04 September, 2017

Leveraging Indian Power The Right Way

Image source.

Now that the affair in Doklam has come to a close, analysts of various stripes are trying to make sense of what happened and what lessons can be learned from the episode. One of the smartest of these write ups was written by Oriana Skylar Mastro and Arzan Tarapore for War on the Rocks. They've titled their piece "Countering Chinese Coercion: The Case of Doklam," and as their title suggests, Dr. Mastro and Mr. Tarapore believe the strategy employed by the Indians in Dolkam can be generalized and should be deployed to defend against Chinese coercion in other domains. They make this case well. I agree with their central arguments, and urge you to read the entire thing without regret.

However, there is one paragraph in their analysis that I take issue with. It is really quite peripheral to their main point, but as it is a concise statement of beliefs widely held, it is a good starting point for this discussion:
Over the longer term, India should be wary of learning the wrong lessons from the crisis. As one of us has recently written, India has long been preoccupied with the threat of Chinese (and Pakistani) aggression on their common land border. The Doklam standoff may be remembered as even more reason for India to pour more resources into defending its land borders, at the expense of building capabilities and influence in the wider Indian Ocean region. That would only play into China’s hands. Renewed Indian concerns about its land borders will only retard its emergence as an assertive and influential regional power. [1]
From the perspective of the United States, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, and the other redoubts of freedom that string the edges of the Pacific rim, the rise of the Indian republic is a positive good. We should do all we can to aid this rise. Here both the demands of moral duty and the exacting claims of realpolitik align.

I've phrased these ideas with more strength and moral clarity than the dry and jargon laden language of professional policy normally allows, but the sentiment expressed hits close to how most D.C. politicos think about the matter. The rightness of a rising India is a bipartisan consensus. Far less thought is given to what shape that rise should take. This is not something we should be neutral on. The contours of India's rise matter a lot—not only for them, but for us, and ultimately, for all who will inherit the world we will together build. It might seem a bit grandiose to claim that the future of Asian liberty depends on the procurement policies of India's Ministry of Defence... but this is exactly what I am going to try and convince you of.   


 The Republic of India counts one billion, three hundred million, and two hundred thousands souls within it—a mere five hundred thousand short of those who live within China's borders. The defense of these hundred millions rests on the shoulders of the Indian Armed Forces, organized as a navy, air force, army and various "paramilitary forces" that operate along the republic's borders. To India's north lies the Chinese colossus: wealthier, larger, more advanced and more aggressive than their sub-continental neighbor. To the northwest of India lies the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, a country whose national identity is runs only as deep as its hatred of Indian prosperity. Both nations have at one time or another funded and equipped insurgents, terrorists, or separatists working inside India's borders. They find an easy home there. As a civilization, India stretches backwards through the ages. As a nation, India is a painfully recent creation. Sixteen different Indian languages claim more than 10 million native speakers, and there are a hundred other languages spoken by smaller multitudes. The label  "Hindu" hides the wildly different beliefs of the billion people who accept it, but the country also boasts a Muslim minority 100 million strong, as well as Christians, Sikhs, and Jains in the millions. Against these centrifugal forces the Indian republic is locked in eternal battle, though only occasional does this battle break out into the exchange of actual bombs and bullets. India is flanked on one side by the approach to the Persian Gulf and Red Sea; on the other is the path towards the straits of Sunda and Malacca. The naval power that controls these points holds the reins of global shipping in its hands. Around this sea lies a ring of countries that might look to India for leadership, if only the republic had the money and the will to provide it.

