PacNet #65 – To change Taiwan’s conscription system, change the culture

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, Taiwanese polls indicated that, should the People’s Republic of China attack Taiwan, 74% of Taiwanese citizens were willing to defend the island. However, the question is not if they will fight, but how prepared they are.

In Taiwan, all men are conscripted into the military, but the period of service has been shortened in recent decades, from the original two years to one year (as of 2008) and now—since 2018—to just four months.

Yet, with the Ukraine invasion and the Chinese military drills following Nancy Pelosi’s August visit to Taiwan, the reality of war is inching closer. Taiwanese Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said in late March that Taiwan is considering extending the compulsory military service.

If Taiwan is truly committed to defending itself against the People’s Liberation Army, discussions should not only consider duration, but must also reform the activities associated with conscription.

A shared pessimism, a fractured relationship

To learn more, I spoke to young Taiwanese men on their experiences in the military and the glaring problems in Taiwan’s defense. The interviewees included men who served the four months of military service, but also those who completed the 12-day replacement service—an alternative option for men who have physical or mental health issues, dependent families, and low-income households. Replacement soldier service is fairly common: in 2021, 17% of men from Kaohsiung City enlisted in the replacement service instead of the standing military reserve service.

Within this cohort, there is a shared sense of pessimism. “If we had to be on the frontlines, we definitely did not have enough preparation. People just didn’t take it seriously,” one said—a sentiment that all the men seemed to share about their compatriots.

Where did this “unseriousness” toward conscription arise and how does Taiwanese society reinforce it? There are some fixable but neglected problems reflected by my interviewees: broken practice equipment, 50-year-old guns, and prolonged periods of sitting around, doing nothing. Society as a whole also does not prioritize military readiness. One of the men reflected: “The way people talk about the military just doesn’t feel that serious. People liken it to summer camp, or something to do between summers in college. If you took it seriously, it’s almost funny.”

For young Taiwanese men in the military, there is a jarring cognitive dissonance between their political and military stance. The men in the military “are vocally against Beijing, Xi Jinping, and the People’s Liberation Army.” In 2020, the Pew Research Center observed that Taiwanese between ages 18-29 are less likely to support closer economic or political ties with China when compared to their older counterparts. However, anti-PRC sentiment does not motivate these men, and wider society, to make sacrifices to defend their republic, nor does it translate into increased alertness toward PRC threats or investment into defenses.

“[China’s invasion] is never a topic of discussion [in the military],” one interviewee said. Another lamented, “Of course, everyone knows that the threat from China has always existed, but they think that it’s only in the news. They don’t know that it’s coming.”

For one thing, the bias toward optimism clouds understanding of war. Taiwan clings to the hope that the PRC will not invade, or that even if it does, the United States would break its strategic ambiguity and come to Taiwan’s rescue. Based on a survey from Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation, 51% of respondents disagreed with the statement “do you think China will invade Taiwan at any time?” while 39% of respondents agreed.

Secondly, we see the stigma against occupational soldiers in the popular idiom “a good man does not become a soldier, and a good piece of metal does not hit a nail.” This stigma is a byproduct of the third reason: the fractured relationship between the military and the Taiwanese public.

This dates all the way back to 1949, when the Kuomintang (KMT) fled to Taiwan from the Chinese mainland and began its military occupation as the de facto government of Taiwan. The subsequent 228 Incident and the martial law period, dubbed the White Terror, traumatized Taiwanese people as the KMT military imprisoned, tortured, and executed local elites, intelligentsia, and civilians.

Modern-day Taiwan looks very different from the repressive, authoritarian regime that ruled the archipelago until a few decades ago. Taiwan’s road to democracy and investment in transitional justice has reformed many once-authoritarian institutions, making Taiwan a leading democracy in Asia. However, political repression at the hands of the military still taints Taiwanese society’s view of the military generations later.

A military/civilian solution 

The invasion of Ukraine shocked Taiwan, and the world. Analysts, policymakers, and netizens often ask, “Is Taiwan next?” A more productive question would be: What can we do to make Taiwan prohibitively costly to invade?

Healing the fractured relationship between the military and the civilians is a harder task than any one policy can tackle. Taiwanese people should recognize and respect the military. More importantly, the military should earn its respect within Taiwanese society. There are two tangible ways the military and civilians can work together to achieve a defensive Taiwanese military for the Taiwanese people.

Not only should citizen soldiers have a longer and more intense conscription service, Taiwanese culture should shift to recognize the threat of invasion. Critics should not interpret efforts to change the duration and quality of Taiwan’s military as an attempt to transform the liberal democratic country into a military regime. Instead, it is a way to signal to Beijing that the risks of invading Taiwan will outweigh the gains. Taiwanese men should walk away from their service feeling more confident in their country’s defense system after going through the rigorous boot camp.

Even more importantly, Taiwanese civilians should feel like their military will protect them. Besides improving conscription services, the Taiwanese military should also consider establishing short-term, low-commitment courses for civilians. A growing number of private companies have already taken the initiative in teaching civilians the basics of surviving war and weapon use. The military can use this opportunity to build a stronger bond with the public and also lead and supervise disseminated information for a territorial defense force, much like Ukraine’s “weekend warriors” prior to the 2022 invasion.

