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Is Beijing trying to discourage Singapore-Taiwan relations by having Hong Kong seize armoured vehicles?

An armed forces team from Singapore was due in Hong Kong last night on a mission to establish why nine of their brand new military vehicles were seized and impounded by customs during their return from Taiwan.

Singapore’s top diplomat in Hong Kong has also become involved in what one military expert said could be a “strategic calculation’’ by Beijing which yesterday reaffirmed its opposition to any sovereign state having official or military ties what it regards as a renegade province.

The interception of nine advanced combat vehicles at the Kwai Chung container terminal on Wednesday places fresh scrutiny on four decades of military co-operation between Taiwan and the city state which an extremely unhappy Beijing has tolerated.

The stand-off – in which Hong Kong is playing man in the middle – comes as China adopts and increasingly hostile attitude towards Singapore which has recently had strategic geo-political disagreements with Beijing.

Yesterday afternoon Singapore’s Ministry of Defence said in a statement that an armed forces team was “en-route to Hong Kong to address the security of the equipment”. The nine vehicles are impounded at a customs facility in Tuen Mun.

Experts say the situation could indicate a shift in the relationship between mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, and signal an increasingly confident Chinese government signalling its readiness to thwart military alliances it dislikes, especially as the new Trump administration appears to offer less commitment to Asia.

“There have been regular Singapore-Taiwan military exchanges for a long time” and no similar incidents have been reported before, said Ni Lexiong, a Shanghai-based military expert.

“This time, it is difficult to exclude the possibility of strategic calculation,” Ni said. “It is a delicate moment in South East Asia, when the Obama administration is going out and the new administration is yet to take power. There is a gap of power in between.”

Beijing has a free hand to deal with the seized vehicles as it wishes, whether that is to release them, confiscate them or even punish Taiwan or Singapore, Ni said. Diplomatic and defence authority in Hong Kong belongs to Beijing.

Although sources within the Hong Kong customs administration said the seizure of the vehicles was a result of a routine inspection rather than a move directed by Beijing, the discovery of the undeclared vehicles had already been reported to China’s foreign ministry in Beijing, a source within the Hong Kong administration, who declined to be named, told the South China Morning Post.

China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said all personnel and shipments in and out of Hong Kong must follow local rules and that the Chinese government always opposes any sovereign state conducting any form of governmental exchange with Taiwan, including joint military activities.

Lee Chih-hong, a research fellow at the Longus Institute for Development and Strategy in Singapore, said it was standard practise for many years for Singapore to ship military vehicles, without ammunition, back to Singapore via Hong Kong after military exercises in Taiwan.

“In the past, such things never got reported, but it’s reported this time – it’s really puzzling,” Lee said.

“There is a view that China is trying to give a hard time to Singapore” because Beijing is not happy about Singapore’s stance over the South China Sea, he added.

However, Xu Guangyu, a retired major general at the People’s Liberation Army, played down the incident.

“I personally do not think we should complicate this simple incident,” he said . “It should just be handled according to the relevant maritime law.”

“It does trigger speculation in such an international atmosphere, but I believe it is an accident, not something done on purpose to create tension,” Xu said. “Even if China wants to send Singapore a signal, there are numerous ways and channels. This case as leverage is just too loose and weak”.

Additional reporting by Raymond Cheng