Though an exchange of trade missions between both countries occurred in 1969, Singapore never had diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (ROC), still Taiwan’s official name, and established them with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1990.
But due to the city state’s limited land and airspace, as well as ideological affinities, Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015) and Taiwan’s President Chiang Ching-kuo (1910-1988) in 1975 started the Starlight Program, which allows Singaporean troops to train on the island in more realistic combat situations and take part in joint drills with Taiwanese soldiers.
It also implies that they are in the position to participate in rescue missions in the aftermath of natural disasters, like the big earthquake in September 1999 and Typhoon Morakot, the deadliest to impact Formosa in recorded history, in August 2008. Nevertheless, they have always maintained a low profile.
After Taiwan’s pro-independence female President Tsai Ying-wen took office in May 2016, the project has undergone even closer scrutiny from Peking and remains an irritant in China-Singapore ties.
In November 2016, the Red Mandarins demanded Singapore respect their “One-China policy” and end military ties with Taiwan. Nine armored Singaporean military vehicles had been seized by Hong Kong customs officials en route to Singapore from the Taiwanese port of Kaohsiung during a routine inspection on suspicion of illegal arms trading.
The incident was remarkable in that for the first time the PRC has made a public issue out of the drills in Taiwan. Within 24 hours, the Singaporean government confirmed that those Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles (ICVs) and associated equipment used for routine overseas training was being shipped back via commercial means as with previous exercises.
Although on that occasion Singapore stated that it expected the PRC to respect its sovereign right to conduct military training wherever it deemed appropriate, during Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s visit to China in October 2019, Defense Ministers Wei Fenghe and Ng Eng Hen signed an updated China-Singapore defense agreement to facilitate frequent bilateral exchange.
At the same time, because of strong opposition from the Pentagon, Singapore turned down a Chinese offer to let its armed forces train on the southern island of Hainan under climatic conditions similar to those in Taiwan.
Responding to growing public concern over a potential suspension of the Starlight Program, Taiwanese Defense Minister Yen De-fa on October 28th, 2019 said that it will continue to operate.
Even if Singapore really wanted to end the controversial cooperation, it would have to keep in mind the regional foreign policy of its other allies and therefore is unlikely to do so in one fell swoop.
The United States under President Donald Trump, who considers China an aggressive expansionist power, wouldn’t be happy to see a sudden change.
Anyhow, in recent years Singapore has been gradually scaling down Project Starlight and simultaneously building up its military partnership with other countries, including Australia, Brunei, Germany, India and the US.
Singapore used to send more than 15,000 servicemen a year for military training in Taiwan at an armored car base in Hukou, an artillery base at Douliu and a combined forces base in Hengchun. Step by step, that number has been trimmed to about 3,000.
On the other hand, even though a year ago Singapore stepped up its defense cooperation with Peking, it actually has no reason to completely terminate its military training program with Taipei.
The richest state in Asia, due to its economic and political relevance and strong connections with Washington, can freely chose its friends in every field. They like it or not, the Chinese Communists have to acknowledge that.