Taiwan’s future is not set. However, China’s military capacities are growing, making Taiwan’s need for deterrence ever-pressing and imperative. Taiwan must develop and fortify its defense units, starting from civilians and conscription soldiers. This means more than buying new weapons, building asymmetric capabilities, or lengthening the period of conscription. Taiwan needs a whole-of-society approach to preparedness, and must internalize Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s speech a day before Russia’s invasion: “When you attack us, you will see our faces, not our backs.”

Claire Tiunn (Chang) (claire@pacforum.org) is a research intern at Pacific Forum and a politics and Russian and Eastern European studies double major at Pomona College.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

 

PacNet #62 – Myanmar’s emerging national identity could change everything

The Myanmar military is, paradoxically, achieving one of its longest-standing objectives: a tangible national identity. The success of this goal, however, will require the failure of the regime’s more pressing objective: remain in power.

To maintain control, the Myanmar military has demonstrated a willingness to inflict brutality. Many observers assess the regime’s increasing use of air strikes and explicit targeting of civilians as desperation due to depleted and demoralized ground forces. However, these actions also follow the military’s long-standing “four cuts” doctrine: cut off access to food, money, potential recruits, and information within areas opposing central government rule.

Critically, the four cuts doctrine is now directly applied against the majority ethnic Bamar population areas previously relied upon for recruitment and material support which, more than desperation, may signal the Myanmar military’s quasi-religious belief in its own centrality. Even if the regime is desperate, Commander-In-Chief Min Aung Hlaing and his coalition are likely willing to sacrifice everything to maintain privilege and power.

The resulting civil war has mobilized citizens across class, ethnic, religious, and geographic divides toward the common goal of ending the regime. The current opposition to the military is the strongest unifying force in Myanmar’s recent history.

A broader opposition

The Civil Disobedience Movement, which started as a general strike against the coup, drew workers across the country and from diverse sectors of the economy. Even when met with lethal force, peaceful opposition has far outlived comparable past attempts. Simultaneously, violent opposition has expanded beyond the long-established claims of Myanmar’s powerful ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and into traditional military strongholds.

Majority ethnic Bamar areas, notably Magway and Sagaing, are now sites of intense combat against loosely organized, often poorly equipped People’s Defense Forces (PDF), as well as the regime’s indiscriminate raids, killings, and the burnings of civilian homes.

Yet the Myanmar military’s operational and strategic challenges have only intensified. Last month saw the effective end of a tenuous ceasefire with the Arakan Army, the powerful EAO seeking autonomous rule in Rakhine State. The Myanmar military also, after months of clashes, struggles to make operational gains against the Karen National Union—which has resisted central government rule since 1948—in Karen State.

The growing cooperation of some EAOs with the National Unity Government (NUG)— primarily members of the prior civilian government—and NUG-backed PDFs signals potential for much greater operational capacity on the part of the opposition.

Most tellingly, the Myanmar military appears to be losing people faster than it can replace them. The military’s response, no matter how brutal, is likely insufficient to reestablish previous military dominance.

However, the alternative to a central government victory against the opposition is not necessarily one where a popular, or less brutal, regime comes to power. The Myanmar military is in the process of becoming one among many armed factions grappling for territory and resources.

Nevertheless, the continued survival of opposition across Myanmar’s ethnic and geographic boundaries represents the clearest opportunity yet for the emergence of a shared national identity. This identity, should it survive, may prove a critical unifying force giving the nation and its people a more stable and prosperous future.

For most of Myanmar’s turbulent post-colonial history, its ethnic minorities have suffered the brunt of successive military regime attempts at consolidating power. This has often been easy to dismiss for those in the Bamar-dominated heartland now suffering what those in Myanmar’s ethnic states have for decades experienced. These minorities remain suspicious of how the NUG-led opposition might act in power. Growing cooperation suggests this suspicion is gradually relieving, but much mistrust remains.

The damage caused by the double disasters of COVID-19 and the 2021 coup left millions in poverty, and rampant economic mismanagement in the wake of the coup has destroyed the financial system, making access to critical commodities, including medicines, scarce. Yet, perhaps because they have little left to lose, the opposition continues.

Regional realism

It’s easy to assume the current opposition won’t succeed, especially considering the stances of regional powers such as China, India, and Thailand, which continue to either enable or outright support the military regime. That should come as no surprise: those who continue to support the regime look first to their own interests, backing the side perceived as most likely to win.

But it’s more complicated than it seems.

As the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia, with 45% of its population under 25 and expansive natural resources including hydroelectric potential and fossil fuel reserves, Myanmar could become a major regional power, potentially threatening Thailand’s central economic position in mainland Southeast Asia. Thailand continues to endure ongoing political turmoil that appears to share much in common with Min Aung Hlaing’s regime in terms of maintaining power at the expense of political and economic transformation. Keeping Myanmar undeveloped and a source of cheap labor and commodities is therefore a tolerable status quo.

A more unified Myanmar may also prove less amenable to the economic and security interests of India and China when these do not align with the popular will.

The expansive sanctions and efforts at humanitarian aid delivery by the United States and others notwithstanding, international efforts stop short of official recognizing the NUG. Doing so would surely pose significant diplomatic risk, ending whatever engagement is possible with the current regime and upsetting key partners—especially Thailand.

The national identity taking shape in opposition to the regime demands consideration through both realist and idealistic lenses. From a humanitarian perspective, the growing toll of nearly 30,000 homes burned, thousands of civilians killed, and hundreds of thousands displaced is unconscionable. The crisis drains the credibility of ASEAN, while transnational threats of narcotics and arms trafficking are sure to intensify and undermine regional security.

