Much misinterpretation over Terrex incident
Hong Kong yet to clarify reasons for seizure of SAF vehicles; Beijing has been diplomatically nuanced
Nine Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Terrex infantry carrier vehicles, allegedly en route from Taiwan to Singapore, were seized in Hong Kong on Nov 23.
Responding to the vehicle seizure, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman emphasised that the laws of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region should be adhered to, and that countries which shared diplomatic relations with China should not be engaging in any form of official exchanges with Taiwan.
Hawkish commentaries followed in the Chinese media, with sensationalised headlines framing the issue as one between China and Singapore, suggesting that Singapore needed to give up its military training in Taiwan or compromise its bilateral relations with China.
Within Singapore, there has also been a significant amount of speculation and sensational hypotheses surrounding the seizure of the vehicles, which may do more harm than good.
Three common logical flaws can be identified from many of these commentaries.
The first is fundamental attribution error. Hong Kong has yet to clarify the exact reasons and legal basis of its move.
With the basis of seizure remaining ambiguous, one should not simply assume that such an action was a premeditated move by Beijing, ostensibly to threaten Singapore about conducting military training in Taiwan.
Hong Kong is, after all, one of the world's busiest ports, and this incident could very well have been caused by an administrative lapse, which is still being investigated.
China has many tools in its foreign policy toolbox.
Having Hong Kong impound SAF vehicles being carried on a commercial shipping firm cannot be the most effective measure - if it was indeed its intention to push Singapore around in the international realm, or even "drive a wedge among Singaporeans", as some online comments put it.
Misinterpreting intent, Member of Parliament Pritam Singh further referred to the Terrex incident as an "ongoing diplomatic spat" between Singapore and China.
Contrary to the allegations of some analysts that Beijing "now has a serious problem" with the SAF's training in Taiwan, official responses from China and Singapore have been relatively muted. There have not been any open accusations by either party, leaders or otherwise, much less of the headline-grabbing variety that a diplomatic quarrel would necessitate.
The SAF's training in Taiwan is not a secret. Singapore's leaders had an agreement with their Chinese counterparts on the need for the SAF to continue with such training when the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1990.
Both sides have accorded each other mutual respect on this issue.
Singapore has consistently abided by a "One China" policy and has kept its interactions with Taiwan low-profile and apolitical.
Beijing has largely reciprocated with a delicate diplomatic dance by consistently reiterating its official stance on the one hand, while tacitly accepting that the SAF's training in Taiwan is out of necessity and not targeted against China.
The statement by the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman can therefore be seen as pro forma and typical of any issued by China regarding Taiwan.
The second logical fallacy is an erroneous conflation of issues.
For instance, Dr William Choong highlighted the other recent hiccups in the Sino-Singapore relationship, such as Singapore's recent fiasco with China's Global Times and the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement established with the US in December last year.
He then arrived at the conclusion that "the Terrex episode has underscored the fact that Singapore's approach to the regional order and the South China Sea disputes will come under increased scrutiny from China".
In another recent commentary published by The Straits Times, the paper's editor at large Han Fook Kwang had similarly discussed this incident and the South China Sea issue in the same breath.
There is no reason or evidence to assume that this Terrex episode is directly linked to Singapore's consistent position on the South China Sea, or its well-established defence cooperation with the US. In any case, it is natural for bilateral relationships to witness ups and downs.
The fact that "Sino-Singapore relations hit a high point in November last year", as noted by Dr Choong, only goes to show that despite occasional disagreements, overall bilateral relations remain stable and broad-ranging.
Last but not least, analogies have been misused.
In assuming China's involvement in the Terrex seizure, some analysts have recalled the 1994 Michael Fay caning incident and warned that Singapore should not succumb to pressure from China or any other bigger country.
While Singapore should indeed stand firm as an independent and sovereign country, this Terrex episode draws no parallels with the Michael Fay incident where the American teenager was sentenced to caning in Singapore for vandalism.
The personal appeal for clemency by then US President Bill Clinton, asking for a commuting of the caning sentence, was an act of intervention on a purely domestic matter decided by Singapore's judiciary.
In contrast, it is well within the rights of the Chinese government to call for a "One China" policy; of the Hong Kong authorities to inspect cargo entering its port; and of Singapore to establish training agreements overseas.
Diplomacy, the age-old art of "the management of international relations by negotiation" is another thing altogether, hardly the same as resisting interference with another country's domestic policies. As some analysts have already pointed out, this is not the first time that an incident has drawn unnecessary attention to the SAF's training in Taiwan, and it will almost certainly not be the last. When such events occur, unnecessary speculations by any party - including those on social media - can only exacerbate matters.
On a broader level, this is symptomatic of the "fake news" problem, where facts, misinformation and speculation are weaved together and presented as truths.
We have witnessed the dangers of the fake news phenomenon in other parts of the world, especially when it fuels domestic anger.
More narrowly conceived, speculation could very well end up tying the hands of policymakers and diplomats.
This could perhaps be glimpsed from the indirect and belated responses by the political leaders and officials from both sides, who had presumably wanted to keep the Terrex affair at a lower profile, rather than unnecessarily escalating it.
There must indeed always be space to understand the imperatives of our foreign policy and, when necessary, even disagree with it.
Nonetheless, this is not the same as committing logical fallacies such as the misattribution of intent, conflation and flawed analogical reasoning.
When left unchecked, such misguided assertions have the potential of fuelling domestic anger and unnecessarily escalating matters.
In recounting the words of our first foreign minister, Mr S. Rajaratnam, Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan reminded Singaporeans that Singapore's foreign policy must be tempered by a "clinical realism".
Not jumping to conclusions about China's intent over this Terrex episode is not an example of "vague idealism", but one that is based on the premise that pessimism arising from unfounded speculations will ultimately only result in a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Angela Poh is a PhD candidate at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). Chang Jun Yan is an associate research fellow at RSIS and a PhD student at the University of Queensland.