Hun Sen’s government in Cambodia under pressure

News of growing protests against Hun Sen’s government comes nearly a week after Cambodia surprised the region by “upgrading” its relationship with Japan and supporting the protection of freedom of aviation. The announcement resulting from the sidelines of the ASEAN meeting in Tokyo has been considered a rebuke of China’s unilaterally announced air defense identification zone.

As the WSJ writes:

That was a clear dig at China, which has stirred new fears about its territorial aspirations by announcing an air-defense identification zone across a vast stretch of the East China Sea.

It also reveals some shrewd politicking by Hun Sen. He realizes that putting all his eggs in one basket (China) exposes the country to risks. Watching his support come under pressure after the contested elections in July, Hun Sen has also asked Japan for help in needed electoral reform.

Japan will send experts on electoral reform to Cambodia “soon” according to the AKP. Ironic too, as Abe’s government must push for electoral reform in Japan.

But the nature of the protests in Cambodia suggest this is the kind of broad shift occurring in the region where a wealthier, younger population with more access to international media through social network sites, have grown tired of the rusted-on government of Hun Sen. In Cambodia’s case, the younger voters have no memory of the holocaust there, and so don’t live with the same fear.

While Sam Rainsy has been able to get ahead of the opposition movement, it remains – with the exception of the unifying desire for reform – pretty diverse with pretty diverse interests. It’s still not clear which way this thing is headed. But Rainsy’s decision to build bridges with Japan – including potentially direct flights between the countries – shows his wily ability to read a situation. He should be smart enough to know that sometimes having more power means having the strength not to be a hardliner.

Anyway, watch this space. Cambodia is considered a bit of a bellwether for China’s influence in the region.

Japan and China’s national security – in wordclouds

There has been much talk about Japan’s new National Security Strategy and whether it, along with other changes being pushed through by Shinzo Abe’s government, represent a worrying return to the Japan’s militarist past or a normalization of the country after decades in which the nation’s broader defense questions were outsourced to allies. There is little in the NSS that hints at a radical departure from Japan’s pacifist principles  – however there is a recognition that, given the worsening security environment in the region, Japan can’t continue with the status quo.

Rather than rehashing the policy details, below is a visualization of Japan’s new NSS, using Wordle.  There are also some visualizations of statements from China on its national security committee for comparison – just to give a flavor of things.  The software used is Wordle.


By comparison, and it’s admittedly a rough one, here is a wordcloud from the text concerning China’s state security committee contained in the documents released during the Third Plenum. Obviously, this is an inexact match in part because Japan’s NSS is about ensuring security around Japan, while China’s state security committee is more focused on domestic security. Moreover, the full text of Japan’s document is available online, while China, in keeping with policy, has announced the change but has only given scant details.

Nonetheless, these are two developments from two nations that rival each other. So here is the wordcloud based on a Xinhua article about Xi Jinping, who is closely associated with the commission, expounding on its benefits.


Because the explanation is not like the policy document of Japan, I have also included a second document, which is a Xinhua article discussing the benefits of the committee.


Even if imperfect, the wordclouds reveal the all-consuming importance of ‘security’ to China while by font-size at least, ‘Japan’ is the biggest concern of the Japanese, only a smidge bigger than ‘security’ and ‘international’ -which does seem to get at the thrust of things. Japan says it’s national security strategy is in the context of an international framework and it faces outward to international affairs. China is more unilateral in its approach. The duties of its security commission are both domestic and international.

A new Cold War dawns for the Duck Dynasty


A nice Washington Post opinion piece by Anne Applebaum on the prospects of a new cold war between the US on one side and China and Russia on the other. While she knocks down comparisons to the historical cold war, the piece focuses on the growing split between the US view and the views evident in Beijing and Russia.

We in the United States may not believe that we are engaged in an ideological struggle with anybody, but other people are engaged in an ideological struggle with us. We in the United States may not believe that there is any real threat to our longtime alliance structures in Europe and Asia, but other people think those alliances are vulnerable and have set out to undermine them.

She points out that while Russia and China aren’t coordinating their actions (and the Snowden affair could raise doubts about this claim), the elites in Moscow and Beijing share a dislike for liberal democracy and “are determined to prevent them from spreading to Moscow or Beijing.”

These same elites believe that Western media, Western ideas and especially Western capitalism — as opposed to state capitalism — pose a threat to their personal domination of their economies. They want the world to remain safe for their particular form of authoritarian oligarchy, and they are increasingly prepared to pay a high price for it.

I would argue that it’s not so much western capitalism but western political and social values that threaten the Chinese and Russian order. I think both China and Russia would be happy to have Western-style capitalism if it brought no risk of undermining the political order. In other words, China and Russia would embrace an economic system that could create a game-changing social media companies such as Myspace, Facebook and now Twitter without game changing consequences, like Obama’s win of the White House in 2008, which was largely made possible by organizing and outreach conducted on social media. While Obama’s reception has been rocky for some, Americans by and large respect the outcome of the election.

The WaPo piece ties together a number of events, many of which would have eluded many American readers, including the targeting of Western journalists in Beijing and Russia’s move to swing Ukraine back into its orbit. But Applebaum concludes on a startling note, that justifies reading this piece, printing it out, and putting on the fridge door.

