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China using seized armoured vehicles row to ramp up political pressure on Taiwan’s president, say analysts

The seizure in Hong Kong of nine armoured ­personnel carriers ­belonging to Singapore that were part of a military exercise in ­Taiwan is being used as a ploy by Beijing to isolate and put more political pressure on the island’s president, according to analysts.

The move by Beijing is also a warning to Singapore over its military cooperation with Taiwan, which Beijing considers a breakaway province, they said, and could make other countries in the region more wary in following in the city state’s footsteps.

Watch: What’s going on with the Singaporean military vehicles in Hong Kong

According to Hong Kong customs, it was carrying out a routine search on a vessel arriving from Taiwan last Wednesday at Kwai Chung container terminal, when it found suspected controlled items. Sources with knowledge of the matter said the nine military vehicles belonging to Singapore did not have the permits required by the Hong Kong government, and the vehicles were subsequently impounded.

Mainland agents ‘tipped off Hong Kong about Singaporean army vehicles’

It’s unclear whether Beijing tipped off customs or directed ­local authorities to take the action. But by forcing the military relationship between Singapore and Taipei into the spotlight, Beijing had opened a new avenue to pressure Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, the experts said.

Ties between Beijing and Taipei are at their lowest point in eight years after Tsai, of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, took office in May. Beijing says Tsai must accept the 1992 consensus as the basis of relations, but she has so far refused. The agreement made that year between the two sides stipulates there is only one China, but ­allowed each to have its own ­interpretation of what that means.

“It is obviously another tactic to pressure Tsai to accept the 1992 consensus,” Wang Kung-yi, a professor of international relations and strategic studies at Tamkang University in Taiwan, said.

“Beijing did not openly question Project Starlight when Ma [Ying-jeou] was still president ­between 2008 and May 2016 ­because he supported the 1992 consensus,” Wang said.

China has always kept mum on Singapore’s defence ties with Taipei, so why is it complaining now?

Project Starlight is an agreement signed in April 1975 by then Taiwanese premier Chiang Ching-kuo and former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew to allow Singaporean troops to train in Taiwan, and escape the space restraints of the city state. Cooperation continued even after Singapore established diplomatic ties with the mainland in 1990.

Tsai could also see economic blowback from Beijing if she continued to defy Beijing, Wang said.

Tsai has sought to increase ­Taiwan’s economic exchanges with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and India in order to cut the island’s economic reliance on the mainland.

“If she continues to ignore the mainland’s demand, she stands to see not only her military ties with Singapore severed, but also her so-called ‘new southbound’ policy obstructed by the mainland, which has strong influence with Southeast Asian nations due to its economic and military power in the region,” Wang said.

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Opposition Kuomintang legislator Johnny Chiang said the seizures, coming after decades of military ties between Taiwan and Singapore, pointed to a worsening of cross-strait relations. “The Tsai government must evaluate the impact of the case and how it would affect relations between Singapore and Taiwan and between Singapore and the mainland, in particular Taiwan’s future military exchanges with Singapore,” Chiang said.

Lin Yu-fang, convener of the national security division of the KMT’s National Policy Foundation, said he suspected the seizures might signal the end of the Project Starlight. Other analysts, however, thought it unlikely Singapore and Taiwan would end their military relationship, given the long friendship between the two and concerns over the growing military influence of the mainland in the region.

“Although Beijing is expected to increase its pressure on Singapore to try to end such exchanges, it’s unlikely Singapore will abandon Taiwan unless Beijing offers much bigger incentives forit to do so,” Lee Chih-horng, a research fellow at the Longus Institute for Development and Strategy in Singapore, said. He said Singapore might scale back its military ties with Taiwan under mainland pressure, but low-key exchanges would ­continue.

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Beijing had been irritated by Singapore’s siding with the United States over sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea, he said, but it was unlikely the mainland would further play up the seizures, given Singapore’s status as an economic tiger in the region. “I think both Singapore and mainland China are watching closely what US president-elect Donald Trump will do in terms of his future policy towards Asia,” Lee said, referring to whether the new leader stepped up or reduced his country’s presence in the ­region.

Beijing was rapidly restoring its status in the dominant player in Southeast Asia, Chu Yun-han, a research fellow at the political science institute of Taiwan’s Academia Sinica, said. “All countries in this region will have to adjust to this latest situation,” he said.