Xi’s history lessons
The Communist Party is plundering history to justify its present-day ambitions
Aug 15th 2015 | From the print edition
US Ambassador Philip Goldberg made this statement during sidelights of the turnover ceremonies of eight brand-new Bell-412EPs combat utility helicopters and two attack versions of the AgustaWestland AW-109Es Monday at Villamor Air Base, Pasay City.
In the West, it is often said that Asians are a different bunch, that they conduct diplomacy in a more subtle fashion -- disguising their differences under the veil of cultural solidarity and burgeoning economic ties. I vividly recall the 'guidelines' forwarded to me by a prominent American think tank ahead of a major conference hosted in an Asian capital.
In a politely Orientalist fashion, the participants, particularly those from the West, were encouraged to be circumspect and courteous in expressing their views, to hold the business cards of their Asia counterparts with two hands (instead of one) to exhibit respect, and maintain utmost collegiality in their interactions with their Asian hosts (i.e., don't be too frank and open), even when the topic at hand was as contentious as, say, nuclear proliferation or maritime security.
As Francis Fukuyama explains in his critically-acclaimed book The Origins of Political Order, across the Sino-sphere, which covers Asia's most dynamic economies, Confucianism -- a philosophical tradition that sidelined 'legalism' as the enduring state ideology of Imperial (and post-Mao) China -- always emphasized the importance of amicable and ethically-inspired resolution of disputes instead of, say, confrontational litigation or brute force.
In the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has a significant Muslim population, the emphasis is on consensus-building and consultation, drawing on Islam's age-old tradition of deliberative/consultative governance, embodied by the concept of Shura.
In recent years, however, the veneer of Asian exceptionalism has been decisively shattered by a particularly bitter, acrimonious, and openly hostile relationship between China and Philippines over a whole host of disputed rocks, atolls, islands and fishers and hydrocarbon resources in the South China Sea. Slowly but surely, Asian territorial disputes have become as hostile as inter-state disputes among Western countries in the past and Middle Eastern nations in more recent times.
And it's becoming clear, as realist scholars like John Mearsheimer have been warning for years, that a rising China will probably not be substantially different in terms of its ambitions and behavior from other revisionist states in the past. An explosion of nationalist fervor among Asian claimant states hasn't helped either. A prosperous region is now sleepwalking into conflict.
Thai plan to buy China subs has US on edge - August 15, 2015
China showcased its Xia-class nuclear submarine at an international fleet review in April. © Kyodo
BANGKOK -- For any nation, deciding which country to purchase military weapons from is no insignificant matter. In fact, it can greatly affect national strategy.
Thailand recently unveiled a plan that underscores this and which has stirred concerns in the U.S. and Japan.
In early July, the Royal Thai Navy said it planned to buy three submarines from China for a total of 36 billion baht ($1.02 billion). The Southeast Asian country has been shopping around for submarines in recent years as it has exactly zero such vessels in its fleet.
Initially, the Thai government considered buying subs from U.S. allies, such as South Korea or Germany. So its decision to change tack and buy from China caught the U.S. off guard.
Washington regards Thailand as a strategically important player in Southeast Asia and has therefore been keen to carry out exchanges with the Thai military. That is reflected in the annual Cobra Gold multilateral exercise, in which the two countries have played a leading role since 1982. Cobra Gold now involves more than 20 countries and has become one of the largest military exercises in the region.
Sounding the alarm
A nervous U.S. has warned that purchasing China-made subs would significantly increase the influence of the Chinese military on its Thai counterpart. Critics in Thailand have also questioned the deal. In the face of such doubts, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, who doubles as defense minister, indicated on July 15 that the government was putting the decision temporarily on hold. That does not mean, however, that Bangkok has canceled the plan.
There has, in fact, been a certain amount of cooperation between the Thai and Chinese militaries. The Thai military has traditionally poured more resources into the army, which is why it is has been rushing to bolster its underdeveloped navy. That includes buying six warships from China in the 1990s.
But purchasing submarines is a different matter. The U.S. regards the vessels as valuable leverage against China. A former senior U.S. government official said submarines, not aircraft carriers or other vessels that can easily succumb to missile attacks, will play a greater role in U.S. strategy toward China. "Submarine strength will significantly impact the balance of military power between the U.S. and China in Asia," the official said.
If Thailand procures subs from China, the countries' military relationship could go far beyond short-term cooperation.
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Although not the first or only country to dredge up sand to expand reefs and rocks into artificial islands in the region, the scope and scale of China's land reclamation activities dwarf those of its rival claimants, the report on Asia-Pacific Maritime Strategy said.
"China has now reclaimed 17 times more land in 20 months than the other claimants combined over the past 40 years, accounting for approximately 95 percent of all reclaimed land in the Spratly Islands," the report said.
It has reclaimed land on seven of its eight outposts in the Spratlys, "and as of June 2015, had reclaimed more than 2,900 acres of land."
On all its reclamation sites, China has either started building infrastructure or staged equipment to develop it.
