The Paralysed Pivot: Obama’s Asian failure

Foreign policy becomes a favourite pastime of lame-duck, second-term presidents, American pundits always say, because they can never get anything done back home. Right now President Barack Obama would probably settle for the customary inertia: as it is, he may now be doomed to set new standards in second-term lameness, by being gridlocked at home and also frustrated abroad.

Starting this weekend, Obama had planned to inject new momentum into his signature foreign policy: the US strategic pivot to Asia. But as confirmed yesterday, the head of an American government that has effectively ceased to function has decided not to embark on his anticipated four-nation tour of Southeast Asia after all. Instead, he has chosen to stay in Washington, like a captain duty bound to stand on the burning deck, to keep searching for a way out of the US’s disastrous government shutdown.

In doing so, he has made a serious mistake. Republican Party leaders don’t care what Obama has to say. But Asian leaders do.

The White House had already scratched visits to Malaysia and the Philippines from Obama’s itinerary in deference to Washington’s self-made crisis, but initially kept the two most important elements of the trip on the slate. They were the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit in Indonesia, and the East Asia Summit in Brunei. Obama’s attendance at these flagship regional forums really mattered: the credibility of his Asia pivot depended on it.

It is a pity that Obama decided to skip Malaysia and the Philippines, but this was probably a price worth paying in order to deflect some criticism at home. Malaysia is not yet a key partner in the pivot strategy, although, as Obama’s postponed state visit indicates, it may yet turn into one. The Philippines is a key partner, but its engagement is already assured since Manila is desperate for support in its territorial disputes with China.

The two summits, on the other hand, were golden opportunities for Obama to roll up his sleeves and reassert his vision of an Asia-Pacific future defined by order, stability, and economic openness. So long as he was actually in the room, he could have personally counselled his Asian colleagues to pay no mind to those numbskulls on Capitol Hill, and set about convincing key regional partners – like Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam – that America still has the will and the resources to get things done here in Asia.

Now that’s all gone. Obama’s no-show sends the opposite message, and projects an image of a shrunken America – of a paralysed president, and of a nation exhausted by its own internal battles. After all, how can a president who can’t keep his own government running – who can’t even get on a plane – lead the Asia-Pacific region into a new era of political and economic connectivity? How can a president with no money – because Congress won’t give him any – plausibly claim that the US will bolster its presence in Asia, or spearhead a new regional trade initiative? And given all that, how can a power so evidently in decline preserve the regional status quo in the face of the significant challenge posed by a rising China?

With Obama failing to turn up, unfavourable contrasts are inevitably being drawn with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has been on his own Southeast Asian tour this week, visiting Malaysia and Indonesia ahead of the dual summits.

Even then, the ball should still have been in Obama’s court. Whatever Xi achieves in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, the fact is that most Southeast Asian countries prefer the predictability of the US-backed status quo to the uncertainty of a new regional order centred on China. Some go further still: they fear China and her expanding influence. This is why most Southeast Asian governments have actively supported the US pivot, and why none have actively opposed it.

Leaders in Bangkok or Hanoi also appreciate that the vision of China’s rise to regional and global dominance, once so clear, has begun to blur. Bad debts, asset bubbles, black banks, inefficiency and corruption all threaten to rot the Chinese economy from the inside out – and that’s without even considering China’s exposure to political, social and environmental risk.

Beijing may yet find ways to overcome these challenges. But the point is this: as confidence in China wavers, the US had an opportunity – quite possibly its last – to rally the Asia-Pacific to its cause. But Obama needed to tell Asia to its face. His task was clear: to restate his vision – and convince us it’s the right vision, and one America still has the force to realize.

The moment has been lost. Obama’s centrepiece Asian foreign policy is now in limbo. From now on, when the President tells his Asia-Pacific counterparts, from half the world away, that his cash-strapped, dysfunctional government remains a reliable and fully engaged partner, why should they believe him?

China’s dark territorial secret

China has a dark secret concerning its territorial disputes with neighbouring countries that it clearly doesn’t want you to know about.

To keep that secret very well concealed, the Chinese government and its agencies have a policy of blanketing territorial issues in bad publicity and charmless displays of bravado. This approach is usually very effective in keeping us all distracted from the underlying truth.

Over the weekend, for example, China succeeded once again in portraying itself as the aggressor in its row with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, when two Chinese H-6 bombers flew way too close to Okinawa for Japanese comfort. It was a needless gesture of provocation.

But at least Japan can stand up for itself. In its ongoing territorial spat with the Philippines, by contrast, China usually ends up looking like a bullying power picking on a smaller country which lacks the military means to offer any serious resistance.

China is angry with the Philippines because the Philippine government elected earlier this year to refer the two countries’ dispute over Scarborough Shoal – a group of reefs and atolls in the South China Sea – to a UN tribunal. This move incensed Beijing, even though the Chinese government says it supports peaceful attempts to resolve disputes, and even though it has signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea under whose auspices the tribunal is being conducted. Peevishly, China has refused to take part.

