Sunday, June 26, 2022

Lessons for Singapore: Ukraine, Chinese Narrative, and Influence on Singaporeans

[This was from March 11, 2022, with related commentaries/opinions from April and March 19. It had languished in draft for too long.]

In defending principle of sovereignty, the only side S’pore is taking is our own: Bilahari Kausikan

It's "dangerous" to think that Singapore shouldn’t take sides since it's a small country.

Bilahari Kausikan

March 11, 2022

COMMENTARY: It is wrong for big countries to try to subjugate small countries by force. By defending this international norm, the only side Singapore is taking is its own, retired diplomat Bilahari Kausikan opined.

Bilahari is chairman of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.

He was previously Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) from 2013 to 2018. Prior to this appointment, he was the Permanent Secretary of MFA from 2010 to 2013, and Second Permanent Secretary from 2001.

By Bilahari Kausikan

Nobody can read Putin’s mind. But I think whatever his goals may have been at the beginning of this war, they have surely changed by now.

Even if he had intended to move beyond Ukraine, that is now not on the cards. Putin has his hands full. Ukrainian resistance and the international response has been firmer and more widespread than Putin probably expected.

Moving beyond Ukraine would entail a direct confrontation with NATO and that is simply too dangerous. Putin’s announcement of a higher nuclear alert was a signal that he understood this reality and that Europe and the U.S. should not intervene directly.

Beyond the announcement it does not seem that Russia did anything to change the readiness of Russian nuclear forces. In any case, the U.S. has not changed its nuclear alert status. Nuclear deterrence will keep the peace between NATO and Russia, as it did during the Cold War, and contain the war to Ukraine.

But, tragically, the price of this peace will be Ukraine.

The West will supply Kyiv with weapons and give it political and diplomatic support, but the U.S. has ruled out the use of American or NATO forces to defend Ukraine or implement a no-fly zone. These are correct decisions.

Ukraine will be defeated eventually

The war is not going as well as Putin and his generals may have expected but without external intervention, the ultimate outcome is not in doubt. The Ukrainians are fighting heroically, but in the end the sheer mass of the Russian offensive will overwhelm them. It will not be an easy victory for Russia but a grinding and bloody war with heavy casualties on both sides.

How will the war end? When the invasion began on 24th February, there were two broad possibilities: the ‘Donbass solution’ i.e. the installation of a puppet government in Kyiv; and the ‘Crimea solution’ i.e. annexation.

Having failed to achieve a quick victory, politically Putin now needs a clear victory and a decisive victory. It is increasingly difficult for him to compromise without looking weak and looking weak is an outcome he cannot accept. Putin’s right to rule rests on his having restored Russia’s strength and the world’s respect for Russia’s strength or at least the perception of strength and respect. Now that his war is proving more difficult than expected and doubts have been raised about the competence of his military, Putin’s legitimacy to rule Russia is ultimately what is at stake for him in Ukraine.

After the bitterness of a bloody war, it is also difficult to conceive of any quisling government in Kyiv being able to rule without the direct support of Russian forces. So one way or another, even after the fighting stops, Ukraine will be under direct or indirect Russian occupation for the foreseeable future. Some sort of insurgency may develop under Russian occupation and Moscow cannot take Ukraine’s stability for granted.

What are the implications for the region?

This will have four broad geopolitical consequences.

First, Putin has succeeded where all post-Cold War American presidents have failed: he has got the Europeans to take their own defence seriously. Overnight, Germany doubled its defence budget and overcame its long-standing taboo on transfers of weapons. Even neutral Switzerland has joined sanctions. This is a new structural factor in international relations.

Second, Putin has reinvigorated the idea of ‘The West’ which after the Cold War had loosened considerably and was in some danger of decomposing entirely. As long as Ukraine remains under Russian occupation, the West generally, and Europe specifically, will continue to cohere, even if some internal strains eventually appear.

Third, Ukraine has underscored the importance of regional balances and the vital role of the U.S. in such regional balances. Anxieties about China had always made Asian countries more aware of this strategic reality than other regions, even if not every Asian country was prepared to say so explicitly.

