‘New Malaysia’ makes Singapore look outdated


July 10, 2018

‘New Malaysia’ makes Singapore look outdated

by Dr.Bridget Welsh

https://asia.nikkei.com/Opinion/New-Malaysia-makes-Singapore-look-outdated

Mahathir’s triumph exposes shortcomings of city-state’s one-party rule

Over two months after Mahathir Mohamad’s election in Malaysia, the political reverberations for Singapore show no signs of fading.

The new Malaysian Prime Minister’s reviews of the key water-supply deal with Singapore and of the planned costly high-speed rail link from Kuala Lumpur to the city-state are only visible signs of a different — and more charged — Singapore-Malaysia relationship.

The key problem for Lee Hsien Loong’s People’s Action Party (PAP) is that developments north of the Johor-Singapore Causeway have exposed vulnerabilities at home. The PAP has become the longest-governing incumbent party in Southeast Asia, and it no longer has undemocratic immediate neighbors. Mahathir’s Pakatan victory mirrors the PAP’s worst fear: its own possible defeat.

Worse yet, some of the factors that contributed to the loss of Barisan Nasional (National Front) are also present in Singapore. The first is the challenge of leadership renewal. Over the past three years, the PAP has been locked in a battle over who should succeed Lee, 66, as prime minister, with the fourth generation (4G) leaders on display.

Among the leading contenders are Chan Chun Sing, the Minister for Trade and Industry and former army chief, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, former Managing Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore and Ong Ye Kung, the Minister of Education and Second Defense Minister.

The problem is that these leaders are 4G without the connectivity. They are in a highly elitist party, largely unable to relate to ordinary Singaporeans. 4G leaders also suffer from the same issue that haunted the National Front, namely they are embedded in the system. Emerging from within the party and government, particularly the military, they are from the system and are seen to be for the system. The intertwining of the PAP and the bureaucratic state has created singular agendas and resulted in a distancing from the electorate and its needs.

For the first two decades of Singapore’s existence after independence in 1959, PAP secured all the seats in the legislative assembly. Since 1984, opposition politicians have won seats despite what the government’s critics describe as the sustained political harassment of opponents and the repression of public protests, combined with the alleged manipulation of electoral boundaries.

In the last election in 2015, PAP secured 83 out of 89 seats with 70% of the vote. Since that resounding victory, more conservative forces within the party have gained ground. Despite their popularity, reform-minded leaders such as Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Tan Chuan-Jin have been pushed aside in favor of conservative alternatives. At the same time, Singapore’s system has moved in a more authoritarian direction, with curbs on social media and attacks on civil society activists.

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Tharman Shanmugaratnam

Prime Minister Lee, the son of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, is making the same mistake Najib did after the 2013 polls. He is depriving the system of a necessary valve for dissent, and moving the country away from needed reforms. He has failed to recognize that greater openness and policy reforms were integral parts of the PAP’s 2015 victory. The dominant mode has been to attack the Worker’s Party, its leaders and other opposition figures. These moves do not show confidence in a more open and mature political system — or even in the PAP itself.

At the same time, rather than being an asset to his party, Lee is becoming more of a liability. This is the same trajectory that occurred for Najib. Questions have been raised about Lee’s leadership from the very public “Oxleygate” row with his siblings over their father’s home to the managing of Temasek, the republic’s sovereign wealth fund, by his wife Ho Ching.

Singapore’s handling of scandal over 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), the Malaysian state-run investment fund which saw millions of dollars siphoned out on Najib’s watch, will be in the more immediate bilateral spotlight; assessments will be made as to whether Singapore responded effectively to the alleged malfeasance and whether in fact Singapore’s purchase of 1MDB bonds strengthened the fund.

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Meanwhile, in Malaysia, Mahathir’s readiness to deal with 1MDB signals a willingness not only to clean up the system but to begin much-needed economic reform. Singaporeans will see obvious parallels with their own country’s economic policies.

Singapore’s gross domestic product growth is expected to reach 3% this year, which is a significant drop from a decade ago. Importantly, much of this growth is being driven by public spending (as occurred in Malaysia under Najib), notably on infrastructure. New jobs are not being created in Singapore at the same high rate as in the past. Even more constraining, PAP continues to rely on immigration as a driver of growth, failing to move on from using a combination of low-cost labor and imported foreign talent to expand the economy. Population pressures remain real for ordinary Singaporeans, who continue to feel displaced. They are disappointed with the PAP’s tenacious grasp on old and unpopular models for growth.

