Picking Up the Pieces After Hanoi


March 19, 2019

Picking Up the Pieces After Hanoi

by Richard N. Haass

The collapse of last month’s summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was perhaps the inevitable result of a process in which the two leaders dominated, optimistic about their personal relationship and confident in their abilities. The question is what to do now.

 

NEW YORK – When last month’s summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ended without a deal, the result was not surprising. One or both countries came to Hanoi with a misunderstanding of what was possible.

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The United States maintained that North Korea wanted nearly all international sanctions lifted upfront and was not prepared to give up enough of its nuclear facilities to warrant doing so. North Korean officials explained that they were prepared to dismantle the country’s main facility, the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, “permanently and completely,” but only in exchange for a considerable reduction in existing sanctions.

The anticlimax in Hanoi was perhaps the inevitable result of a process in which the two leaders dominated, optimistic about their personal relationship and confident in their abilities. Senior officials and other staff members, who normally devote weeks and months to preparing for such summits, had but a limited role.

The question is what to do now. One option is to try to negotiate a compromise: either more dismantling of nuclear infrastructure in exchange for more sanctions relief, or less dismantling in exchange for less relief.

Although one of these approaches may prove possible, either outcome would be less than ideal. Simply agreeing to give up individual nuclear facilities is not the same as denuclearization. Indeed, it does not necessarily even get us closer to denuclearization, because facilities could be built or expanded as others are being dismantled. Precisely this currently seems to be occurring. Meanwhile, lifting sanctions removes the pressure on North Korea to take meaningful steps toward denuclearization.

So what are the alternatives? Using even limited military force risks escalation, a costly war from which no one would benefit, and a crisis in relations between the US and South Korea. And, given North Korea’s demonstrated resilience, existing or even additional sanctions alone are highly unlikely to be enough to coerce its leaders into abandoning their nuclear program.

Moreover, no matter how much pressure is brought to bear on North Korea, China and Russia will likely do whatever is necessary to ensure its survival, given their strategic interest in avoiding a reunified Korean Peninsula aligned with the US. Hopes that North Korea will collapse under its own weight are thus unrealistic.

Trump seems to harbor the equally unrealistic notion that North Korea will voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons in order to become the next Asian economic tiger. But while Kim wants sanctions relief, fundamental economic reform would threaten his tight grip on power, and giving up his nuclear weapons and missiles would make North Korea and himself vulnerable. He has taken note of what happened to Ukraine, which voluntarily relinquished its Soviet-era nuclear weapons in the early 1990s, as well as to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi.

The status quo, however, is no solution. The current testing moratorium could end; indeed, North Korea is threatening to resume tests and there is evidence it is reconstituting its principal missile-testing site. This may be a bid to encourage the US to show more flexibility, or the North may actually be preparing to restart testing – a step that would likely lead the US to resume large-scale military exercises with South Korea and push for new sanctions. Talks would likely be suspended; we would be back to where we were two years ago but with an overlay of recrimination and mistrust.

Even absent such developments, drift is not desirable. North Korea could use the passage of time to increase the number of nuclear weapons in its arsenal and make some improvements to its warheads and delivery systems without overt testing. There is a big difference between a North Korea armed with a handful of inefficient warheads and inaccurate missiles and one with dozens of advanced weapons that could be mounted on accurate long-range missile systems capable of reaching the US.

At this point, any realistic policy must begin with accepting the reality that complete and fully verifiable denuclearization is not a realistic prospect any time soon. It need not and should not be abandoned as a long-term goal, but it cannot dominate near-term policy. An all-or-nothing policy toward North Korea will result in nothing.

So it makes sense to explore a phased approach. In an initial phase, North Korea would agree to freeze not just the testing of its systems, but also the production of nuclear material, nuclear weapons, and long-range missiles. This would require the North Korean authorities to provide a detailed accounting (a so-called declaration) of the relevant facilities and agree to verification by international inspectors.

