Friday, June 22, 2018


by Phililp J Cunningham

China’s diplomatic forays into Southeast Asia are as periodic and predictable as domestic cycles of tightening up and loosening down: the status quo holds for a while, then disruptive change causes contradictions and misunderstandings to arise. Odes to eternal friendship are sung, increased trade is touted and a fresh effort is made to patch things up again. Rinse and repeat.
The latest charm offensive by a Chinese premier in Southeast Asia offers something old and something new. Li Keqiang was recently dispatched to Southeast Asia to disentangle entanglements and further tie ties. Such a tour reminds the region that there is an alternative to Uncle Sam and her name is China. But unlike the early southern forays, starting with Premier Zhou Enlai’s epic visit to the Bandung Conference in Indonesia in 1955, the message now is not “communism is your friend” but rather “the business of diplomacy is business.”
In April 1955, Zhou was the man of the hour, having narrowly escaped an assassination attempt to preach peace and neutrality in the name of a non-aligned movement at Bandung. In the first half of the 1960s, titular president Liu Shaoqi tried to show that “Good Communists” could make good neighbors. Liu and “first lady” Wang Guangmei went to Hanoi where they were Ho Chi Minh’s guests of honor in a fraternal socialist state. They were also famously feted by Indonesia’s Sukarno in capitalist Jakarta, though the glamor of the visit came back to haunt them in the Cultural Revolution. During the high tide of Red Guards waving the red flag, Liu and his wife were mocked cruelly and imprisoned. Across Southeast Asia, AK47-toting guerillas went on the offensive, seeking to topple standing governments, armed and funded by Beijing. Embassies were shuttered and state-to-state foreign policy collapsed.
By the time Deng Xiaoping repudiated the chaotic policies of Mao and consolidated power in 1979, state-to-state relations had resumed their place in the sun. Affairs of state eclipsed ideology-driven party-to-party relations, and it has been that way ever since.
Deng Xiaoping’s right-hand man, Premier Zhao Ziyang, travelled to Southeast Asia in 1979 and again in 1981 to reassure Thailand and other anti-communist neighbors that China would adhere to a strict non-interference policy, which in practical terms meant dialing down support for regional Communist parties and dialing up state recognition. Zhao walked a diplomatic tightrope since clandestine support for guerilla groups was not entirely discontinued, but his assurances proved meaningful in the long run. Direct support for underground parties in peninsular Southeast Asia dropped and the Communist Party of Thailand crumbled due to factional discord. The PRC’s once-substantial support for Vietnam also withered due to Sino-Soviet tensions and then was sundered completely with the border war of 1979 in which Deng saw it fit to “punish” Vietnam for toppling China’s client state in Phnom Penh led by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. The Mao-inspired Communist Party of the Philippines grudgingly took a back seat to state-to-state relations in the 1980s, but has never disbanded and is now loosely allied with President Rodrigo Duterte in support of his hardcore law-and-order drive and pro-Beijing policy.
Chinese Premier Li Peng’s 1990 stiff visit to Singapore and a subsequent 1991 visit to Thailand were not the stuff diplomatic dreams are made of; more holding action than charm offensive. Defensive in the wake of the bloody Tiananmen crackdown of 1989, China dispensed with diplomatic pomp and instead let money do the talking. Beijing strengthened business links with opportunistic tycoons, mostly of Chinese descent, in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia, whose cold indifference to human rights could be productively construed as non-interference. Within a year of the unpopular premier’s south-of-border tour, China was invited to be a “consultative partner” of ASEAN and, in what may be considered a rare win for Li Peng’s awkward diplomacy, relations were normalized with former arch-enemy Vietnam in late 1991.
The no-nonsense Premier Zhu Rongji rose to the diplomatic helm in the years that followed, earning respect for his shrewd economic guidance during the 1997 financial crisis, fearless bureaucratic reform, and stern anti-corruption drives. The perception that China was not only not a foe, but even a potential friend, took root as Beijing lent financial support to countries buffeted by the crisis, especially Thailand, and boosted two-way trade to tide things over. Zhu went on to smooth China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, raise the possibility of a China-ASEAN free trade zone and call for a softer approach to Taiwan.