The pendulum of discontent has swung against the PAP. The government opted to increase water prices by 30% in 2017, and this year indicated it will raise the goods and services tax (GST) from 7% to 9%. The electricity tariff has risen by 16.8% to date this year alone. The cost of living remains high; Singapore has topped the Economist Intelligence Unit’s list of most expensive cities to live in for five years running. High costs are compounded by persistent inequalities that are increasingly entrenched. The Gini coefficient is at 0.46, but income gaps are deeply felt. Many locals feel they are being impoverished on account of foreigners. The social reform measures introduced for the “pioneer generation” (people born before 1950), and increased handouts before the 2015 polls, are being seen as inadequate to address the current social needs of disadvantaged communities.

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Changes in Malaysia have reduced Singapore’s regional comparative advantage. It is not just about greater democracy and changes in governance next door but also the attention “New Malaysia” draws to how Singapore has remained locked in the past, moving away from embracing an alternative future.–Bridget Welsh

By comparison, Malaysia has removed the unpopular GST, and reform pressures for addressing contracting social mobility and inequality are substantial. Malaysia is now seen as a potential role model in areas of governance. For example, greater transparency and attention to inclusivity are evident in the multi-ethnicity of new government appointees. Singapore’s 2017 Malay-only presidency contest in contrast sent a signal of exclusion and an embrace of race-based politics. This is being compounded by the fact that Malaysia is being seen as bucking regional authoritarian trends, promising substantive political reforms and the removal of many of the draconian laws that Singapore has on its books.

Changes in Malaysia have reduced Singapore’s regional comparative advantage. It is not just about greater democracy and changes in governance next door but also the attention “New Malaysia” draws to how Singapore has remained locked in the past, moving away from embracing an alternative future.

Bridget Welsh is associate professor of political science at John Cabot University, Rome

 

If an esteemed historian like PJ Thum can be fooled by fake news, what hope is there for us?


July 4, 2018

If historian PJ Thum can be misled by fakes…

TL;DR – But if you take some effort to google, actually, you can avoid embarrassing yourself.

Singaporean Historian PJ Thum became famous after he was grilled by Minister Shanmugam at the hearing of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods for six hours. Back then, he had made the audacious claim that the politicians of the PAP were the “clear source of fake news”. He based that claim on his work as a historian.

And PJ Thum appeared to be a historian with glowing credentials. He graduated from Harvard with a bachelors in East Asian Studies. He then went on to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and got a second degree in Modern History and Politics. He returned to Oxford on a Commonwealth Scholarship to get his Doctor of Philosophy. Since 2014, PJ has been a Research Associate at the Centre for Global History, University of Oxford; a Fellow of Green Templeton College, and coordinator of Project Southeast Asia, an initiative of the University of Oxford to expand its range of scholarly expertise on Southeast Asia. In 2015, PJ was elected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.

Sounds impressive, right? A historian with such sterling credentials must be a really smart person. Someone who won’t be easily fooled by fake news. Someone who would think critically of the things he reads, cross-references multiple sources to ensure that he comes to the right conclusions. Right?

Well… not quite. At least not in this particular instance.

PJ Thum posted this on Facebook recently:

Just in case it gets taken down, it’s a post with this cartoon:

 

Two versions of the same event. What is the truth?

Accompanying the cartoon, PJ Thum had the following remarks:

“Another from the archives:

“At the end of (Lee’s speech to the joint session of the US Congress), there was a sustained standing ovation… Even before he started his speech, there was a standing ovation – such is the Prime Minister’s reputation.” – Straits Times, 10 October 1985.

“(Lee) was addressing a sparsely attended joint session and drew polite applause.” – International Herald Tribune, 10 October 1985.

Hmmm… now I’m wondering just how much of what Singaporeans believed to be LKY’s vaunted global reputation was actually manufactured by the government-controlled media, in the days when there were no alternative news sources?”

PJ Thum questioned whether the media, controlled by the Singapore government, had manufactured Mr, Lee Kuan Yew’s “vaunted global reputation”.

Is he once again insinuating that the Singapore government is a source of fake news?

Thankfully, there’s a video of the speech

Someone added this video in the comments to PJ Thum’s post, and the video proved PJ Thum wrong.

