China is allegedly building structures on artificial islands in the South China Sea that could potentially hold long-range surface-to-air missiles.  If this turns out to be true, this move is another step forward by China to lay claim to the South China Sea while simultaneously serving as another poke at the U.S. to see what they’re really committed to doing to ensure the South China Sea remains open and free.  However, China’s most recent alleged provocation is symptomatic of a bigger problem when it comes to the U.S.’ engagement with Asia.  During the Obama years, while he and others in his administration made much about a “pivot” to Asia or a re-balancing toward the region, the words were often much more substantive than the actions undertaken by his government.  Now we have a president who can barely articulate a single policy, let alone an entire grand strategy.

Trump’s idea of policies are not-so-pithy one-liners like branding China a currency manipulator or claiming that Japan does not pay enough for U.S. security.  His actions are meant more to rile up other parties and hew much more closely to the reality show theatrics with which he’s more comfortable , whether it was fielding a call from Taiwan’s president in the aftermath of the election and holding out as long as possible before re-affirming the “One China” policy that undergirded U.S.-China relations since early 1970s. North Korea tests a long-range missile and Trump decides that during dinner at his private club is the best time and place to plot the U.S.’ reaction to such a provocation.  Even the theatrics are of a low-budget variety.

The only action Trump seems to have followed through on was his executive order pulling the U.S. out of the TPP and effectively ceding to China the power to write the rules of commerce for Asia and most likely the rest of the world.  Abdicating a voice in such a crucial policy sphere that is vital to continued American prosperity is going to have the opposite effect of making America great.  Rather than keeping its seat at the head of the table and crafting the evolving rules of global trade, America is going to have to play by the rules set by others that may not be as advantageous to our long-term prosperity as those rules we were able to lay out in the TPP.  Putting aside the merits of the TPP for a second, what was most important about that agreement was continued American leadership in coming up with Version 2.0 of the rules and frameworks that have taken the world to this point from the aftermath of WWII.  If Trump has his way, it won’t only be the TPP, but NATO, our vital alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Australia, and even the EU which has more often than not been a trusted and intellectually equal partner spurring us to do better on many matters of global importance.

We are at an inflection point in Asia and the rest of the world where a grand strategies with  far-reaching and enlightened thinking is needed.  Unfortunately, very little coming out of Washington these days seems all that grand except perhaps that atrium in Trump’s DC hotel.

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Hanoi Happenings

January 27, 2016

I’ve been in Hanoi for the past two days on a work trip, but in running around the city have managed to take in and get some feel for what’s going on here.  It’s been nearly 15 years since I was last here, which makes me sound quite old.  Frankly, it’s odd to think I can utter that I did something like come to Hanoi “15 years” ago, but I guess that’s what happens when it feels like the years breeze right by.  But I digress.

Hanoi feels like a bit of a boomtown given all of the changes taking place around the city. When I was here 15 years ago, I was dodging bicycles trying to cross the street.  Now it’s more cars and motorbikes with only the occasional bicyclist pedaling along.  I tend to use the means by which people get around a city in Asia as a proxy for that city’s level of development and this marked upgrade is a clear sign that Hanoi on the up and up.  The other noticeable thing is that the cars are generally brand new and quite nice, meaning a lot of Mercedes, BMWs, and Audis interspersed with the still nice (and probably expensive due to import tariffs) Mazdas, Toyotas, and Lexuses.

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View from elevator in Sofitel Plaza Hotel

Aside from the cars, I noticed all of the new construction around the city.  A lot of is Korean and Japanese financed with Korean brands like Lotte and building names like Keangnam Hanoi Landmark Tower dotting the landscape.  When I was here 15 years ago, the charming French colonial buildings were really all there was to see, but now as you look out at the horizon, one notices more skyscrapers and apartment blocks going up similar to what has happened in many Chinese cities.