Competing demands are being made on India's strategic and foreign policy. She has a choice to orient her grand strategic posture towards confrontation in the north, against Pakistani perfidy in the west, on the high seas of the Indian ocean, or towards the east, where competition between the great powers glows brightest. There are ferocious debates within India over which of these demands should take priority. Western analysts are no closer to a consensus on this question-—though over here, it is because few of us have been asked to give the matter much serious thought. We run on instinct, and the instincts of each analyst run along professional lines. (For navalists India is a great dagger projecting into the wild sea, a blade pointed straight at China's oil guzzling supply lines; for diplomats India is a grand power punching below its weight, absent from the U.N. security council, barred from the nuclear suppliers group, and too insular to claim the mantle of moral leadership that marked India in the old Nehru days; and so forth). The bias of the western analyst is see India's focus on internal stability, territorial disputes, and muscular competition with Pakistani and Chinese rivals on their shared as narrow and limited. Being crowned a great power means wielding global influence. Bickering over borders in Himalayan wastes is too provincial for that.

 Mr. Tarapore, who has written several thoughtful, well-argued articles on the topic, is one of the few westerners who has taken these instincts and fleshed them out into well-formed ideas. But for most American Asia-hands these views are more felt than thought out, the impulse of a nation whose experience with great power politics is atypical with the global norm. [2]  We yearn for an India who looks more like us—an India whose strategic focus is outward and eastward, not inward and upward. When will we learn that most of our allies were not made in the American pattern? Success in international politics is not about climbing a preordained cursus honorum of global prestige. It is created through carefully exploiting asymmetries of power on the international stage.

Were India a continent of endless gold and Asia a playground of her making, this would not matter. In an ideal world we would see India with a navy no Chinese admiral could challenge, a treasury no Chinese investor could match, an army no Chinese general could defeat, and a global influence no Chinese statesmen could meet. But this is not the world we live in. Indian gold is not endless. Her leaders labor under harsh demands of time, focus, and the ever present threat of disunion.  If Indian statesmen facing these realities discover that tightening purse strings do not allow India to meet all her aims, then some dreams must be postponed. Priorities must be set. These priorities should be inwards and upwards. It is to the border, the army, and the intelligence services political attention and funds must first go.

This argument is not original to me. Versions of it are bandied about in the Indian press all the time, of course, but the piece that convinced me of its truth was penned by Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment fellow Evan Montgomery back in 2013. You can find it the spring issue of that year's Journal of Strategic Studies. Living behind a pay-walled in the depths of an obscure publication most folks have never heard of, its argument has been largely ignored in the broader policy space. This is unfortunate. Though his argument is unabashedly America-centric, and he frames India's strategic choices in terms of how it may or may not benefit the interests of the United States, Indian readers will find it worth a read. One of Montgomery's central points is that building a 'containment'  style alliance to balance a rising China is too simple a solution:
Although debates over US policy toward China often weigh the relative merits of containment and engagement, an important alternative is the competitive strategies perspective. This approach aims to identify areas of relative advantage or disadvantage between opponents involved in a long-term, peacetime rivalry. By identifying these ‘asymmetries,’ a nation can adopt measures that build on its strengths, mitigate its vulnerabilities, and exploit an adversary’s weaknesses.... Adopting[this] approach, this article makes three related arguments. 

First, the competition between the United States and China is fundamentally a competition between a maritime power and a continental power. If the history of past maritime-continental rivalries is a useful guide, then the PRC could pose a growing challenge to American economic and security interests as it confronts fewer threats on land and can increasingly turn its attention to the sea, while the United States might eventually require continental allies to counterbalance China’s rise.

Second, the intensification of the Sino-Indian rivalry on land and the advent of a Sino-Indian rivalry in the maritime domain could have very different implications for the strategic competition between the United States and China. Specifically, increased tensions between Beijing and New Delhi over their disputed borders could compel the PRC to invest in capabilities useful for territorial defense, which pose relatively little danger to the United States. By contrast, a growing competition between Beijing and New Delhi at sea could lead China to prioritize capabilities useful for extra-regional power-projection, which would represent a far greater challenge to the United States, its allies, and its interests abroad.

Third, the preceding arguments have important policy implications.
Although many observers maintain that India is a potential maritime ally that can help the United States to defend the global commons and perhaps resist the extension of Chinese military power and influence beyond East Asia, a competitive strategies perspective suggests that the US should actually consider India as a potential continental ally.