It’s a video of Mr Lee Kuan Yew speaking at a Joint Session of the US Congress taken off C-SPAN.

And at the 3:13 mark, and also 4:09 mark the video shows people applauding in a packed room.

At the 9:47 mark, the video shows Mr Lee Kuan Yew receiving a standing ovation when he wrapped up his speech.

Now we can’t possibly know from the video alone if the Congressmen really respected Mr Lee Kuan Yew, but the fact was that the Joint Session was well attended, and that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had received a standing ovation.

Those are facts.

Captured on video.

Facts which directly contradict what PJ Thum had insinuated. Facts which can be found if Thum had taken a little bit care and effort to verify and check.

Which unfortunately makes PJ Thum look rather bad

This could mean one of two things.

The first possibility is PJ Thum is a sloppy historian who doesn’t dig deeper and look for more sources of information so that he can come to a proper (and accurate) conclusion.

Or the second possibility is that he had deliberately put up the post and asked a question in such a way that would induce people to conclude that the Singapore government is a source of fake news.

Of course, we don’t know which is the truth. We don’t believe that PJ Thum is that malicious as to deliberately spread fake news. But we also don’t think PJ Thum is stupid. So… It’s hard to say. Having said that, if PJ Thum can be so wrong on this incident, what else could he or we have gotten wrong?

Whatever the case is, this incident has again demonstrated that we should all learn to google. And don’t automatically accept anything we read or what we’re told to be true.

ALWAYS check and look for more sources of information. Otherwise, we might end up looking like fools for believing that some piece of fake news is true.

 

The Fight for Democracy in Asia Is Alive and Well


July 3, 2018

The Fight for Democracy in Asia Is Alive and Well

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For decades, Asian values, under the guise of Confucianism, have been used by the region’s autocrats to ward off criticisms, mainly from the West, about their undemocratic ways. This argument’s most artful proponents are Singapore’s former Prime Minister, the late Lee Kuan Yew, and Malaysia’s Dr. Mahathir Mohamad during his first stint as the country’s leader.

With the region in the thrall of dictatorships – from Korea’s Park Chung-hee in the north to Indonesia’s Suharto in the south – there seemed to be a seductive ring to the uniqueness of the Asian political culture.

But there is nothing quite like a few revolutions, mainly peaceful ones, to debunk the no-democracy-please-we’re-Asians theory. Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia, Myanmar, Mongolia, and Thailand overcame repressive governments to establish democratic systems. The extent of reform may be limited, as in the instance of Myanmar, or has backslid, as in Thailand. But the trend toward democratic change has been unmistakable.

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The New Democrats in Malaysia headed by former Asian Values proponent, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad took over Putrajaya after resoundingly defeating UMNO-BN in GE-14

The most recent example is, of course, Malaysia where after 61 years of one-party rule, Malaysians staged an electoral revolt of their own and sacked the Barisan Nasional government.

So, have Asian peoples jettisoned Asian values and adopted Western ones? Of course not. Remember that for the better part of the last two centuries, much of Asia toiled under the subjugation of Western colonialism, where the concepts of freedom and universal suffrage were as alien as the languages imposed on the natives.

The truth is that, regardless of the part of the world they inhabit, man has always sought to lord over his fellow beings. But it is just as ineluctable that the masses will, at some point, rise up to show despots the boot and claim their freedoms.

To avoid sounding simplistic, however, let me point out that the factors contributing to the demise of autocratic regimes in Asia are varied. Distressed economic conditions in the Philippines and Indonesia contributed massively to the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos and Suharto. In Taiwan and South Korea, it was the burgeoning educated middle-class that grew intolerant of the oppressive military regimes.

Even so, these revolutions were not a result of spontaneous combustion. There were years of relentless campaigning and sacrifice by individuals who saw the need for change and, more importantly, found the courage to stand up and rattle the authoritarian cage. Regional organizations like the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, a body comprising political parties (both ruling and opposition) committed to advancing democracy in Asia, have been keeping freedom’s agenda on the front burner.

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The 1998 Reformasi paved the way for Malaysia’s New Democracy of 2018

Again, take the most recent case of Malaysia. Those who cried reformasi and fought corruption and abuse of power did not just surface during the historic elections this year. It was a struggle that spanned two decades, one which saw the opposition leaders and activists harassed, humiliated, and jailed. In the end, like in the other countries, the democrats prevailed.

