Foreign affairs corner

What’s going on here? A bank teller called Teresa is forced to sell high-risk investment products to her clients, and is tempted to steal a big bag of cash that belonged to her wealthy client Yuen. Meanwhile, a small-time gangster called Panther attempts to rob Yuen – a loan shark – to help his debt-ridden cousin Dragon, who suffered huge loss on when the financial crisis hit. The case is being investigated by an upright police inspector called Cheung, but he also has a heavy financial burden on his shoulder as his wife Connie is eager to buy a luxurious apartment they can’t quite afford.

Sounds like just another day’s space-filling items from page 4 of the City section. Actually, it’s the plot to Life Without Principle, Hong Kong’s entry for foreign-language film at the Oscars.

As if to prepare Americans for the eccentricities of the Big Lychee’s culture, the New York Times does an investigative piece about our city’s vanity plates. To our shame, it even carries a photo of the gut-wrenchingly embarrassing Mercedes with a tag reading GIGGLES. Sadly, the NYT didn’t see fit to show WHITEY – a Westerner’s gleaming black Morris Minor convertible I saw zooming up Lyndhurst Terrace the other day. And yes, it’s out there on the Internet. (Innards and all, for car buffs.)

If only the rest of China could attract such positive, if bemused, coverage. Instead, the world’s media contains a steady stream of reports about China’s apparent new-found confidence (or assertiveness, or aggressiveness, or arrogance, or scary, reckless and irrational belligerence – according to taste). We don’t know why the recent territorial outbursts against the Philippines, Vietnam and of course Japan have been happening. Are they to do with power struggles during a time of political transition in Beijing? Are they intended primarily for a domestic public audience as a diversion or to bolster support for the regime? If so, can we assume that this prickly nationalism will subside when things settle down up there? Or is this part of a bigger and irreversible trend towards more and more, in-your-face, bullying uppity-ness? And what happens when, in 2016 or so, President Xi Jinping and the PLA have to humiliate the motherland by publicly backing down from some idiotic claim and gunboat-dispatching after an overpowering US-Japanese or US-Vietnamese-Indian-Australian flotilla says enough is enough?

For people who like to worry, Asia Sentinel offers two disturbing articles. Philip Bowring in Lebensraum and China says the claim to the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands is a thin end of the wedge; the logic of China’s case is that the country is the rightful owner of the whole Ryukyu chain, or at least the ones south of Okinawa. (Turgid historical, or maybe pseudo-historical, detail courtesy of China Daily.)  Next stop, Honshu and then the Aleutians. Duong Danh Huy in China’s four possible positions examines what the curved line embracing almost the entire South China Sea might actually mean. None of the four possibilities can be described as reassuring.

In making both these expansionist claims, however vaguely, Beijing’s presumptuousness and conceit are little short of breathtaking. So much so that we like to think the Chinese aren’t really serious; hence the soothing assumption that this is all something to do with domestic issues, hence the official line from the US, Australia and others that no-one is seeking to confront or contain China and we can all live together peacefully. Behind closed doors, however, there must be real alarm.

CSIS guru and US strategy advisor Edward Luttwak recently patted Australia on the head for quietly taking the Chinese threat seriously. His theory is that Chinese foreign policy is autistic: the country’s leaders are oblivious to how the rest of the world views them or their actions. They are also, he says, making a huge error in believing they can rise economically and militarily at the same time. They would be far better off, he goes on, to focus on economic progress and adopt a stance of unarmed cooperation with neighbours (and oh boy, wouldn’t they be receptive to that idea). He gives a good introduction to the idea in this short video. It’s to push his book on the subject. Let’s hope it’s one of those trashy airport paperbacks full of wackiness – though that hasn’t been his style in the past.

On a lighter note, I take pleasure in awarding a headline in today’s South China Morning Post the ‘Where have you been for the last seven decades?’ Prize…


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16 Responses to Foreign affairs corner

  1. Bela Baffled says:

    Autistic. Nothing more so than the Asian Sentinel and old Bowring I think – and the Economist and virtually every other cliché-ridden article about China written by people who have mostly never lived on the Mainland, Kissinger included, but he is one of the better ones.

    God save us from Foreign Correspondents!

    Heaven shield us from Oriental Experts and Old China Hands!

    Speaking for myself, “I know norrrrthing”…just like Manuel in Fawlty Towers.

  2. oddsox says:

    Vanity plates – I witnessed an AASLUK on the weekend, which makes one wonder. My first micro-economics lecturer considered the auctioning of vanity plates a perfect tax – something of no intrinsic cost to the state which raised revenue according to the ego of the successful bidder or AASLUKer.

  3. Mary Hinge says:

    “Life without Principle”. How wonderfully apt. And you have to wonder whether any half-naked Mongolian girls have been for a high-speed ‘joyride’ in GIGGLES.