Specifically, efforts by New Delhi to defend its northern borders more effectively could exploit Beijing’s traditional fears of internal unrest and land-based threats; divert its attention away from other contingencies, such as coercing Taiwan or countering US forces in the Western Pacific; impose costs on China by compelling it to spend additional resources on ground forces, paramilitary units, air defenses, and military or dual use infrastructure on its own territory; and channel its investments away from more worrisome aerospace and maritime capabilities or an overseas basing infrastructure. In short, although India might indeed emerge as a counterweight to China over time, Washington may need to reconsider what type of counterweight it would like to see New Delhi become, and restructure its security cooperation to help bolster India’s capabilities on land rather than at sea. (emphasis added). [3]

Through Pacific eyes, the evolution of the PLA's force structure is unfortunate. Party documents make clear that the key to modernizing the PLA is restructuring it towards a fight by air and sea. [4] China's assessment of its own threat profile can be quite easily seen in the geographic spread of its forces:

Image Source: Department of Defense, Military and Security 
Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017 (Washington DC, 2017) p.30

Image Source: Department of Defense, Military and Security 
Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017 (Washington DC, 2017) p.24
The gaze of the People's Liberation Army reaches east. What would happen if instead it looked to its southwest? Montgomery describes changes this might require:
In response to India’s growing military presence along its disputed borders with China, PRC ground forces might need to be bolstered in frontier areas. This could, in turn, require an increase in overall troop numbers, a redistribution of existing forces (and a concomitant willingness to accept more risk elsewhere), and/or greater investments in mobility platforms and transportation infrastructure to support the rapid redeployment of forces based in other parts of China. Paramilitary units might need to be increased as well, particularly if a larger or more capable Indian military presence in the north heightened longstanding fears in Beijing of external support for domestic opposition groups

In addition, Chinese airbases might need to be hardened to deter or weather attacks, troop staging areas might need to be expanded to accommodate additional forces, and transportation infrastructure might need to be duplicated to create redundancies. An Indian military buildup could also lead Beijing to devote a greater share of resources to other capabilities that, from an American perspective, represent only a modest danger. In particular, although China currently has robust ground-based air defenses guarding multiple locations along its eastern coast, it might be induced to deploy a similar integrated air defense network – including fighter aircraft, mobile radars, surface-to air missiles, point defenses, and communications systems – along its borders with India. [5] 

Just as important as the physical response to growing Indian land power would be the bureaucratic retrenchment it might prompt:
By concentrating China’s attention on its own southern border, an Indian buildup could also slow or arrest a trend with significant and worrisome implications for the Sino-American competition, namely the PLAGF’s diminishing influence relative to other branches of the Chinese armed forces. Not surprisingly, institutional support for China’s growing emphasis on aerospace and maritime capabilities is hardly universal within the PLA. As the largest branch of China’s armed forces, the PLAGF is now confronting institutional challenges to its privileged status. Presuming that the PLAGF (along with other elements of China’s security complex that might be threatened by the current direction of military modernization) has a vested interest in preserving its autonomy, its influence, and its resources, it will need to marshal compelling arguments to avoid becoming the ‘bill payer’ for the modernization efforts of competing military organizations. Should India continue to bolster its presence near the border with China, the PLAGF and Chinese paramilitary organizations would have a stronger case to oppose significant reductions in their own funding, perhaps ensuring that some of those resources are not redirected toward the acquisition of military capabilities that would be far more threatening from the perspective of the United States. [6] 

Montgomery wrote this in 2013, before the latest round of PLA reforms, and before the bureaucratic turn away from the Army and towards the other three branches of the PLA was so clearly in motion. A news report from last year's China Daily gives us a glimpse of how fast this is happening:

Compared with last year, 24 percent fewer students will be admitted to studies related to the army, including the infantry and artillery, while logistic and support departments will see their recruits fall by 45 percent, said a news release from the Central Military Commission's Training Management Department.

