Generation 40s – 四十世代

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As America heads back to a future of small-minded thinking, can China seize the chance to lead?

CommentInsight & Opinion

Tom Plate says the US’ latest foreign policy ideas of ‘America First’, war preparations and a single winner are not actually new, and are not well thought out


In the pantheon of American movies, 1985’s Back to the Future does not rank at the top of temple Hollywood, as do canonical masterpieces such as CasablancaGone With the WindLawrence of Arabia, etc. Yet the movie title alone enriched American argot, and works perfectly to capture the latest turn in US foreign policy. Yes, it looks like it may be “back to the future” again, as in … war preparation.

The Trump administration has revealed defence priorities that have the chilling feel of a cold war emphasis – rather than a no-war aspiration. The world has just been told that the 2019 Pentagon budget – topped up at US$716 billion – comes packaged as an “aggressive defence strategy”. Defence Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis, viewed as one of this bizarre administration’s more balanced brains, cites threats from China and Russia. Both political left and right, argue some US think-tank types, seem in increasing concurrence on two nostrums. One is that the Indo-Pacific region is the globe’s number one geopolitical theatre (agree). The second is that America must do much more to counter an “increasingly authoritarian, mercantilist and aggressive” China.

Who knows what the US now wants, but what is worrisome is the ever-hovering Law of Unintended Consequences: one builds up for peace but winds up with war.

This depressing drift reflects conceptual minimalism – an ideology of win-lose, the default of us-vs-them, and rejection of visionary global leadership for petty policy provincialism. “America First does not mean America alone”, President Donald Trump insisted at the World Economic Forum summit in Davos, Switzerland. “When the United States grows, so does the world.” But how can that be the case if it grows small-minded?

Small minds tend not to beget big ideas. One of America’s great diplomats was the late George Kennan, who coined – and mostly even defined – the iconic policy of “containment” as the needed antidote to the poison of the former Soviet Union. And though Kennan’s excoriation of Soviet communism never waned one bit at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, where he retired to become an unforgettable teacher, the true genius of the containment notion was its aim: not to provoke uncertainty but offer a bedrock of predictability.

But when the USSR collapsed from internal decay, the simplicity of this organising idea went poof as well. One day, out of frustration, a few Washington influentials trekked to Princeton hoping the master might give birth to a new trope, as it were, to reframe US policy. But according to dinner participants (alas, I was not present), Kennan resisted the challenge with the sigh that world was exploding in too many directions for conceptual miniaturisation. At the same time Kennan, who died in 1995 aged 101, had little appetite to advise anyone to go “back to the future”.

The provincialism of Trump is a symptom of the current default to the past, including tariff tantrums and potential trade wars that will harm US consumers as well as foreign producers; but he is not the core cause. The new provincialism goes deep: after all, Trump’s more thoughtful predecessor preferred “leading from behind”. But whether from the back or front, Asian nations from the Philippines to Vietnam – and perhaps also Singapore and Malaysia – need the US to act with intelligence and foresight. What is needed is a committed effort to formulate a cosmopolitan internationalism, fiendishly multisided; but rarely is anything truly important easy to achieve.

The problem with the win-lose paradigm is that someone always loses; the argument for win-win is, “why risk being a loser”? It should not be hard to decide which of these two approaches offers the best odds for geopolitical and economic stability. This outlook would prove less difficult to realise were it matched by an expansive dose of cosmopolitanism from China. Americans worry – and increasingly so – that Beijing is striking a more global posture than Washington but the new “nice” hegemon profile is but a pose. One Harvard professor even titled his latest book (superb, other than the awful title): Destined for War.

China will stumble if it needlessly brews its own cold war rumble. Big powers advance best with little steps. This sensitive point was conveyed at Davos. Singapore’s tactful minister, Chan Chun Sing, came across as more than happy to accept China’s imaginative and ambitious New Silk Road programme as a credible potential trigger for our world economy’s “next phase of growth”. But – seemed the minister’s subtext – Beijing needs to stop scaring people in the Asian neighbourhood half out of their wits if it proposes to begin “leading from the front” with élan. Said Chan: “I can understand and I have heard theories where people are afraid, hesitant about China’s growth. But this is an important historical opportunity for China to convince the rest of the world that actually its actions have a broader perspective … The Chinese have a saying: yi de fu ren – use your benevolence to bring about a global community.”

