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On Chinese influence operations in Singapore
I answered this question on Quora and it got a modestly significant number of views (about 50 upvotes). but it got removed by moderation, I don't know why. Probably because it upset some Chinese nationalists/pro-Chinese Quorans (Lin Xieyi comes to mind). As we all know, Reddit is a liberal Western echo chamber so I suppose my views will find some resonance here.submitted by ned_stark97 to singapore
I posted it on Quora because I think it's important to debunk some of the ill-informed and simplistic opinions about Singapore's foreign policy toward China. There are too many of those kinds of people voicing those opinions there. And I think too many of our people are not sufficiently educated on our foreign policy positions. This has to change if we are to be immunized against influence operations.
I am neither pro-China nor anti-China. I am pro-Singapore and anti-bullsh*t.
Do Singaporeans agree with the ex-diplomat that China is exercising influence, pressure and coercion on Singapore?At first I didn’t, or was undecided, but now I do.
If you are a PRC patriot, or are uncomfortable with speculation and insinuations, please stop reading now. It’s for your own good.
Let’s examine the source in question. Who was this “ex-diplomat”?
· Bilahari Kausikan was former Permanent Secretary of our Ministry of Foreign Affairs
· He has substantial experience in the foreign policy arena. I assume he might be privy to classified information which is withheld from our public.
· He is no longer a civil servant; he is a pensioner. As such, his views do NOT officially reflect those of the Singapore government.
· Despite this, his views hold substantial weight and are frequently published in the Straits Times (which, although not under direct govt control, toes the official line and operates under some form of para-state oversight)
· He has not been outright repudiated by other foreign policy elites (as was the case with Kishore Mahbubani). From this we may infer that his views resonate somewhat with the establishment, or our foreign policy orthodoxy
· There are some things which our government cannot publicly/officially state, out of prudence…by which I mean, complicating our relationships with certain powers
· It is possible that the government prefers to use “unofficial” means (such as retired civil servants) to clarify or rebut certain narratives
Now let’s examine the substance of his argument.
That China exercises influence, pressure and coercion on Singapore, is not surprising. What should be disturbing is the MEANS or the CHANNELS through which it deploys its influence. There are LEGITIMATE channels for interstate intercourse. These include diplomacy, state media, international aid etc. etc. It is entirely natural (whether it is fair or acceptable is a different debate) for Great Powers to leverage their superior political/economic/military resources to make smaller states comply with their wishes, whether through persuasion or coercion.
But Bilahari Kausikan’s concern is with the ILLEGITIMATE channels: covert influence operations. These are violations of Singapore’s sovereignty, albeit under the cover of plausible deniability. Influence operations fall under the purview of covert action, which is different from espionage - and far more insidious. Espionage seeks simply to steal information. Covert action is intended to influence events (for example, domestic politics or foreign policy) within a target nation-state to one’s own benefit
Now let me be clear: All Great Powers conduct influence operations and espionage. China is no exception. Neither is the US. And Singapore is not exempted from their attempts. Our response has been very even-handed.Examples of foreign interference in the course of history and in SingaporeAn American diplomat once tried to influence the 1988 Singapore General ElectionSingapore Protests U.S. 'Interference' After Diplomat WithdrawnRussia spy claims: US nabs Singapore centre research fellow
But this is not a valid excuse. People who employ this excuse are essentially saying “So what? everyone does it”. To quote the Chinese Ambassador’s response “I would say firstly that every country hopes to gain recognition and support for its development philosophy and foreign policies. In this sense, China is no different.” This is equivalent to arguing that wife-beating is acceptable, because many husbands beat their wives! The issue here is not that China or the US wants our support. The issue is the means by which they seek to procure our support.
American influence operations seek to impose a liberal-democratic ideology on Singapore. They are mostly ineffective because American notions of liberalism do not find much resonance among our public political consciousness. Nonetheless, these operations should be exterminated/neutralized whenever and wherever they are detected.
But Chinese influence operations are more dangerous and insidious because they seek to impose a CHINESE identity on multiracial Singapore. This is something much harder for our population to resist, particularly because our national identity is so young and malleable. The appeals of ethnicity and culture are primordial and enduring.
SPECULATION ON CHINA’S 2016-2017 INFLUENCE CAMPAIGN
In August, Huang Jing was exposed for giving “supposedly "privileged information" to a senior member of the LKY School, so it could be passed on to the Singapore Government. The information was duly conveyed by that senior member of the LKYSPP to very senior public officials who were in a position to direct Singapore's foreign policy”.