Air Force fuel bill soaring, says COA
By Rio N. Araja | Aug. 24, 2015 at 12:01am
The Philippine Air Force in 2014 incurred a fuel bill that for the first time exceeded the billion-peso mark, according to the Commission on Audit.
CoA’s latest expense report said the Air Force spent P1,011,460,009.91 last year, which was up by 12.88 percent from P896.08 million in 2013.
“This is the first time that PAF exceeded the billion-peso mark in its ‘fuel, oil, and lubricants (FOL) expenses’ although it came close in 2012 when it spent P922,692,000 for the same item previously listed in audit as ‘gas, oil, and lubricants (GOL)’,” the COA report stated.
The PAF’s 2014 FOL cost was the highest among the three branches of service in the military with the Philippine Navy coming in second at P878,358,228.62, followed by the Philippine Army at P425,739,893.95.
The Air Force, Army and Navy spent a combined total of P2.316 billion, CoA said.
With the delivery of additional aircraft and acquisition of more naval transport and patrol vessels in 2015 and 2016, the figure could go higher, sources said.
In 2012, Philippine Navy topped the billion-peso mark at P1.292 billion on GOL for that year.
Also in that same year, the three branches posted the biggest total expenditure on GOL.
Based on CoA’s figures, the Air Force had the biggest fuel bill in the last three years of P2.83 billion, followed closely by the Navy with P2.758 billion, and the Army with P1.467 billion.
China has grabbed Philippine satellite slot in space!
Thinking about this, I asked Maria how many years of history she
thought the Chinese restaurant had. Surely it had to go back further
than the eighteenth century—but how far? Not missing a beat, she
answered with confidence, “Five thousand years.”
The Chinese government liked to promote the idea that China
had a history of 5,000 years. This much I knew, but it seemed rather
unlikely that restaurants appeared at the very dawn of Chinese civilization. Instead of challenging her on the notion, I asked another
“What about chopsticks?”
“Five thousand years.”
The stern look on Maria’s face told me that she was dead serious.
It was as if she imagined, five millennia ago, some Chinese Abraham
had arrived on the scene, chopsticks in hand, and said, “Show me to
the nearest noodle shop.”
No culture came about in such a fashion; a people did not spring
up from nothingness and then remain static over thousands of years,
and yet Chinese people held on to such notions. The Chinese of today
are, of course, unlike the Chinese of the third millennium bc, and
indeed, are far less like their ancestors of just a couple of centuries ago.
That the Chinese saw themselves and their history as immutable
was especially ironic, given how fast the place was changing.
I wanted to talk more about restaurants, but Maria did not. The
whole point of saying “5,000 years” was to shut down the discussion
before it even began.
If any people should know how much their own history has
reflected significant change, it is the Chinese, who kept meticulous
records for over two thousand years. Fast forward to the twenty-first
century, though, and everything is the same as it ever was. This was
in and of itself a sign of how different things had become under
Modern Chinese were dogmatic when it came to the issue of
history, treating the subject more like a religion—and to some extent,
that is what it was to them.
The function of a religion is to supply multigenerational groups
with an explanation of where they have come from and where they
are going. It also provides a moral code of conduct. “Religion” comes
from the Latin word religio meaning to bind together, and its purpose
throughout the ages has been to help groups stay tight, in part through
distinguishing a distinct in-group from a separate out-group.
Chinese history provided just such a framework for its people,
and, like a religion, it came with a prepackaged messianic concept.
Like a prophecy that awaited fulfillment, there were preconditions. In
China’s case, this includes the reunification of its splintered territories.
It was the reason that it was almost impossible to have any kind of
reasonable discussion with people from Mainland China on the subject
of Taiwan or Tibet. Chinese didn’t know what exactly was going to
happen when all the pieces of the geographic puzzle were conjoined;
they only knew that something grand would happen—that it must
Maria was not bothered by my interest in discussing touchy subjects, or in expressing contrary views. Zealots are rarely ever weakened
by disbelievers; in fact, they are encouraged by them. On the subject
of China’s history, Maria welcomed my skepticism as an opportunity
to strengthen her own faith. It was, for better or worse, the primary
dynamic in our relationship—the cynic and the patriot.
It was from one of these disturbing dreams that I awoke in my
hotel room and went to the bathroom only to discover that the toilet
was not working. The hotel had five stars. It was among the finest in
The front desk manager arrived with two colleagues—a boy in a
work shirt and a woman from housekeeping. The three stood in the
bathroom considering the toilet, while I waited in my room. They
were concentrating hard on the problem, like a group of aerospace
engineers attempting to work out a design flaw on a manned space
I could hear them murmuring from just outside the doorway,
and I listened as they worked the lever of the toilet. After some
time, they emerged from the bathroom, and the front desk manager
announced that they were finished. She said that the issue had been
The three hotel employees were about to disappear down the hall
when I felt the hairs rise up on the back of my neck. It was a sensation
that I had come to associate with imminent regret, a locally developed
instinct. I asked them to wait a moment.
The three of them froze, while I went into the bathroom. The
front desk manager tiptoed in after me. “What’s the matter?” she
asked, her voice sounding meek.
I jiggled the lever of the toilet, but there was no response.