In comparison, students studying in aviation, missile and maritime fields will increase by 14 percent. The number of recruits in sectors where there is an urgent need, such as space intelligence, radar and drones, will rise by 16 percent, the release said.

The changes were announced in line with ongoing military reforms and were made after rounds of negotiations with the army, navy, air force, rocket force, regional military commands and military academies, PLA Daily reported, citing an unidentified officer from the department's Training Establishment Bureau" [7]
If it is possible to frustrate this reorganization from the outside, then the allied nations should do so. Successfully derailing the PLA's modernization will have unexpected benefits. Analysts have noted that the current wave of reforms are not just about reorienting the PLA towards the air and sea, but also towards cleaning up command and control systems across the PLA, and imposing stronger Party control over the armed forces. [8] The Party realizes that streamlining the ground forces, whose logistics division has been mired in corruption, and whose officer corp is famously over-bloated, will go a long way towards creating a more capable, less corrupt, and more loyal military machine. Any credible military threat that might give army leaders an excuse to obstruct these reforms may make the PLA a less effective fighting force as a whole.

Nothing has stronger potential to do this than a resurgent Indian army on its southern borders.


The Communist Party of China helms a country whose power and wealth grows year by year. The Party is mortally hostile to the existing international system. It realizes that accepting the terms of this order mean, sooner or later, its own destruction. To preserve its tyranny the Party uses all legal, economic, military, and technological tools at its disposal in an incessant quest to sabotage, subvert, or commandeer the system that threatens it.  No democracy with substantial numbers of Chinese immigrants is free from attempts at control and subversion: the Chinese do not fear extending their domestic systems of surveillance, censorship, and coercion to the heart of foreign powers. No country in greater Asia will be secure from intimidation and assault: In the Party's view, there are big countries that deserve respect and small ones that do not. As Chinese power grows more and more countries will move from the big column into the small one

The Party's most reliable friend in its quest for regional domination are the Pakistani Inter-services Intelligence and the Pakistan Armed Forces. The men of Rawalpindi are no friends of the existing order. They do not fear the bloodshed caused by its disruption. Indeed, these officers have more American blood on their hands than the leaders of any other foreign nation. In this the Americans and the Indians are not so different: India too has had death and destruction delivered to it straight from Rawalpindi. Unfortunately, America has been slow to realize the costs of appeasing the Pakistani military.  One hopes that this is changing. But Pakistani-caused carnage notwithstanding,  both India and the United States realize that the true long-term challenge to their interests, safety, and freedoms is not the Pakistanis, but the Chinese Communist Party. The two threats are not distinct: a strong, democratic, and secular Indian republic is an anathema to both Beijing and Rawalpindi. Geography and ideology drive these powers against the rising Indian republic and entwine them together. The more dangerous their threat becomes, the more useful coordination with the allied democracies of the Pacific rim becomes.
Evan Montgomery hopes that the force of these facts is all that will be needed to convince the Indians to play along with his prescriptions:
There are, of course, reasons to question whether India would be receptive to this orientation in its defense posture. In fact, it is doubtful that New Delhi would appreciate being considered a frontline state in a Sino-American competition. Yet geography, territorial disputes, and the imperative to balance against a rising power have already placed India in this position. The question, then, is whether it should emphasize balancing China on land or at sea. [9]
Montgomery simplifies somewhat here. In addition to competition by land and sea, there will be a contest of purse strings between the two powers, each trying to invest its way into the good graces of its neighbors. India has to choose carefully how to balance the needs of each race in which it runs. The great weakness of Montgomery's piece is that he says nothing at all about how the Indians might be convinced to put their border defenses at the center of their defense posture.