And that was the comparison that I found myself making – Vietnam to China.  It’s as if this country is 15-20 years behind where China is in terms of opening up and developing. However, as I sometimes think China is moving backwards as it grows by aggressively going after foreigners and trying to limit investment opportunities, Vietnam seems to be moving in the other direction and reaching out to bring in investment.  Even the relative surface things like being able to by an International New York Times or log onto Facebook or Google are different than in China where the Great Firewall and extreme censorship makes all that impossible.  But it’s not like Vietnam is a thriving democracy.  The government is Communist and wields enormous power, but appears to be less insecure than China’s leadership when it comes to inviting in and letting foreign influences stay in the country.  Perhaps that will change going forward, but right now Vietnam feels like it it is waking up and welcoming in the world and China is increasingly looking to its massive domestic market to spur the economy as the country tries to throw its economic might around to influence and make friends around the world (see President Xi in Iran within the last week).  Another interesting point is that China is pushing boundaries in the South China Sea and Vietnam is none to happy about it, so perhaps in some perverse way, China’s actions are pushing Vietnam onto a path of relatively more openness.  Either way, Hanoi definitely buzzes with an energy that I find quite interesting and look forward to seeing where it takes this city and the rest of the country.

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St. Joseph’s Cathedral . . . another French legacy

 

Forward, Not Backward

October 11, 2012

It’s been over three months since my last jaunt to China and part of me yearns to be back on the ground in the thick of things given how much has happened since I’ve returned – the government has finally set a date for the once-in-a-decade leadership transition (November 8th), Japan and China are rattling their sabers more loudly than ever over a bunch of rocks in the East China Sea supposedly sitting on abundant natural resources, the Chinese people are protesting in a more sustained and forceful manner over issues raging from the aforementioned Sino-Japanese dispute to environmental and labor issues, and Gu Kailai and Wang Lijun have been victims of the theatrical spectacle that has been Bo Xilai’s downfall.  Definitely exciting times in China.  Throw in a slowing domestic economy, a restless population in Hong Kong, and an American presidential election where China has once again turned into a scapegoat for candidates trying to falsely prove to voters they have the balls big enough to contain China and you have enough material for a ten-act play that would only barely scratch the surface of the complex forces at work in that part of the world.  Yet here I am in my bubble known as New York wishing I could just wander the streets of Guangzhou or be in a classroom in Linyi and just feel what is transpiring over there.  Instead I have to read all I possibly can and apply my own experiences and knowledge to try and make sense of what is going on over there.

I am an American and no matter how much time I spend in China, I will never be an insider.  Thus it’s probably more productive for me in the long run to figure out how to use what I have learned over the years to effect positive change in the U.S. – Sino relationship going forward.  Though I struggle with how to exactly do such a thing.  I have been lucky over the years to have been asked to teach in Chinese universities, attend conferences, provide testimony in front of a Congressional commission, and study both modern China and Mandarin.  What do I do now?  I watch an American foreign policy engaged in a tug-of-war between trying to cling to a past where America called the shots and everyone else stood at attention (case in point, see Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Wall Street Journal op-ed on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East published on October 1st) and recognizing that America is one player among many that can no longer dictate how other nations conduct both their domestic and international affairs.  I think Aaron David Miller’s piece on FP.com responding to Mitt’s op-ed is spot-on when he writes:

The past twenty years of failed American policy on peacemaking and war making in this region [the Middle East] reveal the costs of failure and what it’s done for our image abroad.  This has nothing to do with being a ‘”declinist” or not believing in American ‘”exceptionalism.'” We are exceptional, but part of that uniqueness lies in understanding that the wisest policies are those that find the balance between the way the world is and the way we want it to be. Great powers get themselves into heaps of trouble when they commit transgressions of omniscience and omnipotence by thinking they know everything and can do everything, too.

Extrapolate Miller’s thoughts on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East to any other hot spot in the world and this principle of recognizing a balance between how things are and how we would like them to be can be applied.  Our approach to China should also hew to this principle of finding a balance, but instead we get a policy that appears to be reactionary and ill-informed.  Threats of labeling China a “currency manipulator”, slapping tariffs on Chinese goods, and standing in the way of Chinese investment in the name of political expediency ignore the reality that China has arrived as a power and America must learn how to live with that reality rather than try to set the clock back 20 years and invoke policies that apply to a world that no longer exists.  I have traveled and lived around the world and I will be the first to admit that as a privileged liberal arts college student, patriotism was the last thing on my mind.  Today I find myself more proud to be an American and an ambassador for the ideals and values our country is supposed to represent, but I also recognize that our power unfortunately has limits and we must think long and hard about how we maximize our impact upon the rest of the world.