About 3 months later, LKYSPP Dean Kishore Mahbubani, who previously was a senior MFA diplomat (and presumably has contact with “very senior public officials who were in a position to direct Singapore’s foreign policy”), stepped down from his position. If you go on Youtube and watch the speeches and interviews he has been giving, he has become something of a hype-man advertising China’s rise.
I think we can put two and two together.
I do deeply respect Kishore Mahbubani. I think he is an intellectual worth reading and worth listening to. I have no doubt that he earnestly, sincerely believes in the views that he propounds. I definitely agree with many of his ideas about the rise of Asia and China. In fact, I will be buying his new book “Has China Won?”. But I also think some of his ideas regarding China lack nuance. Reality is often complex.
When Lin Xieyi speculated that Huang Jing was a US agent, this was Kausikan’s comment: “This is the sort of stuff we must expect, intended to confuse the issue. Some of it will come from the seemingly neutral or well-meaning or the naive or from those whom Lenin used to call 'useful idiots'”Ambassador-at-large, Bilahari Kausikan, scoffs at Quora user questioning who Huang Jing is working for
Kausikan shared more details on the Chinese influence campaign in this lecture, which I encourage all of you to watch:
If you don’t have time, I’ll summarize (tl;dr skip to the bolded italics):
When Singapore stood firm on its right to state its position on an issue of undoubted importance to us and to the region (South China Sea), the Chinese activated their influence apparatus and went into high gear to pressure the government - our government - to change position…
Not all influence operations pose the same degree of risk. The uniqueness of Beijing’s influence operations stems from China’s triple identities. And this prescribes three tracks on which China conducts its foreign policy and influence operations.
First, the PRC is a state like any other state, operating within a still largely Westphalian international order… On this first track of state-to-state relations, there’s nothing particularly unusual about what Beijing does, except the unusually assertive assertive behaviour of some Chinese diplomats of late, in countries as far-ranging as Malaysia, the PNG and Sweden.
Secondly, the PRC is not just any state, it’s also a Leninist state…and the characteristic modus operandi of a Leninist state is the United Front, which Mao Zedong called the CCP’s “magic weapon”… the main characteristic of a Leninist state is the total subordination of state and society to the interests of the Party, irrespective whether the Party’s interest is internal or external. And as such, the United Front represents a blurring of the distinction between domestic and foreign policies and a significant modification of the principle of non-interference that goes far beyond what is generally considered acceptable diplomatic practice.
Thirdly, the PRC is also a civilizational state: the embodiment and exemplar of millennia of the Chinese nation’s history and culture, now rejuvenated…and this identity as a civilizational state finds expression in the work of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office… In plain language, overseas Chinese should identify their interests with China’s interests and work to advance China’s interests. And this represents a deliberate blurring of the distinction made between the 华人 (ethnic Chinese) and the 华侨 (overseas PRC citizens)…
Now these 3 identities prescribe 3 tracks on which China conducts relationships. And taken holistically, they create a sophisticated and flexible instrument of influence that is far more effective than the conventional operations conducted by other countries. China’s influence operations are effective because the 3 tracks on which it operates makes it difficult to deal with or even grasp - even understand - in entirety.
On the first track of state-to-state relations, the usual tactics of persuasion, inducement or coercion may be deployed as appropriate, whether overtly through diplomacy or covertly through intelligence organizations. But the United Front may simultaneously operate to, for example, emphasize coercion or inducement even as the first track stresses persuasion. And the third civilizational track may conveniently wrap everything up in appeals to ethnic pride…Now the tendency of all governments and in particular foreign ministries is to focus on the first track of state-to-state relations and to want to keep them on an even keel…But this can all to easily lead to Chinese activities on the other two tracks being overlooked or downplayed.
[the narrative of China’s absolute rise and America’s inevitable decline] and others were propagated by various means: WeChat with Chinese-speaking populations, social and mainstream media, whispering campaigns, business, clan and cultural associations, as well as conventional agents of influence reporting to Chinese intelligence organizations who cultivate what Lenin called “useful idiots”.
It was difficult to pin down the precise origin of such narratives, but the messaging was to consistent, and too insistent, to be coincidental…many Singaporeans did not realize they were being fed oversimplifications and swallowed them whole or played along for other reasons. Businessmen, academics, and others with interests in China were given broad hints that their interests might suffer unless Singapore was more accommodating and passed the messages to the government…Appeals to ethnic pride were made to others. The aim was to instil a fatalistic acceptance of the inevitability and desirability of a Chinese identity for multiracial Singapore and get Singaporeans to pressure the government to align Singapore’s interests with China’s interest.