The easiest answers involve action steps we can take to directly build Indian capabilities. For Americans this means that deepening army-to-army exchanges and exercises (the goal should be to build up the Yudh Abhyas exercises up to the size of Cobra Gold), targeted arms sales (the Indian army's purchase of 120 American lightweight howitzers last year is the template to be followed), and intelligence sharing should be priorities for the Pentagon and the relevant  congressional committees. The Japanese and other alliance members can and should take similar measures.

The next easiest thing we can do is empower those in India who are already on the right side of the debate. For example, I suspect most Americans strategy hands have never heard of a China-themed book that made waves in the Indian press this year, Dragon on Our Doorstep: Managing China Through Military Power., or its authors, Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab (both editors at Force Magazine). In their book Sawhney and Wahab make a sustained, evidence-based case for a foreign policy that puts border management at the center of its strategic outlook. Books like this should be signal-boosted in the American press, its authors should be invited to events held by CSIS, Carnegie, etc., to sell their policies and network with Western strategists. We want these sort of people to be the most important defense intellectuals in India, and should do what we can to help make that possible.

We also should not forget that the Indian's read our newspapers and magazines (even if we don't have the foresight to read theirs). Again and again this message should be shared:

  • China has a head start in all domains, but the easiest place for India to catch up with China is on the borders.
  • If India focuses on the land game, while America and Japan focus on the competition at sea, China will be left in the difficult position of having to do both at once. This is the easiest way to create and sustain useful asymmetries of power.
  • Western support can make up for Indian vulnerabilities. India has more to gain from cooperation than from strategic autonomy.

Of these points, the last will be the hardest to sell.  Which brings us to the last major action item: take steps to build Indian trust in our intentions. Strategic autonomy is an idea dear to the Indian mind. It was only a few years ago that the leading lights in India's foreign policy intelligentsia labeled their vision for India's future grand strategy "Non-Alignment 2.0." Westerners who assume that China's rise alone will be enough to drive India into our arms are fools. If India and the West are to cooperate, then we must sell the benefits of doing so. We must show the Indians that we are not opportunistic. True cooperation between our countries is not possible if we are bank-rolling liberalism's foes in Rawalpindi. True cooperation between our countries is not possible if we are afraid to call the Chinese out on their border provocations. On the other hand, we should actively seek opportunities to strengthen India's influence in every forum that we are party to.

One area that we must approach with particular care is cooperation between the U.S. Navy, the Japanese Self Defense Force, and the Indian Navy. The Indians will not be able to spend their treasure at the border if they cannot trust their ocean approaches. We do not have a formal self-defense treaty with the Indians, and likely will not for some time, so we must search for other ways to assure them that a focus on the land will not rob them of their seas. The Malabar exercises, in which all three navies participate, are an excellent vehicle for building this sort of trust. But in the end the only guarantee the Indian's will trust are active demonstrations of resolve in the face of Chinese coercion. If we cannot stare down the bully in the territorial seas of official allies, what hope do we have of deterring them from aggression further abroad?

We live in an age where policy-makers (and opinion-makers, if they want to be listened to) must put "America first." In the days to come, putting America first will often mean looking at an issue through Indian eyes.


[1] Oriana Skylar Mastro and Arzan Tarapore, "Countering Chinese Coercion: The Case of Doklam," War on the Rocks (31 August, 2017).

[2] There is an interesting double standard here: you will notice no one criticizes the Chinese as insular or visionless when they put territorial wrangling at the forefront of their grand strategy.

[3] Evan Braden Montgomery, "Competitive Strategies against Continental Powers: The Geopolitics of Sino-Indian-American Relations," Journal of Strategic Studies, vol 36, issue 1 (2013), 78-79

[4] For example, see David M. Finkelstein, "Initial Thoughts on the Reorganization and Reform of the PLA,"  CNA Occasional Paper (15 January, 2016), 4-7.

[5] Montgomery, 88-89.

[6] ibid, 90-91.

[7] “PLA Restructuring Changes Focus at Military Schools,” China Daily (28 April, 2016).

