SINGAPORE/BEIJING Singapore sought to play down the impact the seizure of nine of the city-state's armored troop carriers could have on its relationship with Beijing, even as Chinese media pointed to growing anger over the incident.
The troop carriers were impounded last week as they passed through Hong Kong from Taiwan, sparking a rebuke from China's foreign ministry about maintaining military ties with self-ruled Taiwan, which Beijing considers a breakaway province.
In his first comments on the matter, Singapore's Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan was quoted by the Straits Times' website on Tuesday as saying it was "not a strategic incident."
"I wouldn't overreact to that ... we expect commercial providers of services to strictly comply with the law," Balakrishnan was quoted as saying.
"It will be a footnote on how to do things strictly, carefully and by the law. It's not a strategic incident."
Ties between China and Singapore have been strained in recent months, particularly over the disputed South China Sea, where Beijing suspects Singapore of siding with the United States. China claims most of the resource-rich waterway, where some $5 trillion in trade passes through each year and has accused Washington of deliberately creating tension by sailing its ships close to Chinese-controlled islands.
On Monday, the Chinese foreign ministry said it had lodged a protest to Singapore over the vehicles and demanded the island abide by Hong Kong's relevant laws.
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.
"We all know, and China knows, that we've had special arrangements with Taiwan for a long time, and what we are doing there is no longer a secret," Balakrishnan said. "If you are truly close, there will be things you disagree about from time to time."
"Fortunately or unfortunately for Singapore, we are very transparent, we call a spade a spade. It doesn't mean we are shifting our position or deliberately trying to poke people in the eye."
China's influential state-run tabloid the Global Times said the vehicles should be "melted down", in its second swipe at Singapore in two days.
The newspaper, published by the ruling Communist Party's official People's Daily, blasted Singapore's "carelessness" with the troop carriers, which it said reflected a failure to take seriously China's displeasure over relations with Taiwan.
"Singapore's image in China is now so rotten that ordinary Chinese people think the best thing to do with the 'confiscated' armored vehicles that 'walked right into our trap' is to send them to the steel mills to be melted down," it said.
The editorial, published in the paper's Chinese language edition, adopts a similarly strident tone to a Monday commentary in its English edition, accusing Singapore of hypocrisy.
In September, the paper embarked on a war of words with Singapore's ambassador to China, Stanley Loh, over a report that said Singapore had raised the South China Sea at summit in Venezuela, which the ambassador denied.
China has repeatedly warned Singapore against getting involved in the territorial dispute in which China asserts sovereignty over waters and islands claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
Singapore has no claims, but as the biggest port in Southeast Asia, the city-state's open economy depends on continued free navigation in the area.
(Editing by Lincoln Feast)