“It doesn’t work,” I said.
She made a face that showed disappointment and bewilderment,
as though she had managed to get the toilet to work just a moment
before and that it had decided by itself to stop functioning again. She
pressed the lever, and focused her concentration. The toilet made a
loud hissing sound.
“You see?” she said. “It does work.”
The toilet made a noise, but it was not exactly the sound of
flushing water. It clearly did not work, and I told her so.
While we were both looking at the same problem, she was simply
choosing not to see it. More than that, it seemed, she was hoping that I
would share her view. Most of her disappointment, it seemed, was reserved for me, because I would not entertain her own version of reality.
I went through the exact same situation with Chinese manufacturers.
The four of us entered into a discussion on the
definition of a working toilet. Was a toilet that made only noise
considered a working toilet or a broken one? The front desk manager
said that, while I had a point in suggesting that the toilet might be
malfunctioning, I had to admit that it was not completely broken.
She had an opinion that was partially based on logic, and it was
pointless to refute her view.
In order to move things forward, there was nothing to do but to
concede the point. The toilet was not completely broken I admitted,
and this concession seemed to satisfy her—for the moment at least.
Chinese manufacturers pulled the same move. They wanted an
importer to admit that a problem was not all that bad, if only because
it shored up their negotiating position. Problems that were seen as less
serious required less attention and fewer resources. It was a preemptive
move. If we all agreed that the problem was not so serious, then when
the problem was blown off, or if it later was determined that it could
not be fixed, then it was also seen as less of a failure.
After a few minutes, they emerged from the bathroom, and the
front desk manager admitted now that there was no change with
things. She then politely asked me if it would be possible for me to
accept the situation as it was.
Accept the situation?
This was another move that I was familiar with from my work
in the factories. There was hardly a mess that needed fixing that
someone did not first attempt to get the importer to accept. The
appeal was always an emotional one, and when it was directed at me,
the suggestion was that I let it slide “for the sake of our relationship.”
It made logical sense to pursue the option anyway. If someone
presented you with a problem and you could convince that person to
accept the situation as unresolved, did it not have the same effect as
fixing the problem itself?
When it came to problem solving, Westerners often wanted answers to silly questions, such as “What is the cause of this problem
exactly?” and “What are the options?”
Asked to accept the broken toilet, the ball was now in my court.
The pressure was on me. Having been asked politely to withdraw my
request for a repair, I was reminded of suppliers who took the same
approach to basic quality problems. In a polite world, when someone
asked you for a favor, the underlying expectation was that you would
understand and comply.
“What’s the problem exactly?” I asked. It was the sort of question
meant to elicit information. It was not meant to be an accusation, or
an insinuation of any sort, but it was apparently the wrong button to
push at the wrong time. I was not prepared for what happened next.
The front desk manager’s tone changed in a sudden flash, and this
time she minced no words.
“It is very strange, don’t you think?”
“That your toilet is broken.”
She raised an eyebrow at me.
“We have many rooms in this hotel, as you know.”
“And only yours is broken.”
The manager waited for me to absorb her suggestion, and I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes.
“I did not break your toilet,” I said.
“Oh? Are you sure?”
She looked smug, and I found myself now on the defensive.
We had wasted the better part of an hour, and I now wondered:
How did we get here? One moment, the manager showed up at my room,
bright eyed and acting as though she would bend over backwards to
help solve this problem. The next moment, claws were out, and it
looked as though I might now get billed for damages.
Customer service had come a long way in China, but some instincts died hard. The Cultural Revolution ingrained certain survival
skills in people, one of which had to do with defending oneself against
perceived face loss. The answer when threatened was to strike back
fast and hard, and not to relent until the threatening party retreated.
If someone might cause you trouble, you had to get them to back
off—at all costs. Face was an important concept across Asia, but in
no other territory around the region was it combined so much with
That all of this was happening in a five-star hotel made no difference. We were still in China, a country that had a long cultural
tradition, one that had only recently emerged from a period of political turmoil.
From other experiences, I knew that the smallest incident in
China could snowball into an utter mess, and a simple apology was
not necessarily going to reverse the current situation. I needed to get
us back on track as quickly as possible, and making a show of weakness
through an apology was not exactly the best response.
“Is this a five-star hotel?” It was a question meant to dig me out
of a hole.
“Of course it is,” the manager said, in a tone that suggested—
Trying to sound as polite as possible, I asked whether the manager
believed that a five-star hotel ought to have rooms with functioning
toilets. It was a small piece of logic, one that could not be so easily
dismissed or twisted around. Maybe she saw the point I was trying
to make, or maybe she understood from my tone that I was not
purposefully trying to ruin her.
The front desk manager’s demeanor changed again—another
switching of channels—and this time she appeared more like a little girl asking for my forgiveness. She offered me a number of excuses
for why the toilet didn’t work. The reasons were random and one had
nothing to do with the other. The least plausible of them was that
my room was located on an upper floor and so there was not enough
water pressure for the toilet to function properly.
Basically, I was welcome to choose whichever explanation I liked
best, and this was also no different from what happened at the factories.