Created on Friday, 13 January 2017 00:00
Written by Andrew Loh
What, really, does Beijing want from Singapore? That is the $30 million question which no one has any answer to at the moment. The reasons for Xi Jinping’s government detaining 9 Terrex vehicles belonging to the island state remain a mystery. It has been almost 2 months since the incident, with both sides issuing statements defending their positions on the matter but without any resolution to the impasse.
Singapore has taken a legalistic stance in demanding that the Chinese return the Infantry Carrier Vehicles (ICVs), citing international law that grants it sovereign immunity. Unfortunately for the Lee Hsien Loong government, this has not moved the Chinese side to acquiesce.
If you think about it, however, it is no surprise that China is, for the moment at least, sticking to its guns. Telling China that you have the legal right to demand the return of your assets, and threaten that China’s action will damage its international credibility, only serves to harden the latter’s resolve to not play ball.
After all, in the bigger scheme of things, Singapore has no clout or leverage on China. Demand all you want, the Chinese do not have to budge. Instead, it is Singapore which would lose out more if things came to a head.
Some Singaporeans, especially online, have criticised the Singapore government for allowing the ICVs to be detained in the first place; and for subsequently being unable to retrieve them from China.
Such criticisms are misguided.
As has already been said, Singapore’s transport of such vehicles via Hong Kong or through commercial carriers is nothing new. Indeed, it is an open secret that Singapore has indeed been doing this.
The Chinese have known about this all along.
In any case, there is absolutely nothing wrong in what Singapore, or the Ministry of Defence (Mindef), has done with regard to training its troops in Taiwan, or in transporting the ICVs the way it did.
So, let’s not shoot the government for the sake of shooting it.
However, there is perhaps something to be said about the way the Singapore government has handled the incident thus far. In particular, one wonders if citing legal rights is the best way to convince the Chinese to return the ICVs, especially when we do not yet know why China is engaging in such inexplicable behaviour. It is also questionable if sending our military men to try and recover the vehicles was a good idea.
How then should the government handle the matter?
Well, there are two things here. One, Singapore needs to successfully retrieve the vehicles, that’s for sure. Two, both sides need to not “lose face” in the eventual resolution.
On the first point, it is a matter of sovereignty and national integrity. Singaporeans would hate to see that the country (and government) can be so easily cowed or, to use the word some have used, “bullied” by a bigger power. The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), and Mr Lee himself, would face a political credibility problem if they are unsuccessful in bringing the matter to a beneficial resolution for Singapore.
Indeed, Mr Lee’s personal reputation would be called into question, especially given how his father, the late Lee Kuan Yew, had always emphasised good ties with China. The senior Lee was, in fact, credited with having influenced the Chinese government of Deng Xiaopeng in the 70s and 80s to open up to the world.
But it is the second point which, one suspects, is at the heart of what this whole incident is about – China feeling slighted by a friend who seemed to have abandoned the friendship to court another, namely the United States; and for not being supportive of its (China’s) position on the disputed islands in the South China Sea, and also over the status of Taiwan.
While no one can confirm the real reason or reasons for China’s behaviour in this instance, it is not improbable that the above issues may have something to do with it.
As such, how should Singapore handle the matter?
For one, Singapore should realise that this is not a legal matter, or one of its sovereignty or its sovereign rights. That would be reading it wrong indeed. It is about something more important than these things, at least where China is concerned.
The issue is about China’s national pride, in fact.
In brief, it would be about how one party (Singapore) was insensitive to the feelings of its long-time friend (China); and how that friend is now making known that it does not appreciate being slighted.
And when a friend feels that way, you don’t defend yourself by citing your legal rights. Instead, you take time to listen, to understand, and then act in a way which benefit both sides.
So yes, what Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, said is true – do not conduct megaphone diplomacy through the (social) media. It will only inflame sensitivities and needlessly escalate the situation.
Singapore must do what is expedient in this case – to recover the ICVs by doing whatever needs to be done. It is not about losing face. I think Singaporeans understand that we are dealing with a bigger power and that we have limited, if any at all, leverage over China; and that thus we have to, at some point, accept that we may have to do what we may not want to, in order to achieve the aim of seeing the ICVs returned to us.
In short, work quietly through private channels, and do not discount enlisting the help of non-government people who may have deeper ties to China, to assist in the resolution of the matter. And one may even suggest that the Singapore government be more circumspect in how it speaks to the media on this.
So, don’t place the blame on the Singapore government. Indeed, the confiscation of the vehicles is solely an act by China.
And let us keep in mind that China has no right to impound our national assets. Period.
Having said that, in international diplomacy, it is always prudent to leave the other guy some face-saving room to manoeuvre.
China, having painted itself into a corner (legally), needs to be assured that Singapore will always be a friend. The former is acting like a lover scorned, spurned for another.
And to reassure China, you don't cite legal positions or rights, or worse, make threats, even if they are subtle ones. Instead, you talk to them quietly. [But oh please, don't send our generals to talk to them! What signal is that going to send??]
And even if we have to compromise a little of our national pride, so be it. It is more important to keep a friend, especially when, in the bigger scheme of things, this incident is not a very major one (at least for now).
The Singapore government should not feel that it will lose face domestically if it does not openly stand up to China.
Singaporeans know there is more at stake here than just stubborn nationalism and are, I would bet, be willing to stand with the government even if the final solution is not 100% to our liking, if that's what it takes to resolve this impasse and, more importantly, keep the friendship we have built up over many decades.
Trust between friends, as many of us know, is a precious but fragile thing which needs to be preserved with care. And that can sometimes be done only quietly and patiently.