We spent the 1990s enjoying the fruits of post-Cold War prosperity, the early 2000s fighting the war on terrorism. We are intellectually, economically and militarily unprepared to contemplate Great Power conflict, let alone engage in the hard work of renewing alliances and sharpening strategy. But History is back, whether we want it to be or not. Happy New Year.

Beijing (and Moscow) have been sending messages to the West about their impatience with the post-Cold War order for some time. The immediate question, of course, is, does this message rise about the rancor that has gripped US domestic politics in the past two decades. The division in the US is seemingly endless, and like the recent flap over the Duck Dynasty, focused on controversies that are full of sound and fury but often with little at stake. The US is itself a sort of Duck Dynasty  powerful yet parochial at heart, like the subject of the show. Can this country recognize ideological foes beyond its own borders?  That’s the big question. At least someone in the US mainstream media is asking.

Keeping the USS Cowpens away from the Liaoning: Four reasons the US may be misreading China’s military


The recent incident in the South China Sea, in which a China PLA Navy ship manouevered to block a US Navy ship, the USS Cowpens, from trailing the newly fitted out Liaoning aircraft carrier brings to light many of the issues surrounding China’s militarization. The incident also serves as a small scale model of the larger mysteries of China’s military capabilities, an issue China arguably cultivates for strategic reasons. Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu’s famously said that in war a goal should be to “subdue the enemy without fighting. ”

Below is a list of four issues regarding the US’s reading of China’s military rise.

1) The DF-21D aircraft carrier-killer missile vs aircraft carrier riddle

Either China is investing aircraft carriers, or it is investing in carrier-killer missiles – but it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which it is investing in both. It’s possible that China wants carriers for its seas but expects its carrier-killers to keep foreign navies far from those seas.  It’s also possible that China’s defense planning is confused and riven by internal fiefdoms, where the carrier guys get to build carriers and the missile guys get to build missiles – but there is no unifying armaments strategy. This lack of coordination in weapons making actually happened in Germany during WWII. Why wouldn’t it be possible in China during peacetime? If that’s the case, it’s a revealing sign of the mismanagement and corruption within China’s military establishment. The final possibility is that either the missiles aren’t as “killer” as feared or the intention to build carriers are not real. Look at this leaked gem from RT: A report the Chinese will build a super-carrier of 80,000 or 111,000 tones by 2020.  Again: why would China do this, if it’s strategy for the sea relies on carrier-killers that the US would surely match? Until this confected riddle is resolved, no one should assume too much about China’s future hard power capabilities.

2) China overstating military spending

China, though its networks of defense bloggers and media outlets, is overstating its military build up in the desire (whether conscious or otherwise) to help drive up US spending, sapping the US economy in much the same way as the Soviet Union. Canadian journalist J. Michael Cole makes a similar point in a piece looking at the possibility that there is a combined effort to achieve this goal by far flung Chinese and Russian deployments. Sun Tzu would be smiling.

3) China likely knows the Soviet Union overspent

Another reason that lends weight to this view is the awareness China’s leadership has of the end of the Soviet Union. Media reports suggest China’s leadership is obsessed with the conditions leading up to the fall of the Soviet Union – and surely they wouldn’t miss one of the contributing factors – the onerous spending on military while domestic needs went unaddressed.

“It’s hard to overstate how obsessed they are with the Soviet Union,” said David Shambaugh, a George Washington University expert who spent years meeting Chinese officials and reading internal party documents for a book on the subject. “They wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night thinking about it. It hangs over every major decision.” The obsession is fueled by the fear that, with a few wrong steps, China’s Communist Party would face a similar fate.

It’s hard to believe that at the highest levels China’s leadership isn’t aware of this risk of overspending on the military -both for China and the US. That may also explain how they price the cost of two aircraft carriers at $US9 billion. (Compare $13.5 billion for latest US carrier). I don’t see a price on China’s supposed supercarrier based on a Soviet design.

Further, the dramatic industrialization of China has taken the Chinese Communist Party leadership into uncharted territory. So it’s natural that of all the risks China’s leaders would consider, one of them would be overspending on military while domestic discord mounts. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars US overspending on the military is no secret.

4) Confusion cultivated

Finally, if there is any confusion about these matters of China’s military intentions, it’s because China may well want the confusion. Discussing recent Chinese pressure on Western media, US academic Perry Link, nails it:

If there is a silver lining in the predicament of the New York Times and Bloomberg, it is that the West may finally be getting a direct sense of the political culture at the top in China. It is a shrewd and inveterately competitive culture, drawn far less from Karl Marx than from China’s classic novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” in which outsmarting the opponent by whatever means is the most admired of achievements. When U.S. policymakers use terms like “strategic partner” and “responsible stakeholder” for the people at the top in Beijing, they are out of their depth. (my emphasis)

For the US look on the USS Cowpens incident as an anomaly, or somehow outside the pattern of normal naval, is likely to be wishful Western-thinking steeped in the notion of treaties, conventions, norms. Nations – like people – make time for what’s important to them. If China didn’t want the USS Cowpens incident to occur they would have either reined in their freelancing ships captains or issued orders to prevent this sort of thing from happening. But a government and military that is opaque gives China leeway in how it wants to portray these incidents. The solution may not be for the US to “get tough” with China but rather to adopt some of its strategies. This makes the prospect of dummy armies deployed by the US in the Indo-Pacific a much more intriguing option – it would certainly be more cost effective than real armies.

To come: Top reasons for a smaller US military