The military vehicles cannot be detained by other countries as they are protected by sovereign immunity, says Singapore’s Defence Minister.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has asked Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung for the immediate return of the military vehicles that have been held at a Hong Kong port since November, said Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen in Parliament on Monday (Jan 9).
The nine Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles were en route to Singapore after an exercise in Taiwan before being detained over what the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) described as licensing issues.
Dr Ng said Mr Lee wrote to Mr Leung to reiterate Singapore’s sovereign rights over the Terrexes and to request the immediate return of the vehicles. “The Hong Kong authorities have responded that the investigation is ongoing and will take some time to complete, and that the Hong Kong government will handle the matter in accordance with their laws,” said Dr Ng, noting that Singapore had “welcomed” this response.
“The legal position is that the SAF Terrexes and other equipment detained in Hong Kong are the property of the Singapore Government,” he explained. “They are protected by sovereign immunity, even though they were being shipped by commercial carriers. This means that they are immune from any measures of constraint abroad. They 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 SAR (Special Administrative Region).”
Dr Ng added that Singapore had informed Hong Kong of its position on several occasions over the last two months, both through lawyers and Singapore’s Consul-General in Hong Kong.
SINGAPORE’S SHIPPING OF MILITARY VEHICLES
Noting that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) moves more than 700 military platforms using commercial carriers to all parts of the world each year, Dr Ng said: “Neither the SAF, Singapore, nor indeed most other countries operate on the assumption that our cargo will be arbitrarily seized when transiting reputable foreign ports.
“The SAF has followed these procedures for shipping military equipment for over 30 years without any significant incidents.”
He added: “It would cost three to four times more, and add several hundred million dollars to MINDEF’s annual budget, to ship all military equipment directly from point-to-point.” The Singapore navy also does not have transport ships of requisite scale and capability, said Dr Ng.
Only in the event of “rare” exceptions, he said, would the SAF avoid commercial shipping companies, or apply special considerations if it does, based on security risk assessments.
“For example, for advanced weapon and sensor systems or submarines brought back by the SAF to Singapore previously,” said Dr Ng. “The special measures include chartering whole ships, mandating direct shipments, deploying protection forces or even converting the commercial ships to a State Marine Ensign.”
He again reiterated that the Terrexes did not fall into this special category. “You can purchase the Terrexes and associated equipment on the open market, so they don’t contain any sensitive equipment,” said Dr Ng.
In response to a follow-up question by Member of Parliament (MP) for Sembawang GRC Vikram Nair, Dr Ng also affirmed that Singapore would consider commercial claims against the carrier – APL – in the event of losses which may arise from the Terrexes not being returned or delayed in their return.
“We have been advised by our lawyers that there are legal avenues available to MINDEF to claim for damages against shipping carriers and contractors if they have not fulfilled contractual obligations,” he said. “In addition, all SAF cargo we ship is insured against losses under some conditions. We have to check if the insurance claims are applicable to this particular incident.”
Dr Ng also revealed later that the cost of the nine Terrexes, as listed in the shipping manifest, was S$30 million, when asked by opposition MP Low Thia Khiang about “the loss of potential future earnings” from the incident.
Dr Ng said this is hard to assess: “ST Kinetics or Engineering will have to do its work but whether this increases the notoriety of the platform and therefore increases its selling potential or not, who’s to say, but it’s theoretical and I want to defer from answering that question.”
Dr Ng said that in the wake of the Terrex incident, the SAF has reviewed shipping procedures “comprehensively” to reduce the risk of equipment being taken hostage en route.
“Where we think the risk of detention of SAF assets has gone up, whether in Asia or any other part of the world, we will impose extra precautions even if this means incurring higher freight charges,” he stated. “Alternatively, the SAF may consider housing that equipment at overseas training sites to avoid shipping them altogether, and procure additional units to meet operational requirements, where necessary.”
“Whether APL … has complied with the rules of Hong Kong port is a matter between APL and the Hong Kong authorities, which should follow the due process of Hong Kong law,” Dr Ng said.
“That issue between APL and Hong Kong customs affects neither the legal position of the Terrexes nor Singapore Government’s rights. We therefore look forward to the Hong Kong government returning our Terrexes in accordance with international law.”
He cited a previous case in 2010, where South Korean military equipment – including personnel carriers as well as light tanks – was also seized by Hong Kong authorities, before being returned subsequently.
“Singapore and Hong Kong have long enjoyed good and friendly relations,” Dr Ng concluded. “We hope the matter will be resolved satisfactorily and our friendly relations will endure.”