May 12th, 2013 — Blog
We never stop hearing about the Obama administration”s big foreign policy idea, the strategic ‘pivot’ to Asia, and yet few people – especially media commentators – understand what the policy is really about. In fact, the pivot has five main objectives, and swarming military units into the Asia-Pacific isn’t one of them (at least not directly). In my latest feature for The Diplomat, I argue that the US is actually making good progress in achieving some of these objectives, but that the plan has one potentially fatal inconsistency: it calls for better relations with China, while inherently pissing off China, which would like to see less, not more, America on its strategic doorstep. You can read my pivot report card here.
I had the chance to see the pivot in action last month, when I attended the arrival of USS Freedom – the Navy’s first-in-class Littoral Combat Ship – in Singapore. It’s easier to cut through the controversy when you see these things up close. There’s no doubting that it’s an impressive machine, and the crew genuinely seemed to be fans of its performance. However, the Navy’s cost-cutting axe hangs over the Freedom-class and pretty much every other flying, floating, rolling thing in the US military inventory right now, so it remains to be seen whether my new feature about the LCS for Monocle (link coming soon) is about the future of the US Navy, or simply about a short-lived experiment.
Finally, my newest SCMP op-ed looks at the ongoing revolution in military technology, and argues that China’s aircraft carrier is a misguided attempt to acquire yesterday’s technology for tomorrow’s battlefield. In the end, it’s becoming clearer than ever that the Chinese carrier is a huge, floating propaganda engine, not a real military capability.
March 15th, 2013 — Blog
Drones – love them, hate them or just plain fear them, they’re here to stay. In fact, the things are like rabbits. Though the development of UAVs isn’t as sinister as many people assume, the possibility that our militaries might soon start deploying fully autonomous UAVs on strike missions seems to me to be something that we need to prevent. [Insert obvious 'Terminator' analogy here.] So, in my latest op-ed for the South China Morning Post, which you can read here, I float the idea of a new arms treaty banning the application of lethal force by autonomous UAVs. Programmed killing machines are clearly something we can do without. [Insert tenuous example from 'Robocop' here.] And after all, it’s not like we humans aren’t brilliant at doing it ourselves.
February 21st, 2013 — Blog
For a nation so hypersensitive about foreign insults, it’s always surprising how much crap China is willing to tolerate from North Korea. Last week the Chinese told Kim Jong-un not to set off a nuclear bomb. But Kim did it anyway. He defied China, and he embarrassed China. Beijing doesn’t need to take this, and the reasons for doing so – partly historical, but mainly security-related – are growing thinner by the year.
So will China finally pull the plug on the Kim Kleptocracy if Pyongyang’s nuclear antics persist? My latest op-ed for the South China Morning Post, which you can read here, looks at the North Korean threat, and the favour that Kim may have done us all if his outrageous nuclear blackmail finally persuades China that he is Northeast Asia’s biggest problem, and one that needs fixing.
January 17th, 2013 — Blog
My latest op-ed for the South China Morning Post – you can read it here – discusses the likelihood of war between China and Japan. Some well-known thinkers have been sounding the alarm about the worsening tensions, warning that a major conflict between Beijing and Toyko is a real danger as the two sides butt heads over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. But, I think they’re wrong. The potential cost of war is just too high for both sides.
Some of the arguments anticipating war rely on historical comparisons. Hugh White, for example, draws parallels between the current situation and the Peloponnesian War of the 5th century BC. Personally, I find this line of reasoning to be completely askew: the ancient Greek world was structured differently from modern East Asia in a million ways (thanks, though, to Prof. White for giving me an excuse to dig out the Thuc!). Even comparisons with more recent conflicts are of limited use, I would say, owing to a range of factors. Chief among these are globalisation, which has interlocked big economies in a way the world has never seen before; and also the socialisation of big countries, which don’t regard fighting wars with each other as the kind of zero-sum propositions they once did, even in the 20th century. My sense, generally, is that the age of big powers engaging mutually in big wars is pretty much over.
