And the internet went wild. Or "wow!"
While there were some hand-wringing, sabre-rattling, self-recrimination (or recrimination of the govt), and the usual blame-storming and pretentious armchair analysis (of which, this might be one), the official response has been more low-key (which allows the more vociferous of the armchair analysts free range with their over-the-top theories and recriminations.)
The problem of course is that China has no legal reason to seize those vehicles. So how to return those vehicles, without losing face and seeming to be quite silly?
China is either in a comfortable position, or a difficult position.
If they are comfortable with this situation, they are in no hurry to act. They can detain the assets for as long as they like regardless of legality or any other consideration. The question is, are they comfortable with the situation?
Or they can be in a difficult position. They have seized the assets of one of the most legalistic regimes in the world. Who are also nominally, if not actually or substantially, their diplomatic ally or at least "friend". But who are also treating with their "rogue province". But who have always acted above board and with no attempt at deception with regard to their activities with the rogue province. Who have always adhered to the "One China" policy. China (maybe) wants to return to the status quo (if they are indeed in a difficult position), and want to return the assets, but the key question is, how do they do it without losing face? Without seeming like a bully? Without seeming like a lawless lout?
Under the principle of sovereign immunity, State properties – including military assets - are immune from any measures of constraint abroad, and cannot legally be detained or confiscated by other countries. “This principle is well-established under international law, and we are advised by lawyers that it is also the law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR),” Dr Ng said. The Singapore Government has informed its Hong Kong counterpart on a number of occasions over the last two months – both through its lawyers and its Hong Kong Consul-General Foo Teow Lee – that the Terrexes and other equipment being detained belong to it. “Accordingly we have requested the Hong Kong authorities to return our property immediately,”Singapore is in an interesting position.
Certainly, they want their assets back. And they are reasonably certain that they will get their assets back because China is on friendly terms with Singapore. There is little chance that China will cut up the Assets and return them in pieces (they did with the US plane). They could, but that possibility is really low and if China does that, they are burning bridges. Of course it is a bridge with a small insignificant country. Or is it?
Given this certainty or assurance, we can see then that SG is actually raising the stakes, turning the screws, and using this opportunity to "educate" China. How?
Showing China that a small insignificant country which acts in accordance with the law can respond fearlessly, and make a lawless lout and bully uncomfortable, or show them up. That if China wants to lead the world, they need to be able to show moral leadership. And a simple way to do that is to act lawfully.
In a sense, SG has already won, regardless of what China does. The loss of these assets (if it comes to that) will obviously have financial costs ($30m) and implications. But China would have shown itself to be an international lawless lout (again) regardless of how the PRC/CCP spin the narrative. Or whatever excuses the China apologists or would-be Huaqiao make for the Middle Kingdom.
So what? You might ask. They are still a rising power or even superpower, and the rest of ASEAN and countries in the region are at best regional powers (Japan, maybe). How to resist a giant?
Well, at this point in time, the US has both hard and soft power well beyond the Chinese. Just as a snapshot, they have 10 Carrier Groups. Or fleets. China has one. With a ski-jump ramp (instead of a CATOBAR). That is about 60% of a Nimitz Class carrier by displacement. This is a comparison of hard power.
In terms of soft power, the world watches Hollywood movies, listen to US rock, pop, rap and other music from the US, drink Coke, eat hamburgers or Subway sandwiches, follow US TV shows, and uses Google, Windows, WhatsApp, and FaceBook. That is soft power.
Despite US hard and soft power, They have not been able to "win" decisively in wars in Afghanistan, and Iraq, and have not been able to broker peace in the Middle East, or to win the War on Terror. And they are a Superpower, or if you dispute that, they have certainly more hard and soft power than China.
And they elected Trump.
The point is, even with all their power, they do not get their way all the time.
Ah! But that is also because the US is a benign power and their hegemony is a hegemony of consensus/alliances/cooperation, rather than by coercion, you might counter.
And all the signs are that China will be a coercive regional or great power in their attempt to build a regional hegemony?
No. They are well aware of the benefits of soft power, hence their One Belt One Road and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank initiatives. However, the Chinese leadership is (surprise) not homogeneous. Oh, they are quite in sync, and there is groupthink and ideological blindspots, but there are also "hawks" and "doves", "liberals" and fundamentalists within the top echelon of their leadership.
Questions from the Internet Gallery1) Why did, or how can the SAF ship sensitive Military assets via commercial shipping?
a) it is cheaper.
b) the assets sent are not sensitive. Even if the assets had not been seized by a foreign govt, the SAF would in fact be handing over the assets to commercial shipping companies, with no security clearance and no assurance of confidentiality. As such only non-sensitive assets are sent by commercial shipping, and any possible sensitive materials or materiel (such as weapon and ammunition) would have been removed prior to handing over to the shipping company.
2) OK, so they can ship them by commercial shipping, why can't the shipment be sent direct to SG instead of meandering all over the place?
a) point to point (i.e. direct to SG) would be more expensive.
b) however, if the assets had sensitive materials, this option would be used. Presumably with an SAF detachment to ensure security of the assets and access to any sensitive material
3) Don't we have Landing Ship Tanks or other military transports to move these assets?
Yes we do, but we do not have sufficient capacity to move all the assets, and it would have been more expensive. Commercial shipping would be cheaper and faster. But if we wanted to or have to, we can transport it ourselves. Taking a longer time, and incurring more costs.
4a) So why did the shipping company unload the vehicles at HK allowing the authorities to discover the military vehicles and that the vehicles had not complied with the HK port regulations or that the shipping company had not provided the proper documentation? Or
4b) How did the authorities discover the illegally transported military vehicles?
Firstly, no. The shipping company did not unload the vehicles. The authorities at HK port were tipped off, and sent an unusually large team of inspectors, who zoomed in specifically on the vehicles and ordered them unloaded onto HK docks.
The ship had docked t Xiamen first, but the tip off to the Xiamen authorities came after the ship had left, so the authorities in HK were activated to intercept the "illegal cargo".
Who tipped off the authorities?
We don't know, but it could have been a) a Pro-China Taiwanese who knew or found out about the shipment. Might even have been a staff of the shipping company or somehow involved in the shipping, or b) a low-level Chinese (as in PRC) security or law enforcement agent (or agents, probably at Xiamen).
Why "low level"?
Simple. SG has been having military training in Taiwan. This is NOT a secret to China. China is aware of SG's training and defence cooperation with Taiwan, but has maintained a dignified silence all these decades. The problem arises when some low level agent who does not understand the niceties of international relationships (like, Trump), and the need for "strategic ambiguity" thinks he has a scoop and tells another low level flunkey with just enough authority to seize the ICVs. In the age of Factwire, social media, camera phones, China "officials simply had to act as they knew FactWire was watching" and to toe the official line regarding Taiwan. "What more do you expect China to say when asked point-blank for a response to an issue which three parties danced around delicately for decades?"
5 So why can't China just have said, 'there was a mistake. Here are your vehicles.'?
And China would be seen as apologising to a little red dot? In what reality, would that be feasible?