In exchange, North Korea would receive the sort of substantial sanctions relief it sought in Hanoi. There could also be an end to the state of war that has existed for the past seven decades, and liaison offices could be opened in Washington, DC, and Pyongyang. But full sanctions relief and diplomatic normalization would come only with full denuclearization.

This might well be too much for North Korea, arguably the world’s most closed society. If so, the bulk of the sanctions need to remain in place; they would be lifted only in proportion to any dismantling – and only so long as the world could be confident that North Korea was not developing new capabilities to replace those it was abandoning. The US could specify which sites, in addition to Yongbyon, need to be dismantled.

Even this less ambitious approach would likely prove extraordinarily difficult. But, given the high stakes and unattractive alternatives in dealing with North Korea, any viable route to a settlement that ensures long-term stability is worth pursuing.

ttps://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/dealing-with-north-korea-after-hanoi-summit-failure-by-richard-n–haass-2019-03

Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, previously served as Director of Policy Planning for the US State Department (2001-2003), and was President George W. Bush’s special envoy to Northern Ireland and Coordinator for the Future of Afghanistan. He is the author of A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order.

A Trade Deal with China will require a more comprehensive approach, based on a fundamental shift in mindset say, Andrew Sheng and Xiao


February 23, 2019

trump xi jinping

A Trade Deal with China will require a more comprehensive approach, based on a fundamental shift in mindset, say Andrew Sheng and Xiao

 

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/trump-zero-sum-approach-china-trade-talks-by-andrew-sheng-and-xiao-geng-2019-02

In the ongoing US-China trade talks, considerable progress has been made on several key trade issues, such as intellectual-property rights protection. But to defuse tensions in any sustainable way will require a more comprehensive approach, based on a fundamental shift in mindset.

HONG KONG – Trade negotiations between the United States and China are closing in on the March 1 deadline, after which the bilateral tariff war will resume – beginning with an increase from 10% to 25% on $200 billion worth of Chinese products. While global financial markets are fluctuating wildly, investors seem to assume that too much is at stake for the US and China to fail to reach a deal. Their optimism could prove short-lived.

To be sure, there has been considerable progress on several key issues, such as technology transfer, protection of intellectual-property rights, non-tariff barriers, and implementation mechanisms. But to defuse tensions between the US and China in any sustainable way will require a more comprehensive approach, based on a fundamental shift in mindset.

Over the last 40 years, Sino-US engagement has been largely cooperative, reflecting a holistic approach that takes into account the interests of the entire global system. US President Donald Trump’s administration, however, does not seem to believe that engagement with China (or anyone else for that matter) can benefit both sides. As Trump’s “America First” agenda shows, the US is now playing a zero-sum game – and it is playing to win.

For example, the US has threatened to punish or desert its closest allies unless they increase their defense spending. Under pressure from the Trump administration, South Korea just agreed to increase its contributions to US forces in Korea by 8.2%, to $923 million, in 2019.

Similarly, Trump has repeatedly disparaged fellow NATO members for insufficient defense spending. Most recently, Trump has criticized Germany for spending only 1% of GDP for defense, compared to America’s 4.3%. German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded by condemning US isolationism at the Munich Security Conference, and calling for the revival of multilateral cooperation.

The Trump administration’s myopic approach is also apparent in its preoccupation with bilateral trade imbalances. Any US deficit with another economy is, from Trump’s perspective, a loss. Given this, if China agrees to cut its bilateral trade deficit with the US, other economies with bilateral surpluses vis-à-vis the US – including close allies, such as the European Union and Japan – may find themselves facing intensifying pressure to do the The weakening of trade that could result in this scenario would compound existing negative pressure on global growth, hurting everyone. A global economic downturn is the last thing the world needs at a time when it is already beset with risks, including a possible no-deal Brexit and populist gains in the European Parliament election in May.