I’ll be expanding on these themes in a forthcoming feature for The Diplomat, which will focus less on the economic constraints that militate against a Sino-Japanese conflict and more on the political constraints. These are more of a problem for China, in my view, than they are for Japan. Does anyone think that Xi Jinping wants to go down in history as the leader who went to war with Japan, and lost? The only way for him to be sure of avoiding that worst imaginable outcome is to make damn sure the war never starts. Watch this space….
UPDATE: The space I asked you to watch has now been filled by the aforementioned Diplomat feature, “7 Reasons Why China and Japan Won’t Go To War”, which you can read here. As of 21st February, still no war….
January 4th, 2013 — Blog
So 2013 is the Year of the Snake, and a lot of things seem to be going awry; judging by what I read in the papers, at any road. America is getting crazier. Europe is getting feebler. China is getting meaner. And the world in general is getting hotter, tenser, and scarier.
Fortunately, the papers make a lot of this stuff up. Let’s smile a little. The snake is my own zodiac daemon – I enter my fourth cycle in 2013, for what it’s worth – so I really ought to be upbeat about what these times will tell as I look ahead to a year writing about, well, many of the same themes I was focused on in 2012 (the geopolitical world spins slowly indeed). Some people think China and Japan are risking war in the East China Sea. I don’t. Some people think the US pivot to the Asia-Pacific will escalate regional tensions, hastening China’s military build-up. I don’t. Some people think an arms race in East Asia will slingshot out of control, and drive the region off the road of stability. You know what I think.
I’ll be writing about all of this and more in the months ahead. Upcoming highlights include: The Real End of History, or why China and the US will never go to war. On the Taiwan question, I’ll be explaining how a lasting solution is now staring both the island and the Mainland in the face – and how it could be salutary for both sides. I hope to do something truly magical, and produce a vaguely readable piece about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (actually this is massively important, both to Asia’s economy and its security). And I will, as always, leaven the political sourdough with some nice raisiny travel writing from around Asia.
Finally, a few recent articles of mine, in case you missed them:
- I went to Guizhou, China’s poorest province, to watch the country’s leadership handover. And also to watch water buffalo trying to murder each other in a field. Which was more fun? You can read my serious story for Foreign Policy here, and my not-so-serious story for the South China Morning Post here and here.
- I also wrote in the South China Morning Post about the risks of over-hyping America’s pivot to Asia. The US is doing what it can, but, as I argue here, Obama simply doesn’t have the money to make the pivot meaningful from a military standpoint.
- Speaking of Washington’s debt problems, I penned this assessment of the F-35 program for The Diplomat. The troubled stealth fighter looks like it will indeed survive, but potential Asian buyers are eyeing it pretty warily.
September 25th, 2012 — Blog
These are exciting times in Asia. The 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China is just around the corner, although nobody knows exactly when. Afghanistan is nearing the day when it will stand on its own two feet, although nobody knows exactly how. And several East Asian countries look keen to start clubbing each other in the scramble to own a few tiny Pacific islands, although nobody knows exactly why.
I’ve been writing a lot about the third issue in particular; and the more I learn the less sense it all makes. In this op-ed for the South China Morning Post I discuss China’s dubious decision to start administering a patch of ocean the size of Sichuan province from a new city the size of a poorly stocked Chengdu wet market. A provocative step, and another sign, I think, that East Asia’s governments have given up on diplomacy. Over on The Diplomat, I discuss the illusory nature of the South China Sea disputes, which are essentially arguments about nothing more than bits of rock where nobody lives. Nationalism is, of course, all in the mind; people only care about those rocks at sea because their imaginations have built them up into something they’re not. ”Symbolism has trumped realism in East Asia’s international discourse,” was what I offered, sounding like several of my old lecturers. And here I offer my own take on why the South China Sea disputes will never be solved: because China is actually quite happy with things the way they are.
Meanwhile, I’ve also been thinking about the US pivot to Asia. Why are they doing it? Can they do it? Will it make any difference to anyone in any case? I was given the opportunity to prowl around the aircraft carrier USS George Washington on its most recent visit to Hong Kong, which gave me the perfect occasion to ponder some of these US policy questions in this feature for Monocle.