A “wait and see” approach will keep Myanmar’s future opaque. The damage from this civil war will not be reversed anytime soon, yet the opportunity for outside powers to support a national identity, which could lead to stability and prosperity, is unprecedented. Doing so will require backing the opposition against the current regime in recognition of a better future. Growing unity suggests that this is not only possible, but increasingly expected.

Wayland Blue (wjblue@uscd.edu) is a graduate student in the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego focusing on development and security issues in Southeast Asia. He previously worked as the director of research and evaluation for Shade Tree Foundation, a Thailand-based NGO delivering aid and education to Myanmar migrant and refugee families.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Southeast Asia Globe.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Photo: Protest against military coup (9 Feb 2021, Hpa-An, Kayin State, Myanmar) by Ninjastrikers

Issues & Insights Vol. 22, SR7 – Abe Shinzo: In Memoriam

Introduction

Rob York

A Sharp-Elbowed Politician, an Irreplaceable International Statesman  

A famous, albeit fictional, statesman once said “A good act does not wash out the bad, nor a bad act the good.”

As Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, Abe Shinzo left a legacy. Fair-minded individuals would be able to find grounds for criticism in that record: Abe climbed to leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party by stoking doubts about his country’s record in World War II, provoking outrage from neighboring countries. He relished sparring with his rivals in Japan’s other political parties and in the press; his country’s press freedom ranking consequently declined under his leadership. His efforts at addressing his country’s stagnant economy and moribund birthrate saw, interpreted charitably, only modest successes.

But Abe Shinzo should be remembered for much more than that. Much as Winston Churchill should be remembered, both for his foresight regarding the rise of the Nazi threat and his record as ruthless defender of Britain’s colonial interests, proponents of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” vision that Abe championed should remember his record as a partisan, but also as an international institution builder in an age where both “freedom” and “openness” are under attack in the Indo-Pacific. In doing so, he revived Japan as an international player and helped set the stage for multilateral cooperation to preserve existing rules and norms, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the “Quad”) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Such efforts make him one of the most influential statesmen of this era.

Since Abe’s shocking assassination on July 8, the Pacific Forum has sought to ensure that the fullness of this legacy is remembered, and as such used our PacNet series to explain his impact from a variety of perspectives. In doing so, we reached out to many old friends whose names are familiar to the Pacific Forum’s long-time readers. In PacNet #37, Brad Glosserman, Pacific Forum’s senior advisor and my co-editor at Comparative Connections, identifies the specific attributes of Abe’s—specifically his strongly held opinions and behind-the-scenes advocacy—that made it possible for him to be this institutional builder and to restore Japan’s role on the foreign policy stage. In PacNet #36 Stephen Nagy of the International Christian University in Tokyo provides a comprehensive overview of Abe the diplomat, including his successful managing of relations with the PRC, which were actually at a low point before his lengthy stint as PM. In PacNet #39 Kei Koga of Nanyang Technological University demonstrates how under Abe, Japan countered the PRC’s growing influence in Southeast Asian countries through sustained engagement, winning their trust despite their unwillingness to match his hawkishness toward Beijing. Furthermore, in PacNet #43 Jagannath Panda of ISDP, Sweden explains how Abe’s dealings with India paved the way for the latter’s increased engagement with the outside world, including through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. In PacNet #40, I note that Abe’s tireless engagement with American presidents across changes in parties has made good relations with Tokyo that rarest of things in US politics: an area of bipartisan agreement that looks unlikely to change, regardless of the outcome of the 2024 election.

The Pacific Forum also reached beyond its regular contributors’ list to acquire new perspectives. Shihoko Goto of the Wilson Center details Abe’s prescient vision for the defense of Taiwan, something the US would gradually awaken to. Jada Frasier—an MA student in Asian Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service that we believe policy professionals will be hearing from more and more in the future—explains how despite causing tensions in the Japan-South Korea relationship, Abe also deserves credit for increasing the two East Asian democracies’ opportunities for security cooperation through his emphasis on minilateral groupings.

Now that Japan has laid the former prime minister to rest last week, those who remember the darker side of his leadership will find grounds to do so, and some of those criticisms will be warranted. Abe, however, left a legacy far beyond those unpleasantries, especially if, as was the case with Churchill, his country and the international community rise to the challenge they presently face.

Table of Contents

PacNet 35, 07/11/2022. Abe Shinzo and the Japan-South Korea relationship: Near- and long-term legacies by Jada Fraser

PacNet 36, 07/14/2022. Post-Abe Indo-Pacific regional dynamics: A legacy beyond the man by Stephen Nagy

PacNet 37, 07/15/2022. Abe’s death creates a void in Japan by Brad Glosserman

PacNet 39, 07/22/2022. Abe Shinzo’s legacy in Southeast Asia by Kei Koga

PacNet 40, 07/25/2022. Abe Shinzo: How to handle an unpredictable America by Rob York

PacNet 43, 08/05/2022. Post-Abe India-Japan ties: Does Kishida have what it takes? by Jagannath Panda

PacNet 45, 08/10/2022.  The prescience of Abe’s vision for Taiwan by Shihoko Goto

 

Photo: State Funeral of Shinzo Abe by the Prime Minister’s Office of Japan

Issues & Insights Vol. 22, WP6 — Chinese Cyber Nationalism During the Pandemic: A Discourse Analysis of Zhihu