This strategic reality is now evident in the Middle East and Europe as well. Everybody may have some reservations about the U.S., but nobody has any strategic alternative to the U.S. except subordination to China or Russia.

Fourth, Russia’s invasion and China’s refusal to express disapproval of it, will further complicate U.S.-China relations and sharpen the line between them. Some very superficial analysts have tried to propagate the idea that the West generally and the U.S. specifically, will be so distracted by Ukraine as to give China a free hand in Asia as happened during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

This is a shallow view. The U.S. has made clear that its forces will not get directly involved in Ukraine. For reasons, that I have just stated, the Europeans are at last beginning to pull their weight in defence. The U.S. will backstop European efforts, but this time it is China’s partner, Russia, not its rival, the U.S., that is at war and distracted.

What are the implications for China?

War in Ukraine has confronted China with three mutually irreconcilable objectives and placed Beijing in a dilemma.

First, China wants to preserve respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference as key norms of international relations. The reasons for this can be summarised in three words: Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan. The Russian invasion of Ukraine was a direct challenge to these norms.

Second, China wants to preserve its partnership with Russia because Beijing has no other partner anywhere with Russia’s strategic weight. Beijing and Moscow also share a common discomfort with a Western-oriented global order. China has not criticised Russia and I do not expect it to ever do so. Beijing hopes to play some role in brokering a ceasefire or a settlement, but China is not and cannot be a neutral party.

But at the same time, China is much more integrated into the global order than Russia and has benefited much more than Russia from that order.

Calling U.S.-China competition a "new Cold War" is fundamentally misleading. The U.S. and the Soviet Union led two separate systems that were only tangentially connected to each other. Their competition was between systems. The U.S. and China are both core components of a single global system and compete within this system. This is far more complicated than the binary competition of the Cold War.

The U.S. and China are connected to each other and other components of the global system by supply-chains of a scope and complexity that are unprecedented in history. Russia too is part of this system but apart from the energy market and certain commodities, it is a relatively peripheral economic player.

Chinese growth is already slowing for a variety of other reasons. With the 20th Party Congress scheduled for this autumn, the disruptions that a war in the heart of Europe are creating in an already fragile global recovery from the pandemic recession, must be of serious concern to Beijing. The watchword of the on-going "two sessions" (lianghui) is stability. Ukraine is the antithesis of stability.

Putin miscalculated and China followed him to a strategic dead-end

The third Chinese objective is to try and stabilise its relations with Europe and the U.S. as much as possible and, more crucially and immediately, avoid suffering collateral damage from sanctions directed at Russia.

This will be very difficult. Chinese netizens are still cheering Russia. Being subject to sanctions of an unprecedented scope, Russia has nowhere to turn to except China and whatever its reservations, I doubt Beijing can entirely spurn Russia without exposing the hollowness of the “no limits” partnership and raising inconvenient questions among its own people. Russia will become even more dependent on China, but this will be as much, or perhaps even more, a liability than an asset for Beijing.

Putin miscalculated, and China followed him down a strategic dead-end with no easy exit.

There is no neat or easy way for Beijing to reconcile these three objectives. Balancing these three objectives will be a distraction and a serious complication for China in its strategic competition with the U.S.

China is now walking a fine and precarious line. The U.S. and Europe will not cut China any slack in implementing sanctions against Russia. China is Russia’s largest trading partner. But Western markets are far more important to China than Russia, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

China’s efforts to become more self-reliant in key technologies or to rely more on domestic household consumption to drive growth, will not show significant results for a long time, if ever.

The Chinese and Western systems have bifurcated in some domains and we can expect more bifurcation, particularly in domains with security implications. But across-the-board separation of China’s economy from the rest of the world such as occurred between the U.S. and the Soviet Union is highly improbable.

China’s economic relations with every country will be closely scrutinised on two counts: U.S.-China relations, and also for compliance with Russia sanctions. This is something we in Singapore should bear in mind. Maintaining close defence and security relations with the West while having close economic ties with China is not impossible, but will become more complicated and will require greater alertness and agility from governments and businesses.