Thanks for reading!
June 9th, 2012 — Blog
The South China Sea has taken on a life of its own in the media consciousness: it’s obtained a dubious reputation as a potential crucible of 21st-century conflict. This is curious to me, as I look out over that sea every day and it almost always looks quite serene (no typhoons or pitched naval battles so far this year). Of course, that’s not necessarily the case over the horizon. One of these days I’ll hire a junk and try some first-hand reporting at Scarborough Shoal (I hear there’s some good fishing down there). But for now, here’s a round-up of my recent work on the South China Sea disputes, as well as other topics of interest:
- For the South China Morning Post, I wrote this op-ed on the ongoing China-Philippines dispute. I discuss a factor that’s often overlooked: that millions of people depend on this region for food. (I have another SCMP op-ed due out on around 12th June, assessing the US pivot to Asia.)
- For the Diplomat, I’ve addressed the SCS problems from China’s perspective, asking whether Beijing is trying to split ASEAN. The Southeast Asian countries clearly are divided, which is a shame to see, but is this a result of an active Chinese strategy or are they merely playing into Beijing’s hands? Earlier, I blogged about Burma’s ongoing reforms, encapsulated by its detente with South Korea (poor old Pyongyang losing one of its few remaining friends).
- I’ve also been looking at China-ASEAN relations for Jane’s. Here, I discuss China’s dilemma in dealing with Southeast Asia. It suits China for the ASEAN countries to be disunited; but if China presses too hard in the SCS, the outcome will be the very thing it seeks to avoid – ASEAN solidarity. I earlier also wrote for Jane’s about South Korea’s ambitions to become a major player in the world defence market: I spoke to the country’s defence industry chief Noh Dae-lae to find out whether Seoul could realise its lofty ambitions (answer: probably not).
- Meanwhile, over on Foreign Policy, I’ve been having some fun with their List section. My recent stories have included “China’s Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics” – a round-up of Beijing’s information control-freakery inspired by its sensitivity about the US Embassy’s publication of air pollution data. Before that I took a closer look at Washington’s most recent report on the progress of the PLA in “5 Things the Pentagon Isn’t Telling You About the Chinese Military”.
- I’ve also started contributing to a great new site called Tea Leaf Nation, which trawls through ordinary people’s comments on Sina Weibo to gauge the public mood in China on a whole range of topical issues. It’s been great for my rusty Chinese. My maiden effort dealt with, you guessed it, the stand-off at Scarborough Shoal. Turns out there isn’t a whole lot of sympathy for the Philippines amongst Chinese netizens, who generally favour a crushing military blow to teach the Philippine upstarts a lesson.
March 21st, 2012 — Blog
Riding the Dragon
From the Norwegian Coast Guard to Israeli drone technicians, 8 surprising winners of China’s massive military buildup.
Even by the hot-money standards of China’s economy, defense is an exceptionally lucrative growth industry. The country’s 11.2 percent defense budget increase announced March 4, which gives the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) $106 billion to spend in 2012, is merely the latest in a long succession of generous budget hikes that have doubled China’s military resources every six or seven years since the early 1990s.
This bonanza has produced many winners within China, from the average soldier to domestic defense contractors to ordinary citizens who feel China’s sense of pride being restored. Even President Hu Jintao will feel a little more secure in his command of the military after signing off this year’s $11 billion PLA pay raise.
Yet some beneficiaries of Beijing’s military largesse can be found far beyond China’s shores. Some are allies and suppliers that stand to gain directly from the trickle-down of PLA procurement and overseas operations. Others represent the counterbalance of governments wary of China’s military ascent. Here are just eight of the unintended passengers on Beijing’s defense budget escalator.
