Taiwan’s Military Ties to Singapore Targeted by China

Taiwan’s Military Ties to Singapore Targeted by China

Taiwan’s Military Ties to Singapore Targeted by China

On April 8, Singapore’s Ministry of Defense (MINDEF) and the Singaporean Armed Forces (SAF) held a video conference with counterparts from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to discuss bilateral efforts to combat the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). The latest engagement comes amid strengthened military relations in recent years. Last October, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe (魏鳳和) and Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen (黃永宏) signed an updated Agreement on Defense Exchanges and Security Cooperation (ADESC, 國防交流與安全合作協定) that formalized military-to-military exchanges and bolstered China’s growing role as a military partner for Singapore. The agreement, signed on October 20, 2019, will include more frequent and high-level defense dialogues and larger-scale military exercises across the army, navy, and air force. The revised pact goes beyond the initial deal reached in 2008, which only saw limited and occasional defense exchanges. Despite the new defense agreement, the forty-year-old “Starlight Project” (星光計劃) between Taiwan and Singapore will remain operational, according to Taiwan’s Defense Minister Yen De-fa (嚴德發). Amid improved Singapore-China relations—including military ties—over the past few decades, Taipei does not want to lose more ground in the cross-Strait competition over Singapore. In particular, it wants to protect its flagship military exchange program, which has formed the crux of Taiwan-Singapore relations since the mid-1970s.

The Starlight Project

After Singapore separated from Malaysia and became an independent state in 1965, it turned to Taiwan to help train its armed forces. The city-state lacked land for military exercises, including war simulations, and Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) shared Singapore’s anti-communist ideology and had combat experience in the Chinese Civil War. Early contacts with Singapore led to Taiwan’s establishment of a representative office in Singapore in 1969. Thereafter, in April 1975, Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (李光耀)and his friend Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), Taiwan’s premier at the time, who would later become president, started a secret military exchange and cooperation plan. The plan, called the “Starlight Project” (星光計劃), allowed the Singapore Armed Forces to conduct military training in Taiwan. This Taiwanese-Singaporean military program formed the cornerstone of early defense cooperation and bounded the two sides together even in the absence of formal diplomatic relations.

Over the decades, the Starlight Project has become an open secret, though both sides have tried to keep the program low-key to minimize attention, particularly from Beijing. SAF has a “Starlight Command” (星光部隊指揮部) in Taipei. Additionally, Singaporean troops have conducted training exercises throughout the island, including at the Joint Operations Training Base Command (三軍聯訓基地) in Hengchun (恆春) Township in southern Pingtung County, Douliu Artillery Base (斗六砲兵基地) in western Yunlin County, and Hukou Armored Force Base (湖口裝甲兵基地) in Hsinchu, southwest of Taipei. Hsinchu residents in the past have protested against the Singapore army’s training exercises in their vicinity. However, under the Starlight program, Singapore’s armed forces also have provided services to Taiwanese citizens. The Starlight Force (星光部隊) participated in rescue missions following the massive earthquake on September 21, 1999, and during severe flooding caused by Typhoon Morakot in August 2009.

Beijing’s historical tolerance of Singapore’s high-level relations and military links with Taipei is puzzling, not to mention an anomaly in Chinese foreign policy. Chinese Premier Li Peng (李鵬) said during a visit to Singapore in August 1990 that Singapore’s military ties with Taiwan “is a fact and we should not mind too much.” [1] After Singapore established diplomatic relations with China in October 1990, it still maintained military cooperation with Taiwan’s Starlight Project. Furthermore, frequent high-level visits by Lee Kuan Yew to Taiwan and Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) to Singapore underscored close bilateral relations, despite some personal differences between the two leaders over the development of cross-Strait relations. Singapore has continually emphasized its official relations with Beijing and may have reassured Beijing that its training program with Taiwan will not change its official stance.

Nonetheless, Beijing in recent decades has put pressure on Singapore over its training program with Taipei. The People’s Liberation Army has repeatedly offered to train Singapore’s armed forces on Hainan Island, but the city-state has continually turned down the offer, reportedly due to objections from the United States. In 2002, discussions over Singapore moving part of its training facilities in Taiwan to Hainan Island sparked concern among some in Taiwan that Singapore may leak military training secrets to the PLA. Beijing has gradually increased pressure on Singapore, particularly after Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) became president of Taiwan. In November 2016, Hong Kong port authorities seized nine armored military vehicles that Singapore had shipped through Hong Kong on their return from a training exercise in Taiwan. After the seizure, China’s foreign ministry demanded Singapore abide by the “One-China” principle and said it “opposed countries that have diplomatic ties with the Chinese mainland to conduct official exchanges of any kind with Taiwan, including military exchanges and cooperation.” Nevertheless, Singapore has over the decades signaled that it intends to maintain its training program with Taiwan despite compulsion from Beijing.