Executive Summary

The COVID-19 global pandemic has elicited a rise in cyber nationalism in China, as the world’s most populous nation outperformed the “scientifically” advanced western nations in the handling of the crisis. Chinese netizens on social messaging platform Zhihu cite upsurging cases of COVID-19 and death tolls in western countries as evidence of China’s zero-COVID strategy success, and have generated a new trend of Chinese cyber nationalism. Within this new trend, positive perceptions of western countries and their ideologies declined greatly. As previous studies have predicted, Chinese netizens are becoming more and more disappointed in western countries and “have no choice but to side with China.” This has also prompted China to be more confident in challenging the global narrative and seeking to guide the international order on COVID-related issues amid the China-US rivalry and thus facilitating a strong emotion of “China against the West.” However, this strong surge of emotion does not accurately translate into support of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s zero-COVID-19 policy.

About the Author

Talkeetna Saiget  a MAIA (Master’s in Asian International Affairs) graduate at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, focusing on China. She received a B.A. in Japanese studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. During her years at Tsinghua University, she was nominated as an exchange student to Kyoto University where she got her JLPT N1 certificate. She became increasingly interested in international relations after working at the Republic of Sierra Leone embassy in Beijing. Her research interests include China-US relations, US-Japan relations, Japan-China relations, Japanese history, and Chinese history.

PacNet #50 – China’s new (old) Taiwan white paper: What’s the point?

In the wake of the People’s Liberation Army exercises in August, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) released a new white paper on its goal of “reunification” with Taiwan. Much of the change in this paper, compared to the most recent white papers (in 1993 and 2000) papers is tonal—Cherry Hitkari of the Lowy Institute notes it is “far more assertive, elaborate and emotionally charged.” There is also an added sense of urgency, as the resolution of the Taiwan question is now seen as a necessary condition for the “Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation,” the catch-all term for Xi’s ambition for great-power status. Rhetorical flourishes aside, the 2022 white paper is by no means revolutionary. Mentions of “peaceful reunification,” “one country, two systems,” and “people-to-people exchanges,” continue to litter its pages.

The differences, however, are indicators of Chinese intentions towards Taiwan, and the prospects for preventing further escalation.

The CCP reiterates its stance on pursuing “peaceful reunification,” under the “one country, two systems” (OCTS) policy, parroted by successive Chinese leaders since Deng Xiaoping. According to the paper, the CCP will pursue “people-to-people” economic and cultural exchanges, leading to “consultation and discussion as equals,” as the process by which unification would be achieved. It continues to discuss OCTS as the “only” and “inevitable” solution for Taiwan.

These calls will likely remain unanswered in Taiwan, which views OCTS as “wishful thinking.” Unification, or moves towards unification, have all-time low levels of support among polls of Taiwanese people. The most recent poll, conducted before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit, found that 6.4% of respondents support either “unification as soon as possible,” or to “maintain status quo, move toward unification.” The experience of Hong Kong under OCTS further diminished the already-bleak outlook for the policy. The steady dismantling of Hong Kong’s autonomy, starting with the State Council’s 2014 white paper on the region, and now the “overly broad interpretation of and arbitrary application” (per a UN report) of the Beijing-imposed national security law in 2020 showed Taiwanese exactly what to expect under OCTS.

The white paper, despite its talk of “peaceful reunification,” also provides ominous signs for the (im)balance of carrots and sticks the CCP has used and will continue to use against Taiwan. The paper notably removes more conciliatory language present in the 1993 and 2000 white papers, including prior promises of a high degree of autonomy, and to not deploy military and administrative personnel to the island. The noted absence of the latter assurance is especially worrying, as the CCP has declared its intention to prosecute members of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party for “secession,” made a crime under the Anti-Secession Law in 2005. The absence of the military deployment promise also comes alongside worrying calls by Chinese ambassador to France Lu Shaye that Taiwanese people need to be “re-educated” in a unification situation. Thus, the Chinese are doing little to rehabilitate the OCTS plan in Taiwan.

The white paper advocates “peaceful reunification” under a discredited system rejected by the Taiwanese, a majority of whom are now willing to fight to prevent its imposition on the island. The Chinese are apparently aware of this and defend their actions in Hong Kong: according to the 2022 white paper, the CCP “made some appropriate improvements,” which “laid a solid foundation for the law-based governance of Hong Kong.” Thus, the Chinese are aware of the discredited status of OCTS and make no effort to rehabilitate it.

In this light, the question is: what, then, is the purpose of the white paper?

The answer is probably domestic. On the one hand, the paper may be geared towards party cadres ahead of the 20th National Party Congress, slated to occur later this year. Observers have remarked that Xi’s administration relies less on economic growth—as had been the case for the prior three paramount leaders Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao—and more so on nationalist sentiment and delivering on the plan for national rejuvenation to legitimize his rule into an unprecedented third term. On the latter, Xi faces increasing headwinds internationally with (further) growing great-power rivalry with the United States, souring opinions of the Belt and Road Initiative among some partners, and failure to conclude a trade deal with the European Union. The more in-depth discussion of post-unification Taiwan and setting a (rather ambiguous) deadline of not “leaving the Taiwan question to the next generation” could demonstrate the CCP’s intentions to escalate pressure on Taiwan heading into Xi’s third term.