Of course, while Trump does not spare his allies, his primary target remains China. After all, the competition between the US and China extends far beyond trade. Although the US maintains military, technological, financial, and soft-power superiority, China has been steadily catching up, leading to bipartisan support in the US for a more confrontational approach.

Last October, US Vice President Mike Pence bluntly accused China of technology theft, predatory economic expansion, and military aggression. Pence’s stance echoed the fears of the US national security community. As former US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter put it, “Because it is a Communist dictatorship, China is able to bring to bear on US companies and our trading partners a combination of political, military, and economic tools that a government such as ours cannot match. This puts us at an inherent disadvantage.”

And yet America’s tools are hardly useless. The US authorities have mobilized a broad range of domestic and international resources – from law and diplomacy to national security measures – to stop the overseas expansion of the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. If Western countries allow Huawei to build their 5G infrastructure, America’s hawks and their allies argue, they will be vulnerable to cyberattacks from China in some future war.

All of this has shaken business and market confidence to the core, wiping out trillions of dollars in market capitalization. And the Trump administration’s apparent insistence that countries choose sides in its dispute with China is further heightening fears. As the rest of the world’s trading countries understand, Trump’s approach will fragment business and reverse the globalization-enabled economies of scale that have fueled growth for decades.

“Ending the Sino-US trade war will require considerable statesmanship on the part of Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. But, beyond that, both sides need to recognize that supporting global peace and prosperity requires less ideology and more respect for diversity of political, social, and cultural systems. Failing that, the fault lines will continue to deepen – much as they did in the 1930s – potentially setting the stage for full-blown war”- .

More broadly, the Trump administration’s rejection of multilateralism undermines the global cooperation needed to confront a range of issues, including migration, poverty and inequality, climate change, and the challenges raised by new technologies. Trump’s focus on geopolitical rivalry – and the associated rise in security and defense spending – will dramatically reduce resources available for global public goods, such as infrastructure investment and poverty-reduction programs.

 

The Mekong region is caught in a tug-of-war


February 14, 2019

The Mekong region is caught in a tug-of-war

by Nguyen Khac Giang, VEPR

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2019/02/07/the-mekong-region-is-caught-in-a-tug-of-war/

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For the Mekong countries, including Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam, 2018 was a big year both domestically and regionally. Key developments from last year will inevitably continue to shape the politics of the region in 2019. In terms of domestic affairs, the most worrying trend is the consolidation of autocratic power in almost all countries.

 

In Vietnam, the sudden death of president Tran Dai Quang in September 2018 created a huge power vacuum, which was filled by Vietnamese Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong. By merging the two most powerful positions in Vietnamese politics, he has become the strongest Vietnamese leader since the death of Ho Chi Minh in 1969, edging the communist state towards the Chinese model of centralised rule.

Cambodia, in theory a multi-party democracy, has practically become a one-party regime after an election that saw Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party win all parliamentary seats in July 2018. He is now one of the world’s longest-serving heads of government, having held the premiership for 33 years since 1985.

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Things are no better in Thailand. Four years after seizing power, the military junta has made — and broken — five promises to hold a general election to establish a civilian government. Even if the sixth promise is fulfilled in February 2019, it will be difficult to sen Myanmar, the intensifying Rohingya crisis has not only created Southeast Asia’s biggest humanitarian concern but also exposed the reluctance of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy to complete the democratic transition that started in 2011.e swift change, as the junta will exploit all means available to dominate the electoral process.

In Myanmar, the intensifying Rohingya crisis has not only created Southeast Asia’s biggest humanitarian concern but also exposed the reluctance of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy to complete the democratic transition that started in 2011.

 

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In Myanmar, the intensifying Rohingya crisis has not only created Southeast Asia’s biggest humanitarian concern but also exposed the reluctance of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy to complete the democratic transition that started in 2011.

