Category Archives: Asia

Social Media’s Chinese Boogeyman

China has become a sensation in Western discourse, representing fears of economic displacement, military rivalry, and social upheaval. In many English language social media discussions about China, commentary can quickly escalate to the point that it is alarmist, ignorant, condescending, or racist. China is a vast country, with the largest population in the world, and they have experienced as much social, demographic, and environmental change in just the last generation as the West has in the last 100 years.

Despite what you may read in social media, analysis of China does not easily boil down to 140 characters or less. The “Middle Kingdom” is a vast land of contradictions, and much of what is said about the People’s Republic contain various levels of truth. An example of China’s extreme contrasts: although there is extreme poverty in many rural areas, Beijing just surpassed New York City in number of billionaires. Too often, commentators on social media try to dilute the facts into neat clichés and virtual soundbites rather than accept the complexities of the subject.

In an ever more globalized and interconnected world, words matter. Words and ideas compete  for consideration and propagation on the internet. Opinions are shared, mimicked, and replicated quickly, often reaching unintended audiences, which is why so much commentary about China on social media is alarming. An opinion (educated or not) that is true to some extent in limited context can then be extrapolated and applied to other unrelated situations. The explosion of memes as acceptable political discourse on topics from the U.S. presidential primaries to  the Refugee Crisis is a visible example of the problem of relying on social media for political information.

Where English language opinions are more informed, they are often limited in scope and origin to the expat enclaves of Beijing, Shanghai, and the Pearl River Delta, where Westerners can experience China without the polarizing filter of the media. Popular opinion is therefore a reflection of the shallow observations often repeated by our major media organizations, whose footprints in China are, at best, a field office in Beijing or Shanghai, and at worst, simply echo the opinions of the major papers.

The problem is, the Chinese people are listening very closely. Many Chinese leaders and thinkers view America as an example of a successful great power, and they seek to imitate that success while still preserving their socialist system. The U.S. is observed by many with near obsession, curiosity, and often with some degree of apprehension. Clearly unaware of the impact of their statements in social media, the last thing Westerners, and Americans in particular, should be doing is disparaging or dismissing arguably rational Chinese actions in the media.

Imagine two brothers, where the younger brother imitates the behavior of the elder. If the elder brother rejects and mocks him, how will the younger brother then act in the future? If the Chinese political and economic leadership do not feel like Americans respect them, they may change course and find another less palatable model for future development. The Sino-American geopolitical relationship is the most important one in the 21st Century, and the U.S. should not neglect its leadership role in the region through ignorance and careless internal public dialogue.

china-provinces-map-855
Provinces of the People’s Republic of China. Photo Credit : http://www.nationsproject.org

The Loud Voices in the Room

Here are some examples from social media to demonstrate the problems with careless internal dialogue:

Opinion 1: The Chinese cheat (at business).

cheating?
Commentary below a January 1st People’s Daily post about China’s new aircraft carrier. Photo Credit: www.facebook.com

This type of message invokes a value of fairness, and claims that China is not playing fair: in business, military technology, etc… Allegations of cheating aside, consider that China has leapfrogged the industrial revolution right into the information revolution. While some would argue the fairness of China’s approach to modernization, it is nothing new. The idea of appropriating methods and technologies from more advanced nations has occurred over and over again throughout history as many now-developed nations  also stood on the shoulders of the trailblazers who went before.

Sharing of intellectual property in jointly owned enterprises has been a condition of investment in China since Deng Xiaoping’s open door policy of 1980. Western companies have willingly entered into such agreements, making significant profits while American consumers benefited by being able to buy cheaper goods. Furthermore, a large number of Chinese businesses do not cheat and steal, so their reaction to such insults on social media is predictably and understandably defensive. Dismissive and disrespectful behavior on social media has serious potential to have a negative effect on the economic relationship between the U.S and China.

Opinion 2: Chinese products are terrible quality.

There is a lot of evidence to support the fact that some Chinese goods are low quality. There have been instances of fake milk powder tainted with hazardous chemicals, contractors reducing the quality of construction in schools, and “gutter oil” used for cooking, issues that have instigated mass social movements in China in response.

made in china
Additional commentary following the January 1st People’s Daily post deriding the quality of China’s new domestically produced aircraft carrier. Photo credit: www.facebook.com

However, China as a nation is also capable of producing at high quality. The passenger rail system is not without flaws, but it has come an impressively long way. Most notably, the P.R.C. maintains a  manned space program and in September 2013 sent an unmanned rover to the moon, which set the record in October 2015 as the longest operational lunar rover. When Westerners apply this opinion categorically, it becomes insulting and arrogant, asserting that the Chinese cannot do anything of quality, and the reaction is naturally negative with potential repercussions both in diplomacy and in business.