The next round of charming Southeast Asia fell to Wen Jiabao, who was burdened by growing maritime tensions and blundered significantly by attempting to use checkbook diplomacy to blunt tensions at a time when China was aggressively asserting dominion in the South China Sea. The half-billion-dollar deal sweetener known as the Maritime Cooperation Fund offered at Bali in 2011 had no takers and a rise in tensions saw security rather than trade issues dominate the discourse. Several high-profile crimes and hostage cases victimizing Chinese people also muddied the waters, while poorly regulated, record-breaking waves of Chinese investment and group tourist activity began to create tensions at the oft-vaunted level of people-to-people exchange.
At its best, the current Belt and Road Initiative invokes the cosmopolitan reach of the historic Silk Road, but it’s also being recklessly applied to big-time investment in almost anything, anywhere. A case in point is the Dara Sakor Seashore Resort, a white elephant casino project in Cambodia, which according to a Reuters report signed away 45,000 hectares of a national park to an opaque team of Chinese investors supported by a Belt and Road bond. The rain forest was cut down and a thousand villagers were dislocated, for what? Blackjack tables and roulette wheels? For a “VIP only” experience of “extravagant feasting and revelry?”
Non-interference in the domestic affairs of diplomatic partners has been a pillar of China’s policy, dating back to Bandung days when China had little more to offer than ideology and an outstretched hand of friendship, but it rings hollow now that China is an economic giant. Big money from a big country can’t help but influence, disrupt and transform the small and medium sized countries it seeks to profit in. China’s high-speed rail plan in Malaysia fell apart when disgraced premier Najib Razak lost the election to former premier Mahathir, known for his nationalistic bent. Big ticket infrastructure plans, whether it be a canal across the Kra Isthmus in Thailand or a train line in Laos, will gut the natural environment, drive away farmers and upset a precious traditional way of life.
As such, Li Keqiang, the latest in a long string of premiers sent to woo Southeast Asia, has his work cut out for him. Shifts in diplomatic outlook on the part of both the U.S. and China are changing the rules as tensions arise and polarize the region.
By the same token, China, giddy, groping and greedy from its rapid rise and mind-boggling wealth, must be on guard against over-reach. Deng Xiaoping’s savvy policy of keeping a low profile is yielding to an increasingly assertive policy, including imprudent unilateral actions and an uptick of tone-deaf militant pronouncements from Beijing.
Southeast Asia is not China’s backyard, but rather the center of its own existence, a grouping of proud, independent states with distinct and diverse cultural traditions. All sides need and want to get along, all sides benefit from stability and fair trade. Southeast Asian security fears and China’s energy and shipping insecurities can be alleviated with mutual engagement and respect. However, as much as Li might like to keep it light and focus on amity and trade, as did his predecessors, flashpoints touching on territorial sovereignty and thorny security questions beg attention. What’s more, roughshod environmental degradation and heart-wrenching social disruption due to big-time economic integration cannot be wished away with silk-shirted banquets, maotai toasts, win-win pronouncements, and gala photo-ops.
While the U.S. enjoyed untrammeled economic access to Southeast Asia during the Cold War, and almost uncontested military dominance since the fall of the Berlin Wall, it now faces a credible rival in China, not just in terms of trade and manufacture but in emerging templates for diplomacy and military security as well. It would be foolish for the U.S. to re-invoke Cold War style swagger – “if you are not with us you are against us” — because China is in the region to stay. Taking the long view, the three-decade containment of China was a historic anomaly. China and Southeast Asia have been actively engaging and occasionally enraging one another for untold centuries.