This felicitous phrase was the one trumpeted by President Xi Jinping in his Davos speech last year. The optics of the current Chinese government plumping for an expansive internationalism contrasted brilliantly – and cleverly – with the self-centred darkness of the then newly inaugurated American president. And it still does. Back to the future – if America is prepared to go small conceptually, while blowing up militarily? Or boldly into the future goes China – yi de fu ren? That’s the daunting, haunting mystery of our era.

Loyola Marymount University Professor Tom Plate’s books on China include the recent Yo-Yo Diplomacy and In the Middle of China’s Future (with an introduction by Kishore Mahbubani)


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After the Vegas massacre and European terror attacks, is it safe for Hong Kong children to study abroad?

CommentInsight & Opinion
Mike Rowse says parents must strike a balance when deciding where children should study. Anxiety over American gun violence or terrorism in London can’t be the only factor

The recent tragic events in Las Vegas and spate of terrorist attacks in Europe will have all parents whose children study overseas pondering whether they made the right decision.

After all, Hong Kong has many fine schools and universities. Since we live in, by any measure, one of the world’s safest cities, why send our precious children thousands of miles away, where they might be in danger and we will see them less often? The counter arguments are familiar to all families on this path: some courses are not available here or are better taught elsewhere; living in another country is an enriching experience for most young people on top of any academic benefit; being apart from relatives and friends helps teach self-reliance and is an important step in the maturing process. Where the correct balance lies depends on individual circumstances.

My two teenage children were both leaning toward subjects not covered well or at all by Hong Kong’s tertiary institutions and, after research, felt the best options were in North America, with the UK as a possible fallback. Hence, our family has spent the last three summer holidays scouting suitable colleges for them. One visit to California actually included a side trip to Las Vegas, about a four-hour journey from Los Angeles by car. Press reports of the carnage there have also included some other alarming statistics. The Financial Times, for example, quoted Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit organisation, as saying there had been 274 mass shootings (in which at least four people were killed or injured) so far in 2017.

After weighing the alternatives, my daughter chose the University of California Los Angeles and started there last month. London would have been cheaper but she is studying film making and the proximity to Hollywood was too much of a draw. Would she have chosen differently if the Las Vegas mass shooting had come earlier? Highly unlikely, nor would I have sought to persuade her. Would London – scene of several terrorist incidents in recent years – be any safer?

An officer stands guard at a police cordon near a house in Newport, South Wales, on September 20, during investigations into the September 15 terror attack on a London underground tube train carriage. Photo: AFPImportant decisions in life should be taken on the overall balance of arguments. Provided we are not reckless in the thinking process and don’t ignore some highly relevant and probable adverse conditions, we have to accept that there is a degree of risk in all options. A slightly higher risk of being the victim of a gun crime in the US, or a terrorist attack in the UK, should not be the determining factors.

Similar mental juggling is needed when considering other life choices, such as involvement in sports. When my two (now adult) sons were growing up, both played rugby and football, as did most of their mates. Parents were relatively relaxed at that time about what were perceived as very remote prospects of serious injury. We now know much more about the dangers of incurring injuries in contact sports. Recent studies of the brains of deceased NFL players found evidence of the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy in 99 per cent of cases.

When my daughter decided to play rugby, naturally the question arose as to whether to steer her toward a more gentle activity. Clearly there are dangers, as parents are reminded every time a child comes home bruised and limping. On the other hand, rugby is a very healthy form of exercise, and promotes camaraderie and team spirit. Moreover, coaches these days are much more alert to safety issues.

This combination of photos provided by Boston University shows sections from a normal brain, top, and from the brain of former University of Texas football player Greg Ploetz, bottom, with stage IV chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Photo: APThis once again comes down to balancing the factors and, without being reckless, reaching a reasoned decision. There are also family politics to account for. Parents of very young children are entitled to be fairly autocratic in making important decisions on behalf of their offspring. But, as children move into their teens and grow more mature, decisions become much more of a joint enterprise. Parents slip into the role of advisers, ensuring that all relevant issues have been considered. After that, they basically have to respect their children’s choices.