In any case and for whatever reason, the 2016–2017 Chinese influence operation was effective. The pressures on the government were great. It was very difficult to explain the somewhat abstract importance of UNCLOS or the nuances of our position on the South China Sea or the complications of our relationship with China to the general public, to whom the Chinese narratives were more easily understood. And it cannot be denied that ethnic appeals resonated strongly with a probably not insignificant section of our public.
It’s clear enough for whom Huang Jing worked. I told you he had dual US-PRC citizenship. In case you don’t know, holding dual citizenship is forbidden in China. Huang Jing today holds a senior academic position in China, apparently without sanction for holding American citizenship.
As the only majority ethnic Chinese sovereign state in the region, Singapore is a special case. A majority Chinese Singapore that nevertheless conducts an independent foreign policy may be something of an anomaly in Chinese eyes.
This is not the ravings of some conspiracy theorist. This is our former Permanent Secretary of Foreign Affairs speaking.
What is a strategic narrative? A weaponized story.
In its influence campaigns against Singapore, the PRC advances a number of strategic narratives, all of which are, at best, questionable in their truthfulness. Sadly, some of our Singaporean Chinese compatriots sometimes buy into these narratives and even confidently echo them. Now, most of our population is only cursorily interested in foreign affairs and may find such superficial narratives plausible. This must change if they are to be immunized against these narratives.
This is a war of narratives. China cannot officially pressure us to choose sides. But they can paint a certain picture through unofficial channels and try to box us into a corner. They can try to tell us “See, this is what you are doing! Stop it!”. When they do that, we MUST push back by painting our own narratives and showing them that “no, actually we’re not doing that. We’re doing THIS”.
MYTH 1. Surely as a “Chinese country”, Singapore should “explain” China’s position (on the South China Sea and other issues) to the rest of Southeast Asia
MYTH 2. China is rising and US is declining; therefore we should bandwagon with China. You should get on the right side of history!
MYTH 3. If you are not with China, then you are against China! You are an American puppet/proxy, or, if you are ethnic Chinese, even worse - a race traitor!
MYTH 4. Singapore has no claims in the South China Sea, and purports to be a neutral/non-aligned country so why is it “taking sides” with the US against China by agreeing with the PCA ruling and hosting US naval assets?
MYTH 5. Unlike Lee Kuan Yew, the current PAP leadership under Lee Hsien Loong doesn’t know how to deal with China. Relations were sooooo much better under LKY.
Let me proceed to puncture each of these myths in turn, with great pleasure.
MYTH 1: We are NOT a “Chinese country”. We are a country that happens to have a majority ethnic-Chinese population that organizes itself on the basis of multiracialism/multiculturalism. This has been fundamental to Singapore’s identity since the days of Lee Kuan Yew, and this is something we must always remember, no matter how many times we are accused of being “race traitors” by our mainland friends. When the PRC tries to impose a “Chinese” identity on multiracial Singapore, we MUST resist.
Yes, we share ties with mainland Chinese on the basis of blood and culture. This ethnocultural kinship should be celebrated, not denied (as in the case of some HKers). Our similar cultural programming allows us to understand the Chinese mindset in some respects, to “empathize” with it.
But it does not mean we should unreservedly parrot China’s claims to the rest of Southeast Asia. As country coordinator for ASEAN-China relations, our job is to uphold ASEAN centrality; to represent the interests of ASEAN, of our REGION, in dealing with China. It is not to represent China’s interests in dealings with ASEAN. We have no obligation, moral or otherwise, to advocate or support China’s interests. Understanding them is one matter. Supporting them is another. The two are not mutually irreconcilable, but they must be distinguished.
MYTH 2: This myth, like many other myths, has a grain of truth to it. It is very ably represented by the speeches and works of Professor Kishore Mahbubani, our former ambassador and an intellectual whom I admire very much. Unfortunately, it is also extremely oversimplified and ignores many problematic nuances.Indeed, China is rising and has been for quite a while. You would have to be blind to deny that. But China’s rise is not going to be linear; it is going to be a long, winding, and fluctuating road. China has many internal structural problems of its own to deal with. From the way some people talk about China in juxtaposition to the West, it makes it sound like the Chinese are strategic masterminds while the Westerners are a bunch of bumbling idiots. Like I said, grain of truth, but grossly oversimplistic. It ignores many of the US’ intrinsic strengths and some of China’s structural challenges.
China is rising, but America is NOT in decline, except in relative terms. Militarily it is still pre-eminent in the Asia-Pacific. Its military dominance is receding and will continue to recede in time, as the PLA Navy becomes stronger. China is becoming more and more economically central to our region and the world; depending on which index of measurement you use (GDP PPP, GDP per capita, absolute GDP) it may have already eclipsed the US economy. China is pushing the frontiers of cutting-edge technology like 5G. This process is inevitable.
