In December 2016, sailors from a Chinese warship seized a United States unmanned underwater vehicle operating in the international waters of the South China Sea. The Pentagon protested, demanding the immediate return of the drone. Within a week, after consultations between China and the US, the drone was returned.
One month earlier, in November, a similar situation played out on the border of the South China Sea. Nine armored personnel carriers were seized at the Kwai Chung container terminal of Hong Kong. The Terrex vehicles were returning from a Singaporean military exercise in Taiwan, transported by a commercial cargo ship. Like its American counterpart, Singapore’s Ministry of Defence expressed its expectation that the shipment be returned to Singapore expeditiously. However, the vehicles were only returned after two months. Similar incidents returned different results.
To understand why the disputes were resolved differently, it may be useful to first consider the context of each incident. The Terrex situation involved many more parties. Hong Kong’s Customs and Excise Department, Singapore’s Ministry of Defence (and Singapore Armed Forces), and the shipping contractor APL had to coordinate and organize various meetings to discuss the issue. Hong Kong has denied Beijing’s involvement in the incident, but mainland agents may have tipped off the Hong Kong Customs about the vehicles. In contrast, the drone situation involved mainly the Chinese Ministry of Defense (and Chinese Navy) and the US Department of Defense (and US Navy). With less stakeholders involved, it is possible that “friendly consultations” could be “smoothly completed”. Thus, it may simply be the case that for one situation, negotiations were more complicated and a compromise more difficult to reach.
Yet, inter-state tensions do not necessarily arise from the deployment of military vehicles in international waters, or the shipment of military cargo from one port to another. An explanation for why such disputes arose in the first place can be found in the bilateral relations between the involved parties. Granted, both the US and Singapore were seen to have violated the One China policy. Beijing opposes Singapore’s military ties and cooperative training with Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province. Similarly, then-President-elect Donald Trump challenged the One China policy by speaking on the phone with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen earlier in December 2016. However, unlike Singapore, the US has a strong and visible military presence in the South China Sea. The US has stationed warplanes in the Philippines to challenge Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, along with “ballistic missile defense-capable ships, submarines, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft”. Even though China was offended by both Singapore and the US, it may have been prompted by the military threat of the latter to expedite the resolution of the dispute for the US. At best, China may have remained inactive during the negotiations in Hong Kong. At worst, it may have stalled the discussions to force the Singaporean government to cease its relations with the Republic of China. At present, the Ministry of Defence has not announced any changes to the conduct of its military training in Taiwan.
Moving forward, both the US and Singapore can draw valuable lessons from these incidents. The Singapore Armed Forces has already changed its practices to better protect Singapore’s military assets. It would not be too far of a stretch to suggest that the US Navy has strengthened measures to prevent any unmanned underwater vehicles from being seized from the water by foreign military personnel. American and Singaporean leaders can also learn from each other’s experiences. To the US, the seizure of Singaporean military vehicles is yet more evidence of an increased Chinese initiative to gain a strategic foothold in Southeast Asia. It further confirms American views of China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. To avoid alienating its defense partners in the region, the Pentagon could consider reinforcing its military presence not only through the deployment of more assets, but also through conducting more multilateral and bilateral operations with Southeast Asian militaries. To Singapore, the seizure of the US drone is a reminder for the Singapore Armed Forces to exercise more caution in deploying its own unmanned underwater vehicles. To avoid antagonizing China in what it considers to be its territory, Singaporean military leaders may want to reconsider any deployments of such vehicles in the South China Sea.