I won’t pretend this is a painless process. At moments of severe strain on the nerves, I find the occasional silent prayer, perhaps accompanied by a stiff drink, can provide some solace.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises.

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The real reason the US hasn’t tried to shoot down a North Korean missile

CommentInsight & Opinion
Will Saetren says vaunted missile defence systems such Aegis and THAAD are, in fact, ineffective and the US won’t attempt a shoot-down because failure would be catastrophic at this stage in the crisis

The North Korean nuclear crisis is escalating out of control. North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong-ho recently declared that US President Donald Trump’s comments about destroying his country were a “declaration of war”, and that, in response, North Korea would shoot down US bombers, even if they were not in its airspace. Last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un issued an even more dire threat: to conduct an atmospheric test of a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean, a nightmare scenario for the Trump administration.

If North Korea were to test-fire a live nuclear warhead using one of its ballistic missiles, it would seriously undermine the confidence of US allies – namely, South Korea and Japan – in America’s ability to guarantee their safety and contain the crisis on the Korean peninsula. Not to mention the fact that Trump would go down in history as the president who allowed atmospheric nuclear testing to resume on his watch, despite his best efforts.

So, how should the US respond?

One possibility that has been raised is to start shooting down the test missiles. But there is a very good reason that the United States and its allies haven’t been doing that: they probably can’t.

On August 29 and September 15, North Korea launched ballistic missiles on a trajectory that passed directly over Japan. This prompted the Japanese government to broadcast warnings on its nationwide emergency network, urging the populace to take cover.

The September 15 missile test passed 700km over the Japanese island of Hokkaido and landed in the open ocean, 3,700km from its launch point near Pyongyang. That distance is no coincidence. It proves that the US military bases on Guam are within range of North Korea’s missiles.

Residents of Takikawa on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, take part in an emergency drill on September 1, after the North Koreans launched a missile on August 29 that flew over Japan. Photo: Kyodo via Reuters

So why didn’t the US or Japan try to intercept this latest test?

The answer boils down to the fact that the capabilities of ballistic missile defence systems are limited, and almost exclusively effective in the areas they are placed to defend. Since North Korea’s two latest missile tests were targeted at the open ocean east of Japan, far outside the operational range of regional missile defence systems, the likelihood of a successful shoot-down was virtually zero.

Even if the stars aligned and missile interceptors had a perfect shot at a North Korean missile, it is far from certain they would succeed in hitting it

The key to understanding this dilemma lies in the trajectory of the missile test. By the time the missile reached its apogee over Japan, it was already hundreds of kilometres beyond the reach of the Aegis missile interceptors that are deployed on US Navy ships off the coast of Japan. It was even further out of the range of the THAAD anti-missile batteries in South Korea and Guam, and far beyond the reach of Japan’s Patriot missile defence batteries, which are designed to engage short-range missiles during their terminal phase. The only realistic scenario for intercepting missile tests aimed outside the operating range of these systems is to position sea-based Aegis ships right off the coast of North Korea, near the origin of launch. This would theoretically enable the ships to intercept the missile during its mid-course phase. But as Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, recently told The National Interest, it would be a “highly deman­ding task and entail a significant amount of guesswork, as the ships would have to be in the right place at the right time”.

In essence, Kim would have to tell the US exactly when the test was going to happen, provide the exact location of the launch site, the trajectory of the missile and the intended target of the test. That is not likely to happen. Some of this information could probably be deduced through intelligence gathering, but not all of it.

Even if the stars aligned and missile interceptors had a perfect shot at a North Korean missile, it is far from certain that they would succeed in hitting it. According to a 2016 report from the Pentagon’s Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, the regional/theatre ballistic missile defence system demonstrates a “limited capability” to defend the US Pacific Command, European Command and Central Command areas of responsibility for small numbers of medium- and intermediate-range threats (1,000km to 4,000km), and a “fair capability” for short-range threats (less than 1,000km range).