The mother of all ironies is that it was Mahathir, the leader of the opposition coalition that toppled incumbent Najib Razak, who wrote in 1995 that Asia’s rejection of democracy came from the “Eastern way of thinking.”

Image result for CNN's Christiane Amanpour and Lee Hsien Loong

Singapore’s current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, unwilling or unable to read history, continues this charade. In a recent interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, he denied that his administration is repressive. Politics in Singapore, he insists, is the way that it is because Singaporeans voted for it. Of course, he did not mention that he had to change the rules for the presidential elections so that only his party’s nominee qualified as a candidate. There are elections and there are free and fair elections.

The not-so-hidden message for autocrats and democrats alike is that the mood in Asia has irrevocably altered. The idea that democracy is ill-suited to the Asian mind has been exposed for the propaganda that it is.

No wonder the fight for democracy is alive and well.

Chee Soon Juan is the secretary general of the Singapore Democratic Party and former chairperson of CALD.  

Singapore: Guard against false binary choices in Chinese Public Diplomacy


June 29, 2018

Singapore should guard against false binary choices in Chinese public diplomacy: Bilahari Kausikan  

Mr Bilahari Kausikan said that Beijing uses a mix of persuasion, inducement and coercion techniques to create a psychological environment which poses false choices for other countries.
TODAY file photo
Mr Bilahari Kausikan said that Beijing uses a mix of persuasion, inducement and coercion techniques to create a psychological environment which poses false choices for other countries. The eminent diplomat adds, “Sometimes it may lead us to tilt a bit towards China or towards America. But the guiding principle is always our own interests.”

 

SINGAPORE — China’s public diplomacy in the region often involves presenting false choices in a binary fashion, said retired top diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, adding that such psychological operations would fail once those being targeted are aware of Beijing’s intentions.

Speaking at a conference on Chinese public diplomacy in East Asia and the Pacific on Wednesday (June 27), Mr Kausikan said that Beijing uses a mix of persuasion, inducement and coercion techniques to create a psychological environment which poses false choices for other countries.

He told an audience of more than 50 academics and policy makers that this has been a simple, but powerful and effective instrument.

“This technique of forcing false choices on you and making you choose between false choices is deployed within a framework of either overarching narratives or specific narratives… The purpose is to narrow the scope of choices and they are usually presented in binary terms,” said Mr Kausikan, who was previously permanent secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and now chairs the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.

“The intention is to stampede your thinking so that the critical faculty is not fully engaged and to instill a sense of fatalistic inevitability of the choices forced upon you.”

Image result for lee kuan yew and deng xiaoping

On China and other issues, Lee Kuan Yew was always ahead of the curve. A brilliant strategist and a student of history, he understood  Chinese leaders from Chairman Mao and Deng Xiao Peng to Xi Jinping

He cited several examples of falsehoods that have been put forth by Beijing when dealing with the Republic, including how relations under founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew were much better as compared to now because the current Government does not understand China.

“(These discourses are) powerful because they are not entirely fabricated. They do contain a kernel of truth,” he said. “(But) they are either extremely simplistic… or leave out vital facts,” he added, pointing out that Mr Lee went against the Chinese-supported Communist united front in the 1950s-60s and prevailed.

Image result for Lee Hsien Loong and Xi Jinping

Other examples of untruths, said Mr Kausikan, include how Washington represents the past while Beijing stands for the future, as well as suggestions that those who are close to the United States will find it hard to have close economic ties with China.

A study released this week by AidData research laboratory, Centre for Strategic and International Studies and the Asia Society Policy Institute said that China has spent more than US$48 billion (S$65 billion) across East Asia and the Pacific between 2000 and 2016 to reward trade partners and those supporting its foreign policy positions.

Mr Kausikan noted during the conference – organised by The S Rajaratnam School of International Studies together with those who produced the study – that China’s influence can be brittle even if it succeeds in its public diplomacy.

For one, Beijing’s efforts would only work when those targeted are unaware of the psychological operations against them.

“Once you are aware (of the manipulation), you have to be particularly obtuse to fall for it,” he said. “Exposure is therefore the best countermeasure”.

Other vulnerabilities in the Chinese approach he added, include “cultural altruism” as well as a tendency towards “self-deception… and rigidity”. This may lead to China over extending itself in the region.