However, as Singapore has carried out military training in Australia, Brunei, Thailand, New Zealand, and other places, the number of Starlight troops training in Taiwan has dwindled from approximately 10,000 in the early years to about 3,000 troops per year. Furthermore, Singaporean armed forces also are now in greater communication with the PLA, which may alter Taiwan’s close defense ties with the city-state. If the Singaporean government decides to suspend the Starlight Project with Taiwan in the future, it would deal a significant blow to Taipei and terminate a historical bond between the two governments.

Singapore’s Balancing Act between China and Taiwan

For the past several decades, Singapore has been engaged in a balancing act between Taiwan and China. As a small city-state nestled among larger neighbors, Singapore has traditionally had to use diplomatic ingenuity to balance major powers—particularly China—and has often commented that it does not want to choose between rival countries. Singapore’s foreign policy prioritizes maintaining independence and space to pursue its national interests. It also entails being an active, constructive player and building good relations with neighboring countries. Indeed, a main achievement of Singapore’s foreign policy under Lee Kuan Yew was its uncanny ability to maintain close relations with Taipei without damaging relations with Beijing. The Chinese government has desired good relations with Singapore, whose authoritarian capitalism led by ethnic Chinese serves as a useful governance model for China.

Both Taiwan and China’s positive views of Singapore led to the city-state becoming a trusted and neutral meeting venue for landmark cross-Strait summits. Under Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership, Singapore convened the April 1993 summit between Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF, 海峽交流基金會) Chairman Koo Chen-fu (辜振甫) and Wang Daohan (汪道涵), Chairman of China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS, 海峽兩岸關係協會). Later, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (李顯龍) hosted the first summit between the presidents of China and Taiwan, Xi Jinping (習近平) and Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), in Singapore on November 7, 2015. During the Ma administration, Taipei improved relations with both Beijing and Singapore, signing a free trade agreement with Singapore—the first of its kind with a Southeast Asian country—in November 2013.

Despite Singapore’s role in facilitating cross-Strait dialogue, Taiwan’s relations with Singapore have not been without tension or political differences. Singapore has long been concerned over tendencies towards “Taiwanese independence,” which led to chilly relations during the Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) administrations. Furthermore, Lee Hsien Loong has ushered in a new era of Singapore-China relations, including promoting stronger military ties with China, that have overshadowed Singapore’s historical friendship with Taiwan. As China has undertaken a more assertive foreign policy under Xi Jinping, it has become more difficult for Singapore to maintain a middle path between Beijing and Taipei, as well as to balance the Chinese and American superpowers. In the current era of great power competition, Singapore is deeply concerned that an open US-China conflict would create serious ramifications for the small city-state, arguably posing a greater threat than China’s ambitions and unilateral military actions in the Indo-Pacific region.

Unlike its relations with other countries, which tend to focus on economics and trade, Taiwan’s relationship with Singapore was historically founded on military exchanges and cooperation. Amid closer Chinese-Singaporean ties, Taiwan faces uncertainty over its status within the triangular relationship. Taipei does not want to lose Singapore as an economic and military partner, nor as a longtime friend. Thus, Taiwan’s government is trying to preserve the historical Starlight Project, but it continues to face competition from China. If Singapore, however, decides that the Starlight training exercises in Taiwan no longer meet Singapore’s needs, or if the quality and depth of Taiwan’s military exchanges and cooperation with Singapore continue to lag significantly behind those with China, then Singapore may adjust Taiwan’s role in its defense and foreign policy accordingly.

The United States, which has taken steps to expand partnerships with Taiwan and Singapore, could also help to further integrate both Asian partners into a networked Indo-Pacific security architecture capable of deterring and withstanding aggressive actions by China. Washington could develop trilateral mechanisms to bring together Taiwan and Singapore, two like-minded partners, to help meet the shared challenges of a rising China. Washington should invite Taiwanese officials to meet with US and Singaporean counterparts to discuss collaboration on other regional security issues such as anti-piracy, counterterrorism, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. This would help promote the US interest to link its network of alliances and partnerships to promote peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region.

The main point: Close military cooperation, in particular the Starlight Project, have formed the cornerstone of close Taiwan-Singapore relations since the mid-1970s. As Singapore-China relations, including defense ties, have grown stronger over the past few decades, it has become more difficult for Singapore to balance relations between Beijing and Taipei.

[1] Jie Chen, Foreign Policy of the New Taiwan: Pragmatic Diplomacy in Southeast Asia (Edward Elgar, 2002), pg. 96.