1. The Norwegian Coast Guard
The South China Sea is not the only maritime territory that has been attracting Beijing’s attention: The Arctic, rich in untapped resources, is another oceanic region that China wants to exploit. However, China’s relations with Norway — one of the five countries with territorial interests in the far North, China not being one of them — have been rocky ever since the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded theNobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. Yet far from intimidated by China’s overbearing response to the Nobel, Norway opted this year to block Chinese involvement in the Arctic Council, pushing Sino-Norwegian relations even further into the freezer. With Arctic Council members Canada and Denmark more supportive of China’s northern ambitions, Chinese naval ships could become increasingly active above the 66th parallel. For Norway, that is not a welcome prospect. The 14-ship fleet of the Norwegian Coast Guard, tasked with patrolling the Arctic, has been enjoying increased funding over the last few years in anticipation of tensions in the thawing North. That trend will continue as long as China continues to eye Norway’s backyard.
2. Philippine fighter pilots
The Philippines has lacked an air-combat wing since it grounded its fleet of old F-5s in 2005. This year, however, should mark a turnaround in the fortunes of the Philippine Air Force as China’s expanding military reach has caused Manila to show the service some love. The Philippine defense and foreign secretaries will likely visit Washington next month for talks that could re-energize the U.S.-Philippine strategic relationship. At the top of their request list: a squadron of ex-U.S. Air Force F-16s to get their fighter pilots back in the air. The purchase of a small fleet of fighter trainer aircraft, from either Italy or South Korea, will also likely be fast-tracked in reaction to China’s activities.
3. The Seychelles
Slowly and cautiously, the PLA has been expanding its overseas operations. It has sent peacekeepers to numerous trouble spots, from East Timor to Haiti, over the past decade. Beijing has also been deploying anti-piracy patrols to the Gulf of Aden since 2008 and, most ambitiously, evacuated Chinese personnel from Libya in 2011. The next logical step in China’s military evolution is to establish a permanent overseas presence, a luxury the PLA Navy can now afford.
You can read the rest of this story on Foreign Policy here.
March 8th, 2012 — Blog
My comment piece on what to make of China’s recent defence budget increase has just appeared in the South China Morning Post. Turns out that if you increase something by 10% every year for several decades, you suddenly end up with a whole lot of it.
Trefor Moss says China could counter the foreign angst that accompanies news each year of its increase in military spending by being more transparent about its plans
Nobody panic. Among the twists and turns of international politics, China’s decision to increase its defence budget by 11.2per cent this year must be one of the least surprising headlines we will read all year.
Like clockwork, Beijing has been making this same announcement – signalling an annual military spending rise of approximately 10per cent – for the past two decades. On Sunday, it simply repeated the pattern, laying down plans to spend 670billion yuan (HK$824billion), up from last year’s tranche of 601billion yuan, on its armed forces. By most countries’ standards, that’s an aggressive leap. For China, it is in keeping with a long-term trend that no one doubted would continue.
Speculation about the insights a large pay rise for the People’s Liberation Army might give into Beijing’s worldview was of course plentiful (this happens every year, too). This time, America’s strategic “pivot” to Asia and China’s recent disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam over remote areas of the South China Sea were floated as the likely triggers for Beijing’s decision to boost its military coffers.
But such theories require the joining of some unrelated dots. The truth is that China’s policy of incrementally raising its defence budget year on year is part of a very long game that is not reactive to other countries’ policy choices or even to sporadic security crises.
The yearly jamboree of media alarmism over China’s defence budget is therefore unwarranted. However, measured foreign concern about a rising superpower’s long-term military vision is understandable, not least because of Beijing’s reluctance to communicate its plans in a clear and convincing manner.
The Chinese government must start to acknowledge that times have changed. Twenty years ago, the PLA was so poorly funded and so badly equipped that a 10per cent budget increase mattered little to the outside world, and begged no explanation.
But after so many successive increases, we are beginning to reach the thick end of the wedge. Each 10per cent rise now constitutes a colossal sum of money: this year’s top-up is equivalent in size to the entire Singaporean defence budget, for example – and Singapore spends more on its armed forces than any country in Southeast Asia. So it is only natural that foreign governments should be starting to wonder how much thicker the wedge is going to get….