But he said that even when China’s intentions are exposed, the other parties may opt to play along due to genuine sympathy towards the Chinese position, cultural affinity or to ensure that bilateral relations can be kept on an even keel. This may also be due to “transactional reasons – for hope of reward or fear of sanctions”, Mr Kausikan noted.

“Sometimes it may lead us to tilt a bit towards China or towards America. But the guiding principle is always our own interests.”–Bilahari Kausikan

When asked during the question and answer segment on what would be Singapore’s core strength in countering Chinese attempts to influence the Republic, the veteran diplomat said the idea of being a multi-racial country is important.

“Modern Singapore is not based on being a Chinese country… No one can ignore China. But significant influence is not dominant influence or exclusive influence,” he stated.

Mr Kausikan added that most Singaporeans are not really interested in foreign policy, and this creates a fertile ground for psychological manipulation.

He suggested that the Republic should beef up national education efforts and “teach our own history better”.”It is wrong to think that we side with China or America. We side only with Singapore. Our organising idea is our own national interests,” he said.

“Sometimes it may lead us to tilt a bit towards China or towards America. But the guiding principle is always our own interests.”

Foreign Policy: The Despot and The Diplomat


June 22, 2018

The Despot and The Diplomat

by Christopher R. Hill

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/diplomacy-with-despots-kim-milosevic-by-christopher-r-hill-2018-06

With his effusive praise of Kim Jong-un’s leadership and North Korea’s economic potential, Donald Trump has abandoned any pretense that the US has a broader set of values to promote. Whether this approach works to advance peace will depend on the diplomacy that follows.

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DENVER – Back in 2005, when I was the United States’ lead negotiator at the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, I looked at the instructions I received for my first meeting, a Chinese-hosted banquet that included a North Korean delegation. If there was any toasting (not unheard of at Chinese banquets), I was not to join in. Apparently, I was expected to sit there, without touching my glass, glowering with arms folded until everyone else had placed theirs back on the table. Later, when I visited North Korea for the first time, I was instructed not to smile at my hosts. Apparently, I was expected to offer only angry stares.

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Donald Trump has obviously modified those instructions. In fact, with his unending praise of Kim Jong-un’s leadership, his clumsy, impromptu salute of one of Kim’s generals, and his endorsement of all things North Korean (especially the potential for beachfront property development), Trump has all but abandoned any pretense that the US promotes a broader set of values. But while Trump may have overshot the mark, the idea that the US delegation should sit with glasses untouched during a toast also strikes the wrong tone.

In September 1995, during the final month of the Bosnian War, the US delegation to peace negotiations, led by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, arrived in Belgrade for talks with Serbia’s dictator, Slobodan Milošević. According to Milošević, he could not compel the Bosnian Serbs to withdraw their heavy weapons and lift the bloody four-year siege of Sarajevo. He asked Holbrooke to meet with the Bosnian Serb leaders, Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić, both of whom were later convicted of committing war crimes. Holbrooke asked where they were. “Over there in that villa,” Milošević replied. “Can I call for them?”

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Ambassador Richard Hoolbroke–A Giant of American Diplomacy

Read this tribute: http://www.newsweek.com/richard-holbrooke-disappointed-man-69125

Holbrooke hastily brought our delegation together for a quick parley. “Should we meet them?” he asked me. “And if we do, should I shake their hands?” Thinking about the hundreds of thousands of Sarajevans – the many who had been murdered and those facing starvation as a result of the continuing siege – I replied, “Shake their hands and let’s get this over with and go home.” We did. The siege of Sarajevo was lifted the next day.

Whether shaking a hand helps or not, negotiating while shaking a fist has little record of success. During this year’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, Vice President Mike Pence was scheduled to meet with the North Korean delegation. Perhaps to cover his back at home, Pence delivered what were then the usual tough-sounding talking points before the meeting. The North Koreans promptly canceled, as if to ask, What would be the point?

During the period I dealt with the six-party talks, I avoided adding my voice to the anti-North Korean invective. I knew that soon – often every other week – I would have to meet them again, and while a display of moxie might help me in Washington, it would not help at the tip of the spear, where it was my job to negotiate away the North Koreans’ nuclear ambitions. There is a big difference between talking tough on television talk shows and sitting across from the North Koreans. Direct diplomacy is a serious means to a serious end. Posturing from a distance is not part of it.

