By Fayen Wong
KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan (Reuters) – A dark-green army truck zips
through the hilly countryside in southern Taiwan before
disappearing behind the high walls of an unmarked military base
— the largest of Singapore’s three army camps in Taiwan.
For nearly 30 years, the island state of Singapore, which
lacks the space for large-scale military maneuvers, has trained
its troops in Taiwan under the code name Operation Starlight.
But Singapore has begun scaling back its military presence
in Taiwan in recent years as it sought to warm relations with
China, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province.
“In recent years, Singapore’s close military links with
Taiwan have occasionally been an irritant in the city-state’s
relationship with China,” Tim Huxley, a defense expert who has
written books on Singapore’s military, told Reuters.
The city-state has over the past decade quietly built
defense links with other countries to train its troops
including Australia, New Zealand, Brunei and Thailand.
It also sends air force contingents to the United States
and France following arms purchases and hopes to soon formalize
an agreement with India to train its troops there.
Singapore began Operation Starlight in 1975 when Taiwan,
eager to cultivate ties abroad after it lost its United Nations
seat to China, offered Singapore military training bases.
It was a welcome offer. Singapore faced communist threats
from Malaysia and Indonesia and was keen to build up its
fledgling army. But it lacked the space on an island so small a
fighter jet can fly over it in less than two minutes.
Analysts estimate that by the mid-eighties, at the peak of
the operation, Singapore sent about 15,000 conscripts a year to
Taiwan for large-scale war games.
But the training camps became a sensitive issue over the
past decade as Singapore, which is 75 percent ethnic Chinese,
sought to forge warm ties with China, where Singaporean
government companies are investing billions of dollars.
Despite its military cooperation with Taiwan, Singapore
staunchly supports the “one-China” policy, opposes Taiwanese
independence and does not have diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
CHINA OFFERS TRAINING BASES
It’s a diplomatic juggling act that could result in
Singapore finding itself in an uncomfortable position if
cross-strait relations flare up and it is forced to take sides.
“Singapore is aligned with the U.S. and it also has strong
ties with China. But if there was a war between China and
Taiwan, Singapore could be unwillingly dragged in,” Huxley
Taiwan is Singapore’s eighth-largest partner, while China
comes in third after the U.S. and Malaysia.
The Singapore Ministry of Defense declined all comment on
issues related to Taiwan.
While China has in the past turned a blind eye to
Singapore’s close economic and military ties with Taiwan, it
has been less tolerant of any dealings with Taipei since the
self-ruled island’s leaders started a pro-independence
London-based Jane’s Defense Weekly reported in 2001 that
Beijing had offered Singapore the use of Hainan island as an
alternative training site to Taiwan. The offer was the first by
China to a foreign country and appeared to be an attempt to
discourage Singapore’s military ties with Taiwan.
“We have never discussed this,” Singapore Defense Minister
Teo Chee Hean said in June after being asked about the offer.
While Singapore has tried to cut back its dependence on
Taiwan, the government had done so carefully, citing reduced
training needs rather than any desire to pacify China, Huxley
said, trying at the same time to avoid offending Beijing.
“As we build new military relationships with countries like
India, it will get more difficult for us to not look like we’re
snubbing China,” said Bernard Loo, a defense analyst at
Singapore’s Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies.
Singapore’s operations in Taiwan remain shrouded in
secrecy. While in Taiwan, Singaporean troops wear Taiwanese
army uniforms distinguishable only by a separate insignia.
Several former Singapore soldiers have confirmed this practice,
And defense analysts estimate the number of troops sent to
Taiwan for training has been slashed by half to about 7,000
annually. The bulk of Singapore’s army now goes to Australia,
where up to 6,600 soldiers train early year at Shoalwater Bay
That shift has hurt local business.
“The town used to be teeming with Singaporean soldiers
about twenty years ago. Business was brisk at many of these
eateries and karaoke bars,” Xu Xiu-feng, 42, a restaurant owner
said. “But now this is just a sleepy town,” she added.