  4. PropertyDeveloper says:

    Funny, George Adams had a thing about that fine writer Philip Bowring as well.

    Might psychopathic be a better adjective than autistic?

    But you don’t need to travel that far to learn about land grabs: any village in HK will demonstrate the basic principles of might-is-right, incrementalism, NIMBYism or rather IMBYism, special pleading, “temporary” occupation and general bad faith and the flower-pots, “stray” dogs, carparks, white lines, overhangs, clothes lines, dead trees and glares to implement them.

  5. Poly Filla says:

    Did you hear about the man in Hong Kong who couldn’t get the name he wanted for his registration plate?

    He changed his name to KX 7240.

  6. Stephen says:

    @ Property Developer,

    I fully agreed with Adams when he savages the likes of Nury or Vines but Bowring ! Very fine writer.

    This will end like 1995 when China, in a fit of pique, decided to fire missiles into sea off the northern tip of Taiwan, in the mistaken belief it could frighten the populace into voting for the status quo. Clinton sailed the seventh fleet into the Taiwan strait and China desisted.

    China will retaliate mind – meaning the Wan Chai bars will not be seeing any Yankee sailors anytime soon (port calls).

  7. Real Pun Flayer says:

    For those of you who are reasonably well versed in Chinese and like puns there’s a whole genre of anglo-Chinese puns which get even more complex ( and subtly delicious ) if you substitute Putonghua ( aka Mandarin) for Cantonese in some cases

    As a warmer : “Dew lay Lo Mo ” = May your mother be laid out to to grass (that’s a canto-english one)

    Or try : ” Blow away the morning dew ( diu)” = well… I don’t need to spell that one out except that it has a certain Edison – feeling
    (That’s another a canto-english one)

    Or “Fan Pi” = bad smell remover (That’s a mando-english one)

    Bearing in mind that the Mandarin for “diu” = diao” the literal mando-english pun-translation of the Senakus in Mandarin is none other than:

    “F**K YOU”

  8. Maugrim says:

    Obama will wring his hands. Want proof? The murder of the US Ambassador to Libya in an Al Qaeda planned attack has met with denial that this was indeed the case.

  9. PropertyDeveloper says:

    You can’t separate politics from psychology: I don’t think the communists have created all the xenophobia, maybe just tweaked it a little, since it goes back to the Boxers, the Taipings, even Macartney and Marco Polo. The Pinnacles symbolise China’s place in the world, to judge from the bedwetting comments in the international forums.

    The psychopath doesn’t plan ahead that much: she just wants what is in her immediate grasp, and appeasement simply encourages her. If there is a Chinese strategy, it involves opportunism, paper-tigering and three-card tricks. The poor Americans, brought up on John Wayne, may not be able to keep up with the feints, coups bas and double bluffs.

  10. Chimp says:

    Not sure I agree with today’s op ed piece. It ‘s a bit of a reach to go from “the PRC wants/needs the Diaoyu Islands” to “the PRC is empire building”. It’s very much like going from “The US government murdered a bunch of people in Pakistan” ( to “The US government’s policy is to murder all who oppose them”. This is the worst kind of post hoc, ergo propter hoc reasoning. It’s almost bad enough to have been done by a journo or politician.

    The fact of the matter is that there are a bunch of disputes over insignificant bits of rock all over the region. Russia and Japan contest the Kurils; the Koreans are *really* pissed off about the Dokdo Islands (the burning and so on on Shenzhen was amateur hour by comparison).

    Is *every* nation in the region hegemonistic? If not, how do you decide that one is, and anther isn’t? To be frank, the only countries which have clearly grabbed bits of rock in the region which don’t belong to them are all Western.

    In some respects, Chinese foreign policy is opaque. That is a weakness… they need to sabre rattle more, like the peaceful Western nations. Nothing signals your opinion more clearly than JDAM’s (or if you’re the frogs and can’t afford them, concrete).

    They also need to be more international in their outlook. Operation Iraqi Liberation, Operation Independent Libya, Operation Iran Lookout and so on provide marvellous references for how an ethical foreign policy should be conducted. The PRC has much to learn from her great power friends.

  11. Real Tax Payer says:

    @ Chimp

    I agree with you !

    Frankly I’m at a bit of a loss to see why the USA are so upset when China makes a tentative grab for a few tiny islands off the coast of Taiwan, which in recent history belonged to China anyway, and which the USA had no right to gift to Japan by whatever post-war treaty, considering that Japan started the f*&^%$g Pacific war (not to mention having illegally occupied large chunks of China for many years earlier)

    Meanwhile the USA in cold blood invaded Iraq on a false ( nay- faked) pretext viz non-existent chemical weapons, slaughters about 200,000 Iraqis and makes a grab for all the Iraqi oil it can get it hands on ( Search Youtube : “Bird and Fortune – Iraqi Oil ” )

    Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.