Sometimes body language is hard to get right. As US ambassador to Iraq, the instructions I received from Washington rarely came with any commensurate sense of responsibility for the outcome. I was told that my job included helping the Iraqi opposition rid themselves of then-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. US officials reveled in their amped-up toughness in Washington meeting rooms, like high school athletes banging on the lockers before a big game. But when they actually came out on the field and met with Maliki, they gave him no reason to believe they wanted anything but the best for him.

I would sit in such meetings watching Maliki glance over at me, wondering why I had previously warned him of diminishing US government patience with his autocratic rule and dire consequences. Meanwhile, the visitors from Washington made points that were so subtle and nuanced that Maliki would have needed a decoding device to comprehend their real meaning.

Any diplomat must be purposeful in a negotiation on behalf of his or her country, which means being clear-eyed about the desired outcome and the best way to achieve it. In Singapore, the issue was the North Korean nuclear weapons program. Nothing else really mattered.

Time will tell whether the North Koreans reciprocate Trump’s professed affection for them. Kim gave away little, and was probably stunned when, for the first time ever, a US president accepted at face value North Korea’s supposed anxiety about US joint military exercises with South Korea (which the North Koreans know to be defensive in purpose). That was too large a concession, and, one way or another, it will have to be taken back. More broadly, a framework for peace and security that includes all the directly affected parties – South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China – will need to be designed.

Similarly, North Korea’s human rights record, one of the world’s worst, will have to be taken up in the future – perhaps, as I signaled during the six-party talks, as a component of eventual diplomatic relations. But, for now, the North Korean nuclear program must be at the top of any negotiating agenda.

Whether Trump’s approach actually works with North Korea will depend on the diplomacy that follows the Singapore summit. Over to you, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

*Christopher R. Hill, former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, was US Ambassador to Iraq, South Korea, Macedonia, and Poland, a US special envoy for Kosovo, a negotiator of the Dayton Peace Accords, and the chief US negotiator with North Korea from 2005-2009. He is Chief Advisor to the Chancellor for Global Engagement and Professor of the Practice in Diplomacy at the University of Denver, and the author of Outpost.

Singapore Summit: China is the biggest winner


June 14, 2014

The Biggest Winner at the U.S.-North Korea Summit: China

by Evan Osnos

https://www.newyorker.com

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Honestly, I think he’s going to do these things,” President Trump told reporters in Singapore on Tuesday night, after signing a page of loose declarations with Kim Jong Un. “I may stand before you in six months and say,‘Hey, I was wrong.’ I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that, but I’ll find some kind of an excuse.” Perhaps no truer words were spoken at the Singapore summit, where Donald Trump, with a handshake and a shrug, opened a new phase in Asia that will eventually reveal him to be either a visionary who saw a path to peace where others did not or a dupe who squandered American credibility. He announced the opening of contact with North Korea with the bonhomie of a developer at a groundbreaking: he hailed an “excellent relationship” with a “talented” counterpart, and shooed away questions about timetables and the risk of default. He made no mention of Kim’s accelerated testing of missiles and nuclear weapons, or of his own threats, via Twitter last year, to “totally destroy” North Korea. He handed off the substantive work to his Cabinet, a team that is already sharply divided between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has expressed high hopes for peace, and the national-security adviser, John Bolton, who has argued for years that North Korea cannot be trusted.

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Kim-Trump Singapore Summit

Compared with the expectations for the summit—or with previous agreements—there was much that Trump failed to get. There was no exchange of liaison offices and no pledge to improve human rights. “I do not see what can really possibly hold in this remarkably imprecise and nonbinding document,” Andrei Lankov, a longtime North Korea watcher at Kookmin University, in Seoul, said. “It is truly remarkable how Donald Trump, being in such a strong negotiating position, has managed to get so little from the North Koreans.” For Trump, the goal, apparently, was the handshake itself. In his view, cheerful patter is easy and inexpensive, and he can renounce the positive vibes on a whim, as needed. In the annals of diplomacy, though, the risks of casual declarations abound. Most apropos in this case is George W. Bush’s first official trip to Europe as President, when he was asked if he trusted Vladimir Putin, and famously replied, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straightforward and trustworthy—I was able to get a sense of his soul.” (Condoleezza Rice later lamented that response, writing, “We were never able to escape the perception that the President had naïvely trusted Putin and then been betrayed.”)

