Category Archives: Asia

Chengdu: Canary in the Coal Mine

Feature Photo: Chengdu Global Center is the largest building in western China. It contains a mall, hotel, conference center, and water park.

Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in south-central China, is a lighthearted community. Famous as the home of the Giant Panda conservation program, Chengdu occupies an important place in the heritage of greater China. The attractive and prosperous city is also known for the beauty of its women, the spicy heat of its food, and the self-effacing sense of humor of its inhabitants. They will need it. In many ways, Chengdu is a microcosm of China’s rise and may also serve as a canary in the coal mine should the country’s experiment with capitalism begin to fall apart.

Founded during the warring states period by Lord Kaiming as a capital for his dominion, Chengdu means “Becoming a Capital.” With 15 million inhabitants and 3.87 million cars, the youth there sarcastically refer to it as “Becoming a Carpark.” The city’s traffic is indicative of the transformation that has affected China as a whole. Since the 1980s, an entire generation of rural Chinese has migrated to the cities looking for work in the new economy. Their flight has emptied the countryside, changed family dynamics across China, and forced a residential construction boom like the world has never seen. In Chengdu, the pace of change is so astonishing people joke they sometimes go to work in the morning and get lost on the way home because everything changes so quickly. The joke is not far from the truth.

Growth and Prosperity

The rapid transformation of China from a rural Communist backwater in the 1980s to the economic powerhouse of today is arguably the single greatest human endeavor since the Second World War. Since 1978, an estimated 800 million Chinese people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. China’s adult literacy rate in 2012 was 95.1% and climbing with youth literacy reaching 99.65%. Its infant mortality rate dropped from 4.2% in 1990 to 1.2% in 2012. Life expectancy in 2012 was 75.2 years, up from 69.5 years in 1990. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita increased an average of 9.3% annually from 1990.[1] In the space of a single generation hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens stopped having to worry about survival and became concerned about enjoying life. A Chinese version of the American Dream took hold in which young couples marry for love, own their own homes, and expect to retire comfortably without dependence on their children. This “Chinese Dream” once ignited, cannot be extinguished without calamity, forcing Beijing to seek resources to satisfy its growing industry and appetite for consumption.

China’s political aspirations have risen with its economic power. There is a sense at every level of Chinese society that after centuries of shameful disunity and perceived exploitation by outsiders, it is finally time to reclaim China’s place at the “center of the universe.” An air of inevitability and a disregard for short-term consequences now permeates Beijing’s foreign policy, but China lacks the cool confidence exhibited by Japan or Thailand, the only two Asian nations that were never colonized. Instead, China bullies its neighbors with incomprehensible urgency. Shamelessly and without hesitation, Beijing attempts to divide and conquer in political and economic matters, raising the level of uncertainty in the region and leaving little doubt it act militarily if required. East and Southeast Asia are regrettably vulnerable to this approach, leaving only the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the US system of alliances to thwart Chinese hegemony in the region. In this way, the US Navy’s 7th Fleet is the ultimate regulator of China’s military, economic, and political aspirations—and this makes Beijing restless.

In response, China’s military expansion is almost as astonishing as its economic growth. Since 1989, the budget of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has increased an average 9.56% per year though some estimates put the figure much higher.[2] China has the luxury of focusing its military efforts against a single paradigm: the United States Military. In pursuit of parity, the PLA has acquired nuclear weapons, carrier and stealth aviation, modern command and control systems, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and special operations capabilities. Some believe the Chinese may actually lead the world in cyber, anti-ship ballistic missile technology, and even quantum computing—a capability that could obviate any attempt at communications security. Though the United States Military is a large and robust rival, China’s drive for parity requires only that it learn from the Pentagon’s successes and avoid its mistakes. Accordingly, Chinese officers miss no opportunities to study America’s weaknesses and develop countermeasures. For them, parity is only a matter of time and persistence, something the Chinese are more comfortable with than Americans are. It is not surprising then that the PLA is not just a military force, it also carries political and economic weight within the Chinese system.

chart
This chart illustrates the rapid but steady rise of China’s military budget.

China’s Future: Unite or Ignite?