How does Russia's invasion affect China's plans towards Taiwan?

A few words about Taiwan: the argument that China will take advantage of U.S. distraction over Ukraine to attack Taiwan is just silly. The U.S. is not all that distracted and there is a strong bipartisan consensus on competition with China and growing sympathy and support for Taiwan.

The U.S. is not obliged to defend Taiwan just as it was not obliged to defend Ukraine. But the strategic and economic contexts of the two situations are entirely different. Taiwan is much more important.

Taiwan is a more important economy than Ukraine and a crucial node in the global supply-chain of semi-conductors. Failure to defend Taiwan will loosen and ultimately dissolve U.S. alliances with Japan, South Korea and Australia. Conversely, if America defends Taiwan, it will be very difficult for these American allies, in particular Japan, to stay aloof.

Beijing understands these fundamental differences between Ukraine and Taiwan. Chinese leaders are not going to confuse the two issues. A more resolute West must give China pause on Taiwan, as must the poor performance of Russia’s military and the strong international response to aggression.

Singapore must defend its own interests

A final word on Singapore’s interests. A line that I observe is beginning to be propagated, I think deliberately, is that as a small country, Singapore should not take sides. This is a pernicious and dangerous argument that seeks to instil a fatalistic sense of helplessness in small countries.

The norm of international behaviour that is at stake in Ukraine is of existential importance to small countries: that it is wrong for big countries to try to subjugate small countries by naked force and that there will be costs to such aggression.

Is it so difficult to understand why this is crucially important to Singapore? In defending this norm, the only ‘side’ we are taking is our own side, in our own interest.

Singapore exists because in the very dire circumstances that we found ourselves after Aug. 9, 1965, our people and leaders refused to accept that we were helpless. If we lose the will and courage to do what we can to support our own interests, our future will indeed be very bleak.

Tommy Koh concerned about S'poreans' acceptance of Russian-Chinese narrative of Ukraine war

Koh also said small countries cannot be neutral over violations of the UN Charter.

Matthias Ang (Mothership)

April 08, 2022

Tommy Koh, the former Singapore Ambassador to the United Nations and current Ambassador-at-large, has voiced his concerns about the acceptance shown by "so many" Singaporeans for the Russian-Chinese narrative of the war in Ukraine.

Russian-Chinese narrative blaming NATO for war is "without facts"

In a Facebook post put up on Apr. 8, he noted that many of them blamed the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) for the war and added that this is a narrative "without merit".

Koh wrote: "The truth is that Ukraine has been an independent country since 1991. Russia recognised Ukraine’s independence and supported it’s application to join the UN."

Koh's views were put forth in an op-ed published by The Straits Times on the same day.

In it, he also elaborated that the Russian-Chinese narrative of blaming NATO for the war is "without facts" as there is no law or principle which forbids Russia's neighbours from joining NATO, and that they are free and sovereign countries that can chart their own paths.

In addition, Russia also signed a document in 1999, known as the Istanbul Document of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which acknowledged Ukraine's right to determine its own security arrangements.

Russia therefore has no right to interfere in the decisions of its neighbours and NATO is not to be blamed, Koh said.

"The fact that they were once ruled by Russia does not mean that they will have to live forever under the domination of Russia," he wrote on Facebook.

Rather, the issue is that Russia has not yet accepted the loss of its empire, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), he said.

Small countries cannot be neutral over violations of the UN Charter

Koh also addressed another argument enjoying some support on local social media, which is that Singapore should remain neutral in the conflict and not impose sanctions on Russia because it is a small country.

Here, Koh said small countries need the protection of the United Nations (UN) Charter principle and international law more than big countries.

Small countries must make themselves heard when these principles are violated, he added.

In citing Singapore's own stance, Koh highlighted how Singapore had spoken up over Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia, the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S. invasion of Grenada.

Koh also quoted Singapore's first foreign minister, the late S. Rajaratnam on neutrality, noting that "non-alignment" only applied to "narrow power bloc interests" and not the UN Charter.

