s relationship with Taiwan is likewise longstanding. The two countries began conducting joint military exercises in 1975, and they have discreetly continued defense links even after Singapore normalized relations with mainland China in the 1990s. Under former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore managed the difficult feat of maintaining good relations with Taiwan and the United States while pursuing lucrative trading opportunities with China.
Lately, however, that balance has been harder to pull off. Officially, Singapore claims that it has no interest in picking sides between the United States and China. But it hasn’t looked that way to Beijing, which has been irked by Singapore’s decision to host deployments of U.S. surveillance aircraft that spy on Chinese submarines. China is also angered by Singapore’s tacit support for the claims against Beijing in the South China Sea dispute. Although Singapore takes no stand on China’s sovereignty claims, it has endorsed language on upholding freedom of navigation and international law in the region.
China’s impoundment of Singapore’s troop carriers may be a warning sign that Beijing will take a more assertive line against Singapore if it tilts too far toward Washington. Chinese state media suggest that Beijing is already fed up with Singapore’s pretensions of neutrality. “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,” reads a recent editorial in China’s state-run Global Times. “This has turned Singapore into a platform for Washington to contain and deter Beijing.”
Despite Chinese intimidation, Singapore is unlikely to suddenly change course and pivot toward Beijing. Still, the straining of relations between China and Singapore is hardly a welcome development in an already volatile region.