The autocratisation of the Mekong region has significant implications at a time when its giant neighbour China continues a long march to the south. China has committed billions of US dollars in concessional loans and credit to Mekong countries via the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC), an ambitious initiative which was launched in 2016. But the LMC’s actual impact remains to be seen. While the LMC is ostensibly aimed at creating a ‘shared future of peace and prosperity’, China can use it as part of a carrot and stick strategy due to its largely opaque and non-binding frameworks.

It should be noted that Beijing has a record of working closely with autocracies. Beijing has helped leaders in Central Asia guard against ‘colour revolution’, provided African autocrats with an alternative model of development and has aided socialist Venezuela in crisis. A less democratic Mekong region will be more exposed to China’s strategy of buying influence, which often involves closed-door negotiations and dealings.

Image result for the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower dam in southern Laos collapsed,

The LMC, as well as other established regional mechanisms such as the Mekong River Commission and Lower Mekong Initiative, have also failed to address the core issue which theoretically binds Mekong countries together: transnational water management. In July 2018, a section of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower dam in southern Laos collapsed, reportedly killing 34 people, leaving 97 missing and displacing 6000 others. The collapsed part of the dam was only an auxiliary section and the whole project is built in one of the Mekong’s tributaries instead of the main stream. Needless to say, it could have been an even greater catastrophe.

Image result for the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower dam in southern Laos collapsed,

In Vietnam, for example, hydro dams are considered to be time bombs ticking over the head of the Mekong Delta on which 90 per cent of Vietnam’s rice exports depend. Despite the incident, the Laos government resumed its dream of becoming ‘a battery for Asia’ by permitting work to continue on several hydro projects. Beneficiary countries of the hydropower boom such as Thailand and China gave condolences and support to Laos but continued building their own dams. China, for instance, has built 7 and has plans for a further 21 dams on the Mekong — plans formulated without consultation with lower-Mekong countries.

The ongoing trade war between China and the United States also has the potential to impact the Mekong region both economically and politically. If the trade war accelerates, investors will consider countries like Vietnam and Thailand, and to a lesser extent Cambodia, as shelters to circumvent higher tariffs and other technical barriers. Exports from the Mekong region to the United States, many of which are substitutes for Chinese goods, will also benefit from the trade dispute. On the other hand, the region also bears the risk of a flood of Chinese goods into domestic markets, which is already a big issue.

More broadly, the Mekong region will continue to be a battlefield for influence between the two global superpowers. The rumour that China seeks to build a military base in Cambodia, although dismissed by Hun Sen, should be a serious warning for Washington. Of the five Mekong countries, only Vietnam is wary of China’s charm offensive due to a lingering sovereignty dispute in the South China Sea. The superpowers’ tug-of-war will perhaps come to play a key role in shaping the region’s development trajectory.

Nguyen Khac Giang is the lead political researcher at the Vietnam Institute for Economic and Policy Research (VEPR) at the Vietnam National University in Hanoi.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2018 in review and the year ahead.

In defense of the elites


February 5, 2019

In defense of the elites

 

by Dr. Fareed Zakaria

https://fareedzakaria.com/columns/2019/1/31/in-defense-of-the-elites

This year’s World Economic Forum, more than usual, prompted a spirited round of elite-bashing, which has now become the trendy political posture on both the right and left. On one side, President Trump and Fox News hosts slam the out-of-touch establishment that, according to them, has run things into the ground. On the other side, left-wingers decry the millionaires and billionaires who, in one author’s phrase, “broke the modern world.”

Underlying these twin critiques is a bleak view of modern life — seen as a dysfunctional global order, producing stagnant incomes, rising insecurity and environmental degradation. But is this depiction, in fact, true? Are we doing so very badly that we need to bring back the guillotines?

On the simplest and most important measure, income, the story is actually one of astonishing progress. Since 1990, more than 1 billion people have moved out of extreme poverty. The share of the global population living in these dire conditions has gone from 36 percent to 10 percent, the lowest in recorded history. This is, as the World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim, notes, “one of the greatest achievements of our time.” Inequality, from a global perspective, has declined dramatically.

