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S’pore should guard against false binary choices in Chinese public diplomacy: Bilahari Kausikan

SINGAPORE — China's public diplomacy in the region often involves presenting false choices in a binary fashion, said retired top diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, adding that such psychological operations would fail once those being targeted are aware of Beijing's intentions.

S’pore should guard against false binary choices in Chinese public diplomacy: Bilahari Kausikan

Mr Bilahari Kausikan said that Beijing uses a mix of persuasion, inducement and coercion techniques to create a psychological environment which poses false choices for other countries.

SINGAPORE — China's public diplomacy in the region often involves presenting false choices in a binary fashion, said retired top diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, adding that such psychological operations would fail once those being targeted are aware of Beijing's intentions.

Speaking at a conference on Chinese public diplomacy in East Asia and the Pacific on Wednesday (June 27), Mr Kausikan said that Beijing uses a mix of persuasion, inducement and coercion techniques to create a psychological environment which poses false choices for other countries.

He told an audience of more than 50 academics and policy makers that this has been a simple, but powerful and effective instrument.

"This technique of forcing false choices on you and making you choose between false choices is deployed within a framework of either overarching narratives or specific narratives… The purpose is to narrow the scope of choices and they are usually presented in binary terms," said Mr Kausikan, who was previously permanent secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and now chairs the National University of Singapore's Middle East Institute.

"The intention is to stampede your thinking so that the critical faculty is not fully engaged and to instill a sense of fatalistic inevitability of the choices forced upon you."

He cited several examples of falsehoods that have been put forth by Beijing when dealing with the Republic, including how relations under founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew were much better as compared to now because the current Government does not understand China.

"(These discourses are) powerful because they are not entirely fabricated. They do contain a kernel of truth," he said.

"(But) they are either extremely simplistic… or leave out vital facts," he added, pointing out that Mr Lee went against the Chinese-supported Communist united front in the 1950s-60s and prevailed.

Other examples of untruths, said Mr Kausikan, include how Washington represents the past while Beijing stands for the future, as well as suggestions that those who are close to the United States will find it hard to have close economic ties with China.

A study released this week by AidData research laboratory, Centre for Strategic and International Studies and the Asia Society Policy Institute said that China has spent more than US$48 billion (S$65 billion) across East Asia and the Pacific between 2000 and 2016 to reward trade partners and those supporting its foreign policy positions.

Mr Kausikan noted during the conference - organised by the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies together with those who produced the study - that China's influence can be brittle even if it succeeds in its public diplomacy.

For one, Beijing's efforts would only work when those targeted are unaware of the psychological operations against them.

"Once you are aware (of the manipulation), you have to be particularly obtuse to fall for it," he said. "Exposure is therefore the best countermeasure".

Other vulnerabilities in the Chinese approach he added, include "cultural altruism" as well as a tendency towards "self-deception… and rigidity". This may lead to China over extending itself in the region.

But he said that even when China's intentions are exposed, the other parties may opt to play along due to genuine sympathy towards the Chinese position, cultural affinity or to ensure that bilateral relations can be kept on an even keel.

This may also be due to "transactional reasons – for hope of reward or fear of sanctions", Mr Kausikan noted.

When asked during the question and answer segment on what would be Singapore's core strength in countering Chinese attempts to influence the Republic, the veteran diplomat said the idea of being a multi-racial country is important.

"Modern Singapore is not based on being a Chinese country… No one can ignore China. But significant influence is not dominant influence or exclusive influence," he stated.

Mr Kausikan added that most Singaporeans are not really interested in foreign policy, and this creates a fertile ground for psychological manipulation.

He suggested that the Republic should beef up national education efforts and "teach our own history better".

"It is wrong to think that we side with China or America. We side only with Singapore. Our organising idea is our own national interests," he said.

"Sometimes it may lead us to tilt a bit towards China or towards America. But the guiding principle is always our own interests."

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