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Monday, Dec 09, 2019 - 00:56 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

The Geopolitical Brief

Before entering into the A.I. hype proper, it seems apropos to mention Huawei's opening of a research lab at Changi Business Park, with the explicit intention of "cultivating a thousand talents". Which may, you know, be a direct reference to the aforementioned "Thousand Talents" programme identified as having established clandestine "shadow labs" back in China as a destination for siphoned foreign expertise, including possibly Magic Leap hardware (though it seems to have just been superseded by the "National High-end Foreign Expert Recruitment Plan" earlier this year). They're not even being subtle about marking territory right now!

The real and present risk here is that of eventually being cut adrift from the American tech ecosystem, what with the U.S. making all the expected noises - they've banned Huawei for a period, to begin with, alongside going as far as to inform their closest allies such as the United Kingdom to drop Huawei or lose their intelligence ties. Private firms and professional organizations haven't been spared the decoupling either, with IEEE banning Huawei reviewers for a time, and Google's former coziness also unraveling fast. As The Guardian has it, the struggle over Huawei isn't really about technology; it is about whether China or the US is to be master.

Just to clarify a couple of points here: it's true that the U.S. can't completely crush Huawei or other Chinese tech giants - they'll always have a market with the right inducements, such as the S$54 smartphone deal that engendered the closest scenes to the Hong Kong protests that Singapore has seen for some years. Personally, I also find their rumoured links to the Chinese authorities and spooks unremarkable; if you believe that Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon etc have zero relations with the CIA, FBI etc, have I got a bridge to sell you. The question is the extent to which the interference goes. Before further expounding on the reality of Singapore's "shrunken geopolitical space" (viz. Kishore Mahbubani), a short explanatory fable might aid comprehension.

Oh, *you* are the boss here?
(Source: cinemablend.com)

Once upon a time in a more fantastical land, there lived a farmer. The farmer's family had a longstanding agreement with a titanic Great Eagle, which helped guard their flock from wolves. However, in return, the Great Eagle would freely help itself to some lambs now and then, without asking for permission. Overall, it was a good deal, but as the farmer became more prosperous, his pride grew, and eventually he could not bear the infringement. One day, he went to the Eagle, which happened to be picking its beak from its latest meal.

"I will not be subservient!" the farmer said. "You feast upon my property without my say-so, and corral my flock where you please. But I am in charge here. You have to respect me."

To this, the Great Eagle drew to its full height, and towering over the farmer, unfurled its mighty wings. "My friend." it said patiently, with the wisdom borne of inhuman power. "You are my friend, but we are not equals. With your eyes you see that, in your heart you know the truth. I was friends with your father, and his father before him, but it is also a fact that I could have destroyed them - and you - at a whim. But, truly, I like you, for you are cute and sensible, and you know that the service I offer you is fair recompense for the few sheep I consume. Let us speak no more about this, lest it spoil our relationship."

But the farmer was prosperous, and he had grown proud, and he could not bear the Great Eagle's words, reasonable as they were. And he hatched an idea. He would go to the north, and invite the Giant Panda to his home. For the Giant Panda was strong too, if not quite as strong as the Great Eagle, and he thought to set their power against each other, that he would regain the satisfaction of being in control.

However, after the Giant Panda arrived, it began helping itself to the bamboo garden that the farmer's family had painstakingly cultivated over decades, while ignoring his entreaties to face the Great Eagle down. "This wasn't the deal!" the farmer cried. "You were supposed to keep each other at bay, such that I would gain the benefits of your patronage, while avoiding the costs! Now, let's you and him fight over me!"

The Great Eagle and Giant Panda glanced at each other, then turned as one to look at the farmer, unmistakably conveying the impression that they both thought him a bit dim. They then went back to ravaging his flock of sheep and bamboo garden respectively.

The farmer's spirits were down with his losses compounded, for he could realistically refuse neither the Great Eagle nor the Giant Panda now. Seeing this, the farmer's wife had a bright idea. "I know!" she said. "There lives a Bengal Tiger to the northwest. Let us invite him and his children to our farm, such that the Eagle and the Panda no longer run roughshod over us." And the farmer thought it a swell idea, and he signed a pact with the Tiger, only to discover that the Tiger sure as hell wasn't going to report to him before feasting on his pigs either...

"Alright, let's try the Continental Bull this time..."

Or, take the guy who, fed-up with being an employee yet unable to strike out alone, cuts back his hours at his main job to take on two additional part-time jobs. Does this imply that he is self-sovereign because he does not report to a single boss, or does he simply have three masters instead?

Returning to the technological front of the unfolding Cold War II, there is now little doubt that a full-spectrum decoupling between America and China is taking place. Here, it should be noted that there had always existed a one-way decoupling of sorts with China's Great Firewall and effective ban on foreign Web giants, though the reasoning behind that is easily understood - had Google etc been freely allowed, there would be no practical way to maintain the CCP's ideological stranglehold. Given this, however, it's only fair for America and friends to question why they should allow Huawei, Alibaba, Tencent etc access to their own markets; recall, this was part of the implicit deal with China's accession to the WTO in 2001, that they democratize and liberalize and all that hooey. Evidently, this isn't happening, and America's patience on upholding the other end of the deal has all but run out.