The other answer is that the white paper serves as a nationalist “anti-inflammatory”. The CCP has stoked nationalism as another plank in their domestic legitimacy, and often refers to this sentiment—allowed to flourish on sites like Weibo—to justify their more aggressive moves abroad. Yet, despite creating and stoking these sentiments, it has grown to something beyond Beijing’s control. In the run-up to Speaker Pelosi’s visit, nationalists called for strong action against both the United States and Taiwan, with Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of Global Times calling for the PLA to “forcibly dispel,” and if ineffective, shoot down Pelosi’s plane. Following Pelosi’s visit, censors hurried to delete posts calling Beijing’s response too weak, as some appeared to demand “reunification by force,” or an invasion of Taiwan.

The attempt to dispel nationalist fervor constitutes self-recognition that the PRC is not yet ready to unify Taiwan by force, reinforcing the Pentagon’s assessment that an invasion is unlikely for another two years. To some extent, this involves military capabilities—while China does not have the necessary lift capacity to sustain an invasion the recent exercises have shown that an air and sea blockade of the island is possible. Rather, the CCP Leadership recognizes that the military, economic, and diplomatic costs of such an offensive are too high, especially given the current self-inflicted damage to the domestic economy from the zero-COVID policy, a collapsing housing market as developers like Evergrande default on its debts and foreign debt crisis as partners are forced to default on Chinese loans.

As Beijing continues its naval modernization and escalation around Taiwan, the United States must prepare, striking a balance between support for Taiwan that increases the potential costs of a CCP offensive military action, and overzealous support that Zhongnanhai can contrive as pretext for further escalation. Some aspects of the Taiwan Policy Act currently in the Senate may stray to the latter side of this balance. Following President Biden’s statements of intent to defend Taiwan, Washington should clarify that it considers a military blockade an act of war, as one participant stated at our US-Taiwan Deterrence and Defense Dialogue earlier this month. Though Manilla may be hesitant for fear of retribution by the CCP, stationing a small, mobile naval force in the Philippines would decrease the response time for cross-strait disturbances, forcing further Chinese recalculations. If stationing such a force proves infeasible, the US should increase its military engagement with the Philippines beyond the occasional freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea. Last, the United States must finally answer the call of Rep. Elaine Luria, a frequent critic of the deterioration of the United States Navy, who noted in 2021 the Navy wanted to retire fifteen ships while procuring only four. This trend must reverse—Chinese calculations already expect US intervention in a Taiwan contingency, thus empowering our navy helps to prevent the contingency from happening.

Jake Steiner (jake@pacforum.org) is a resident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum. His research focuses on the intersection between the foreign and domestic policies of the People’s Republic of China, sharp power, and I.R. constructivism. He holds a MA Honours in Economics and International Relations from the University of St Andrews (GBR).

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #38 – China’s “containment” policy against America

Chinese officials and government media constantly decry what they call the US “containment” policy against China. They allege that Washington’s intention is to prevent China from becoming relatively stronger or more globally influential, lest Beijing impede the pursuit of the US agenda in international affairs.

Calling a policy “containment” when it tolerates China having an annual bilateral trade surplus of $350 billion is questionable, to say the least. More importantly, such Chinese propaganda obscures the fact that the PRC also tries to limit America’s influence. When it comes to containment, China gives as good as it says it gets.

The PRC tries to contain the United States in several ways.

First, Beijing has sought to maintain an anti-US coalition, even if there are few takers. The main basis for Sino-Russian cooperation is a common interest in blocking and, where feasible, rolling back US strategic influence. As an example, China’s diplomatic position on the war in Ukraine prioritizes containment of America. Beijing blames the war on Washington, accepting the reputational cost of refusing to condemn Russia and blowing off China’s previous profession of support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The Chinese see North Korea, as well, as a partner in countering the United States. North Korea often repeats PRC and Russian anti-US propaganda. Kim Jong Un reportedly told Xi Jinping earlier this year that the DPRK and China “are strengthening strategic cooperation and unity to destroy the undisguised hostile policy and military threat of the United States.”

Second, Beijing pressures third party governments, particularly US friends and allies, to not support Washington’s agenda. Xi and other Chinese officials have repeatedly implored Europe to “to pursue an independent policy towards China,” meaning independent of the United States. In March, PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi metaphorically warned Japan against military cooperation with the United States, saying Tokyo “should not pull someone’s chestnuts out of the fire.” In May, Wang told his Japanese counterpart that “people [are] on alert” because of “the view that Japan and the United States were joining hands to confront China.”

When Canada detained Huawei executive Meng Wangzhou at Washington’s request, the Chinese government punished Ottawa by detaining two Canadians in China as political hostages. Even after Canada freed Meng, the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs re-emphasized the broader message: “Canada should draw lessons and act according to its own interests”—i.e., not America’s interests.

One form of Chinese pressure is attempting shame US partners as exploited pawns. PRC officials and government media have recently called AustraliaCanada, and Lithuania US “running dogs.” In October 2021, the French representative at a UN meeting read a statement signed by 43 countries condemning China’s persecution of Chinese Uyghurs. The PRC ambassador to the United Nations responded, “To France and other followers of the US: what you are doing is submitting your independence and autonomy, and serving as the henchmen of the US…[Y]ou are giving up your own dignity, and will win no respect from others.”

Another PRC method is threats. The Chinese government warned the United Kingdom and Sweden that if they heeded US pressure to exclude Chinese IT infrastructure builder Huawei, these countries would stop getting Chinese investment. Similarly, the Chinese Communist Party-owned Global Times said that “Australia will have to pay an economic price if the South Pacific nation, blinded by lust to act as a US attack dog, opts to destroy ties with its most important trade partner.”

