Cadence of Conflict: Asia, July 17, 2017

South Korea proposed to talk to North Korea this week. Much of the timing relates to anniversaries and upcoming holidays. Pyongyang is still angry about twelve waitresses who moved South and wants them back first. Seoul says the waitresses moved to the South of their own will. The US’ answer is a siege, including efforts to persuade Myanmar to curb their support for the North through arms purchases, as well as planned sanctions against Chinese banks that deal with the North.

Sanctions are a known form of pressure, but an invitation to talk is also a form of pressure because a rejection is bad press and raises public support for action from opposing countries. Pressure is mounting and North Korea will either deescalate quickly or else one wrong move will be the only excuse the US needs to yank the lynch pin.

China faces it’s own pressure, military, optics, and time, which is running out. Taiwan’s Navy is increasing cooperation with the US in a move included in the US military budget for 2018. Southern Taiwan is also beefing-up its naval base to handle both more traffic and more capacity. The upgrade should finish around 2025.

As for optics, Human Rights activists are managing to rally loads of bad international press against China. One activist died of a liver disease he acquired while serving an eleven-year term in China. Another was released after finishing a four-year prison sentence in China. A bookstore from Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay that was shut down will reopen in Taipei. The bookstore closed after its owners were arrested relating to activism about Human Rights and China.

While most international press paints China as the culprit, the more important matter is the surprise this is for the Chinese. In the West, bad press is countered with photo ops. In China, bad press is countered with imprisonment. A bookstore in Hong Kong was a way to spread ideas to Chinese nationals visiting Hong Kong from the mainland. China views itself as trying to help the people; criticism can’t be “constructive” by definition and must therefore be silenced. But, that method only works in one’s own territory.

Protests in Hong Kong gain attention from international press China does not control. By shutting down a bookstore in Hong Kong, that bookstore moved to a location farther from Beijing’s reach and where it can gain more international press, sacrificing its ability to spread propaganda into China. This is backfiring against China internationally, but not at home. Most international news analysis won’t include that China doesn’t expect it to happen that way. The Chinese genuinely believe that Xi Jinping’s “protestless” visit to Hong Kong is good press and the only press that matters.

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Cadence of Conflict: Asia, July 3, 2017

China views Hong Kong as a doorstep between the world and largely otherwise closed China. This week, investment highways opened, allowing easier offshore investments in China’s bond market. At the same time, the world gets a glimpse into Chinese dealing through Hong Kong. Like the proverbial cat chasing the laser pointer dot—who never figures out what’s going on—Western culture’s action and interpretation will always confound the Chinese.

As the West believes, if you want to change the world map, you must ask the world’s permission first. It’s even the law China is bound to as a member of the UN. But, in Chinese culture, whoever makes an assertive move first will automatically scare everyone else in the room to ignore any other decorum, rules, or even laws, and accept the assertive party as the emperor of the room for the time being. Building artificial islands, installing military airport equipment, and telling everyone else to “GTFO” means the US should either be scared, or at least quickly attack. But, the calm, casual response of the US Navy, such as to have the lone destroyer USS Stethem conduct a “man overboard drill”, confuses and confounds the expected “cultural tidal gravity” of the Chinese.

The move wasn’t just provocative, as Beijing claims; it was an outright declaration of everything inches short of war.

Taiwan had its own waters incident. While the Chinese refurbished aircraft carrier—the Soviet era diesel-powered Ukraine-made carrier purchased by the Chinese to be no more than a “floating museum”—sailed through the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan-owned F-16s scrambled to shadow the voyage. But, parading a diesel aircraft carrier is not any show of strength in the mind of the US, but a show of unaware weakness yet also a show of progress and a “coming of age” psychology not to be ignored.

At least, that’s the perception.

South Korea’s new and moderate president met with Trump. What they met to talk about doesn’t matter as much as the fact that they met to talk. Moon thinks negotiation with Pyongyang is the answer. Reportedly, 77% of his people agree with him. He won’t back down on military, but he won’t expand it either. No one will accept status quo anymore.

So, money opened up this week in Asia and waking waters met more objection. The only reunification on the horizon is on a large peninsula just left of Japan.

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Cadence of Conflict: Asia, June 26, 2017

The big favor the US is about to ask from China about Korea is simple: Time’s up, stay out of our way. The Kim Dynasty keeps a sharp eye on information and a sharp sword at the throat of those well informed, be they informants or informees. China has not yet made a final decision on returning five Korean refugees to the North. The US still holds vigil, reckoning the length of its own patience, not only with the Koreas, but with any nations and leaders who haven’t done more to help. Resolve and wrath are swelling. This is the ultra-low tide before the tsunami.