[8] For example, see David M. Finkelstein, "Initial Thoughts on the Reorganization and Reform of the PLA,"  CNA Occasional Paper (15 January, 2016), 4-7.

[9] Montgomery, 94-95

24 July, 2017

Learning From Old China

Last week's posting ("Everything is Worse in China") caught the attention of Rod Dreher, who reblogged it with comments over at the American Conservative. I sent him an e-mail in response introducing a few Chinese thinkers who might be relevant to the traditionalist cause, especially in its Benedict Option version. As he has published the correspondence for his readers, it makes sense to repost it here as well:

I am the fellow who wrote the “everything is worse in China” post you linked to the other day. Thank you for sharing it with your readers.

I obviously think there is a great deal in the Chinese literary and philosophical tradition that fits the present moment. But I think there are some special barriers that make it difficult for Americans to delve into them. Imagine if you had to introduce Dante to a Chinese audience. This audience knows nothing about the background of the book. They can’t find Rome on a map, and haven’t read a Christian flavored book in their life. At best they have some highly stereotyped ideas about what Western civilization is all about. So can this audience just read Inferno straight through? Or do they need to read the Gospels first? The Gospels and Virgil? The Gospels, Virgil, and Augustine? Dante’s Divine Comedy is not just a “great book”—it is a commentary on all the great books that came before. Great works are always like this. It is part of what makes them great.

This is just as true in China as elsewhere. The Chinese canon, like the Western canon, is a conversation. Coming to a conversation mid-stream is at best disorienting. At worst you can leave with a errant sense of what the conversation was actually about. My dilemma is finding the best place for newcomers to first jump in.

One of the places I usually suggest conservative thinkers start, especially conservative thinkers whose past exposure to ancient China thought came in a new-age guise, is with Xunzi. Xunzi was a self proclaimed Confucian who lived a few centuries before Christ. In the West we kind of have this fortune-cookie vision of Confucians: we see them as a bunch of old, secluded sages spitting out epigrams and coining pithy little proverbs. That might be justified for Confucius; we don’t have anything more sustained from him on record. But by the time Xunzi rolls onto the scene a few centuries later the game has changed. Xunzi’s preferred form was the treatise. In English these are usually 8-15 pages long, each an incisive attempt to ponder through the sorrows of mankind. Sorrows there were: Xunzi lived at the tale end of a terrible, vicious age, where China was divided between dueling leviathans engaged in constant, devastating war. These wars sucked up villages, towns, and peoples, with a bureaucratic efficiency the West wouldn’t see until the 1700’s. It was a terrifying, dispiriting time to be alive. My guess is that few of his contemporaries would have thought twice about one of Xunzi’s most famous pronouncements: “Human nature is evil.”

That is where Xunzi starts. Thankfully it isn’t where he ends—he sets himself the task of figuring out how humanity can pull itself out of the mess he sees all around him. The answer he comes up with is extraordinary: ritual. Personal and communal rituals are what, he claims, make us more humane. Ritual is the path away from blindly following our animal instinct; ritual is what raises humans above the beasts. Within a few essays he develops an entire theory or ritual and its relationship to character building, slowly crafting the case that ritual is the training ground of righteousness and joy.

Xunzi had never heard of a Christian liturgy, of course, but each time I read his work I come away with the conviction that Xunzi explains its purpose better than most Christians ever do.

The really inspiring thing about Xunzi, however, is that you can tell how deeply personal this entire project is to him. Whether he is talking about ritual or kingship or music or education or any of the hundred things he turns his mind to, the feeling is the same. Xunzi is a man who has stared into the abyss of human cruelty, and is fighting with all of his might to not let that overwhelm his humanity. He sees the world for what it is. He doesn’t believe in the utopian fairy tales of the Daoists, nor the warm-fuzzy feeling based theories of Confucianism’s more optimistic strains. But he insists to the end that humanity is salvageable. The next generation of philosophers—according to some traditions, Xunzi’s own students—would turn totalitarian. That is not an exaggeration. This is what scholars in the field have called them: “the world’s first totalitarians.” Those theorists worshiped state power for its own sake, happily relegating human life to the maw of the leviathan. Xunzi sees the possibilities of that path, he knows its seductive logic. But he refuses. He stubbornly insists on seeing the world through the lens of human virtue, that politics and ethics must be focused on individual acts of goodness and virtue, despite–no, because of–the bloodshed and terror of his day.