You can read the rest of this column on the SCMP website here.
March 6th, 2012 — Blog
The fiercely independent members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are gradually getting used to the idea of improved co-operation in the areas of politics, security and defence activities, as well as economics and culture
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its 10 member states are busy preparing for a 21st century upgrade. The association hopes by 2015 to create a community that is more interconnected than the existing, relatively loose ASEAN grouping. It will consist of three parts: a political-security community (APSC), an economic community and a socio-cultural community.
While the development of the last two domains is proceeding relatively smoothly, the APSC is proving more of a headache. The challenges stem from the fact that political-security co-operation goes against the traditional ASEAN grain. The organisation has always abided by what it calls the ‘ASEAN Way’: a neutral and non-interventionist outlook whereby members are respectful of one anothers’ sovereignty and refrain from interfering in each others’ political affairs.
This philosophy is borne of the group’s particular make-up. The defining characteristic of Southeast Asia is often said to be its diversity and the shared history of ASEAN’s members is one of fierce independence (often resulting from unhappy colonial experiences) and intra-regional conflict, which in some cases is quite recent.
ASEAN’s defence and security institutions, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) in particular, are significant progressions from the Southeast Asia that existed in the 1960s when ASEAN first came into being; yet they have remained subordinate to the sovereignty-first approach of the individual ASEAN countries. Bilateral security arrangements, often with outside powers like the United States, still completely override any regional security approach.
ASEAN has always been a go-slow institution; most observers now consider the 2015 goal for the formation of the APSC to be unattainable. However, the deadline matters less than the question of whether ASEAN is moving slowly but surely towards meaningful security co-operation.
The reasons for co-operating more closely are clear enough. With Asia the focal point of a growing strategic rivalry between the US and China, a unified ASEAN position on important external issues would empower the group and give it a strong voice in international affairs. ASEAN could even act as a neutral, stabilising force between the two superpowers and send ASEAN-flagged peacekeepers to international troublespots. Meanwhile, as ASEAN countries modernise their own militaries, joint procurement and training opportunities would offer obvious benefits.
However, this vision of ASEAN remains some way from the present reality. So far, examples of joint procurement and even joint exercises have been relatively rare. The views of individual members on important strategic issues such as the roles of China and the US in Southeast Asian affairs remain extremely divergent. And in the most serious challenge to the APSC two ASEAN members, Cambodia and Thailand, actually came to blows in a border dispute that began in 2008 and has yet to be fully resolved. So can the ASPC overcome these difficulties and realise its full potential, or will these obstacles remain unsurmounted.
“What happened between Thailand and Cambodia totally discredited ASEAN,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, lead researcher at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies’ ASEAN Studies Centre. “It really put the spotlight on the fact that ASEAN’s role in conflict resolution is secondary and that the emphasis is still on national sovereignty.”
The border conflict between Thailand and Cambodia was a complex incident that bore more relation to Thailand’s destructive internal politics than to the question of who owned the ancient temple, Preah Vihear, over which the two countries were ostensibly fighting. However, ASEAN struggled to make its mark on the crisis. A proposal to send Indonesian monitors to the conflict zone on ASEAN’s behalf was blocked by Thailand until early 2012, by which time tensions had already subsided as a result of bilateral negotiations. ASEAN had in any case – and very characteristically – called for a bilateral solution to the problem.
At the ASEAN summit in May 2011, while the Thai-Cambodian confrontation was still very much live, ASEAN leaders agreed to establish an ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation as part of the association’s efforts to promote conflict resolution under the aegis of the APSC. The ARF is also focusing increasingly on preventive diplomacy. “But the ARF had nothing to say over Thailand and Cambodia; it didn’t have role to play,” said Pavin. He suggested that an ASEAN with the power to mediate effectively “will not happen in three years. It is 10 or 15 years away”. He also questions whether the ARF is “the right platform for community building”, given its silence on key regional security issues.
“North Korea is a member of the ARF, but the ARF has never had anything to say about that either,” he pointed out.
