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CHAPTER III - The U.S., China and Southeast Asia: New Platforms, New Dynamics

In many ways, the issues discussed by Roundtable participants in the context of changing diplomacy—partnership, listening, dialogue—are highly valued in the Southeast Asian context, explained Charles Morrison of the East-West Center. “Partnership and respect in this region is very important, the idea of listening as part of public diplomacy is very important,” he said. “The most negative thing you hear about the U.S. in Southeast Asia is that the U.S. is constantly lecturing and hectoring,” without understanding specific Southeast Asian situations and needs.

In fact, Southeast Asia has long been a region caught between the needs, dictates and advances of two major powers: the U.S. and China. As Morrison noted, Southeast Asian countries tend to be wary when the U.S. and China are at loggerheads—and even warier when they are too friendly. In the region, he said, they have a saying: “When the elephants fight, the grass suffers. But when the elephants make love, the grass also suffers.”

The U.S. “pivot,” or rebalancing toward Asia, was met with mixed reactions in Southeast Asia. While some countries welcomed America’s policy attentions, they also worried that China would respond by increasing its military capabilities. Given existing disputes over the South China Sea, a more militaristic China is seen by many as problematic. Moreover, some worry that the rebalancing may divide Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) based on territorial disputes with China. As a result, many countries are pursuing a hedging strategy toward both China and the U.S.

Even as they negotiate the delicate causeways of great power politics, the countries of Southeast Asia are growing increasingly networked, utilizing a wide variety of communication platforms. There are currently almost as many cell phone subscriptions as people in the world, with more than half in the Asia-Pacific region. Consulting firm Accenture predicts that 194 million new Internet users will come online in the ASEAN—6 countries between 2010 and 2020, 91 million of them in Indonesia alone. Civil society in many Southeast Asian countries has a tradition of being particularly vibrant, a trend that has been enhanced with increased access to ICTs. In countries from Thailand to Indonesia to Burma, ICT-enabled grass roots organizing has taken off, not without sparking accompanying debates over the limits of free expression in traditional cultures.

Domestic political dynamics have also been tangibly affected by the information revolution in Southeast Asia. In some cases, there has been a shift away from traditional political power centers, although this has not necessarily had the effect of either further democratization or the emergence of new political players. In Thailand, for instance, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been in self-imposed exile since 2008 to avoid corruption charges, is able to govern by proxy through various forms of communication with his sister, the country’s current Prime Minister, and senior government officials. Thaksin’s “growth and expansion were rooted in his telecom network and alternative political communication paths, in his support of community radio and cable/satellite television, and linked and supported by social media products, which could circumvent traditional Thai national broadcasters,” said Ivan Sigal, Executive Director of Global Voices. “So an entire political movement grew up around moving away from the centralization of Bangkok as center of Thai political life."

The South China Sea, Nationalism and New Platforms for Expression
Roundtable participants focused on the South China Sea as a particular hotspot concerning the U.S., China and Southeast Asia. Parts of the South China Sea are claimed, via sovereignty over land features or maritime rights, by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Competing claims have led to tensions and flare-ups, primarily between China and its maritime neighbors. Rising nationalism in China and other Southeast Asian countries has helped fuel the conflict, and many speculate that such nationalism is amplified (sometimes intentionally by the state) through digital and other communication networks.

Media and communication platforms throughout Asia are transforming rapidly, even in censored contexts such as China. Although China is one of the Internet’s most aggressive censors, various platforms—from traditional media to microblogs—are nonetheless diffusing previously verboten ideas and debates throughout the general Chinese public. At the same time, because the Chinese government is known to take a proactive approach toward shaping public opinion, it is difficult to discern the extent to which the government has a hand in shaping nationalistic impulses online.

Although nationalism can be amplified—and often manipulated—through social media, it has also taken on added complexity in recent years. “Nationalism and social media in China is a double-edged sword,” said Filip Noubel, Country Director for China at Internews and Co-founder of BeijingAwareness. Noubel referred to the common theme of anti-Japanese sentiment twinned with Chinese nationalism re-emerging with the blessing of the government every few years. The last time this happened a little over a year ago, he explained, something curious happened. “On [microblogging platform] Sina Weibo you saw alternative voices, Chinese average citizens saying ‘I’ve been to Japan, it’s a great country, I have Japanese friends,’” Noubel said. “Social media in China is interesting now because it gives space for the two voices, for extreme nationalists, but also for people sensible about not demonizing Japan.”