The threats are not limited to the economic sphere. China has warned Australia, for example, that if it hosts US troops, “Australia itself will be caught in the crossfire.”

Conversely, Beijing praises governments that appear to decline security cooperation with Washington as admirably “independent.”

Third, China promotes alternative international institutions that will be vehicles for Chinese rather than US influence. The Comprehensive Agreement on Investment between China and the European Union, for example, would have pulled Western Europe closer to China and farther from the United States had implementation of the agreement not halted in 2021. China was more successful with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). To counter the US-supported Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Beijing put its weight behind RCEP, which suited Chinese preferences with its weak provisions for the protection of labor, the environment, and intellectual property. America’s withdrawal from the TPP along with the accession of 15 countries, including China, to RCEP in 2020 handed regional economic rule-making leadership to Beijing.

China is also changing the character of pre-existing institutions such as the United Nations to re-orient them away from reinforcing the US-sponsored liberal international order. The PRC is successfully prodding UN human rights agencies toward holding abusive individual governments less accountable to the international community. At the same time, the Chinese government has used the UN Human Rights Council to criticize US actions in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Having provided investment and economic assistance to many UN member developing countries, Beijing can call in favors from business partners to thwart US objectives in the United Nations. In 2019, for example, China offered economic gifts to buy the votes necessary to defeat the US-backed candidate for the position of head of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.

In May, China vetoed a US-sponsored proposal in the UN Security Council for additional sanctions against North Korea. China’s fundamental North Korea policy goal is to protect the Kim regime from collapsing in order to keep the US bloc from expanding (via a united, Seoul-led Korean Peninsula) up to the Chinese border.

Finally, Beijing works to discredit US regional and global leadership. Since 2020, when many Americans criticized Beijing’s initial non-transparency about the coronavirus outbreak in China, Chinese officials have tirelessly pushed the narrative that the United States is unworthy to wield international influence. “For the US politicians,” goes a representative criticism from the PRC foreign ministry, “democracy is their tool to seek personal and partisan gains at home, and a weapon to serve US hegemony abroad.” The delegitimization of US global leadership includes much Chinese government effort to highlight social and political problems inside the United States, a task made easy for Chinese speechwriters by the open and critical US press.

The much-hyped “Global Security Initiative” attributed to Xi is largely a statement of opposition to the US alliance system (expressed in phrases such as “Cold War mentality,” “bloc confrontation,” and “pursuit of one’s own security at the cost of others’ security”). The criticism of alliances does not apply to China itself, of course, because China’s relationship with Russia is a “partnership” rather than an alliance, albeit one with “no limits.”

This is not the first time China has accused the United States of doing what China itself is doing. Questions about the role of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the outbreak of Coronavirus in China led to Chinese government accusations that the virus started in a US Army laboratory in Maryland. Washington’s publicity of the persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang led to a vigorous PRC campaign of criticizing injustices in the United States.

What China and the United States do to each other is standard for rival great powers in a period of tense peace. The Xi cult of personality, however, restricts China from describing its own external behavior in terms other than hyper-exceptionalism, benevolence, victimization, and righteous indignation. As a sad consequence, the Chinese don’t give themselves enough credit their own containment policy.

Denny Roy (RoyD@EastWestCenter.org) is a senior fellow at the East-West Center, Honolulu. He specializes in strategic and international security issues in the Asia-Pacific region.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #10 – The New US Diplomacy with China: ‘Keep Your Promises’

“If one day China should change her color and turn into a superpower, if she too should play the tyrant in the world, and everywhere subject others to her bullying, aggression, and exploitation, the people of the world should identify her as social-imperialism, expose it, oppose it and work together with the Chinese people to overthrow it.”

So said Deng Xiaoping in a speech to the United Nations in 1974. As if responding to Deng’s call, there has been discussion about the feasibility of an American strategy to create distance between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese people. No wonder Beijing has responded furiously to this idea, including by criticizing the “longer telegram.” In fact, the author of the “longer telegram” claims that “it would be extremely hazardous for US strategies … to make the ‘overthrow of the Communist Party’ the nation’s declared objective.” The Trump administration’s document on the US strategic approach toward China also states that “US policies are not premised on an attempt to change the PRC’s domestic governance model.” Nevertheless, the idea that the US should urge the Chinese people to overthrow the CCP continues to attract attention.

The idea of creating political division within China deserves further scrutiny, given its potential impacts on the US-China relationship. What is the logic behind this idea? What are the problems? A critical review of the strategy suggests a different approach: Washington should instead focus on pressing China to live up to its own promises and obligations.

There are at least two arguments in support of “creating division” within China. First, China experts have found that Beijing has compromised in international disputes when the CCP faced internal threats, including crises in legitimacy. Therefore, hawks would argue that division within China is beneficial for US national security. But CCP failure to maintain political stability is one thing; the US attempting to engineer a political division is quite another. Chinese people will more likely link a US effort to the memory of national humiliation, when Western powers carved their own spheres of influence into the country in the late 19th century. They will also readily agree to the CCP’s narrative that the US seeks to divide China to contain the rise of a peer competitor.