But what is not inevitable is the outcome of China displacing the US as regional or global superpower. This is an outcome that is FAR from certain. It is still too early to tell. The only thing we can say for now is that the regional strategic equation will become more and more symmetrical over time. As with buying new stocks/shares on the financial market, it is too early to count our chickens before they are hatched. Some views on China’s rise (Mahbubani’s included) tend to take the Whig view of history - “up and up and on and on”
The Chinese never tire of reminding us that China’s presence in Asia is a permanent geographic fact, while America’s presence is the product of a political calculation. This implies both enhanced threat and opportunity for the rest of East Asia (be nice to us, because you have to live with us for the rest of eternity). And that is true - what is our Plan B if America withdraws from the region? Without America, the balance of power in Asia cannot be maintained. But again, this myth is too simplistic. America’s presence in Asia is not as fragile as the Chinese would like us to think.
Asia is burgeoning with growth. In the next few decades the economic center of gravity is going to shift toward the Asia-Pacific. America has an interest in retaining access to this region, in economic and military terms. I do agree that China cannot be contained - it is so interdependent with America that America might as well try to contain itself as to contain China. But we should not underestimate the degree to which America has integrated and committed itself to the Asia-Pacific.
MYTH 3: This one I find the most ludicrous and at the same time the most hilarious. Just because I disagree with China’s stance on a SPECIFIC, SINGLE issue means that I must have been brainwashed by western media into being an anti-China dog? Hahahaha.
This is what is known as a false dichotomy. It is powerful because these dichotomies do exist, but they are a spectrum rather than a binary choice of A or B. China posits an illusory binary between itself and the West, and forces you to choose between them. If you are not A, then you must be B and ONLY B and nothing else. Substitute A and B with pro-China and pro-US, pro-CCP and pro-democracy, blah blah blah. You get the idea. This ignores all the nuances in between.
This myth is also the most insidious and dangerous one because it denies the existence of AGENCY on the part of small states. It denies that small states can ever act autonomously -that anything that we do must be driven by the hidden hand of Great Power competition.
Singapore’s policy can be characterized as strategic hedging. I will admit we lean slightly toward low-intensity “soft” balancing against China, but it is still more nuanced than “hard” balancing against China and “hard” bandwagoning with the US.
By the way, Singapore is not the only country practicing a hedging strategy. Duterte has recently taken to flirting with China; I don’t blame him, I think it’s a smart move. But he has also increased cooperation with Japan, and he has not abolished the alliance Treaty which formally commits the US to defend the Philippines in wartime. Thailand has grown closer toward China as well, buying Chinese tanks, but it is still a US ally. Even Myanmar: when Myanmar realized in the 2000s and early 2010s that it was growing more and more dependent on Chinese investment, infrastructure etc., what did it do? It initiated a rapprochement with the Obama Administration. Malaysia under Mahathir began to reassess a number of Chinese infrastructure projects in light of its indebtedness to China. The American 7th Fleet still calls at Malaysian ports. Vietnam is probably leaning even further toward the Balancing end of the spectrum than Singapore - the very existence of Vietnam as an independent entity is predicated on thousands of years of resisting subordination to China.
So, fellow Singaporeans, do not believe that we are alone in playing this delicate game of power-balancing. That is what China wants you to believe: that we are acting alone and inadvertently as a US proxy, when in reality we are making calculated choices to minimize risk and maximize gain.
MYTH 4: Yes, Singapore is a non-claimant state. We have no territorial claims in the South China Sea and we take no position on the claims of Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, China etc. But what we do have is an interest in FREEDOM OF NAVIGATION in the South China Sea (enshrined in international law, namely UNCLOS). We want our merchant ships carrying our imports and exports to be able to transition the South China Sea freely. Trade is the lifeblood of our free and open economy.
Now, some mainland Chinese might argue that China has not explicitly threatened the right of freedom of navigation in the area. They are right. China has not demanded we pay a toll or tariff for passing through the area, not yet anyway. Hopefully it never does. But China’s behavior of creating and militarizing artificial islands in the South China Sea has not exactly inspired confidence on the part of Southeast Asian states regarding its future behavior.
And in case you think our statement on the PCA’s verdict was somehow “extreme” or “new”, let me read out the statement to you:
Singapore has taken note of the Award made by the Arbitral Tribunal convened under Annex VII to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) on 12 July 2016 on the case between the Republic of the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China. We are studying the Award and its implications on Singapore and the wider region.In other words, we did NOT even explicitly SUPPORT the ruling of the PCA in favor of the Philippines. We simply positively acknowledged the ruling and said that international law is important and we should all respect it. Can that be any less provocative? How could this be construed in any way as “taking sides”? Are the Chinese really so thin-skinned that they object to us even SPEAKING about the SCS issue?
