Sources say it may be one of the biggest seizures of strategic commodities in two decades; details about owner, sender and consignee still being investigated
A routine customs inspection in Hong Kong that led to the seizure of nine armoured personnel carriers has placed it in the middle of diplomatic tension between Singapore and China over the city state’s long-running military exchanges with Taiwan.
The seizure of the military vehicles on a Singapore-bound cargo ship from Taiwan at the Kwai Chung container terminal on Wednesday afternoon has put the spotlight on an issue that has long irked Beijing.
Last night, Singapore’s Ministry of Defence confirmed ownership of the eight-wheeled armoured infantry vehicles and called for them to be returned “expeditiously”, describing the situation as a “delay due to a request for routine inspections by Hong Kong customs”.
“The Terrex ICVs were used by the Singapore Armed Forces in routine overseas training and shipped back via commercial means as with previous exercises. Singapore authorities are providing relevant assistance to Hong Kong customs and expect the shipment to return to Singapore expeditiously,” the ministry said in a statement.
Singapore’s armed forces conduct overseas training in about a dozen countries including the United States, Australia, Germany and India, and usually hire commercial shippers to transport military equipment, the statement added.
However, sources told the Post that the Singaporean authorities would need to contact the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to secure the return of the armoured vehicles.
The clutch of tarpaulin-covered vehicles is Hong Kong’s biggest seizure of “strategic commodities” in two decades.
“Customs officers raised suspicions when they saw the shapes of the vehicles under tarpaulin in an open-topped container,” a Hong Kong government source said.
Police bomb disposal officers were called in to check but no explosives were found.
“Initial investigation showed the consignment was destined for Singapore,” the source said, adding that it was being shipped back to Singapore after being used in training in Taiwan.
Under the city’s Import and Export Ordinance, a licence is required for the import, export, re-export or transshipment of strategic commodities. The maximum penalty for failing to obtain a licence is an unlimited fine and seven years’ imprisonment.
Last night, the armoured vehicles, wrapped in blue and grey covers, were being guarded by customs officers.
Taiwanese defence ministry spokesman Major General Chen Chung-chi denied on Thursday that the vehicles were made in Taiwan.
“I can tell you that those armoured military carriers … do not belong to the Republic of China,” Chen said. But he refused to say who owned the carriers or why Taiwan had shipped them to Singapore.
Macau-based military expert Antony Wong Dong said the military vehicles were AV-81s from Singapore which might have been involved in a military exercise in Taiwan. He said the AV-81 was Singapore’s most advanced military vehicle and the discovery could prompt a stern rebuke from Beijing.
“Singapore will probably be in big trouble this time because Beijing could use this chance to give the city state a hard time [in retaliation for] Singapore’s stand on the South China Sea issue,” he said.
Singapore is seen in Chinese circles as backing Manila in an international arbitration case on Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
“Worse still, the exposure of the carriers in Hong Kong could reveal Singaporean military secrets, including its communication system with the Taiwanese military,” Wong said.
Zhang Baohui, a political science professor from Lingnan University, said the armoured carriers issue would be a “weather vane” for ties between China and Singapore.
“Apparently, this is just a customs declaration incident, but these are military weapons that the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department can’t handle on its own and should report to Beijing,” he said.
“If Beijing gives the green light to let [the shipment go through], ties between China and Singapore will improve. If it doesn’t, it will become a complicated political issue.”
The armoured vehicles were due to be moved to a customs cargo examination facility in Tuen Mun.
A disarmed K-21 light tank and an armoured military carrier were confiscated in Hong Kong in September and October 2010 after being displayed at exhibitions in Saudi Arabia and shipped back to the South Korean city of Busan. South Korea later got back the military vehicles through China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.