Trump appears to have decided that the chance of a breakthrough is worth the risk of looking naïve. “I do trust him, yeah,” he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, in answer to the inevitable question about Kim. “He really wants to do a great job for North Korea. He’s de-nuking the whole place, and I think he’s going to start very quickly. He really wants to do something, I think, terrific for their country.”

What Kim really wants, however, may not be what Trump has in mind. “North Korean media wrote at remarkable length about Kim Jong Un’s trip to Singapore,” Lankov told me. State cameramen made a point of filming attentive, prosperous Singaporeans, a montage that will be used to fortify Kim’s image and to promote the prospect of economic reforms. The Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s major official newspaper, dedicated a large part of its front page to celebrating Singapore’s authoritarian capitalism. “The island state was praised on a scale one seldom sees in the North Korean newspapers,” Lankov added. But, in its early reports, North Korean media made conspicuously little mention of the substance of the summit, and Pyongyang gave no sign that the state is preparing its public to stop celebrating nuclear weapons as a singular achievement.

In fact, as expected, North Korea made no specific commitments about dismantling its nuclear program. In the joint statement, Kim “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”—a reference to previous agreements, going back to 1992, which have not held. By far, the largest concession in the talks came from Trump, who announced his willingness to freeze joint military exercises with South Korean forces. For months, Trump’s aides described a freeze as a non-starter, but, on Tuesday, he adopted North Korea’s view that the exercises are, as he put it, “very provocative” and said that the suspension would “save us a tremendous amount of money.”

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Trump freezes joint military exercises with South Korean forces.That is no minor concession

That is no minor concession. The next round of war games with South Korea was scheduled to take place in August. After the announcement, Patrick Cronin, an Asia specialist at the Center for a New American Security, told me that joint exercises are designed to deter North Korea from attacks on the South, such as the sinking, in 2010, of the Cheonan, a naval vessel, which killed forty-six seamen. Deterrence relies on “a degree of professionalism and readiness for crisis response that can only come through military training and exercises,” he said. “If North Korea is not moving toward significant disclosure of its nuclear forces and then taking significant, verifiable steps in the direction of denuclearization, then we should resume pressure, including major exercises, by next spring.”

More surprising still, Trump raised the previously taboo prospect of withdrawing some of America’s nearly thirty thousand troops in South Korea. “I want to get our soldiers out. I want to bring our soldiers back home,” he said. That may have been improvisation. Hours earlier, Defense Secretary James Mattis had told reporters, “I don’t believe” that troops were up for negotiation. Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, and usually a Trump defender, said on NBC that he would “violently disagree” with any removal of troops from South Korea.

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“Trump may have also precipitated an outcome that he does not fully grasp: by suspending military exercises, and alluding to removing troops from South Korea, he will stir doubts about the strength of America’s commitment to its allies in Asia, including Japan, Taiwan, and Australia. They will have no choice but to begin to reimagine America’s role in the region, and their relationships to Beijing.”–Evan Osnos

Nobody greeted the news from Singapore with more delight than China. For years, Chinese officials have urged Trump to freeze military exercises in South Korea, which Beijing regards as a threatening gesture in its neighborhood. Shortly after the announcement, the Global Times, a nationalist state newspaper in Beijing, hailed Trump’s move in an editorial headlined “End of ‘War Games’ Will Be a Big Step Forward for Peninsula.” Elizabeth Economy, a China specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me, “The Chinese are breathing a deep sigh of relief. They got what they most wanted.” She added, “And, best of all, it came out of President Trump’s mouth. The Chinese didn’t even have to rely on Kim Jong Un to do their bidding.”

Any negotiations in the months and years ahead will be fraught: the United States will need to get Kim to provide a full declaration of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. International inspectors will seek to verify them. Only then can the U.S. begin to imagine dismantling them. But, more immediately, Trump may have also precipitated an outcome that he does not fully grasp: by suspending military exercises, and alluding to removing troops from South Korea, he will stir doubts about the strength of America’s commitment to its allies in Asia, including Japan, Taiwan, and Australia. They will have no choice but to begin to reimagine America’s role in the region, and their relationships to Beijing. From Trump’s perspective, the encounter with Kim was an end in itself. For those who bear the consequences of his words and actions, this is just the beginning.

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  • Evan Osnos joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2008, and covers politics and foreign affairs. He is the author of “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China.”