Clearly, ASEAN has not yet socialised its members into regarding intra-ASEAN conflict as something unthinkable; nor has it been able to build up the authority to force members in dispute into ASEAN-sponsored negotiations. “ASEAN states are still very jealous of their sovereignty and sensitive to challenges to that sovereignty, so it remains a limited organisation,” said Tim Huxley, the executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (Asia). “ASEAN has always operated on two levels: a rhetorical and aspirational level working towards more co-operation; and the ‘everybody-knows’ level, where there are limits to co-operation and they only really agree not to stab each other in the back.” Whether the newly agreed ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation is real or rhetorical will therefore be crucial to the APSC’s future credibility.
With the obvious Thai-Cambodian exception, tensions within ASEAN have lately been low by historical standards. However, the growth of military budgets throughout Southeast Asia will test ASEAN members’ trust in one another and could challenge the APSC’s goal of fostering closer security ties.
It may be wrong to typify what is occurring in Southeast Asia as an arms race, since ASEAN members are generally not modernising their armed forces in order to compete directly with one another. Some, such as Indonesia, are increasing defence spending to address chronic funding shortfalls; others, such as the Philippinesand Vietnam, are more concerned about protecting their interests against Chinese incursions than against other ASEAN states.
Optimists within ASEAN might even argue that with more modern and capable militaries – and more capable navies in particular – there might be greater scope for ASEAN members to co-operate militarily. However, this kind of co-operation is likely to come very gradually, if at all. While Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore’s joint patrolling of the Strait of Malacca has become one of the real success stories of military co-ordination within ASEAN, Pavin observes that it also stands out as an example of the members’ deep-seated reluctance to work together. Despite the severe threat of piracy that existed at the time, “it took them five or 10 years to come to the conclusion that joint patrols were needed”, he recalls.
ASEAN achieved an important milestone in July 2011 when it held its first ever joint military exercise….
You can read the rest of this story here at the Jane’s Defence Weekly website.
February 27th, 2012 — Blog
The South China Morning Post ran a feature about my travels in Shan State over the weekend. It’s obviously exciting to have started writing for the SCMP, and hopefully I’ll be doing lots more work for them in the future. I also hope to be back in Myanmar some time soon as events there continue to unfold.
A welcome on the hillsides: Myanmar’s Shan State
As political reform looks set to sweep Myanmar, Trefor Moss visits the remote villages of Shan State and finds a deeply traditional world defined by family, community – and parties
You’re the first foreigner who’s ever been to our village,” smiles the chief of Nar Lint, ushering me into his cool rattan hut. Drained by a long morning’s trek in the stifling heat, I am only too glad to accept his invitation to escape the sun. The chief cuts an exotic figure, dressed as he is in a simple white wrap that leaves him naked from the waist up, revealing a mysterious blue glaze of tattoos on his coffee-coloured arms and chest.
He offers me and my guide, Thura Naing, tea and lunch: a green stew bubbling gently on an open fire is spooned over rice and then crowned with a crispy fish that has been hanging from the rafters in a bag, safe from ants. Famished and dehydrated, we devour this simple but excellent meal before offering the chief a little money, which is welcome but clearly unexpected.
Hospitality, it seems, is the chief’s main function, for we are not the only guests. Villagers come and go, peering unannounced through the door to see who’s inside. One man, smudgy-eyed with drink in the early afternoon, pours out his sorrows for the chief to untangle before, unburdened, he rests his head on a sack of rice and sleeps almost as noisily as he talked. The chief invites Thura Naing and me to do likewise. We have been in the man’s home for less than an hour.
After two days spent exploring the Shan hills, this hospitality no longer seems extraordinary. The chief jovially complains, after we wake up refreshed, about the responsibilities that the village’s community ethos drops in his lap. Every day it’s open house, he says; a chief is public property. Between the procession of visitors with problems to solve and the duty of caring for his grandson – he rocks the sleeping child as we talk – his days are full. He is the hub of his remote community, which is three hours down a steep hill from the next village, and he appears content with his lot.
