"Why is China doing this now?"- Ex-MP Inderjit Singh questions HK customs actions

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Former Member of Parliament for Ang Mo Kio GRC, Inderjit Singh, has questioned the seizure of armoured vehicles by the Hong Kong customs department. Replying to a question by Facebook user Lee Kian Meng‎, the ex-MP said: “This has been going on for years I believe but why is China doing this now?”

Mr Lee asked him: “I wonder why SAF equipment like these are transported by third party commercial vessels? What are we thinking by using these third party arrangement? Why can’t our navy do it? What does these third party arrangement actual benefits are?”

Another Facebook, Rodney Ang, user responded to Mr Singh’s reply and pointed out that military cargoes are classified items and so should not be shipped alongside ordinary cargoes, and asked, “who’s mistake is this and why has it been done for years?” Adding: “the foreign customs has every right to confiscate these sensitive cargoes as these are not ordinary cargoes.”

Mr Singh responded to Mr Ang and said: “Let’s hear from Mindef. It’s a fair question.”

Nine armoured vehicles were found in twelve of the seized containers. The containers were found on a cargo ship from Kaohsiung, Taiwan to Singapore and it was passing through Hong Kong. Hong Kong based investigative journalism news site Factwire was the first to report on the seizures.

Factwire said pictures of the vehicles – covered in blue or grey wraps – could only be shot from air and that the vehicles were being guarded by at least two customs officers. It further said that one unwrapped vehicle was shared yesterday on a social media page for container terminal workers.

picture credit: Factwire
picture credit: Factwire

Citing sources close to the investigators, the news site claimed that the held the vehicles also contained explosives and that the items have been seized on suspicion of arms smuggling. The agency further reported that it is unclear why the shipment was unloaded at Hong Kong because there was no intention to do so.

There was no plan to offload or export the shipment when arriving in the Hong Kong terminals. The news site quoted sources saying that it was possible the containers carrying the military carriers were unloaded by mistake at the terminal with other general goods. Customs Officers quickly acted on a tip-off to launch an investigation, but no one has been arrested yet.

The seizures are said to be one of the biggest seizures of strategic commodities in two decades. The Hong Kong administration had previously confiscated military equipments which shipped through its ports. A license is needed to ship strategic commodities like military equipment overseas. The maximum penalty for not having one is an unlimited fine and seven years in prison.

The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has confirmed that the seized vehicles were its properties and that it contracted APL as the commercial shipping line to transport the nine Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles (ICV) and associated equipment to Singapore.

SAF reiterated that the nine Terrex ICVs are training platforms with no ammunition or sensitive equipment on board.

“APL was required to comply with all regulations including the declaration of transported equipment in the ship’s cargo manifest as well as obtaining the necessary permits required to transit through ports,” the SAF said.

“During the transit through Hong Kong, customs officials raised queries if the necessary permits and declarations by APL were in order and in the process detained the Terrex ICVs,” it added.

APL officials have assured the SAF that they are working with Hong Kong authorities to resolve the issue. The Singapore Consulate General in Hong Kong is also assisting in the matter. A team from SAF is en route to Hong Kong to address the security of the equipment.

SAF said that it had not experienced incidents of losses, theft or tampering due to the outsourcing of logistical operations to profit-driven companies, and that such arrangements had worked well in the past. It however promised to review the circumstances of the incident and determine if added measures are needed to prevent such occurrences.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesman Geng Shuang at a routine press briefing in Beijing today (25 Nov) said that China had taken note of the incident and was verifying it.

He said, “all ships that enter Hong Kong should follow the laws of the Special Administrative Region.”

Adding: “We oppose countries that have diplomatic relations with us to have any form of official exchanges with Taiwan, including defence cooperation.”

When asked if Singapore had contacted Beijing on the issue and what would happen to the armoured vehicles next, the spokesman maintained that the Chinese government was still in the midst of “verifying the related details”.

The Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) reported in the year 2004 that, China has never been happy with aspects of Singapore’s relations with Taiwan.

“<…> but Beijing hasn’t allowed that to stand in the way of warm ties with predominantly Chinese Singapore. The island republic has made amends, in Beijing’s eyes, by adopting a “one-China” policy and vigorously opposing Taiwan independence. Singapore’s leaders have also offered their expertise to help China develop, notably with a government-sponsored industrial park in the eastern Chinese city of Suzhou.

Beijing’s main objection, rarely voiced publicly, is that Singapore’s armed forces train in Taiwan. It is an open secret, though never acknowledged by the Singapore government, that its military has used Taiwan since the 1970s for large combined-arms exercises. Singapore lacks the open space for military manoeuvres, and regards the use of Taiwan as vital for national security. Singapore pays Taipei for the use of its facilities, but does not train with the Taiwan military.

Beijing has offered Singapore the use of Hainan Island in southern China as an alternative training site, but the Singaporeans don’t take the offer seriously. They say privately that their non-Chinese neighbours often suspect that Singapore is fronting for China, and to switch military training to the People’s Republic would tend to confirm those fears.”