Although the success rate of these systems in testing has been high, it is far from perfect. They are also scripted for success. Almost everything about the incoming missile is known to the defender beforehand, and countermeasures, such as decoys, have never been deployed. That is a serious problem. A country that is technologically advanced enough to field sophisticated ballistic missiles can also be expected to deploy basic countermeasures.

THAAD interceptors arrive at Seongju, South Korea, on September 7. The fact is that neither THAAD nor Aegis, the two systems that are the most relevant to the defence of Japan and Guam, have ever been used against a missile fired in anger. Photo: News1 via Reuters

The fact is that neither THAAD nor Aegis, the two systems that are the most relevant to the defence of Japan and Guam, have ever been used against a missile fired in anger. What would happen if they were to do so is a question better left unanswered.

Missile defence is an imperfect science. Even the US Pentagon says that it’s like attempting to “hit a bullet with a bullet”. But that rhetoric often fails to make it into the public narrative about missile defence. Only in April, Admiral Harry Harris, the US Pacific Command chief, told members of Congress that “If it flies, it will die”, referring to America’s ability to shoot down a North Korean missile attack.

This is dangerous. It creates an environment where the public, and key decision-makers who are easily influenced by the media, become overconfident in the abilities of missile defence systems to avert nuclear disaster.

The reality is far more grim. Missile defence is part of a carefully crafted system through which the US projects an image of invulnerability and strength. But that isn’t real. Missile defence is a last-ditch resort, only to be used as a plan B for damage limitation once disaster has already struck.

Attempting to shoot down a North Korean missile test, and failing, would shatter the illusion of invulnerability. America’s allies would be shaken to the core, and North Korea would be led to believe that its missiles are untouchable. Even a successful shoot-down would be problematic. It would generate the expectation that all of North Korea’s missile tests would be shot down, which the system would eventually fail to do.

Until America’s territory or that of its allies is directly targeted by a North Korean missile, the United States cannot afford to attempt a shoot-down. Much like the fairy tale of the emperor’s new clothes, missile defences are an illusion. By attempting to use the system, and failing, America would be exposing a harsh truth to the world. The emperor is in fact naked and exposed.

Will Saetren is a research associate at the Institute for China-America Studies, where he specialises in nuclear weapons policy

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Antivirus is dead: young talents are Hong Kong’s first line of defence against cyberattacks

CommentInsight & Opinion
Winnie Tang says with cyberattackers becoming ever more aggressive and global, rules and battle plans have to be redefined, and the government must urgently step up talent training in schools

The recent cyberattack by the ransomware cryptoworm WannaCry drew the world’s attention to network security. According to Kaspersky Lab, a network security software company, the number of online attacks detected in the first quarter of 2017 doubled to more than 400 million, compared with the same period in 2016, while over 200,000 mobile phones were infected by ransomware Trojans, which is 10 times the first quarter of last year.

Unfortunately, antivirus software may not be able to protect your computer and mobile phone completely. Symantec, the developer of Norton, once the best antivirus solution, announced the “death” of antivirus software as it is difficult to shut viruses away.

Cybellum, an Israeli network security firm, recently found a virus that specialised in attacking antivirus software and named it DoubleAgent. Instead of hiding and running away from the antivirus security agent, attackers now directly assault, hijack and gain control over it, turning it into a malicious agent. In other words, it is impossible for us to defend against network attack programmes and ransomware.

Michael Daniel, the White House cybersecurity coordinator in the Obama administration, said cybersecurity is a big challenge in part because we are handling new problems with old thinking. His recent article in the Harvard Economic Review focused on three reasons for the network security problem.

One, it is not a mere technical problem, although there is a technical aspect, such as how to write a totally bug-free programme.

Two, cyberspace is different from the physical world, and the rules of the game have to be redefined. At light speed, “concepts like distance, borders and proximity all operate differently”. In the physical world, a person is likely to be on site when committing a crime, while in the internet world, threats can come from anywhere and from anybody.

Moreover, a crime in the cyber world is not bounded within any particular country, much like a crime committed in the high seas. How do we hold individuals and organisations accountable for mischief done in international areas?

Three, the law, practice and rules of the internet world have not been fully developed yet, regulations are not yet complete, including the responsibility of user protection. In the case of the WannaCry attack, the global impact covered government departments, public and private organisations, and individuals, but the copyright owners of the computer software being attacked were private developers, so who is responsible for chasing after the culprit?