Unfortunately, China simply cannot sustain the economic growth required to keep it all going. The problem is dire. Even a moderate reduction in the pace of growth will profoundly affect tens of millions of workers. If a contraction stratifies and unbalances China’s economy, the country’s fractures will begin to re-emerge. Income and quality of life will become a matter of struggle between ethnic groups and geographic regions. China’s coastal cities are extremely important to its economy; those in the interior are less so. Profound cultural differences exist between those from the north and those from the south as well as between east to west. Xinjiang and Tibet already dream of an independent future as do some in Hong Kong and of course Taiwan. Igniting rebellion in these places requires only a spark. More profoundly, if the Chinese economy stagnates, there is simply no way to keep 600 million military aged men busy, unified, and politically obedient without expansion and conquest. Economics may thus force China to decide between conflict at home and conflict abroad.

China’s Communist Party leadership is already preparing for this eventuality. Efforts to control information and stamp out dissent serve to inoculate the country against the centrifugal forces that threaten to spin it apart. The PLA appears to have three principal goals: develop a power projection capability, use that capability to solidify control of energy supply lines, and build positive relationships with the Chinese people through disaster response. China recognizes it will need all these things if it decides to embark on a policy of conflict overseas. Though at the moment Beijing pushes its territorial ambitions incrementally, it openly experiments with hard power solutions in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and elsewhere. Any disruption in the quality of life in Chinese cities like Chengdu may provide an early warning as to whether Beijing will militarize its foreign policy. In the lengthening list of things that Chengdu is becoming, perhaps “canary in the coal mine” is the most significant.

[1] Statistics from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

[2] Figures in constant 2015 US Dollars. Raw data analyzed from the SIPRI database. SIPRI’s data typically exceeds official Chinese government statistics that are believed to be underreported.


Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

 

LOL: The Art of Assassination

On the morning of 14 February 2017, a grainy closed circuit television video shows a middle-aged Korean man striding casually into the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT) of Kuala Lumpur International Airport. He is approached from behind by a young woman in a white t-shirt and blue skirt and in a flash she throws a cloth over his face to administer a lethal dose of a colorless, odorless liquid. The victim, Kim Jong Nam, is the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He did not yet realize he was already doomed; assassinated by unknown assailants wielding an unidentified chemical weapon. The ongoing international manhunt that followed revealed the greatest strengths of the storied Royal Malaysian Police Special Branch and the brutality and skill of the North Korean intelligence service. The incident also strained relations between Pyongyang and one of the few countries in the world with which it enjoys normal relations.

The brazen murder also captivated millions and brought a shadowy underworld briefly to the surface. What is not apparent to most is that last week’s dramatic events were not a lucky strike by clever opportunists, they were the end result of a sophisticated intelligence operation – actually several separate operations – spanning multiple countries and likely involving dozens of intelligence officers and their agents. (In the professional jargon of the intelligence community, an agent is someone recruited by an intelligence officer.) Coordinating their activities to achieve the final spectacular, and previously impossible result is the real art behind the assassination.

The Cat and the Mouse

Once considered a likely successor to his father, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Nam was passed-over following a careless indiscretion and went quickly into exile while his younger sibling thrashed about in the tense early days of his rule. Despite great doubt about his ability to muster the ruthlessness required to retain power over the isolated country, Kim Jong Un quickly consolidated his hold using imprisonment and death to control anyone presenting the slightest political threat. In an environment where even kinship was less important than loyalty, Kim Jong Nam was bound to be targeted even if he had not made statements questioning the stability of his brother’s regime.

Nam Assassination
Before his fortunes faded, Kim Jong Nam (left) was the presumptive heir to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Now his half-brother, Kim Jong Un (right), leads the country. Photo credit: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/02/15/exclusive-two-female-secret-agents-behind-murder-kim-jong-unsbrother/

The elder Kim withdrew deeper into a dark exile after his father’s death in 2012. In China and Macau he was assumed to be under state protection and travelled under numerous aliases. He had already survived at least two attempts on his life and reportedly begged his half-brother to spare his life and that of his family. His final minutes in Kuala Lumpur were a bizarre drama. After being assaulted by the woman in white, he was initially treated at an airport clinic before being evacuated by ambulance to a local hospital. He died en route, just as police were beginning their hunt for his alleged attackers, an Indonesian girl – Siti Aisyah – and a Vietnamese national, Doan Thi Huong, the now infamous woman wearing the coldly ironic “LOL” t-shirt.