So Xunzi is a great starting point for an intellectual journey into the Chinese tradition. He is a traveling companion worthy of just about any discussion or topic. Eric Hutton’s translation is accessible to just about anyone. Some other thinkers might be more ideally suited for the Benedict Option, though. Many Chinese poets come to mind here. But poetry is hard. Poetry never seems to translate well unless it is narrative poetry, which Chinese poetry almost never is. (David Young cleverly gets around this by setting a selection of Du Fu autobiographical poems chronologically, allowing the poet to tell the story of his own life). On top of this, Chinese poets are very self-referential. They quote and allude to each other constantly—they are quite aware that great works are part of a conversation, and so design half of their poems to be direct responses to various poems that came before. 
But they are so relevant to the BenOp project.

I mentioned three poets in the original post: Tao Qian, Li Bat and Du Fu. Tao Qian is the spiritual grandfather of all the famous nature poets in China. But how he gets there is interesting. Tao Qian was born into a prominent family involved in national affairs. His grandfather had been a major political figure; service in the bureaucracy was just what was expected for folks like him. So he joins it. He spend thirteen years career climbing. But then he breaks. Society is too vain, the monarch unworthy, bureaucratic politics too soul crushing. So he unpacks his entire family out to the boonies and restarts life there as a poor farmer. He struggles to make ends meet, and he writes about that. He is a drunkard, and he writes about that. He is enchanted with small town life, and he writes about that. He wanders the hills and forest, and he writes about that. And occasionally he even writes about the pressure he feels to compare himself to the success of his ancestors, or friends once known. It is all very poignant stuff, and it has been enormously popular in China ever since, no matter how far away the contemporary ethos may be from its spirit.

This whole tradition of scholars fleeing from official society as a protest against its evils has tremendous relevance for BenOp Christians. I suspect that few who reviewed your book have really come to terms with the kind of sacrifices your choices will cost you. There will come a point where you must choose success in the world or banishment outside it. Tao Qian chose banishment and a clear conscience—but along with that choice came isolation and poverty. I don’t think many of the people who wrote nice reviews of your book are really prepared for that choice. Folks like Tao Qian can make those choices a little bit easier.

Du Fu’s poetry has the opposite effect. There is a lot of escapism in Chinese literature. Escape into wine, into rural retreats, into monasteries, into history reading. Du Fu refused to do it. He lived through another era of chaos—the An Lushan rebellion, described in some historical gazetteers as the most violently destructive war in human history before the 30 Years War. Du Fu was a bit like Shakespeare, in that his poetry covers the entire scope of human society: everything from the beggars, soldiers, and farmers grinding away in poverty to the emperor and his consorts are taken as subjects of his art. Du Fu spends the first half of his life in Chang’an, imperial capital of the Tang Dynasty, then center of the known world. The whole time he seeks patronage from the emperor and accolades from the literati’s leading lights. Then the war comes crashing down and rips society apart. Du Fu is actually kept in the city under siege and occupation for more than a year, separated from his wife and children. When he finally escapes he writes a beautiful poem about the pain of seeing your children grown tall in your absence that any veteran would appreciate. Then he must begin his wanderings—years spent wandering from one part of China to the next, first as a refugee of war, later as a loyal minor official trying to make it back to the emperor’s court-in-exile. On one of these tiresome journeys through the mountains of China he writes the following poem:


“Imperiled, I flee to a new province
All my forced effort ends with bitter exhaustion
Spirit wounded, wandering in mountain deeps.
Yet my sorrow dissolves before an ancient cliff-side temple.