Opinion 3: China is a global threat.

The following comments came from a Facebook page on the People’s Daily discussing the ongoing fielding of the Liaoning, China’s new Ukrainian-made aircraft carrier:

Asians and Aircraft Carriers
Commentary below a December 31st China Daily post about the refurbished aircraft carrier that China recently purchased from Russia, the Liaoning. Photo Credit: www.facebook.com

This is an extreme instance of this opinion, where the commenter uses the anxiety around China’s rise to compare the P.R.C. to the Imperial Japanese, a comparison sure to promote defensiveness and hostility from Chinese readers. The memory of the brutal Japanese occupation is immortalized in film, monuments, and memorials throughout China, just as the communist resistance to the Japanese is celebrated as a legitimacy narrative. Tensions continue to run high between the two countries as was evidenced by the response to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in 2014.  Arguable racist undertones aside, the commentary on China’s rise seems to swing to both extremes: Either China is a terrifying dragon, or China is a bumbling panda bear.

Rival or Partner?

If China is really a threat, then it could be a very serious one. When analyzing potential threats, analysis should be broken down into two components: capability of doing harm, and intent to do harm in the pursuit of a specific goal. Despite a large military, China has limited capability to threaten others in its immediate vicinity; the benefits of aggressive action are low and international connectivity makes the costs are still too high to make such policies palatable to the Chinese leadership.

The second component of threat analysis is often lacking in most Western discourse about China. Namely, do they even want to cause us harm? If/when they have the capability, would they want to use it? What would they achieve by doing so? Hostile and anxious comments about China shape and promote the kind of defensive hostility in China that the West does not desire. We should expect fear-mongering about China in the West to be mirrored, leading to further aggressive posturing and the increasing possibility of confrontation, perhaps leading to a fostering of the intent to do harm which does not currently exist. 

China Skyscraper
China is quickly modernizing. Will it integrate further into the world’s political and economic systems? Or will the world’s largest economy and most populous nation be turned away by hostility from the system it so desperately wants to become a part of?  Original Photo, Pudong, Shanghai

An Avoidable Collision

Fear-mongering can be counteracted through education. The more accurate information is spread about China, the more we Westerners will realize the limitations of our knowledge. The Chinese people are awakening to the outside world thanks to the influence of the internet, but they remain rooted in their customs, history, and have their own unique challenges. Other countries need not consent to China’s strategic positions or praise their business practices. Understanding the Chinese in  context, and cooperating or challenging as appropriate is the key. The current hostile and dismissive discourse is one avoidable factor unnecessarily escalating tensions between two civilizations which are leading towards an aggressive rivalry, rather than a rewarding partnership.

Mike KendallMAJ Mike Kendall is a U.S. Army Engineer Officer with combat experience and extensive training in forcible entry and humanitarian relief operations.  He graduated from Zhejiang University in Hangzhou China as part of the Olmsted Scholar Program, and is currently attending the German Armed Forces General Staff College and Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg, Germany. He holds a B.S. in International Relations, an M.S. in Engineering Management, and an MPA in Non-Traditional Security Management.  The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Government, or the George and Carol Olmsted Foundation.

Malaysia on the Brink

Malaysia is at a political crossroads. In what appears to be a conflict between the scion of a dynastic political order and the powerful personality of one of the country’s founding fathers, Malaysians ponder a frightfully uncertain political future. The setting is an ongoing corruption scandal involving quasi-governmental development firm, 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, that reaches all the way to Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak. In a story alleging appalling arrogance and complexity, Najib is accused of pocketing $700 million USD in funds siphoned away from 1MDB.[1] Son of the country’s respected second Prime Minister, and President of the ruling coalition’s United Malay National Organization (UMNO), Najib’s lineage gives him unique importance as a link between the country’s present and its political past. Such shocking accusations against him are particularly wrenching for Malaysia’s Malay (Muslim) community but what’s less obvious to casual observers is that they may actually threaten political stability in this peaceful Southeast Asian nation.

Malaysia’s Real Malay Dilemma

The appalling scandal appears to be the result of a dispute between Najib and Mahathir Mohamad, longtime UMNO strongman and former Prime Minister. Both are important figures, but admiring Malays regard Mahathir with near religious devotion, a source of great political power that he routinely uses. His political whims still shape Malaysian politics and though he’s been out of office since 2003, his influence is ever-present. Malaysians largely credit Mahathir’s leadership with their country’s emergence from colonialism as a modern and wealthy democracy. A conflict between these leaders puts Malaysians in a schizophrenic quandary because at one time, Mahathir was Najib’s sponsor.