Should neutrality be the stance taken over violations of the UN Charter, this will destroy the integrity of the UN.

Neutrality, therefore, cannot be the stance regarding the "basic tenets" of this charter, Koh concluded.

S'poreans are 'handicapped in addressing disinformation' such as Chinese propaganda: academics

A segment of Singapore's population is receptive to dissemination of the Chinese narrative.

Matthias Ang (Mothership)

March 19, 2022

From around 2012, China has been making a concerted effort to push its national narrative outward to the rest of the world, tapping on anti-imperialist and anti-U.S. sentiments, Associate Professor Chong Ja Ian from the National University of Singapore (NUS) Political Science Department said on Mar. 17.

A segment of Singapore's population receptive to the propaganda barrage by China

Speaking at a panel titled "A World Divided – International Conflicts and Contending Loyalties in Singapore", Chong added that the narrative also includes an emphasis on Chinese culture and ethnic pride, which has been conflated with both China itself and the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The world is currently receiving a "barrage" of this narrative and within Singapore, there is a certain segment of Singapore that is responsive to it, he noted.

Chong said:

"Some of it has to do with the constant refrain that we should be cautious of the West, that we are Asian and so this CCP claim that it represents Asia and a certain idea of pan-Asianism, that finds fertile ground with those groups."

In addition, there are also those who are sympathetic to the view that the U.S. is hypocritical.

Another group consists of people who feel they have "very unfairly treated" by Singapore's own policies towards Chinese schools, training, and education in the past.

The rise of China therefore validates their beliefs, he added.

Who are the people who might be receptive to such propaganda?

Linda Lim, a Singaporean economist at the University of Michigan gave two examples of groups who have a vested interest in making Singapore more Chinese-focused, and moving it away from its Western orientation.

One group is a "very large number" of new Chinese immigrants in Singapore, Lim said.

Lim said:

"All new immigrants have ties to their home country. In this particular case, I think that the new Chinese immigrants in Singapore haven't had to cut ties to their own country, right? I mean, because it's there, they have very close business relationships. This is advantageous. And there's so many of them in Singapore, that they don't really need to integrate into the rest of society.

They have their own associations, they have even social media platforms that basically are allied with, if not funded by, the Chinese state and exist to spread things of interest to (the) Chinese émigré population, which includes Chinese state views."

Lim clarified that while she was not saying they were disloyal to Singapore, her point was that many immigrants hold double loyalties, whether these are Singaporean immigrants in the U.S. or Chinese immigrants here.

"Most of them come to Singapore because they have been told by their own state this is a Chinese country we can go to and also because they go for economic interest," she said.

"Their own economic interest will take precedence," she added.

As for the second group, Lim said that these are Singapore-based businesses with extensive networks and investments in China.

Such business interests will be very strong and opposed to any antagonism in China, Lim said.

She summarised the thinking of these businesses as such:

"A big part of my money is in China. The Chinese state does not have to tell me to do anything; I know where my interests are. And my interests are in supporting Chinese views in my own home country in Singapore or wherever else in Southeast Asia."

Lim also clarified that this was purely in the interest of business and did not necessarily mean political support for China's policies in Xinjiang for instance.

In giving an example of her point, Lim pointed out that during China's dispute with South Korea over the deployment of American anti-missile THAAD system in 2017, small and medium-sized Singaporean business in China were also pressured into opposing South Korea, even though Singapore was not directly involved in the issue.

But what is being pushed out is a "very skewed version" of the Chinese mind

It is therefore important to note, especially for Singaporeans who are receptive to Chinese opinion-makers as the more "culturally appropriate reference point," that what Singapore is receiving is a "very skewed version" of the Chinese mind, the panel's moderator, Singaporean media academic Cherian George, highlighted.

This is due to censorship in China which has resulted in the circulation of mostly jingoistic content rather than more reasonable or critical views, he said.

In addition, part of the effectiveness of Chinese propaganda in Singapore lies in how it does not just sell the "supreme wisdom" of the CCP, but also goes on the offensive, by pointing out how the West is no better.