Admitting that America has limits does not make me any less of an American than Mitt Romney who implores us that “[I]f the 21st century is to be another American Century, we need leaders who understand that keeping the peace requires American strength in all of its dimensions.”  I find such a call to arms more alarming than rousing, one dimensional as opposed to multi-dimensional.  It’s an over-simplistic approach to a world that is not a simple place to begin with.  Romney seems to mistakenly and rather naively believe that if we restore America’s economic strength and expand our military’s budget, we can start “shaping” events in the Middle East and beyond.  If only it were that simple – create robust economic growth and maintain a spendthrift military to restore order and sanity in the world on America’s terms.  Mind you that Romney has not put forth any policies to make those two pillars of his foreign policy a reality except for promising to expand the military’s budget, but that’s not my main point.

Putting aside Romney’s lack of specifics for a second, it’s this hubristic and one-note approach to American foreign policy that is most problematic.  We don’t live in a unipolar world where America merely needs to reclaim her mantle and we certainly don’t live in a world where a one-note approach predicated on solely restoring America’s greatness is going to do anything to move the needle in that direction for us.  The world is a nuanced and complicated place, which almost makes it sound manageable when reduced to two seemingly simple adjectives.  However, the only way to tackle this type of world is with a proactive foreign policy.  Proactive does not mean throwing our military might around the world and shoving our values and ideas down other people’s throats.  It means listening and understanding what we’re up against and maximizing the tools at our disposal to create a framework where America’s tangible and intangible support is valued and sought out.  Being a bully is not the way to get people to ultimately listen to you because once the bully hangs up his boxing gloves. it’s as if he never existed and the playground will revert to the chaos that preceded the bully.  The same goes for the world stage.  America cannot merely bully with its military and dollars without understanding where other regimes and their people are coming from and ascertaining what we’re up against before blindly throwing our might around.  Once we begin to understand, we need to begin crafting a framework that builds relationships co-opting our existing allies and cultivating new ones based on mutual respect and understanding.  It’s not an overnight process and it’s certainly not easy, but it requires us being proactive and getting out in front of events rather than merely reacting to them.

Where does China fit in a proactive foreign policy?  Take the vaunted trans-Atlantic alliance that was the bedrock of Cold War-era foreign policy.  America had a grand strategy predicated upon principles that were transparent and engendered support from multiple parties.  Granted it was a seemingly simpler time with a bipolar world engaged in a Cold War divided between the Soviet Union and the U.S., but the important thing during that time was that American foreign policy was guided by a framework that actually required some forethought and was used to guide our actions around the globe.  One can argue that the framework was merely containing Communism, but that initial goal required carefully balancing relationships around the world and trying to use our resources in the most effective way possible.  We live in a seemingly more complex world, but that same forethought and commitment to clearly articulated principles is required, hence what I like to call a proactive approach. If we believe all of the pundits, we are increasingly moving into a new bipolar world with China and America each heading up a pole.  Even if we are not moving to a purely bipolar world, China is going to be an increasingly important power on the world stage and we are still left reacting to her every move.  This approach is the opposite of proactive.  We need to re-evaluate our relationship with China and try to better understand where she is coming from as a rising power, warts and all. and construct a grand strategy for working with her during her rise instead of just playing tit-for-tat on the global stage and coming across as a bunch of awkward adolescents trying to figure out the contours of their relationship.