As the sun touches the hilltop horizon, painting its long outline a brilliant silver, the chief sends us on our way laden with supplies and good wishes.
We meet a group of eight Shan men operating a chugging jury-rigged contraption designed to pan gold from a river that marks the end of our descent down the slope from Nar Lint. We drink tea using the sawn-off ends of bamboo stems as cups – forest disposables – and discuss the river’s gold-giving potential. We hide from the sun’s last rays under the crew’s makeshift awning, enjoying the lush colours of the trees against the yellows of the mown fields; and though I could hardly have less in common with these men, our encounter has a comradely feel to it.
When the British ran Burma, as Myanmar was known, they used to seek refuge in these hills from Mandalay’s crushing heat. But even here, at 4,000 feet, you wonder if they shouldn’t have climbed a bit higher. The forest cover is not dense – though it is thick enough to conceal the small creatures that flee noisily through the brush – and while the air is certainly fresher than Mandalay’s hot-soup atmosphere, the direct sun is punishing….
You can read the rest of this feature on the South China Morning Post’s website.
February 13th, 2012 — Blog
Hong Kong is jealously protective of its special status within the Chinese system. Yet relations between HK and the Mainland have been particularly strained these last few months. Is Beijing the problem, insidiously eroding the city’s freedoms, as many Hongkongers fear? Or are Hongkongers themselves the problem, overprotective of the colonial past when really it’s time to start embracing the Chinese future? My latest feature for The Diplomat explores the complex relationship.
Why the Mainland Worries Hong Kong
Fifteen years after its “return” to China, Hong Kong remains insecure about its future. Will Beijing respond to the city’s anxieties by relaxing or tightening its grip?
Fireworks are a theme of Hong Kong’s Chinese New Year celebrations. But this year has been more explosive than usual, as a nasty debate has flared over Hong Kong’s place in the Chinese cosmos. The spat has left relations between Hong Kong and the mainland, for all the cheerful astrology of the newly dawning Year of the Dragon, at their ugliest in nearly a decade.
Animals less seemly than dragons have been stalking the conversation between mainland commentators and their Hong Kong interlocutors. A trigger for much of the recent acrimony was a January TV appearance by Kong Qingdong, a Beijing academic, in which he described Hong Kongers as “running dogs” and “bastards” in reaction to a Hong Kong University poll suggesting that fewer Hong Kong people now identify themselves as Chinese citizens than at any time since the 1997 handover.
Though cynically provocative, Kong’s remarks reflected Beijing’s quiet frustration with Hong Kong’s insistence on remaining outside the Chinese mainstream. They also drew a fierce backlash from the sizeable section of Hong Kong society that regards the mainland’s influence as something to be resisted rather than embraced. Ever since the British exit, the city has been uncomfortable with what some perceive as the insidious erosion of the “one country, two systems” framework designed to cushion its return to the Chinese fold and to protect its most cherished rights, such as a free press, the right to protest, and an independent judiciary.
Lately, these concerns have assumed a demographic focus, with mounting alarm about mainland immigration and, in particular, the trend of pregnant mainland women travelling here (for the most part legally) to secure automatic Hong Kong citizenship for their babies. This angst was illustrated most graphically recently when a full-page advert in the Apple Daily, one of Hong Kong’s punchier newspapers, called for an end to what it termed “birth tourism.” The ad memorably depicted a gigantic locust looming over the city, conjuring images of creepy mainlanders poised to swamp Hong Kong once and for all.
The Hong Kong government, which runs the city’s affairs autonomously while answering ultimately to Beijing, had already placed a cap on the number of mainland mothers allowed to give birth here this year (at 34,000, down from 40,000 in 2011 – which was nearly half of all the babies born in the territory). However, a stricter limit, if not an outright ban, now appears likely in response to the public outcry: no less shocking for Hong Kong lawmakers than the infamous locust was the sight of hundreds of pregnant women and mothers marching on a brisk January day to bemoan their need to compete with mainlanders for space in the city’s hospital delivery rooms.
You can read the rest of this feature here on The Diplomat website.