George added, "So the propaganda we're receiving, I think many Singaporeans don't even realize that it is coming from China. It's not branded as something from a Chinese source, just that they appreciate the West being shown the finger."

As for the sensitivity and strong reaction by the mainland Chinese towards criticism of China, Chong said that this is likely due to the way the CCP has constructed the Chinese state.

"Like many other authoritarian states, they tend not to be as accepting of criticism, right? So they need to show how strong they are. So when there is criticism or perceived slights, there's a sort of strong response to it. That's part of it."

Other more nuanced elements, according to Chong, include more autonomy in Hong Kong which is seen by the Chinese state as unacceptable, along with the view of Taiwan as a separate entity, and humans rights issues in Xinjiang and Tibet.

Chong also highlighted the ban on Winnie the Pooh as an example of the absurd lengths of the CCP's reactions to slights.

The cartoon character is censored in China when used in political contexts, such as comparisons to the country's president.

One should not overreact to such extreme opinions

Both Chong and George were echoed by Kanti Bajpai, a professor from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) who cautioned:

"The one thing not to do is to overreact. I mean, on social media, you're going to get the most extreme opinions, stated in the most extreme and provocative terms because the nature of the medium is, that that's the way it works."

Inflammatory opinions should therefore not be met with equally inflammatory responses, Bajpai added.

He pointed out that with the exception of "deeply-controlled" societies, such opinions will also be met with pushback from other sources.

"There will be a kind of almost inevitable check-and-balance going on," he said.

However, that does not mean the matter should be left as it is.

Rather, Bajpai clarified, "Let's not despair about voices coming out from all kinds of levels and agencies and so on. Let's not think that the general public are without intelligence and critical dispositions."

Walid Jumblatt Abdullah, an associate professor at the Nanyang Technological University School of Social Sciences, also highlighted that one could be critical of both Western double standards and hypocrisy, on Iraq and the military industrial complex, while also acknowledging Russia's aggression.

He said:

"In fact, if you are really against the military industrial complex, you really should hate (Russian President Vladimir) Putin because Russia has given the military industrial complex all the justification for its expansion that is going to be needed in the next 10 to 20 years."

Singaporeans are handicapped in addressing disinformation

Here, Chong said that the dissemination of the Chinese narrative had highlighted two issues.

The first is that Singaporeans have been conditioned to not be very critically-minded.

This means that Singaporeans tend to see issues in terms of dispositions such as "U.S. bad, West bad, China good," he said.

This results in a blurring of distinction for how a country acts, given that both the U.S. and China can act in both good and bad ways, Chong elaborated.

In turn, Singaporeans are uncomfortable in having more open discussions and sharper debates over the actions of these countries which handicaps their ability in addressing the disinformation which is coming across, he said.

The second issue is that Singaporeans do not have a strong and clear sense of political values.

Singaporeans therefore tend not to hold those in power to a certain set of standards, he said.

With a clearer of political values and standards, it provides a marker.

Chong explained, "Based on what we believe as a society, how do we then measure what the U.S. is doing or what the PRC (China) is doing?"

Without this, Singaporeans will start latching onto dispositions rather than the reality of the situation.

"A lot of this has to do with education, and media literacy, which we really need to work on, but really haven't so far," Chong concluded.

Education is key to the gap in the skills of Singaporeans in addressing disinformation

Chong's point was echoed by Lim who said that while there was no cause for alarm, the disinformation pushed by Chinese propaganda has shown that Singaporeans are "definitely deficient" in critical thinking.

Lim added that Singapore was handicapped by not having any "independent, professional media" or enough venues for rigorous analysis of such disinformation, resulting in these matters being pushed into "anonymous WhatsApp chats."

Education is therefore key in addressing these matters with students needing to challenge each other in the classroom, she said.

"I think in Singapore, we've had a paucity of discourse that has all these different points of view. Once we go through all these different points of view, argue amongst ourselves...then we can be much more secure in our views," she added.

"Criticism is a positive contribution to knowledge and to policy-making. And I think the fact that we have tended in Singapore to suppress criticism, actually is the one thing that makes us most vulnerable to disinformation," she said.

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