  12. paul says:

    To label China’s “foreign policy” as essentially “autistic” is spot on- no sense of the “other”, a lack of empathy, that perfectly describes current China policy. We cannot understand that policy from a position of intellectual analysis, of the type customarily forming the syllabus of most university or think tank seminars, because China’s political system does not project or conduct a debate upon rational principles but (pace “The Art of War” based not on a concept of strategy but on a series of strategems) assertions, which appear to be based upon in the injustices of western colonists and China’s past structural weaknesses that now appears to justify an expression of strength.

    To be perfectly blunt, have many of the writers of the comments on this particular blog read the materials cited? What exactly is China trying to do? Correct past “injustices” or project outwards a coastal defence line? Trashing Japanese businesses and ranting in the “Global Times” provide a palliative, but that’s not an explanation of a “policy”. OK you’ve got your second-hand aircraft carriers, and frightened your neighbours. But what’s next? Why? Where do you go from here? How is your “rise” different from pre-1914 Germany, or how will you avoid the tensions within your political system that led Japan to attack in 1931 and 1942? If you can’t explain yourself in terms of historical analogy except by complaining, how can we understand you or what you want?

  13. Joe Blow says:

    Does anyone know the story about Jonathan Midgley ? He must have made a ton of money off the Chinachem case. Then all got quiet.
    Yesterday I saw his pic in HK Tatler and he looked like a Halloween prop.

  14. Chimp says:

    Paul, I’d answer your post, except you basically handwaved your rationale for describing China’s foreign policy as “autistic”. Do you mean they won’t look you in the eye? Frankly, a bit of substance in your argument would go a long way.

    And yeah, I am up with the reading. Bowring is an idiot. China Daily is about on a par with the NYT. I have read Luttwak, and the guy isn’t an idiot (though he is a birther). However, he does have a teeny, tiny little stake in this issue, being as he’s basically an NSA asset cum Beltway bandit.

    You probably need to do a bit of reading on public statements from the PRC regarding foreign policy and how they define the national interest, and also how that is perceived elsewhere. I will donate a whole dollar to Greenpeace if you can find the word “empathy”, in positive or negative contexts, anywhere in something that wasn’t written by hippies.

    Popular current (and historical) methods of interacting with other countries range from murder to lying, misrepresentation and waving your dick around. Which behaviour describes the approach of most rational actors to international “relations”.

    Let’s talk about international relations and “empathy”. How empathic is machine gunning Reuters reporters (who, IMHO, were legitimately engaged under the customary rules of warfare, but that’s not the point)? There is fuck all “empathy” out there beyond the comfortable borders of middle class, cosmopolitan ideology. Guess what: the Guardian tells lies, distorts the truth when it does present it, and generally colours the news. Like everyone else.

    Getting a fat, bottle blond whose husband is partial to teeny bopper blowjobs to be your spokesperson doesn’t mean you’re empathetic. It means you don’t give a shit, and you’re out for what you can get. Which I respect, as it’s what your taxpayers want.

    Perhaps that is what you mean. If the PRC can find a fat, sociopathic witch to front for them, maybe they won’t be “autistic” anymore. Though I see no protests demanding representation of this sort.

  15. Chimp says:

    @Real Tax Payer

    What makes you think the US are “upset” about PRC territorial claims? The bottle blonde has stated that they don’t have a dog in this fight.

    You can’t really accuse the US government, per se, of hypocracy in their relationship with China. You may not like their stance, but it’s self interested and that’s what they are paid for. Sure, they don’t necessarily tell the truth, but what government does (possibly they are “autistic” too?).

    There were legitimate reasons for invading Iraq. They were, unfortunately, illegal, so pretexts had to be found. That’s the world we live in.

    I don’t buy the “200,000 civilian deaths” thing, either. The war ended *international* sanctions (brought by a highly empathic, holistic, for all I know homeopathic) international community which probably killed more. A lot of people died. However, unlike the “long war” in the Mao sense that NATO (those guys are so empathic some of them are Norwegian – they only shoot back if its what the Taliban *really* want) has gotten itself into in Afghanistan, there actually was an end to it that looks, possibly, stable.

    One characteristic of shitty countries is that lots of people die for unnecessary reasons. This is often made worse by the actions of the responsible, empathic international community demonstrating their solidarity by, for example, denying them food and medical supplies, and potentially even arming the “cool” side. Because they are cool and right on, they of course *should* be in charge.

    My point: the national interest is probably the least harmful way of conducting international relations. Most nations do this (the US, the PRC, Japan) in a fairly rational way. This is a good thing, or at least, better than the alternative.

  16. Corblimey mate! says:

    @ Joe Blow

    With a name like yours its pretty bloody obvious what happened to Jonathan Midgeley!

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