Let me remind you that the PCA was the same court that ruled in favor of our dispute with Malaysia over Pedra Branca. So what would the implication be if we supported the PCA ruling for ourselves, but turned a blind eye to its ruling over the SCS? International law for me, but not for thee?
Note also that Singapore was not alone: Vietnam, Myanmar, and Malaysia also positively acknowledged or outright supported the ruling of the PCA. Why did we deserve to be singled out for coercion?
Non-alignment/neutrality is a PREFERENCE. It is not a solution. Singapore cannot prosper and be secure simply by pursuing a “hiding” strategy of laying low and hoping not to be noticed. I will be happy to elaborate if you disagree. We host the US military because we consider it productive to our security interests (and that of regional security) for America to maintain a regional presence. This is to provide a counterweight to China and give us strategic space to maneuver. It is NOT to contain China or obstruct its rise.
And while we are on the subject, we should note that the US military only maintains a purely rotational presence in Singapore. There are NO permanent US military bases or assets stationed here. The naval base which their aircraft carrier uses belongs to us. We should also further note that Singapore has NO formal treaty of alliance with America. In fact it is rumored that in 2003 America offered us the status of a major non-NATO ally - a formal security commitment from the US to defend Singapore…and we rejected them. Now, is that how we would behave if we were really American proxies?
“I am non-aligned in the sense that I do not want to be involved in power blocs…but when my security, Singapore’s survival, Singapore’s prosperity is threatened, I cannot be neutral” - Lee Kuan Yew
“Singapore has to take the world as it is, it is too small to change it. But we can try to maximise the space we have to maneuver among the big ‘trees’ in the region” - Lee Kuan Yew, One Man’s View of the World, 2013
MYTH 5: Kishore claimed that “now that LKY is no longer with us, we should change our behaviour significantly…we should be very restrained in commenting on matters involving Great Powers”. I agree with him that we should be circumspect, pragmatic, even cold-blooded, when it comes to dealing with Great Powers. We must tread carefully.
But has there been any fundamental change in Singapore’s policy toward China post-LKY? No. Our relationship with the US goes back to the 1990s. Likewise with China we have always (and I emphasize, we CONTINUE to) promote the engagement of China with the region and the world. China must come to terms with the world order, just as the world order must accommodate China.
The Chinese like to grumble about the good old days of LKY and how well he got along with them. Again, they are not wrong. But this is a form of historical cherry-picking, of selective memory. Remember that LKY was one of the only Asian leaders to go up against a CCP-backed communist united front and win. Remember also that Mao’s China issued frequent propaganda proclamations labelling him a “running dog” of the West.
Lee Kuan Yew’s views on China were not one-dimensional. They were complex and nuanced. They were tactful, yes, but honest and direct. He did not shy away from political incorrectness.
“The Chinese may make a miscalculation…they may become assertive and pushy, which is contrary to their long-term interest, which is to win over the smaller countries in the south to their side” - Lee Kuan Yew, 2011CONCLUSION
Let me emphasize again: I see the rise of China as a good thing in the long-term. It is not an ABSOLUTE good, but it is good. China is a FRIEND, even if friends can be pushy at times and we do not always agree with our friends about everything all the time. Singapore and China have no fundamental clash of core interests. Indeed, I think it is possible for our core interests to align with China. Not only with China, but also with the US, India, Japan, etc. Whether or not it aligns with China to a greater degree than with other powers is to be seen, and in large part decided, by China’s own behaviour.
But in any case if there is alignment, our lodestar must always be our NATIONAL INTEREST - Singapore’s own national interest - determined by Singaporeans’ own choices ALONE and no one else’s, undiluted by the manipulation of ANY foreign entity. And in case you think I’m only referring to China, go look at our handling of the 1988 Hendrickson Affair.
Huang Jing was only one manifestation of this. Foreign powers will continue to attempt to influence our policy. When they stick their fingers into our sovereign discursive space, we must continue to quietly, tactfully, but ruthlessly slice those fingers off.
EDIT: someone anonymous gilded me! Thank you so much!! I am really honored haha
EDIT 2: Platinum? Thanks so much anonymous! You are too kind!! I don’t even know what to do with it
EDIT 3: Posted in geopolitics. Prepared to be attacked by angry Chinese redditors https://www.reddit.com/geopolitics/comments/g7muc9/on_chinese_influence_operations_in_singapore/
EDIT 4: The post is back up on Quora again. Seems like moderators revised their earlier decision