To chasten the Philippines for its brazen attempt to reach a peaceful resolution under the terms of a mutual treaty, China has effectively adopted a new two-speed Southeast Asia policy: isolate and punish the Philippines, and be nice to the rest. This approach is a strategic own goal, by the way, because China’s victimisation of the Philippines only makes the other Southeast Asian states even more fearful of China than they were before.

Only last week, Philippine President Benigno Aquino tried to free up the locked diplomatic machinery by making the conciliatory gesture of signalling his intention to visit a trade fair in the southern Chinese city of Nanning; but Beijing told him he wasn’t welcome. Meanwhile, the Philippine government was releasing aerial photography of Scarborough Shoal showing around 30 concrete blocks sitting in the shallow water – a precursor to Chinese construction, Manila believes, in contravention of regional agreements barring new building in disputed territories.

So China, yet again, has deftly succeeded in framing itself as the bad guy. It’s steadily becoming harder and harder for the neutral observer to sympathise with China’s bluff gestures and provocative moves. In fact, they seem almost purposefully designed to court international disfavour, coming as they do with all the deliberation of a pantomime villain whose job is to make the audience boo and hiss.

Which is why it is so surprising, when you dig deeper into the historical and legal arguments of these territorial disputes, to uncover that dark and well-kept secret: that China actually has a good case in many of its territorial rows with other countries.

If an international tribunal were to rule today on the future of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, for example, it may well find in China’s favour because – to put a complex case very simplistically – the islands were probably administered from Taiwan long before Japan annexed them as unclaimed features.

But these arguments, strong though they are in China’s favour, are drowned out by the deafening blare of bad PR which Beijing instinctively prefers to emit. By insisting too forcefully that their case is “historically and legally indisputable”, rather than suggesting much more honestly that their “legal and historical case is actually pretty persuasive if you’d care to look at it”, Chinese government spokesmen time and again turn a strong forensic position into a losing argument in the court of international opinion.

In much the same way, China arguably has a decent case regarding Scarborough Shoal. Once again, this is a tiny fragment of what should be a long and nuanced conversation. But here’s one important element of the case: China publicised its claim to Scarborough Shoal in 1948, and it took the Philippines five whole decades to object and counter with a claim of its own. Prima facie, that strengthens China’s claim quite substantially.

It becomes hard to see this point, however, through the blizzard of negative publicity in which China shrouds its territorial disputes.

No-one can make a strong hand in a territorial dispute look a losing hand quite like the Chinese government. Whatever their strengths, these guys have a tin ear for global public opinion, and a crippling media blind spot. When the facts are (probably) on your side, you can afford to state your case calmly and confidently, and put your faith in the process – there’s no need to resort to punitive actions, threatening rhetoric, and dangerous provocations.

What a great shame, then, that China didn’t meet the Philippines head on at the UN tribunal. It might have won not only Scarborough Shoal, but also the good opinion of impartial observers, and the respect of its neighbours.

Instead, China has the Shoal, but not the other things.

Okinawa: the Scotland of Asia?

Some Okinawans feel they are in line for a shot at self-determination. Will Chinese interest help or hinder their cause?

A new flag flies in East Asia, as the Republic of Ryukyu becomes the world’s youngest sovereign state. Riding a wave of democratic independence movements that has already seen Catalonia, Quebec and Scotland calve from their respective countries, the people of Okinawa and its neighboring islands have just voted decisively in a referendum to break away from Japan.

The split has profound implications. In Tokyo, an embarrassed central government collapses, having failed to maintain the integrity of the Japanese state, and a period of political and economic turmoil ensues. The U.S. military, given three months to leave by the new national government in Naha, starts pulling back to its bases in Guam and the Japanese mainland, while Washington sets about rethinking its entire Asia-Pacific strategy. And the Okinawan administration, having inherited the Japanese claim to the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu, cedes the sea-rocks to China in return for a huge investment package from Beijing, which it says will kick-start its economy and guarantee its viability as a sovereign nation….

Rewind to July 2013, and the reality is an Okinawan independence movement that is a long way from achieving its goal. Though hardly new, it forever seems a nascent force only just setting out on a political journey that might yet lead nowhere….

You can read the rest of this story on The Diplomat here. I also wrote about Okinawa in my most recent op-ed for the South China Morning Post, in which I discussed the touching concern being displayed by Chinese commentators for Okinawa’s political status (link coming shortly).

America’s Pivot to Asia: a Report Card

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.

Predators, Reapers, Harpies, Pterodactyls … Is it any wonder people are scared?

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.

China’s embarrassing little friend

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.

The War That Can’t Happen

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….

Snakes, and other creatures

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.

Notes on some very small islands

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!

South China Sea – Hong Kong Bulletin

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.

On China’s military for Foreign Policy

Riding the Dragon

From the Norwegian Coast Guard to Israeli drone technicians, 8 surprising winners of China’s massive military buildup.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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You can read the rest of this story on Foreign Policy here.

SCMP Insight column

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.

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Open arms

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

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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.