And all this has happened chiefly because countries — from China to India to Ethiopia — have adopted more market-friendly policies, and Western countries have helped them with access to markets, humanitarian assistance and loan forgiveness. In other words, policies supported by these very elites.

Look at any measure from a global perspective and the numbers are staggering. The child mortality rate is down 58 percent since 1990. Undernourishment has fallen 41 percent, and maternal deaths (women dying because of childbirth) have dropped by 43 percent over roughly the same period.

I know the response that some will have to these statistics. The figures pertain to the world in general, not the United States. Things might have improved for the Chinese, but not for the denizens of rich countries. That sense of “unfairness” is what is surely fueling Trump’s “America First” agenda and much of the anger on the right at the international system. (More bewilderingly, the left, traditionally concerned about the poorest of the poor, has become critical of a process that has improved the lives of at least 1 billion of the world’s most impoverished people.)

When criticizing the current state of affairs, it’s easy to hark back to some nostalgic old order, the modern world before the current elites “broke” it. But when was that golden age? In the 1950s, when Jim Crow reigned in the United States and women could barely work as anything more than seamstresses and secretaries? The 1980s, when two-thirds of the globe stagnated under state socialism, repression and isolation? What group of elites — kings, commissars, mandarins — ran the world better than our current hodgepodge of politicians and business executives?

Even in the West, it is easy to take for granted the astounding progress. We live longer, the air and water are cleaner, crime has plunged, and information and communication are virtually free. Economically, there have been gains, though crucially, they have not been distributed equally.

But there have been monumental improvements in access and opportunity for large segments of the population that were locked out and pushed down. In the United States, the gap between black and white high school completion has almost disappeared. The poverty gap between blacks and whites has shrunk (but remains distressingly large). Hispanic college enrollment has soared. The gender gap between wages for men and women has narrowed. The number of female chief executives at Fortune 500 companies has gone from one to 24 over the past 20 years. Female membership in national legislatures of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member countries has almost doubled in the same period. No countries allowed same-sex marriage two decades ago, but more than 20 countries do today. In all these areas, much remains to be done. But in each of them, there has been striking progress.

I understand that important segments of the Western working class are under great pressure, and that they often feel ignored and left behind by this progress. We must find ways to give them greater economic support and moral dignity. But extensive research shows that some of their discomfort comes from watching a society in which these other groups are rising, changing the nature of the world in which they’d enjoyed a comfortable status.

After 400 years of slavery, segregation and discrimination in the United States, blacks have been moving up. After thousands of years of being treated as structurally subordinate, women are now gaining genuine equality. Once considered criminals or deviants, gays can finally live and love freely in many countries. The fact that these changes might cause discomfort to some is not a reason to pause, nor to forget that it represents deep and lasting human progress that we should celebrate.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

How Deng and his heirs misunderstood Singapore


February 3, 2019

How Deng and his heirs misunderstood Singapore

 

https://www.newmandala.org/how-deng-and-his-heirs-misunderstood-singapore/

 

Image result for deng xiaoping and lee kuan yew

As official China celebrates the four decades of “reform and opening” that began in late 1978 to early 1979, it is instructive to recall the role Singapore played in this process. The fulsome eulogies for Lee Kuan Yew offered by Chinese officials in 2015, beginning with Xi Jinping himself (who has been noticeably less enthusiastic in his praise for Deng Xiaoping given China’s top leader’s “family feud” over who deserves the most credit for the reforms), are just the most obvious indication that Lee and the “Singapore model” more generally have played (quite literally) an oversized role in China’s rapid transition from Maoism to “Market-Leninism”. Appropriately, Lee was honoured late last year as one of the foreigners who helped China most in its reform process.