If Najib survives as Prime Minister, the perception of corruption in the system may sour the disillusioned Malaysian electorate to the point that they finally abandon UMNO and the rest of the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN).  The last two elections were extremely close for BN and notwithstanding the incarceration of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on charges of sodomy (yes, sodomy), his opposition coalition (Pakatan Rakyat) holds together despite its enormous ideological fractures.  Facing abandonment by its Malay constituency, UMNO may be forced to make a deal with the Islamic party, PAS. Like Islamic parties elsewhere, PAS is seen as a less corrupt alternative, though its periodic insistence on implementing Sharia and Hudud laws makes it abhorrent to Malaysia’s sizeable Chinese and Indian minorities as well as its more worldly Malay communities.

An UMNO-PAS deal would solidify communal stresses into geographic blocks, something of a security nightmare for Malaysia’s leadership which has traditionally depended upon the diversity of its neighborhoods to deny safe-haven to would be insurgents. More Islamization and more power for Malay-majority northern states would push minority Chinese and Indians away from BN in favor of Pakatan. This would position minority communities in Penang and Selengor firmly against rural Malay communities in Johor, Pahang, Terengganu, and Kelantan.  This creates for the first time a very distinct political geographic divide within the country that will very negatively affect its stability.

Malaysia Racial Distribution
The Geographic Divide. An UMNO-PAS deal could divide Peninsular Malaysia into political-racial voting blocks; a geographic separation for the first time in the country’s history.  Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Malaysia

Mahathir Waning

If Mahathir emerges victorious, there will be massive turnover at the pinnacle of UMNO resulting in many second tier leaders rising to the top. The current Deputy Prime Minister, Muhyiddin Yasin will likely take the top job with Hishamuddin Hussein (son of another former Prime Minister) as Muhyiddin’s deputy…But this will be a pyrrhic victory for Mahathir.  He’s 90 years old and finding it increasingly hard to continue wielding power from his “retirement” villa.  His son and daughter aren’t proving to be quite the political pit bulls that he is and perhaps most importantly, Malaysians are tiring of his antics.  As one Malaysian colleague put it, they want to honor his accomplishments, not continue to be ruled by proxy.  Eager to avoid exposing his hand in Najib’s impending downfall, Mahathir has allowed Muhyiddin to portray himself as the anti-Najib and build an independent power base. Ultimately, Muhyiddin will finish the job Najib began of freeing Malaysia from Mahathir’s influence and though the country will remain ruled by the party of its founding fathers, UMNO will be greatly diminished and without Mahathir for the first time in a generation.

One way or the other, UMNO is facing a survival decision for the first time in its sixty-nine year history: get rid of Najib or sideline Mahathir. It is a decision UMNO is not really prepared to make and while most view this as a conflict between two political stalwarts, it is actually a more significant symptom of real democratic change within Malaysia. Poor management of the transition may destabilize Malaysia itself so let’s hope they get it right.

[1] He now claims this was a $700 million election contribution from Saudi Arabia.

Lino Miani

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

Asian Aspirations: NATO Looks East

As NATO’s mission in Afghanistan completes its transition from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to the non-combatant Resolute Support Mission (RSM), the question on the minds of senior Allied leaders is how to maintain Alliance cohesion without the massive political-military gravity of the war to keep the Nations engaged with one another. Cohesion may seem like an odd thing to worry about after 70 years of Allied success but what is not apparent to many is that for the last 14 years, the war in Afghanistan has given NATO tremendous energy and unity of purpose. Now, even with events in the Ukraine giving the Alliance renewed vigor, NATO finds itself adrift, searching for a purpose that all 28 member states can agree on even as Europe is beset on all sides by complex and serious challenges to its security.

The Ukraine crisis aside, NATO’s answer to this dangerous environment is to look outside its borders. With compound threats from transnational terrorism, illicit drugs, human trafficking, and seemingly endless instability on Europe’s southern flank, it is very easy to see why this strategy makes sense. While the Alliance has a growing number of legal vehicles at its disposal for reaching out, it was adoption of the Berlin Partnership Policy in 2011 –specifically the creation of the Individual Partnership Cooperation Plan (IPCP)– that truly opened doors to military cooperation beyond Europe and North America. Since that time, Japan, South Korea, Iraq, New Zealand, Sweden, Mongolia, and Australia have finalized IPCPs with NATO.