(published in China-US Focus, June 13, 2018

Wednesday, June 20, 2018


Available as a paperback or ebook at Amazon


FUJI is at once an irreverent romp and a serious meditation on what it means to be a gaijin in Japan in a global era when identity and reality are constantly being redefined and mediated by populist movements and the commercial-driven media.

Set against the magnificent backdrop of Mount Fuji, the characters battle the elements, the expectations of society, and one another during an off-season Sino-Japanese “friendship” climb recorded by a TV documentary crew. The risk of earthquakes and avalanches is never far, but pales before human folly that threatens the peace and amity between nations. In its cruelest incarnations, nature is a terrible beauty, but also, ultimately, an inspiration and guide.

The three main characters fall in and out of trouble and in and out of love, all the while seeking to survive, if not thrive. Facing deportation on trumped-up charges, TV studio rewriter Collin B. Long escapes arrest but must stay on the move to keep one step ahead of his pursuers, seeking sanctuary first with fellow foreigner, Huang Jianhong and later with TV personality Miki Matsu.

A comedy of manners packed with wit, conflict, insouciance, insolence and devilish fun, Fuji is an off-the-rails adventure that offers unexpected insight into social fault lines up and down, left, right and center.

Mount Fuji in her many moods is an aloof witness to the folly of men and women who violate its forbidding wintry surface in an epic search for truth, beauty and love in all the wrong places.



Friday, June 8, 2018


(from the forthcoming Tokyo novel by Philip J Cunningham)


A borderline beautiful woman hurries down a busy Tokyo boulevard on her way to the train station. Long legs loping, long red coat open, she swishes forward with a fluid, foreign gait that sets her apart from the rapid but methodical pace of the rush hour crowd. She doesn’t stand out the way her friend Collin did, but the preponderance of men in dark suits provides a stark background against which anything youngish and female was bound to attract eyes, even in the pouring down rain.

Jianhong's scowling face is hidden under the rim of a big yellow umbrella which she employs as both plow and shield, alternately clearing a way forward and shrinking from view. Straining to advance in the hurried tide without really being part of it, she doubles her pace, her bare legs leaving a wake of jaded eyes behind her. 

She darts in and out where she can when she can, slowing to a prudent crawl to avoid body slams when things thicken up. The station entrance is one of those bottlenecks where converging forces fall into line and slip into lockstep to avoid collision. She whips out her commutation pass and trudges through the turnstiles, marching to the same silent tune as the others. It’s not so much an appreciation of harmony as it is a fear of not conforming; to break ranks is to invite chaos. Plodding up a steep stone staircase, Jianhong falls in synch with the ordered commuter flow, flanked by an army of suits on all sides.

Then, out of nowhere, someone rubs her. Rubs her on the ass. She freezes for a microsecond, then turns in fury. A quick glance backwards reveals nothing but the disinterested faces of clean-cut, freshly shaved commuters. Shaken, she reluctantly, resumes moving with the flow, slowly, one unhappy footstep after the other, dismissing the apparent violation of bodily dignity as an accidental brush of the hand. 

She’s near the top of the staircase when it happens again. It was not an accident, it certainly didn't feel like one. 

She snaps to a halt and abruptly turns around, ready to accuse, ready to strike. Heads down, attaché cases in one hand, umbrellas in the other, most of the weary men need no alibi, but her eyes interrogate all comers. Few of the glazed-over eyes meet her angry gaze, nor does anyone pay her much heed, though she is now in danger of further physical contact as she is blocking the way of those anxious to pass by.

There may well be a pervert in their midst, but the commute must go on.

For the second time she resignedly rejoins the wall-to-wall flow, keeping step with the same silent drummer, but she is not caught up in the same mass trance.

Only when she reaches a patch of open space on the main platform does she yield to her mounting paranoia, scowling at every last passing man. The daily crush not only failed to make up for the lack of a man in her life, it has made her want to lack men all the more.