The USS Fitzgerald’s collision with a freighter looks more and more suspicious, best explained as a semi truck trying to run over a motorcycle cop. The Fitzgerald managed to get whacked at just the right place and time so that few sailors witnessed and satellite phones made the only call for help. The ACX Crystal lingered all through the oceans until sunrise. At least, that’s what reports look like this week.

The whole thing smells “fishy”. We know that Filipinos generally dislike Americans and Chinese. They thirst for respect and independence and they are out of whatever patience they had. Xenophobia is a plausible motive on the culprit cargo ship flagged “Philippines”. Since the developing and contradicting reports don’t provide anything clearer, that’s the best explanation for the time being and the most benign explanation imaginable—unless the autopilot AI “dunnit”. Keep watch. When the verdict breaks the news the headlines will break the silence.

Taiwan is commissioning its own helicopter forces and it doesn’t look like Beijing will be extending any invitations to house the helicopters on the man-made islands in the South Sea. Meanwhile, Xi Jinping is headed to Hong Kong. Great efforts are being made to remove so much anti-China sentiment. 9,000 police will be dispatched. British newspapers are burning through ink and paper to tell the news. Xi Jinping is not to see anything less than the greatest praise for all China has done for Hong Kong on the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s own release from Britain. Authorities are working overtime to take all the many steps necessary to achieve the mountainous and historic task of ensuring so. Rest assured, it will happen. China will reach its great goal of a tour in Hong Kong without dissent.

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Cadence of Conflict: Asia, June 19, 2017

The big danger brewing in the Pacific this week was not about who was right and wrong, but about optics and perspective.

American college student Otto Warmbier came back from North Korea in a kind of coma. Almost every news story about Otto provides some background of his arrest and sentencing for taking a North Korean government poster one year ago.

North Korea mentioned “botulism” having preceded Otto’s situation. American doctors found “no sign” thereof. While doctors verify details, Otto’s situation of “nonresponsive wakefulness” has to do with levels of brain damage caused by lack of oxygen from the lungs, usually caused by traumatic injury or intoxication. In other words, it could look like Otto was beaten or poisoned, but news outlets can’t confirm this, so they won’t say it. But, that’s how bad it looks.

And, this is the big problem. There is nothing North Korea can say—even if it is true—to stop the West from being more enraged every time Otto is mentioned.

Taiwan is pursuing it’s desire for official recognition in the world and normal relations with China. This is different from the pursuits of China and the Philippines for respect; both have recognition. Taiwan has international respect, but lacks recognition as a legitimate country. Right or wrong lies in the opinion of the beholder. But, right or wrong, Taiwan isn’t going to stop pushing. The threat to China is that China consciously seeks the respect that it knows Taiwan already has.

Now, the  USS Fitzgerald was broadsided from starboard at night. Ships as sea are supposed to yield to approaching vessels on the right, as with road vehicles at a four-way stop.

Why wasn’t someone watching? Why didn’t proximity alarms wake the crew and prevent collision? Is the superior-tech US Navy ready for a confrontation with China? Most of the crew was asleep at the time. Seven are dead. The collision happened right where they were sleeping. Sailors woke up to find the ship taking on water.

Let’s just say that sailors woke up. In fact, the whole Navy woke up. The world is already waking up to everything going on.

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Cadence of Conflict: Asia, June 5, 2017

At this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, China sent a lower-ranking delegation than in years past. Previously, China’s representative was a deputy chief from Joint Staff; this year Beijing sent a lieutenant general. India did not attend.

US Defense Secretary Mattis commented that China’s man-made islands undermine stability and that China has contempt for other nations’s interests and disregards international law. As expected, China took exception, calling the remarks “irresponsible”.

More interesting were the responses of the under dogs…

Small players know they are in a tug of war between the US and China over who has rights to which waters. Malaysia’s main reported talking points seemed to be on regional safety and rule of law. When Malaysia’s Defense Minister commented that a China-only “code” would not prevent all clashes, China’s lieutenant general rebutted with a question of what a “perfect code” would look like.

This is telling. It becomes more and more clear how China views itself in these talks, as a lieutenant general among ministers and rebutting Malaysia as one would a peer. China is clearly withdrawing, responding to the international community as already being an outcast. While the West and the press have tried to paint China as the villain, much more so than may be appropriate, China’s response only perpetuates that view among Western taxpayers and now smaller players in China’s back yard.

A group affiliated with Taiwan’s Association of University Professors are calling for Taiwan’s president to declare Taiwan’s sovereignty. This comes in the over-lapping contexts of regional talks and the ongoing situation of China having arrested Taiwanese human rights advocate Lee Ming-che (李明哲). The group called for Taiwan to boycott some upcoming talks with China to make a point to the international community.

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