SINGAPORE (AP) — Singapore's defense minister said Monday that nine armored personnel carriers that are being held in Hong Kong should be returned immediately under sovereign immunity laws.
Customs authorities in Hong Kong, a Chinese territory, seized the eight-wheeled Terrex infantry carriers in November. The vehicles were being shipped back to Singapore following military training exercises in Taiwan.
The "Terrexes and other equipment detained in Hong Kong are the property of the Singapore government. They are protected by sovereign immunity," Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said in parliament. "This means they are immune from any measures of constraint abroad."
The incident appears to signal China's unhappiness with Singapore's position on Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway region, and the South China Sea.
Although not a claimant in the South China Sea, Singapore has irritated China by advocating that countries abide by international rules. China claims most of the strategic waterway despite a landmark ruling by an international tribunal in July that invalidated its claims.
Hong Kong's Customs and Excise Department said Monday that it could not provide further information because the case was still under investigation. In November, the department said in response to questions about the seizure that 12 shipping containers passing through the city's port en route to Singapore were detained because "suspected controlled items" were found on board.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Monday that Hong Kong is "handling the matter in accordance with relevant laws and regulations."
Professor Simon Chesterman, dean of law at the National University of Singapore, said sovereign immunity should apply in this case.
"Given China's strong position on sovereign immunity, which it has invoked in other jurisdictions for its own protection, it would be surprising if this matter is not resolved - eventually," he said.
Associated Press writers Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong and Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.