Second, liberals would argue that the US should support the Chinese people precisely because the US respects their democratic aspirations. However, several surveys conducted by American scholars in China have consistently found that Chinese citizens are highly satisfied with their government’s performance. More importantly, Chinese people think that China has been “democratized” over time: the 2020 annual survey of Democracy Perception Index found that 73% of Chinese respondents consider China democratic—just 49% of Americans believe the same about the US. By contrast, given the widespread perception of rising racism and McCarthyism targeting Chinese scholars and students in the US, efforts to inspire the Chinese people to challenge the CCP would only stimulate anti-American nationalism; the more the US tries to create division within China, the more Chinese people will unite against the US.

However, the assessment that the CCP is already significantly divided over Xi’s leadership remains valid. As the author of the “longer telegram” rightly observes, Xi Jinping’s abrasive foreign policy, over-centralization of power, and illiberal policies have generated widespread frustration among Chinese elites. According to a former Central Party School professor’s testimony, published by Foreign Affairs in 2020, there was hope for the expansion of political reform when Xi took power in 2013. Indeed, during his final press briefing in 2012, former premier Wen Jiabao insisted that China “must press ahead with both economic reform and political structural reform, especially reform in the leadership system of our party and country.” Xi was expected to further open up China’s political system, but instead shattered such expectations; Xi even removed presidential term limits from the constitution in 2018. There are unfulfilled promises by previous leaders Xi has failed to carry out.

The US should ask the Xi regime to live up to China’s promises and obligations. US officials can collect all the statements by Chinese leaders before Xi about the autonomy of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang and the exact wording on civil rights and liberty, as codified in the Chinese constitution. As Ralph Cossa has summarized: “It’s unreasonable to ask them to be like us; it’s not unreasonable to ask them to follow their own promises.” This approach would be effective because there is a human psychology that people feel most pressed when demanded to honor their own words. Likewise, international relations scholars have found that political rhetoric and commitments, if repeatedly made, carry a coercive power over national leaders.

By extension, US officials should be familiar with words of wisdom from Chinese intellectuals and great thinkers officially acknowledged by the Chinese state. A good example is the speech by Matthew Pottinger, the former deputy national security advisor, in May 2020. Speaking in fluent Mandarin Chinese, Pottinger quoted Lu Xun, China’s most celebrated modern writer, to make his point on the problems of censorship in China. He also drew on the iconic student protests on May 4, 1919 to argue that China did its best when it listened to the diverse opinions of average citizens. In another speech, also in Chinese, he even cited Confucius to make his point about the need for candid conversation between the US and China. Chinese officials and scholars criticized Pottinger’s speeches, but the unusually severe censorship that followed also reflects how Xi did not want  Chinese citizens to discuss what the Chinese philosophers and intellectuals have said about open society and free thinking in China.

No doubt Chinese officials will continue to be creative in rebuttal. They may make the usual case that Americans do not understand the unique history or culture of China. They may be more candid, arguing that past promises are irrelevant because situations have changed. But it would not be difficult for Washington to retort that the US is not imposing its own values or visions, but simply asking China to keep its word. For example, Deng Xiaoping once said “after China resumes the exercise of its sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, Hong Kong’s current social and economic systems will remain unchanged, its legal system will remain basically unchanged, its way of life … will remain unchanged. … Beijing will not assign officials to the government of the Hong Kong … Our policies with regard to Hong Kong will remain unchanged for 50 years, and we mean this.” These promises were imbedded in a legally binding treaty between China and the UK registered with the United Nations. Washington can present the evidence of all the changes made in defiance of Hong Kong’s autonomy, including the national security law.

The CCP would likely criticize the US with the rhetoric of “what about all those problems in the US?” or “mind your own failure to keep promises.” If China presses the US to live up to its own words, US officials should welcome the suggestion. The need for domestic renewal is something American citizens can agree on. If the standard of competition is about who fulfills their promises faster and more faithfully carries out all the positive promises their leaders have made for their people and the world, there would be no better form of great power competition.

Sungmin Cho (chos@dkiapcss.net) is Professor of the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (DKI APCSS), a US Department of Defense academic institute based in Honolulu, Hawaii. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the views of DKI APCSS, the US Department of Defense or the US government.

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PacNet #6 – Myanmar’s Military Arrests the Civilian Government—and Democracy

In the early hours of Feb. 1, the day Myanmar’s newly elected parliamentarians were to take their seats, the armed forces arrested senior members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), including State Counselor and NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar President Win Myint. The military declared a state of emergency, announcing it will govern the country for one year, after which it promises fresh elections. Understanding this political crisis requires unpacking the role of the military in Myanmar’s beleaguered democratization, the calculus of Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, and a geopolitical context dominated by China.

The military claimed that the Nov. 8, 2020 general election—in which the NLD won 396 of 476 contested seats in the bicameral parliament, while the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won only 33 seats—should have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Military leaders alleged massive fraud although international and domestic election observers have thus far found no such evidence. Meetings between the military and the NLD collapsed after Suu Kyi reportedly rejected all of the military’s demands, which included postponing parliament, abolishing the election commission, and recounting the votes from the November election with military supervision. While the military’s actions appear indefensible, it also appears that Suu Kyi overestimated her ability to wield another electoral mandate.