A waft of pungent air causes her nose to crinkle, but the whiff of ammonia is not entirely unwelcome. She follows the acrid olfactory trail to a twin pair of doors, each marked by a brightly colored triangle, one pointing up, the other pointing down.

Red for ladies, blue for men.
She enters on the left and hurries into a urine-stenched stall, slamming the door shut on the world. The ladies. A lady’s last refuge. Bladder bursting, she unceremoniously lifts her big coat, squats down and relieves herself, baring her bottom in a drafty, unheated stall.
Washing her hands, she shakes them dry and washes them once more, then glances at the mirror, adjusting her skirt, trying to imagine what she looked like to others.  She emerges onto the platform just in time to see closing doors of her train. She scans the electronic timetable; it’s a good 17 minutes till the next express.
Her need for a modicum of physical isolation is enough to impel her to migrate to the least crowded part of the platform. She weaves her way through a scrum of freshly arrived commuters, working her way against an adverse tide of bodies. When the throng begins to thin, her flailing red coat raises furtive glances from mild-mannered salarimen reading, or pretending to read, paperback books and strategically folded newspapers. She’s far from being alone, but close enough to being alone to breathe easy again. She sighs a sad sigh of relief.
 At the end of the platform, the air is marginally better, and the view of the tracks stretching off into the urban clutter offers the semblance of semi-open space with sufficient intrusion of open sky as to be almost inviting, but when the train pulls into the station, it will be a mad rush to the last door of the last car all the same.
Transit police issue commands with curt shouts and outstretched hands, endeavoring to conduct the commuters like bit players in a grand symphony:
“The Local Express will be arriving on track two, the Express Express will be arriving on track one. Please mind your step. Your safety is our concern.”