After her attack on Kim Jong Nam, CCTV footage shows Doan calmly leaving the scene and catching a taxi outside. Despite having just administered a lethal dose of an unknown chemical, she displayed no concern for her own safety and wore no obvious protective equipment. She had clearly practiced the sequence. Both Doan and Siti Aisyah later told police separately they believed they were taking part in a made for television prank. But Doan’s actions in the 48 hours prior to the attack suggest she had received some training in tradecraft. During that time she stayed in three hotels in the immediate vicinity of the airport and paid cash for her lodging. At one point she borrowed a pair of scissors and cut her hair, leaving the remnants in the trash can in her room. Her activities during the day are just coming to light but are now known to have included numerous rehearsals and examinations of the target area; possibly in conjunction with Siti Aisyah. These are classic, if clumsy techniques to avoid detection and rehearse the operation. They certainly signal a nefarious intent.

The Art of Assassination

To the casual observer, Kim Jong Nam’s death may seem like the handiwork of a couple clever and highly trained operatives. The reality is that intelligence operations of this kind are highly choreographed, involve dozens of actors, and are compartmented for security. Assassinating Kim Jong Nam required at least five, and as many as seven separate operations managed by seven or more intelligence officers with perhaps dozens of agents in Macau, China, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia. The overall operation likely consisted of the following supporting operations:

  • Recruit the assassins. Siti Aisyah was recruited in Indonesia. Doan may have been recruited in Vietnam.
  • Determine Kim Jong Nam’s travel plans. Doan was aware of Kim Jong Nam’s travel plans at least 48 hours prior to the attack. She used this time to rehearse and to complete her reconnaissance. Information gleaned from his social media feed is not reliable enough for this purpose and had to be corroborated with direct knowledge from intercepted communications or recruited agents in a position to provide assured access to his itinerary.
  • Report Kim Jong Nam’s movements. The attack required very precise information about his flight, his mode of transportation, his likely arrival time at the terminal, the gate/check-in counter for his flight, what he was wearing, etc.; all of which had to be communicated to the assassins in a timely manner. A botched operation would have been far too damaging to leave this to chance. This could have been as simple as a phone warning from his hotel but doing this reliably requires layers of mobile and static surveillance at the hotel, the airport, and his many residences.
  • Deliver the chemical. The chemical used to kill Kim Jong Nam was smuggled into Malaysia or manufactured locally. It likely required special skill to make and specific equipment to store and administer. For Security, Doan would have received the chemical secretly and been trained in its use at the last possible moment raising the risk it could have killed bystanders or the assassins themselves.
  • Kill Kim Jong Nam. There is a possibility Doan and Siti Aisyah may have been employed separately to ensure redundancy. They may even have been unaware of each other’s activities. The leaked CCTV footage of the attack supports this conclusion, though there is new information that they rehearsed the attack together.
  • Observe and report the outcome. Though this could have been conducted overtly through North Korean diplomats and/or monitoring of the press, it is a critical piece. At a minimum, Doan needed to report her task complete or a separate observer had to be in place at the scene to do so. Emerging information suggests this was the task of the four North Korean nationals still sought by Malaysian police.
  • Exfiltrate the assets. The four remaining fugitives all left Malaysia within a few hours of the operation. They took circuitous routes back to North Korea via Indonesia, Dubai, Russia, and elsewhere. Their roles are not certain but probably also included passing intelligence and issuing final orders. One, Ri Jong Chol, remained in Kuala Lumpur and was apprehended Monday. Doan and Siti Aisyah seemed to lack viable escape plans. It is possible they were left as a diversion to throw investigators off the trail of fleeing North Korean intelligence officers.
assassination malaysia
Deputy National Police Chief of Malaysia Noor Rashid Ibrahim, left, speaks as Selangor Police Chief Abdul Samah Mat listens during a press conference at the Bukit Aman national police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. Photo credit: AP Photo/Vincent Thian, http://time.com/4676018/kim-jong-nam-death-north-korea-suspects/

Though it was possible to conduct some of the supporting operations above clandestinely, meaning the operations themselves remain hidden, the politically explosive death of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother could never be kept secret and therefore had to be done covertly, meaning the sponsor’s hand remains hidden. A covert operation is much more difficult to execute than a clandestine one and requires layers of separation between intelligence officers and their agents that are typically not highly trained operatives. Agents are deniable and sometimes coerced. Occasionally they do not know whom they are working for or even that they are working for someone at all.