Image result for deng xiaoping and lee kuan yew

Ezra Vogel’s his monumental 2011 biography of Deng

In November 1978 Deng, newly installed as China’s paramount leader, visited Singapore. Ostensibly the trip was part of a diplomatic campaign by China against what it considered a growing threat from Soviet-backed Vietnam. But in Singapore, Deng instead became obsessed with the city-state’s purported transformation from a backwater fishing village to a leading global city under Lee Kuan Yew and his People’s Action Party’s (PAP) rule.

Image result for deng xiaoping deng's biography by ezra vogel

In his welcoming remarks, Lee stressed that Singapore’s ethnic Chinese citizens were the sons and daughters of uneducated, landless peasants from Southern China, leading Lee to suggest, as former Foreign minister George Yeo has recently phrased it, if Singapore with its “poorly-educated coolies could make good, how much better mainland China could be if the right policies were adopted.” Deng showed great respect for Lee (going so far as to not smoke in the presence of the fastidious Lee despite the Singapore leader providing him with a spittoon in a well-ventilated room) as he had inherited a broken system that he was quickly trying to fix. In his comments Deng endorsed the (exaggerated) story of Singapore’s miraculous metamorphosis.

Crucially, Deng and Lee developed a special relationship during Deng’s short visit. Both were anti-colonial leaders at the forefront of their countries’ revolutionary movements and committed to political order over chaos. Ezra Vogel, in his monumental 2011 biography of Deng, comments that:

“Deng admired what Lee had accomplished in Singapore, and Lee admired how Deng was dealing with problems in China. Before Deng’s visit to Singapore, the Chinese press had referred to Singaporeans as the ‘running dogs of American imperialism.’ A few weeks after Deng visited Singapore, however, this description of Singapore disappeared from the Chinese press. Instead, Singapore was described as a place worth studying .…. Deng found orderly Singapore an appealing model for reform, and he was ready to send people there to learn about city planning, public management, and controlling corruption.”

Unlike other Chinese party leaders and academics who, as Kai Yang and Stephan Ortmann have shown, were looking at a variety of potential models such as Sweden (seen then to represent a “‘third way’ between Communism and capitalism” and symbolising “the ideals of social equity and harmony”), Deng was single-mindedly focused on Singapore, a fascination that was initially quite idiosyncratic. He was searching for a model that both legitimated party rule and was adaptable to the country’s rapid industrialisation. Deng’s articulation of the “Four Cardinal Principles” in 1979 showed that he still adhered to party orthodoxy in regard to repressing political dissent and reaffirming the party’s monopoly on power. But Deng was also concerned with how the party could guide China through state-led capitalist growth. In this regard, Deng left little doubt his thinking was closer to Lee’s than Karl Marx’s.

Yet the example of Singapore became central to the Chinese regime’s efforts to legitimise authoritarian rule only after collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European state socialist satellite states and the Tiananmen Square massacre. Deng’s endorsement of Singapore as a model during his early 1992 “southern tour”, undertaken to restart the reform process, led to an outbreak of “Singapore fever” and an obsession with learning from Singapore among Chinese governing elite and academics. In quick follow up to Deng’s praise, a high level Chinese Communist Party (CCP) delegation was sent to Singapore, which quickly produced by book about the city-state that was distributed to all party branches. Hundreds of official trips followed, with Singapore setting up various programs to accommodate the influx of Chinese visitors such as the “Mayor’s Class” at Nanyang Technological University, attended by thousands of mid-level mainland officials.

An authoritarian path to modernity

It has been difficult for China to find examples of a successful combination of centralised authoritarian rule with effective and corruption-free government in a modern society anywhere else in today’s world besides Singapore. Besides the tiny sultanate of Brunei, Singapore is the only high-income country with a non-democratic regime in East Asia and arguably the only clear case globally, as oil-dependent absolute monarchies are rich but not “modern” in most understandings of the term. China’s observers also tend to see Singapore as “Chinese” and Confucian-influenced (ignoring its distinctive national identity and multi-ethnic character), making it seem more culturally appropriate for emulation.