Being involuntarily thrust into intimate proximity with strangers of the opposite sex on the way to and from work took its toll, and the authorities were working on that, but in the meantime, she had to bear the unbearable.
Conformity is Harmony!
An unseen voice issues cold commands while attentive white-gloved station attendants gently whip the herd into line, even as the human stream swells well beyond the carrying capacity of the next two trains running. Plastic batons flail rhythmically just above the bobbing heads of the masses, coaxing forward a relatively smooth, unruffled flow.
Conformity is Harmony!
A phalanx of uniformed guards survey the human movement with jaundiced eyes. They are there just in case, though just in case of what was hard to say. Their off-putting presence alone probably helped enforce conformity of movement, if not harmony of mind, even though the rote warnings, repeated day in and day out, were usually sufficient in themselves.
Conformity is Harmony!
Orderly and unassailable queues of passengers line up along white lines painted precisely where the train doors will pop open. She admires but fails to emulate the patience of people who stand stoically on line to board standing-room-only trains, who wait not for the next train, but two or three trains from now.
Conformity is Harmony!
She’s tempted to cut in line, but this was Japan, where it didn’t do to do such things. Chances were no one would say a word, some forgiving souls might even pretend not to notice, but the disapproving glances, however furtive, would be soul crushing to one in aa fragile a state as she.
Conformity is Harmony!
Suppression of the self was the key to not minding the presence of others. Never mind the never-ending rush, never mind the never-ending crush. Fast or slow, early or late, there was no escape from the mad melee of impatient bodies other than to shut in and tune out.
Conformity is Harmony!
Jianhong shudders, but it’s not just the cold. Something about being female in Tokyo--and being a foreign one to boot—had the effect of wrong footing her dreams. She was a lady who worked in an office but too much of a tomboy at heart to be an office lady.
She didn’t do girly girl, nor did she do prim and proper. It was not like her to be a non-conformist, but she couldn’t fit in without losing it.
Stuck in the drafty corner of a chilly platform with time to kill, she finds her mind drifting to her renegade officemate. Collin never came in until after rush hour and it was easy to see why; how he got away with it was the real question. Was it because he was white? Male? American? Or was it just the come-what-will willingness of the court jester to court rebuke?
She wondered what would it be like riding the train with him. Would his big, bulky, slightly menacing and fully alien presence keep away the predators? And if her modesty should be violated in his presence, would he come to her defense, perhaps even collar the culprit?
He was no one’s idea of a gentleman, but she had seen him in and out of action often enough to bear witness to his chivalrous side, though he did a good job of keeping any hint of being a gentleman hidden during his more manic moments. She had consorted with him enough to detect a depth there. What’s more, he had come to her defense before, and it would be nice to have him around to do so again
On the other hand, he had also, in a startling moment of unsolicited intimacy, made the ridiculous and outright sexist claim that riding the trains during rush hour was one of those joys that made the Tokyo life worth living.
“What’s not to like about it?” he beamed. “So many good lookers, the best fashion in the world. You know what wakes me up better than coffee? Trains packed to the rim with trim.”
Crazy him! How could anyone enjoy the daily trauma of being squished together in rude physical proximity with unknown others of the opposite sex? Were the breasts and buttocks of strangers really so alluring?
There were days when she deliberately let the most over-packed trains go by but even with the slow trains it was an obstacle course with a race to the finish. How was it that the thing she most hated about Tokyo was the very thing that he liked best?
When she finally exits the station closest to VTR, she’s back out in the weather again.
The on-again, off-again rain has resumed its misty sprinkle, so she pops opens her big yellow umbrella and tilts it forward, utilizing it more as a plow than awning. The pointy-ended ribs create a safe radius on either side while the tip helps avoid collisions.
She plies her way through throngs of mute men heading to the big intersection. A seething mass of umbrella-shielded bodies trembles impatiently in place until the undulating swell comes to a crest and then breaks. Seagulls squawking overhead look down upon a stampede of colorful crabs, jerking forward in fits and starts as the commuter crawl resumes.
Despite incessant lane changing on foot, the crowd never really gets ahead of itself and no one really gets far ahead. Impeded by people every step of the way, she weaves her way through a thicket of narrow alleys lined with bicycles, noodle shops, fast food joints, brand-name boutiques and trendy bookstores.
She followed the minimal dictates of fashion but chose not to be eye candy to men. She was a swashbucklerette, a woman warrior, ever on guard, ever vigilant. The bump and grind of the rush hour commute was an ordeal, but she got to work on time.
The office was the kind of place where getting in on time mattered a great deal. Everybody minded your business but nobody cared. It was the kind of place where you were free to do what you liked as long as you abided by unwritten rules and rigid appearances.

By the time she reaches Fuji Park, the thickly peopled flow has thinned out to the point that it is almost exclusively composed of office workers, cameramen, television executives and producers. As the massive edifice of VTR Central looms into view high above the trees, she pauses to catch her breath, slowing her step to be more in harmony with the unknown coworkers who walk in silence ahead, astride, beside and behind her.
At the guarded and gated employee entrance she breathlessly flashes her VTR card. Upon passing inspection, she inserts her folded umbrella into a narrow plastic bag provided for the purpose of keeping the lobby floor free of puddles.
Without missing a beat she boards the express elevator that carries her and a carload of fellow workers straight up to the international news floor.
After depositing her bagged umbrella in a rack with dozens of other bagged umbrellas, she punches in.
Whew! She’s only a few minutes early, which was tantamount to being late, at least according to the competitive norms of self-sacrificing company spirit, but at least she’s okay by the clock.
She glides over to her desk, greeting co-workers with forced cheer in between shallow breaths, trying to disguise the fact that she’s feeling nauseous and under the weather.
She tidies things up and assists the caddies in serving coffee and tea, greeting the aloof, hard-working men of her section with a semi-smile.
Though she gets briefly chided for missing a pre-work meeting with one of the section heads, she was otherwise off the hook.
Morning ritual thus set into motion, she slips off to the lady’s room for a moment by herself. Facing the mirror she splashes water on her face and then daubs her cheeks, just to make sure the tears she has tried so hard to hold back don’t show.