As an additional security measure, the supporting operations would be kept completely separate. The risk of detection is highest when these operations come together through communications or physical contact, meaning the moment of greatest vulnerability was during the attack itself when all the pieces were brought together in time and space. At that point, all the complicated designs of the North Korean regime rested on the element of surprise and the skill and demeanor of half-trained agents.

Ultimately, the assassination of Kim Jong Nam was a well-planned and skillfully executed intelligence operation, but the Royal Malaysian Police Special Branch is untangling the knot with great efficiency. With its roots in the long, difficult fight against Communist insurgency, Special Branch is a tough adversary in the ongoing spy game. Known locally as SB, Special Branch serves as both the internal and external intelligence service of the Malaysian state. They enjoy good relationships with counterparts in the region and are receiving excellent mutual support from Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry which is aggressively setting the conditions for international cooperation in the investigation. Though culpability for Kim Jong Nam’s death may never be fully proven, SB has managed to minimize political damage to Malaysia and imposed a high cost on North Korea. With the dust still settling, only Kim Jong Un himself can say if his brother’s murder was worth the resultant damage to relations with Malaysia and the increased suspicion that the operation has inspired around the world.


Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. He provided expertise in special and intelligence operations to NATO from 2013-2016. Read about one of his encounters with the North Koreans in Kuala Lumpur.

Tangled Conflict: Thailand

The Western media does not understand the bombings in Thailand.

On August 12, 2016, a series of thirteen bombs killed four Thai nationals and injured 35 people in the popular tourist towns of Hua Hin, Surat Thani, Phuket, and Trang. Thai officials claim this is a continuation of the Islamic separatist question in Thailand’s deep south, though the investigation is still underway. A quick search of articles about the bombings in Thailand will provide a myriad of articles that suggest the bombing is an indicator of an unpopular military regime or that Muslim extremism has spread throughout Southern Thailand. In reality, the bombings are just a small bump on the long road of conflict between ethnically-Malay Muslims of the Greater Pattani Region of southern Thailand and the Thai — Buddhist — controlled national government. 

In a narrow sense, the bombings highlight a regional displeasure with the 2016 constitution referendum vote. More broadly, however, they emphasize the international community’s neglect of the substantive issue, specifically Thai ethnic policy that some researchers suggest has contributed to the deaths of nearly 7,000 people since 2004. The media, in search of a reason for the bombings that confirms Western bias against Islam, disregards the complicated geographical and historical context which drives this conflict. Thai ethnic policy, responsible for the creation of the Thai nation-state and its successful independence from Western colonialism, is paradoxically also the catalyst for unrest. 

Context is Everything

Although the attacks threaten to affect one of Southeast Asia’s largest economies, Thailand’s greater problem is one of national unity. The Thai government believes the cohesion of the country rests on the strength of a national identity to unify the varied ethnic groups in peripheral regions where ancient historical relationships determined cultural identity. Until the 1850s, many people living within the boundaries of Thailand (or Siam) did not identify themselves as Siamese but rather by the identities of former kingdoms or villages. For example, some in the present North Region still identify with the Lanna Kingdom, while the Khmer Empire still influences the present East Region. Religion and mother-tongue, derived from these kingdoms, further shapes that dynamic.

thailand-map-5
The Greater Pattani Region’s Center-Periphery Geography. Photo Credit: Author via Google Earth.

Like the other peripheral regions, the Greater Pattani Region is culturally and ethnically distinct from its Thai/Siamese neighbor to the north. In Greater Pattani, 83% of the population speaks Pattani-Malay (Yawi), while only 13% speak the Central Thai Dialect. The religious distinction of Greater Pattani is even more acute, with 94% of the population identifying as Muslim, forming an Islamic island in an overwhelmingly Buddhist Thailand. Historically a Muslim Sultanate, the Pattani Region paid tribute to the Siamese Ayutthaya Kingdom (1350-1767). The Pattani Sultanate maintained relative autonomy due to center-to-periphery distance from Ayutthaya and the Nakhon Si Thammarat mountains that physically isolate the region from the rest of Thailand. The series of Burmese-Siamese wars from 1547-1701 allowed the Pattani Sultanate to accumulate prestige and wealth as a regional trade center until the Chakri Dynasty of Siam subordinated the Sultanate in the 1700s.

