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.


Today is the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre that took place on June 4, 1989 and you would have no clue that such an event ever took place from spending a day here on campus in GZ.  There are no commemorative events that I have heard of, the closest one being the annual march in Victoria Park in Hong Kong.  Even my students, who are normally quite cheeky with me, did not make any mention of the day.  Usually they like to goad me with comments about Taiwan and Tibet, but they were silent in all three of my classes today.  I doubt they even know much about the event given that most of them were only one or two years old at the time it happened, but I would have expected one of them to come across something on the Internet and perhaps ask me about it to see my thoughts on the subject.

The Enormity of Tiananmen Square, April 2009

The Enormity of Tiananmen Square, April 2009

There are less than two weeks left in the semester and about three weeks before I permanently return to the States.  It’s really hard to believe that my one-year fellowship and relationship with this fascinating country is quickly drawing to a close.  I’ll still be keeping my eyes and ears open while I am here, but it also means that my posts will be tinged with some of that inevitable sentimentality that comes with the end of an amazing experience.

It seems that with the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen looming, all sorts of news outlets took it upon themselves to amp up the China coverage.  Two of the more interesting pieces are the Economist’s Banyan column from this week’s issue, “The party goes on” and Nicholas D. Kristof’s op-ed piece in today’s New York Times “Bullets Over Beijing”.

In the Economist, the main argument being made is that the Party is stronger today than it has ever been and that hopes for political reform are almost nonexistent since there is no force willing or able to take on the Party’s stranglehold on power.  Kristof’s op-ed makes a similar point and reiterates the familiar line that as long as Party delivers economic growth and all its attendant consumerism, it will remain in power.  However, he makes an interesting comparison between China today and Taiwan and South Korea in the 1980s with their sizable educated middle classes at that time, which were precursors for the democratic changes that swept across those countries.  It’s unclear if he believes that China is truly on the same path as those two nations.  Without going into the specifics of why those two countries are very different than China, suffice it to say that the Chinese government has been far more effective at sedating its citizens and giving them amazing economic growth than those two aforementioned countries.

After spending a year teaching at a university filled with thousands of bright students, I have been amazed at how much their spirits and curiosity have been dampened by an education system that leaves them uninterested in all things political, able to spout received wisdom at the drop of a hat on all sorts of issues of national importance, and scared to challenge or question things as they are.  The exceptions I have blogged about are just that – exceptions.  There is no critical mass of students with such ideas and the students with those ideas would never dare share them with other students for fear of either being ostracized, or worse being turned in for having thoughts against the Party.  

On the anniversary of this sad and tragic event, I tend to err on the side of the Economist and look on as the Chinese government consolidates its hold on power without acknowledging its own past mistakes or tragedies.