Although Singapore remains a stand-alone example of high income, non-petroleum reliant “authoritarian modernism”, there is historical precedent for the attempt to remain authoritarian while successfully modernising in East Asia. Framed this way, Singapore is much less a “lonely” example of authoritarian modernity than it is a continuation of a historical trend. The “Prussian path” of German authoritarian-led development was followed by Meiji reformers and this model was later diffused throughout East Asia. Singapore is a particularly important example of this phenomenon not only because it wanted to “learn from Japan” (a government campaign in the early 1980s in which Japan had served as an ideological device used to maintain political control and manage social change that accompanied the upgrading of the country’s economy) and constructed a reactionary culturalist discourse (the “Asian values” debate of the 1990s) to help justify continued electoral authoritarian rule, but also because it became the chief model for Deng’s post-Maoist developmentalist leadership.

The chief “lesson” Chinese experts have derived from Singapore’s fight against corruption is the importance of a committed leadership. But this analysis ignores the significance of the rule of law in Singapore, despite its being a tool to “constrain dissent” and increase the PAP’s “discretionary political power”. Theoretically, the PAP is not above the law, while the CCP claims primacy over any laws (euphemistically called “rule by law”), with China’s top judge recently denouncing judicial independence as a “false Western ideal”. By viewing determined leadership as the main lesson from Singapore, while at the same time rejecting an effective and independent legal system which was key to the city-state’s success in combating corruption, the Chinese leadership has picked “lessons” that confirm their own policy style while ignoring others that could potentially raise critical questions about it.

In many important ways, from country size to political “DNA” (i.e. the legacies of totalitarianism in post-Mao China compared to Westminster-style parliamentary institutions in Singapore), the two nations are simply too different to allow for any meaningful policy transfer. Moreover, Chinese observers have largely seen what they want to see: a one-party state ruled by wise leaders and built on Confucian principles which is successful and legitimate.

Rather, the key significance of the Singapore model for China has been primarily as a form of ideological confirmation, as it has provided an alternative telos for China as it modernises. Singapore shows what China can become: a highly modern but still one-party state undertaking carefully calibrated reforms. Thus, small though it is, Singapore has played an outsized role in reinforcing the CCP’s leadership’s belief that it can avoid the “modernisation trap” and remain resiliently authoritarian during modernisation and even after it successfully modernises.

Growing out of the “Singapore model”

But more recently China seems to have moved away from adopting Singapore’s “soft authoritarian” style of rule. A recent book by David Shambaugh claims that gradualist political reforms by Xi Jinping’s predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, albeit within a continued authoritarian framework, were “intended to open up the system with carefully limited political reforms,” seeking to “manage political change rather than resist it.” By contrast, Xi’s recent widespread crackdown on dissent has undermining hopes of further, however constrained, political liberalisation. Shambaugh regrets that Singapore’s semi-competitive system, with a dominant party legitimised through limited but significant popular participation, and whose power is constrained by the rule of law, is no longer considered relevant by the Chinese leadership.

Thus, China seems to be moving further away from rather than toward the Singapore model. At the same time, as China takes a more aggressive stance in its foreign policy, particularly the South China Sea, and becomes more confident of its own political and developmental success, its interest in Singapore, which has staked out an independent foreign policy that has sometimes angered the mainland, has declined. After many years in which  officials offered a codified version of the “Singapore story” to Chinese observers, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently described the island state as little more than a “bonsai tree model of what China is” that might be “intriguing to scrutinise” but from which is hard for a gigantic country like China to draw lessons. Seemingly consigned to a historical period of conservative reformism in China, the “Singapore model” now appears to represent a path not taken by the mainland’s hard-line leadership.

This essay draws extensively from the author’s Authoritarian Modernism in East Asia (Palgrave 2019)

 

This is What Inequality Looks Like