The collapse of the power-sharing arrangement between the armed forces and civilian government fits a troubled historical pattern. Myanmar’s military-authored 2008 constitution enshrined provisions that enabled the armed forces to step back from absolute power in 2011 without fear of reprisal but left Myanmar’s civilian government weak and especially vulnerable to a coup d’état. In 2020, the NLD proposed dozens of constitutional amendments aimed at curtailing the military’s influence by reducing its guaranteed allotment of parliamentary seats to below 25%, lowering the over-75% threshold to pass constitutional amendments (which effectively grants the military a veto),  and transferring control of the armed forces from the top general to the president. The military vetoed all amendments that would have reduced its political power and regarded the NLD’s efforts as a direct threat to its privileged position.

Min Aung Hlaing’s political calculus is also important for understanding the takeover. His second five-year term as commander-in-chief was expected to end upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65 in July 2021. Had the USDP and its allies won at least a third of the contested parliamentary seats in the November election, they could have elected him president with the aid of the unelected military parliamentarians. This would have enabled him to designate his successor with the approval of the military-dominated National Defense and Security Council, a function he could not constitutionally perform as commander-in-chief. After the NLD’s landslide victory, claiming electoral fraud and seizing power may be what Min Aung Hlaing regarded as his last opportunity to ensure military guidance of Myanmar’s “disciplined” democratization while protecting the economic gains of his cronies and avoiding prosecution. Given Suu Kyi’s age and lack of a political heir apparent, the military may be looking to hold power until it can shape a more compliant civilian government.

International reaction to the military takeover has ranged from measured calls for dialogue and stability from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to protests and condemnation. On Jan. 29, three days after the armed forces publicly refused to rule out a coup, a group of Myanmar-based diplomatic missions representing Western countries issued a rare joint statement opposing any attempt to alter the electoral outcome. After the takeover, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken demanded that “[t]he military must reverse these actions immediately.” President Joe Biden threatened new sanctions. The military, not known for its economic competence, must now contend with capital flight from what was Southeast Asia’s fastest growing economy in 2016, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. All of this will likely set Myanmar’s economy back years.

The military also faces a domestic population that overwhelmingly supports the NLD and is likely furious that hard-won, albeit partial, democratization has been so abruptly halted. Furthermore, the military’s disrespect for domestic institutions has implications for the tortuous peace process with armed ethnic groups in Myanmar’s borderlands. Groups that negotiated ceasefires with the central government may increasingly doubt Naypyidaw’s intentions for peace and inclusive development, raising the danger of further cycles of violence. With less legitimacy and capacity than when they previously ruled the country, military leaders appear to be acting in self-interest rather than the national interest.

Diplomatically, Myanmar has risked returning to pariahdom because of military atrocities against Rohingya Muslim ethnic minorities in Rakhine State. Since 2017, over 750,000 Rohingya have fled to refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh. Aung San Suu Kyi’s outspoken defense of the armed forces despite international condemnation and her refusal to disavow anti-Rohingya hate speech severely tarnished her global reputation as a Nobel-winning champion of democracy and alienated international supporters. Suu Kyi may have calculated that doubling down on nationalism would protect her from being outflanked by the military and Buddhist extremists, allowing her to secure a larger electoral victory and ultimately strengthen civilian rule by amending the constitution. That gamble appears to have failed spectacularly.

Unlike many of Myanmar’s diplomatic partners, China has avoided criticizing its “friendly neighbor.” Beijing provided economic and diplomatic lifelines to the previous military regime in exchange for access to natural resources and extensive political influence, generating concerns in Myanmar that the country was becoming dangerously overdependent on China. Political reforms enabled Naypyidaw to reduce that dependence, but as international opprobrium mounted over the Rakhine crisis, China continued to defend Myanmar against human rights criticisms at the United Nations while pouring investment into the country and supporting the peace process with ethnic armed groups. As Myanmar has moved further into Beijing’s orbit, it is again becoming vulnerable to overreliance on China, and Chinese diplomatic leverage. The return to military rule will accelerate this process at a time of heightened tension in both Sino-US and Sino-Indian relations. Yet, Myanmar’s political volatility also threatens China’s interests in a stable environment for its infrastructure projects and strategy for accessing the Indian Ocean. On Jan. 12—less than three weeks before the military takeover—Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Myanmar to discuss cooperation on a wide range of issues with Suu Kyi, Win Myint, and Min Aung Hlaing. That the takeover happened despite Beijing’s extensive investment suggests that greater stability might have been achieved by collaboratively promoting good governance in Myanmar.

Myanmar has confronted colonialism, intercommunal violence, military dictatorship, and civil war. Securing stability requires tolerance across political fault lines, rule of law, and respect for the expressed will of the people. Myanmar’s military subverting democratic processes bodes ill for human rights and geopolitical stability. The crisis poses an early test of President Biden’s vision for a coalition of democracies, but it also highlights the need for regional powers to rise to the challenge. Both Seoul and Tokyo regard Myanmar and Southeast Asia as important elements of “new southern strategies” to economically diversify away from China. As key US allies and leading Asian democracies, South Korea and Japan should join willing ASEAN partners in issuing a statement demanding the release of civilian leaders, immediate access to Myanmar by international observers, and a commitment from the military to reverse its seizure of power. As China will likely block action by the UN Security Council, coordination among regional stakeholders and global democracies will be critical to an international response that places the people of Myanmar, and their self-determination and prosperity, at its center.

Jonathan Chow (chow_jonathan@wheatoncollege.edu) is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College, Massachusetts where he teaches international relations and East Asian politics.

Leif-Eric Easley (easley@ewha.ac.kr) is Associate Professor of International Studies at Ewha University in Seoul where he teaches international security and political economics.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.