European colonization drastically changed the political environment in Southeast Asia by the late 1800s. Fearing external influence, the Thai government, under King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), instituted a civic reform in 1906 that delimited provinces and districts and replaced local leaders with central government representatives that spoke only Thai. This reform sought to unify Thailand’s own ethnic identity through enforced standards of linguistic, educational, and religious behavior; standards that further alienated Greater Pattani. Though many Pattani-Muslims hoped to represent themselves in the newly-created Thai National Assembly, their participation was deterred by policies that required Muslim officials to have Thai names, prohibited their Muslim attire, enforced a nationalist curriculum in all school systems, and subjugated Islamic courts to provincial governors.

Missing the Target

The bloodless revolution of 1932 ended 700 years of absolute monarchical rule in Thailand, but was a missed opportunity for integration. Several social activist groups including Gabongan Melayu Pattani Raya — GAMPAR — (1944) and the Pattani People’s Movement — PPM — (1947) came into being in the politically turbulent aftermath of the Second World War. Tensions worsened in 1948 when approximately 1,000 Pattani-Muslims attacked Thai National Police forces at Dusun Nyor, Narathiwat resulting in the death of 400 attackers and 30 police officers. As Thai ethnic policy remained firm, Pattani-Muslims created more separatist groups including the Betubuhan Perpaduan Pembebasan Pattani (PULO) in 1968 and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) in 1974, both of which relied upon violent attacks and assassinations to advance their separatist agendas.

Seeking to quell the violence from separatist groups, Prime Minister Prem Thinsulanond instituted a number of social programs, including the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center (SBPAC) in 1981. Though these measures provided an outlet for grievances and were largely successful, local administrators heavily abused and misappropriated funding. In 2004, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a northerner, terminated the SBPAC claiming the southern insurgency had mostly dissipated. SBPAC’s closure however undermined what leaders of the Pattani Region viewed as a social compact between them and the Prem administration.

The Greater Pattani Region and Major Counterinsurgency Incidents. Photo Credit: Author via Google Earth.
The Greater Pattani Region and Major Counterinsurgency Incidents. Photo Credit: Author via Google Earth.

A cycle of violence ensued. In January 2004, 30 Pattani-Muslim separatists attacked a Royal Thai Army (RTA) post killing four soldiers and stealing a large quantity of weapons. In response, Prime Minister Thaksin declared martial law and deployed 3,000 Soldiers that were ill-prepared for operating in the unique ethnic and linguistic landscape. Four months later, they raided the Krue Se Mosque in Pattani killing 32 suspected insurgents. Not long after, security forces killed seven demonstrators in Tak Bai. Seventy-eight others were crushed and suffocated during transportation to detention. The Prime Minister inflamed tensions when he controversially claimed their deaths were due partly to fasting during Ramadan. Insurgents responded in kind, beheading a Buddhist deputy village chief in Narathiwat and conducting other retaliatory attacks that encouraged the government to steadily increase troop numbers. Today, despite a twelve-year counterinsurgency campaign, 60,000 RTA troops and police now occupy the region of 11,000 square kilometers. Assassinations, ambushes, and improvised explosive device attacks occur regularly with no end in sight. 

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/the-secret-war-in-thailands-deep-south-8550581.html
Thai Soldiers protecting civilians during a  bombing in Pattani, 2011.

Prospects for Reconciliation

Despite displeasure towards government policies, relatively high voter-turnout rates suggest southerners still yearn to be part of the democratic process. Unsurprisingly, Greater Pattani presented the strongest opposition to the draft constitution in Thailand’s August 6, 2016 vote. In Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat, most citizens opposed the new constitution due to concerns about Article 67, which allows the state to “promote and support education and propagation of principles to protect Buddhism”. For many Pattani-Muslims, this signaled a perpetuation of oppressive policies that began in the early 1900s. Reconciliation hinges on southern participation in the Thai National Assembly and reassurance or compromise regarding Article 67 of the Constitution.

A solution to this situation is not obvious and requires concerted effort to ensure that any accommodations for the south are in keeping with national interests. The Thai government must thoughtfully consider any concessions, such as granting autonomous status to  Greater Pattani, that might result in the North and East Regions petitioning for similar concessions. A more successful approach may be the decentralization of the national government in order to allow the provinces greater opportunity to represent themselves — a major policy shift for a government with a strong preference for centralization. Proof of democratic commitment, and consequently Pattani reconciliation, hangs in the balance until the 2017 election. Until the Thai government takes deliberate but delicate steps to disentangle the conflict, flashes of violence will continue to disrupt development and discourage tourism and external investment.