SINGAPORE Singapore's defence minister said on Monday that the nine armoured vehicles seized in Hong Kong could not be detained or confiscated but that he welcomed Hong Kong's pledge that the dispute would be handled in line with its laws.
Hong Kong customs seized the troop carriers in November as they were being shipped from Taiwan to Singapore after military exercises on the island that Beijing regards as a breakaway province, sparking tension between Singapore and China.
Beijing, which regained sovereignty over the former British colony of Hong Kong in 1997, then warned countries against maintaining military ties with Taiwan.
Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, answering questions in parliament, said the vehicles were Singapore property.
"They are protected by sovereign immunity even though they were being shipped by commercial carriers. They are immune from any measures of constraint abroad. They cannot legally be detained or confiscated by other countries," Ng said.
Ng added Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had written to Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying to request their return.
The response was that an investigation would take some time and that Hong Kong would handle the matter in accordance with its laws, Ng said.
"Singapore welcomes this response," he said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters at a regular briefing that Beijing hoped "all relevant countries, including Singapore, first, can conscientiously abide by the one China principle".
"Second, we hope the Singapore side can conscientiously abide by Hong Kong's laws," Lu said.
The seizure of the vehicles came amid mounting regional uncertainty and signs of tension between China and Singapore, which has deepened its security relationship with the United States over the last year and remains concerned over Beijing's assertive territorial stance in the South China Sea.
Singapore and Taiwan have a longstanding military relationship that began in the 1970s and involves Taiwan being used as grounds for Singaporean infantry training.
Beijing has grudgingly tolerated this agreement since China and Singapore re-established diplomatic relations in the 1990s, with Singapore recognising Beijing's "one China" policy, in which China says Taiwan is part of its territory.
But China has repeatedly warned Singapore against getting involved in the South China Sea dispute in which China asserts sovereignty over various waters and islands claimed by the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
Singapore has no claims in the South China Sea, but as the biggest port in Southeast Asia, its open economy depends on free navigation in the area.
Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, also answering questions in parliament, reiterated Singapore's support for China.
"We must welcome a rising China, a stronger China, an economically more integrated China and we have to focus on the opportunities while at the same time recognising that there will be issues to resolve from time to time," Balakrishnan said.
China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since 1949, when Mao Zedong's Communist forces won the Chinese civil war and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists fled to the island. Beijing has vowed to bring Taiwan under its rule, by force if necessary.
(Additional reporting by Greg Torode in HONG KONG and Michael Martina in BEIJING; Editing by Nick Macfie)