Hong Kong Singapore shipment
Six of the nine armoured troop carriers belonging to Singapore, from a shipment detained at a container terminal, are seen in Hong Kong Bobby Yip/Reuters

Singapore's Defence Minister, Ng Eng Hen, has urged Hong Kong to return the nine armoured carriers that it seized in November 2016. He said while he is happy with the way the city-state is dealing with the issue, Hong Kong does not have the rights to legally detain the vehicles.

Customs officials in Hong Kong confiscated the troops carrier that was bound to Singapore from Taiwan after holding military exercises on the island. Since Beijing regards Taiwan as its renegade province under the 'One China' policy, the carriers' movement caused tensions between China and Singapore.

Speaking at the parliament on Monday (9 January), Ng said the vehicles are the Singapore's 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," Reuters cited the defence minister as saying.

Singapore Prime Minsiter Lee Hsien Loong is thought to have written to Hong Kong's chief executive Leung Chun-ying requesting him to return the vehicles to the city.

Ng said that Hong Kong promised to resolve the issue smoothly but that process would take some time as investigations are reportedly going on. China's foreign ministry said on Monday (9 January) that Hong Kong is "handling the matter in accordance with relevant laws and regulations".

"Singapore welcomes this response," Ng added.

Earlier in November, the customs and excise department of Hong Kong had said it seized the vehicles after suspecting some "controlled items" were found on board.

Professor Simon Chesterman, dean of law at the National University, said Singapore is eligible to appy for sovereign immunity 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," Chesterman was quoted as saying by AP.

Hong Kong was a former British colony that was later handed over to Beijing under 'one country, two systems' in 1997.

Singapore and Taiwan have a long-standing military ties from the 1970s but China is reported to be angry with Singapore's position on Taipei as well as its stand on South China Sea dispute, although the city state is not a claimant in the territorial row.

Singapore armoured troop carriers
Armoured troop carriers, belonging to Singapore, are detained at a cargo terminal in Hong Kong, China REUTERS/Bobby Yip