Romney reiterated his foreign policy “ideas” in a speech this past Monday and it was a lot of the same.  He wants to restore America’s greatness and blamed Obama for making America weak.  Putting aside the election politics of the moment, one flaw on both sides of the aisle is a lack of thought and wherewithal for dealing with the world as it is today.  We respond to things, whether they be in the Middle East, Asia, South America, or even Europe.  Rather than trying to make America great by restoring her past glory, we should be thinking prospectively how to keep America great by playing to her strengths that reflect the reality of today’s world.  Perhaps my role in all of this craziness is to figure out how to bring my China experience to the forefront to continue helping  in some small way to bridge the gaps in understanding.

For the past week and a half , my friend Gus from New York has been here visiting me in China.  As I type, he’s sitting in the Hong Kong airport waiting for his flight that has been inexplicably delayed. Note to all of you: Air Canada is kind of a mess.   Not only did they lose his luggage in the Beijing airport for two days, but now they’ve pushed back his departure time by nearly six hours.

Gus and I started in Beijing a week and a half ago and spent four days there taking in the various local destinations and culture.  Then we made our way down to GZ where he met the other fellows, watched my students perform their own satirical skits, and sat in on a meeting at Guangtong, the LGBT group I volunteer at.  The trip ended in Hong Kong, where we’ve been since last Thursday.  

Having Gus in China was not only amazing fun, but I learned a lot about today’s China through his eyes since this was his first time in the country.  His Asian exposure has been limited to a trip to Japan and there are really very few cultural comparisons between China and Japan, so he basically landed in Beijing as a blank slate.  

I fell in love with Beijing over the course of the four days I was there.  So many people have told me that it is their favorite city in China and I was prepared to be a contrarian and not jump on that bandwagon.  However, Beijing is perhaps the best example of China’s meteoric rise and it’s future ambitions.  Not only are there the requisite cranes dotting the skyline, massive holes in the ground, and superb architectural statements punctuating the city’s landscape that come with a city trying to send the world a message, but there’s also a unique vibe running through the city that I had not yet felt during my time in China.  Most of China feels like it’s in a hurry to get somewhere, a feeling which Beijing shares in, but I also felt the stirrings of a unique modern culture forming.  Given its status as a capital city and the large presence of foreigners both living and visiting the city, it’s not surprising that there are a lot of foreign influences in the city, from the hippie-like coffee shops of Nanluogu Xiang to the proliferation of restaurants specializing in foreign cuisines throughout the city.  What’s amazing about all of these foreign influences is that they are being adapted and molded by the Chinese and it gives the city its own feeling of sophistication as it becomes comfortable in its own skin.  So much of China feels derivative, meaning that one city is really indistinguishable from the next save for size and the number of shopping malls.  Some will argue that Shanghai has a vibe similar to Beijing or that Shanghai is China’s New York and Beijing is Washington DC, but I just feel like Shanghai is trying to become a derivative of Hong Kong.

Anyway, I digress.  It was through Gus’ observations that these things became more apparent to me.  GZ next to Beijing was like the real China and the differences between the two metropolises was readily apparent.  But it was so cool to be able to share my job, my friends, and my daily life with one of my good friends from home.  He now understands what I do during  my day-to-day in this crazy place called GZ.  

Ending the trip in Hong Kong was probably the best because it really feels out of place after spending any time on the mainland and I think it could have ruined Gus’ perception of GZ and Beijing if he had started in Hong Kong.  Last night we wound up at the wine and cheese bar called Classified (which is a great chill place to relax on a nice day with a glass of wine and some good cheese) on Hollywood Road towards Sheung Wan and after Gus came back from the bathroom, he exclaimed that the setting felt straight out of New York.  It was if the owners had gone to New York or some other city and copied every last detail down to the giant chalkboard listing the wines being sold by the glass.  Even since when I lived here from 2000-02, the city feels like it has gone to great lengths to distance itself from the mainland by providing a city that doesn’t feel like China. What that means is kind of unclear and whether that’s a good thing is debatable. but there does seem to be a subconscious (or not so subconscious) desire to differentiate Hong Kong from its caretaker to the north and perhaps the way to do that is to create a place that almost feels like the anti-China.

Now Gus is gone after a week and a half of some interesting experiences in Greater China.  I am heading back to GZ for what I feel is the last push with the semester ending in a little over two months and will continue to report on my going-ons up there.