A Taiwan-based media outlet, UP Media, recently reported that Singapore may be a port of call for Taiwan naval vessels in this year’s overseas exercises by the Dunmu Fleet (敦睦艦隊). The mission of the fleet is to conduct long-range exercises, port calls, and humanitarian evacuations. The last time that Taiwanese naval vessels were permitted to conduct a ship visit in Singapore was in 2002. Due to Beijing’s sensitivities over any form of diplomatic contact with the Taiwan government, including its military, such activities have always been treated with a great deal of caution by officials in Taiwan and host countries. Indeed, the destination ports of call by the fleet are rarely disclosed in advance, due to concerns that Beijing will apply diplomatic pressure to prevent such events from occurring.
The Dunmu Fleet is currently comprised of the fast combat support ship AOE 532 Panshih (磐石), Chengkung-class frigates PFG1109 Chang Chien (張騫), and the La Fayette-class PFG1203 Si Ning (西寧). In the past eight years, the number of friendly ports visited in each year’s exercises varied between as few as three to as many as 10. Destinations included allied ports such as the Marshall Islands, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Belize, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Palau, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu, as well as non-allied ports such as Indonesia. This year marked the first time that the Taiwan president participated in the fleet’s ceremonial send off on March 21.
The Taiwan Navy began conducting port calls as early as 1953 and consistently on an annual basis since 1965. According to media reports, it was the Singaporean government that initiated the offer for Taiwan’s naval vessels to visit. While port calls by Taiwan naval vessels to Singapore are not unprecedented, this would be the first since 2002. Indeed, Singapore has reportedly been a port of call for Taiwan’s naval vessels 24 times since 1973. The surprise move by the Singaporean government followed a tense two-month-long standoff between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Singapore over Beijing’s decision to seize an AV-81 Armored Personnel Carrier and other military supplies transiting through Hong Kong that were used in the annual joint military exercises between the Taiwan and Singapore militaries.
The nine Singapore-bound armoured military vehicles and equipment were seized in transit by Hong Kong customs officials on November 23 and was not returned to Singapore until two months later, on January 27. According to a Bloomberg report citing Singaporean Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan, “This is not the first time Singapore ships equipment from Taiwan through Hong Kong.” The report added, “The fact this particular consignment was picked up shows China wants to ‘send a signal not only to us, but to all’ Southeast Asian nations. China’s long-term strategy is to turn Singapore into an ally and ‘mouthpiece’ for its positions,” according to Kausikan.
Singapore has been careful in the handling of its relations with Taiwan, because of concerns about Beijing. However, its informal relationship with Taiwan—which began in 1990 after derecognition—belies a long history of military-to-military contacts as well as a strong and growing relationship between Taiwan and Singapore. An annual training exercise codenamed “The Starlight Project” (星光計畫) dates back to 1974, in which Singapore reportedly sends around 20,000 troops on a yearly basis to Taiwan participate in the exercise. Moreover, Singapore and Taiwan signed a tariff reducing economic partnership agreement in 2013, which represents the first such agreement signed between Taiwan and a member of ASEAN.
While Beijing has tried albeit unsuccessfully to get Singapore to switch its military training exercises in Taiwan to the southern island of Hainan, Beijing ostensibly tolerated the arrangement between Taiwan and Singapore. Perhaps to express its displeasure with the Tsai government’s cross-Strait policies, the PRC has begun to pressure other countries to downgrade their relations with Taiwan. The seizure of the military vehicle and equipment may be seen as its shot across the bow to Singapore. If the reports of the port call are true, Singapore’s willingness to publicize the port visit may be intended to send a signal to Beijing over its heavy-handed tactics and seizure of military equipment.
Media speculation of the reported port visits are unconfirmed as of this writing. However, as Beijing flexes its muscles in the region, it has prompted other countries in the region to deepen its relationship with Taiwan. A resumption of the port visit would be consistent with the upgrades underway in several of Taiwan’s other important unofficial relationships, such as those with Japan, India, and the United States.
The main point: Port calls by Taiwan naval vessels to Singapore are not unprecedented, the reported resumption of the port visit may be intended to send a signal to Beijing against its heavy-handed tactics and its handling of the Hong Kong incident.