Thursday, September 07, 2006

China, Singapore, Taiwan - Politics with Chinese characteristics

Singapore Military Juggles Ties with Taiwan, China
Fayen Wong
Reuters
Aug 25, 2006

KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan—A dark-green army truck zips through the hilly countryside in southern Taiwan before disappearing behind the high walls of an unmarked military base—the largest of Singapore's three army camps in Taiwan.

For nearly 30 years, the island state of Singapore, which lacks the space for large-scale military manoeuvres, has trained its troops in Taiwan under the code name Operation Starlight.

But Singapore has begun scaling back its military presence in Taiwan in recent years as it sought to warm relations with China, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province.

"In recent years, Singapore's close military links with Taiwan have occasionally been an irritant in the city-state's relationship with China," Tim Huxley, a defence expert who has written books on Singapore's military, told Reuters.

The city-state has over the past decade quietly built defence links with other countries to train its troops overseas such as in Australia, New Zealand, Brunei and Thailand.

It also sends air force contingents to the U.S. and France following arms purchases and hopes to soon formalise an agreement with India to train its troops there as well.

Singapore began Operation Starlight in 1975 when Taiwan, eager to cultivate ties abroad after it lost its United Nations seat to China, offered Singapore military training bases.

It was a welcome offer. Singapore faced communist threats from Malaysia and Indonesia and was keen to build up its fledgling army. But it lacked the space in an island so small a fighter jet can fly over it in less than two minutes.

Analysts estimate that by the mid-eighties, at the peak of the operation, Singapore sent about 15,000 conscripts a year to Taiwan for large-scale war games.

But the training camps in Taiwan became a sensitive issue over the past decade as Singapore, which is 75 percent ethnic Chinese, sought to forge warm ties with China where Singaporean government companies are investing billions of dollars.

Despite its military cooperation with Taiwan, Singapore staunchly supports the "one-China" policy, opposes Taiwanese independence and does not have diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

China Offers Training Bases

It's a diplomatic juggling act that could result in Singapore finding itself in an uncomfortable position if cross-strait relations flare up and it is forced to take sides.

"Singapore is aligned with the U.S. and it also has strong ties with China. But if there was a war between China and Taiwan, Singapore could be unwillingly dragged in," Huxley said.

In terms of trade, Taiwan is Singapore's eighth-largest partner, while China comes in third after the U.S. and Malaysia.

The Singapore Ministry of Defence declined all comment on issues related to Taiwan, despite repeated requests.

While China has in the past turned a blind eye to Singapore's close economic and military ties with Taiwan, it has been less tolerant of any dealings with Taipei since the self-ruled island's leaders started a pro-independence movement.

In 2004, China angrily cancelled the visit of the Chinese central bank governor when Lee Hsien Loong visited Taiwan shortly before becoming Singapore's prime minister,

London-based Jane's Defence Weekly reported in 2001 that Beijing had offered Singapore the use of Hainan island as an alternative training site to Taiwan.

The offer was the first by China to a foreign country and appeared to be an attempt to discourage Singapore's military ties with Taiwan.

"We have never discussed this," Singapore Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean said in June after being asked about the offer.

Huxley that said while Singapore has tried to cut back its dependence on Taiwan, the government had done so carefully, citing reduced training needs rather than any desire to pacify China. At the same time it has tried to avoid offending Beijing.

"As we build new military relationships with countries like India, it will get more difficult for us to not look like we're snubbing China," said Bernard Loo, defence analyst at Singapore's Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies.

Clandestine Operation

Singapore's operations in Taiwan remain shrouded in secrecy.

In his book about Singapore's military, Huxley wrote that during their time in Taiwan, Singaporean troops wear Taiwanese army uniforms distinguishable only by a separate insignia. Several former Singapore soldiers have confirmed this practice.

"Singapore keeps an extremely low profile about its military ties with Taiwan because it does not want this issue to jeopardise its relationship with China," National University of Singapore analyst Khoo How San told Reuters.

Defence analysts estimate the number of troops sent to Taiwan for training has been slashed by half to about 7,000 annually.

The bulk of Singapore's army now goes to Australia, where up to 6,600 soldiers train at Shoalwater Bay in Queensland every year and about 400 vehicles for a light armoured battalion are stored, according to Singapore's defence ministry Web site.

Back in Hengchun where Singapore's largest army base in Taiwan is located, that shift has hurt local business.

"The town used to be teeming with Singaporean soldiers about twenty years ago. Business was brisk at many of these eateries and karaoke bars," Xu Xiu-feng, 42, a restaurant owner said.

"But now this is just a sleepy town," she added.

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