Measuring Asian Engagement

While all the military diplomacy sounds very promising, in real terms it has not yet amounted to much. The Nations all agree that military cooperation with non-NATO partners is important but other than to support RSM or Operation Ocean Shield, an ongoing operation in the Gulf of Aden, NATO forces have not ventured beyond Europe since the 2011 Foreign Ministers meeting that led to the Berlin Policy. While it would be a good first step to have Asian forces participating in NATO exercises, military cooperation will need to occur on partner nation territory to meet the goals of the Allied strategy. This is no small matter. Funding, organizing, supplying, and controlling multinational exercises is a complex and expensive endeavor; even with 70 years of procedure to guide the planning. IPCPs lack the administrative backbone necessary to run a large-scale NATO exercise outside its borders and a notable exercise failure could make such cooperation very unpopular very quickly. In this sensitive space at the intersection of politics, military action, diplomacy, and fiscal restraint, the utility of one tool rises above all the others: Special Operations Forces or SOF.

Reliable, rapidly deployable, relatively inexpensive, and capable of secrecy and discretion, SOF has long been a favorite tool of nations for building new relationships of this type. In Asia in particular, Special Operations Forces have broader utility than naval or air units for the simple reason that while not all potential Asian partners have viable navies or air forces, most have credible SOF. Paradoxically, when it comes to Special Operations, limitations on engagement lay with NATO partners which rarely share their SOF capabilities with the Alliance. Even those member states that maintain robust relationships with Asian SOF units (the United States and the United Kingdom, and to a lesser degree, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Portugal), rarely commit their special forces to NATO missions. But as Asia grows in economic, social, and political importance, there are many reasons why Allied nations may be more likely to share their SOF in the future.

Asian SOF Sniper
Credible SOF partners: Cold weather training of ROK Army Special Forces snipers in 2014

Asia is a Big Deal

The rough numbers behind Asia’s rise are no mystery to readers of The Affiliate Network: 60% of the planet’s population is Asian, their defense budgets comprise 25% of the world’s total, and their economies represent 30% of global gross domestic product; but relationships between NATO SOF units and their Asian counterparts are underdeveloped. It is therefore important to remember some things about SOF in Asia: with the exception of Thailand, Asian security services from India to Indonesia to North Korea trace their roots directly to the Japanese Imperial Army or to Allied efforts to counter it. During the Second World War, Japanese graduates of the intelligence school at Nakano mobilized the political and military leadership of occupied areas to maximize contributions to the greater Japanese economy.[1] This fact ties modern Asian security services to politics in ways that have been remarkably consistent over the last 70 years. Secondly, though Asian governments generally maintain active relationships with their former colonial sponsors, these relationships are not proprietary, nor have they been constant. The result is that with few exceptions, European SOF have very little experience in what is rapidly becoming the world’s most important geopolitical arena. Today, as NATO and its member states wake up to the opportunities and risks inherent in South and East Asia, this lack of experience collides squarely with a desire to build relationships there and to operationalize the Berlin Partnership Policy in a way that can provide a springboard to larger and more regular interactions.

Addressing this capability gap begins at home. European SOF seeking to operate in Asia will find themselves in a bewildering cultural and linguistic landscape where modern politics intersects 5000 years of history and religion in confounding ways. While vital cultural awareness is next to impossible to build in a classroom, language capabilities can and should be developed this way despite the time and money required to maximize these skills. Secondly, many Asian (especially Southeast Asian) top-tier SOF capabilities reside in national police forces whereas European SOF units are overwhelmingly military. This presents an obstacle for many European nations that maintain strict legal prohibitions on military relations with police forces. NATO nations interested in undertaking Alliance SOF missions in the region must take steps to eliminate these regulatory barriers before they cause a problem. Thirdly, European SOF forces lack strategic mobility. While military transport aircraft are available, even large powers France and Germany struggle with lift capacity. European SOF will need to develop a familiarity with the nuances of projecting power via global shipping, something that is often particularly tricky in situations involving weapons, narcotic medicines, and sensitive technologies. Lastly, European SOF will need to sort through a host of details required for success in Asia; from having to contracting support and flexible funding for logistics, to having 220-volt power tools on hand, to coming to terms with murky associations between some Asian SOF units and national political parties, human rights issues, and wide variations in quality of their counterparts.

Engaging militarily in Asia will in some ways be a difficult undertaking for NATO, especially in light of growing threats close to the continent, but armed with the right knowledge and preparation, SOF will be a key tool in expanding partnerships in fulfillment of NATO’s Strategic Concept.  Whether this provides the cohesion Allied leaders seek remains to be seen.

[1] The founders of many post-war SE Asian governments and militaries were trained by the Japanese and later switched sides. Examples are Ne Win and Aung San (Burma), Subas Chandra Bose (India), Sukarno and Zulkifli Lubis (Indonesia), Bảo Đại (Vietnam), and others.

Lino Miani

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