Scylla and Charybdis



- Romance of The Three Kingdoms

The excerpt above, then, has especial relevance to Singapore's consistent deference to "rule of international law" in foreign policy. In the excerpt, the general Guan Yu had just been forced to surrender, but out of his principles proposed three conditions lest he fight to his death. The first among them was that he would surrender only to the legitimate Emperor (whom Cao Cao had control over), and not Cao Cao himself, whom he regarded as just a warlord. Cao Cao had no qualms about it, because, as he pointed out, he controlled the Emperor; therefore submitting to the Emperor was equivalent to submitting to him. He wasn't going to let semantics get in the way of such a talent.

Thus is it with Singapore, international law and the United States of America. In the period since the nation's unwilling independence, international law had de facto been dominated by America - perhaps the United Nations being based in New York actually means nothing, but I doubt it. Perhaps even more importantly, international financial law was definitely being run by the Americans. Going by this reasoning, adhering to international law was more or less subscribing to the American-led hegemonic system, and they definitely had better things to do than to micromanage a Southeast-Asian city-state.

While we have given some examples in the previous narrative, another salient example would be Lee Kuan Yew's much-played-up role in the opening-up of China, beginning with his first visit in 1976, proceeding through normalization of diplomatic relations in 1990. It is seldom mentioned in these triumphant flashbacks, however, that America under Nixon had started the reaching-out through ping-pong diplomacy in 1971, which grew out of a general Sino-Soviet split and border conflict in the 1960s (one might wonder - weren't China and the Soviet Union both Commies then? Shouldn't they be supporting each other against the Evil Capitalists? To this, the only answer is that anybody who asks doesn't understand the realities of power)

Come, let's play ball!
(Source: coconuts.co)

In any case, table tennis would quickly lead to broad-based scientific and military cooperation between America and China by the late 1970s - targeted at their new common foe of some convenience, the Soviet Union. Returning to Singapore's "strong contesting of Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia in 1979" being to demonstrate our "self-commitment to sovereignty" (this is so funny that I can't help but repeat it), this must be seen in the context of the [North] Vietnamese being backed by the Soviets then, which makes our stance against the Vietnamese mostly a by-product of our alignment with the Americans (and by extension, China as well). It is even less told of how there was a Sino-American Cambodian program against the Viets, with Singapore involved and LKY himself visiting their secret camp (read: Chapter Three of The Hundred-Year Marathon)

So, quiz time: Let us imagine that America had not embarked upon their grand strategy of rapprochement with China in 1971. Instead, imagine that America had continued to treat China with the same rivalry as with their main Cold War opponents, the Soviets. In such a scenario, without LKY's most-respected POTUS Richard Nixon leading the way, do you think that LKY could have balonglong chartered an SQ flight, landed in Beijing, asked for an audience with Mao, and "crafted Singapore into a role model for China" without at least an informal go-ahead from the White House? Doesn't make any sense, tio bo?

Please note that this is not meant to belittle LKY's vision and intelligence in any way; by all indications, LKY was very busy shuttling between America and the Soviet Union around 1970, because it was clear that the nascent Singapore needed a backer, and those two were the only really viable options then. Anyway, he picked America after a stint at Harvard - one can only imagine what arrangements were privately struck then - which was the correct choice. Certainly, there was much less whining about "maintaining neutrality" for appearances! Having started on the right foot, the major part of LKY's genius would then be doubling and tripling-down on his winning bet, by integrating Singapore into the American-led and sponsored international trade system, whilst capitalizing on being the only Chinese ethnic-majority nation outside of China itself and Taiwan, to piggyback on China's rise as well.

The main point here is, there were no truly difficult, existential-level foreign policy decisions that Singapore had to make, since LKY's American alignment about 1970; his singular choice then bought half a century of prosperity for the country. Singapore supported international law supported America supported China. This looks like it's no longer going to be the case. China doesn't seem to be backing down, and will likely refuse to acquiesce to Plaza Accord-like measures that neutered the Japanese rise in the 1980s. If so, I don't see how Singapore can avoid taking sides, as they did with America and the Soviet Union. I can only hope that our current leaders will make the right choice, as LKY did then (i.e. go with the GOD-EMPEROR OF MANKIND)

No lah, not ally lah, what makes you say so?
(Source: f-16.net)

Happily, most signs point to this being how we're leaning, with another arrangement with Great America to host fighter jets in Guam signed just a few days ago; perhaps coincidentally, the distance from Guam to Singapore is about 4700km, which is also approximately the flight range of the F-15 and F-16. Just to reiterate, if Country A parks its most significant military assets with Country B, I would sure hope that Country B is considered an ally of Country A, because the alternative would be a far less honourable type of relationship.

Meanwhile, the wheels are also turning in Europe, with NATO officially naming China as a "challenge" alongside Russia, which is how these things tend to go. While elements of the lamestream media might be gleefully playing up Blackface Trudeau and company mocking TRUMP during the NATO anniversary, it remains that they're coughing up billions more in contributions thanks to uncompromising pressure from GEOTUS. To put that in perspective, star laugh merchants such as Stephen Colbert and John Oliver make maybe tens of thousands a show; for that amount, chortle on!

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