The increasing wealth and mobility of mainland Chinese also means that they can visit other countries and form their own impressions first-hand, which also has the effect of countering extreme nationalism. Michael Anti, a journalist and Nieman Fellow who is from China, recounted the profound experience of living in Tokyo for a couple of months as a visiting scholar and how it changed his perspective. Participants agreed that international visits, long a fundamental component of public diplomacy, can be extremely powerful, particularly when embedded in authentic personal or local narratives.

Soft Power: the Chinese Experience in Asia
The Chinese “charm offensive” in Southeast Asia and elsewhere has drawn much attention in recent years—for both its successes and its failures. On one hand, China has demonstrated its growing sophistication in the nonmilitary arena by strategically deploying cultural, media and economic resources around the world and amplifying these efforts in the global networked in­formation space. The country’s success in controlling and manipulating information within its borders leads many to believe it will encounter similar success in wielding soft power in the international sphere.

On the other hand, while China has invested several billion dollars per year in Southeast Asia to bolster its regional influence and advance its strategic interests, its development projects in the region have increasingly alienated local populations, even as its nationalistic rhetoric over the South China Sea has strained relations with ASEAN neighbors.

Some participants expressed the view that China’s overall approach has not helped it curry favor in Southeast Asia. Even as China’s emphasis on its lack of preconditions for aid and investment may seem appealing in the short term, the lack of consideration of long term consequences, environmental or otherwise, “helps drive Burma away from China,” said Tim Aye-Hardy, Director of Outreach for the Burma Global Action Network. “Even though the Chinese government has provided protection for the last 20 years, the anti-Chinese sentiment is growing each day.”

China might look to recent history to better understand its soft power trajectory, said some. “At one point we thought Japan was eating our lunch in Southeast Asia,” but ultimately they did not gain the influence they sought despite their aid and investment, said Charles Morrison. “That's because a lot of what they were doing…looked selfish” on the part of Japanese companies and interests.

The fallout over China’s attempts to exercise soft power is fascinating, given that the concept has been prominent in Chinese political circles for years. Almost all Chinese officials are familiar with the concept of soft power, said Michael Anti, blogger and Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. “But I think they misinterpret the idea of soft power. In their minds, soft power is a very soft propaganda.” Anti pointed out, however, that there was a shift in official attitudes toward the concept in 2008. That year, after the Olympics, officials got a nasty shock when protests against the Chinese government continued despite what was widely perceived to be a very successful Olympics. Officials may have thought that they “invested so much money to show the good image, and to show that China wants to be part of the international community, so why are you still hostile?” Anti noted that since then, the emphasis on soft power as a key foreign policy concept has weakened.

But Chinese officials misunderstand the locus of soft power, argued some participants, and this is why they may be disappointed when they do not get the results they would like. “There is a total lack of credible civil society in China,” which hampers their efforts to build soft power, said Lokman Tsui. Soft power is most effective when expressed through culture, civil society, and other non-governmental institutions and is most persuasive and credible as a bottom-up organic phenomenon, rather than a managed top-down program, he argued. In China, because of the lack of civil society, attempts at harnessing soft power were “top-down, money-infused and government-funded…there is no third party that can speak on behalf of” the state.

One participant disputed that the Chinese government was spending the type of large sums being reported on soft power, as well as the notion that all state papers were simply propaganda organs being propped up by the state. Larry Lee, President and Executive Editor-in-Chief of the official China Daily newspaper, argued that his mission was not propaganda, but rather to try to “build an incredible newspaper.”

Evolving U.S. Diplomacy in Southeast Asia
Several participants observed that the environment surrounding U.S. diplomacy in Southeast Asia had changed in recent years, partly because of the information revolution and the new information landscape of the region. Kathleen Stephens noted the emergence of new and innovative approaches toward social media and diplomacy in recent years. Countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand feature vibrant social media environments, and “embassies with support from Washington are doing different things” within those environments, she said. “It is very culturally specific and country specific.” Stephens added that new initiatives might range from training NGOs how to use new media as part of capacity building programs, to using technology to build on face to face encounters.