In addition, we have to think about the following: what is the right division of responsibility between governments and the private sector in terms of defence? Are there any protective measures provided by the companies which are handling our data? Are there any standards to follow in the industry? How should regulators approach cybersecurity in their industries? What can governments, private enterprises and individuals do and what is it they cannot do?

In short, as long as we continue to try mapping physical-world models onto cyberspace, they will fall short in some fashion.

So how can we protect ourselves? Risk is inevitable since we have to use the internet. Therefore, to manage and mitigate the risk, public and private organisations, as well as government departments should strengthen their “immune system”.

The recently published 2017 Global Information Security Manpower Research Study, which interviewed 19,000 professionals in 170 countries, flags a serious shortage of global IT security personnel. The workforce gap by 2022 will reach 1.8 million.

I believe that education is the best way to stimulate new thinking and solve problems. Therefore, it is a matter of urgency to train the younger generation in computer programming and network security awareness, as well as to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in primary and secondary schools.

The government should speed up accordingly as there are no short cuts to talent training.

Dr Winnie Tang is an honorary professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Hong Kong

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US and UK ban on electronics on flights won’t shield us from terrorism if we aren’t already protected

CommentInsight & Opinion
Kevin Rafferty says new restrictions imposed by the US and Britain in fact offer little defence, and raise questions about the security measures already in place

Perennially insecure security officials in the US, followed closely by the UK, recently introduced new restrictions preventing passengers on certain flights from taking any electronic items larger than a mobile phone into an aircraft cabin.

If they were adopted worldwide, they would effectively kill the idea of being able to stay connected while airborne, and would make doing business when travelling almost impossible. The looming question is whether security officials are so terrified by the shadows of terrorists that they risk creating more damage than terrorists ever could.

So far, the restrictions only apply to flights to the US and the UK from certain Muslim-majority Middle Eastern and North African countries. A cynic might wonder about the potentially dangerous concoction of security, insecurity and political posturing involved in the ban.

The US version says that consumer electronics bigger than mobile phones cannot be taken as hand luggage on flights from 10 airports, served by nine foreign airlines. The UK is more selective, targeting six countries, four of which are on the US list – Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – and adding Lebanon and Tunisia.

Inconsistencies scream out from both governments’ actions. America’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) cited the changed threat environment as a rationale for the new measures, but suggested that there was no specific threat of an imminent attack.

These new rules conflict with Federal Aviation Administration instructions that lithium batteries that power most electronic devices must be carried in the cabin. Having numerous lithium-battery-powered devices in an aircraft hold is potentially hazardous – even before terrorists find ways of triggering devices remotely.

An allied concern for business travellers is being separated from their computers, which often contain sensitive information. For years, the TSA has issued strict instructions to passengers not to put valuables into checked baggage for fear of theft or damage – yet now they are insisting that such items are checked in.

Such a selective ban also fails to respect the ingenuity of terrorists, who are surely smart enough to fly from one of the banned airports to Paris, Amsterdam, London, or even Hong Kong, and from there to take a US airline to America. If hand-carried electronics are a danger on a flight from the Middle East, they are a potential danger on any flight.

So what is going on? Air passengers regularly have to endure strict security, including half undressing, getting rid of liquids, and separate inspections of computers and electronics. Are all the expensive machines and layers of security staff nothing but a useless show?

Security officials do take their work seriously. Hong Kong’s aviation security is exemplary. I have also been stopped at Osaka Kansai airport and asked about the house keys in my hand luggage; at Delhi, a purse of small coins baffled the scanning machine; and at Washington Dulles, I had to undergo a physical pat-down even after going through the full-body scanner because the machine could not cope with the sweat on my back in the 40-degree Celsius heat.

Airports, of course, consist of more than just passenger terminals, with immense luggage, maintenance and catering areas and thousands of staff – so eliminating terrorist passengers would still not guarantee safety in the air without top-class security elsewhere. It should be worrying to everyone who travels that, in spite of the panoply of expensive equipment and layers of checks, security officials are still so insecure.

Kevin Rafferty travels 150,000 miles a year by air