But technology and diplomacy are not the only things that mattered, many participants asserted. Stephens noted that the U.S. now has an ambassador to ASEAN, and has made several tangible gestures to build relations with the region and strengthen multilateral capabilities. This, in turn, has positioned the U.S. to try out the previously mentioned new approaches toward public diplomacy.

Roundtable participants discussed the fact that, even as the diplomatic landscape was being transformed, the U.S. was still grappling with evergreen questions such as how to balance the important, if sometimes dueling, emphases on human rights and economic growth in Southeast Asia. While the two goals often come into tension, they are “not necessarily in conflict with each other,” said Charles Morrison. “It’s important in the business community that the justice system works, that intellectual property rights are protected, that there is rule of law.”

Ideally, said some, these two goals would go hand in hand. “When we go into a country to invest, what we want is good labor policy and good health policy, so we do the two together,” said Madeleine Albright.

These issues are often brought into focus in Burma, which was long shunned by the U.S. investment community due to its human rights abuses. Now that the political system has begun to open up and the U.S. has restored relations at the ambassadorial level, U.S. investment is beginning to pour in—but the country still lacks some of the basic infrastructure needed to ensure reliable investment and rights protections. From the Burmese perspective, said Tim Aye-Hardy, the U.S. has a significant role in the transition process, one that the Burmese hope continues as Burma’s transition continues to unfold; the U.S. should be “building capacity from the ground up, building the components” of democratic governance that will allow the country’s transition to move forward.

The Snowden Fallout
Although the Roundtable did not set out to discuss U.S. domestic affairs, many participants made the case that the recent revelations by Edward Snowden about the activities of the U.S. intelligence community had had dramatic effects internationally, touching on many roundtable topics. For instance, said some, authoritarian governments were newly empowered to employ advanced surveillance on their citizens, justifying their actions by saying that even the democracy-championing U.S. engaged in such activities.

The day of the initial Snowden revelations was “the darkest day for Internet freedom,” said blogger Michael Anti. Chinese dissidents, and other dissidents around the world, perceived that they had lost “the biggest ally of Internet freedom, the American government.” Indeed, he said, the Chinese government was already using the example to justify their Internet policies.

Moreover, said some, the U.S. government’s loud proclamations to Americans that they were not the target of spying did nothing to reassure the rest of the world. In the past, it may have been possible to say one thing to a domestic audience and another version to an international audience, but no longer; all messages are inherently bound for international audiences. “The rest of the world hears what we say when we say ‘we would never do this to an American,’” said Kathleen Stephens. “Our standing as the legitimate leader of technology ethics standards can be undermined by this, and we need to be serious because it will have knock-on effects” in many areas.

Charlie Firestone, Executive Director of the Communications and Society Program at the Aspen Institute, noted that it is not only countries and civil society that might be affected, that U.S. technology companies might be hurt as well. “This issue has affected public diplomacy in the sense of erosion of trust in the U.S., our businesses and our institutions,” he said.

The perceived security of cloud computing was also hurt by the Snowden affair, said some. More countries might be encouraged to insist on having physical servers within their own borders—a model favored by countries like China, and generally seen as unfavorable by companies. “One of our arguments is not to have local data centers,” said Lokman Tsui of Google, in part because it might make it easier for various governments to demand access to data. In light of the revelations, however, many are erroneously assuming that the reason is to ensure that all data stays within U.S. borders so it can be accessed by the U.S. government, he said. If more and more countries insist on local data centers “it really goes to the integrity of the Internet as one Internet,’ he said. “The worst case is fragmentation of the Internet.” The breakdown of a crucial global common medium would be one of the worst knock-on effects of the Snowden revelations, he and others argued.

One participant noted an interesting potential silver lining. “The Snowden affair was destructive in many ways, but in one curious way, it ended up being positive,” said Orville Schell. Because the U.S. is always seen as lecturing other countries on Internet freedom, and holding up China as a negative example, in some sense the Snowden affair has balanced out the positions of the two countries. “Who wants to negotiate with someone with purity on their side? China now feels there is space to negotiate.”

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