Charming: its pure, verdant moss .

Vulnerable: its wintry, bamboo clusters.
Streams twist and turn through the mountains
Raindrops drip and hang on the pines.

Melting mists obscure the morning light

The rising day hides, then lets forth its rays
In that half-light scarlet tiles flash
Doors and windows gleam, and are seen distinct. 
I lean on my staff, the next stage forgotten
When I emerge from my dreams, it is already noon.
Then faintly, a distant cuckoo’s cry–
Up this small path, I do not dare to go.

[Forgive me if the translation is poorly rendered, I don’t have much time to devote to the task today].
To understand the poem you need to know that the phrase “cuckoo” is a homophone for “come home!” The cuckoo is also associated with Sichuan in Chinese thought, and that was Du Fu’s eventual destination. So here we have the story of a soft court mandarin being forced from home in his old age, transversing forgotten mountain paths, with his young family (Du Fu married late) to reach safety. And then he sees the monastery! A beautiful place of peace and serenity, something so clearly lacking in Du Fu’s own life. If this were the normal Buddhist poem this would be the moment where Du Fu declares he will stay the night there, perhaps the life there, intoning on his escape from the “net of dust” that has trapped the rest of mankind. Du Fu is tempted-oh, he is sorely tempted. But then he hear’s the cuckoo call “Come Home!” and he sees the temple for what it is: a temptation. He has a duty (‘dharma’) to his family, and a duty to help rebuild his county. He does not dare to travel up the path to the monastery for fear that if he does he won’t ever be able to come back and continue his journey.

Who among us cannot sympathize with him? Is this not a beautiful expression of a dilemma so many of us must feel—the desire to retreat from the world, and a duty to make the world a better place? Du Fu realized that continuing the journey was the right thing for him to do. His role is to live in the world. The question he must then wrestle with is whether he can live in the world without being trod down by it.

Well that is enough for today. I hope this e-mail has given you glimpse of what Chinese philosophy and literature offers conservatives in America today. There is so much more that could be said (and I have written about some of these themes as they are expressed by other great works in the Chinese tradition before-see here and here), but it is not possible to fit an entire’s civilization’s corpus into one e-mail, so I will not try!
The sinologists among my readers will recognize that I use the version of "Mirror of Dharma Temple" that ends with the line 不敢取, not the one that ends with 不復取。I am not experienced enough with old Song documents to say which of the variants is correct, but I find the version here (where Du Fu says he does not dare to go up the path) to be the emotionally poignant of the two.

19 July, 2017

Everything is Worse in China

One of the benefits of living in China is a certain sense of perspective.

China exists outside of the Anglophone culture wars. It would not be accurate to say the Chinese don't have an opinion or even a stake in American cultural crusades. They do. But our fights are not their fights, and even when they squabble over parallel issues it is on very different terms, terms quite divorced from those that led Anglophone politics to its current trajectory.

My time here has thus given me a rare vantage point to judge many of the claims made over the course of these campaigns. In few places is this sort of outside perspective more useful than when judging the claims of an American jeremiad. Jeremiading is a fine art. Its practitioners hail from lands both left and right, but my sympathies lie with the cultural traditionalists. You know the type. In America they find little but a shallow husk. For some it is the husk of a nation once great; for others it is the decaying remains of Western civilization itself. Few of these gloom-filled minds deny that wonders have marked their days on this earth. It is not that advances do not happen. It is just that each celebrated advance masks hundreds of more quiet destructions. These laments for worlds gone by are poignant; the best are truly beautiful.  The best of the best, however, do not just lament. Every one of their portraits of the past is a depiction of a futureor more properly, a way of living worth devoting a future to.

I have read a few of these books in 2017. The best of these (both for its lyricism and for the demands it places on the intellect) is Anthony Esolen's newest book, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. This blog is not the place for a full review. I plan to write a proper review for it and a few of the other recently published books of this type for a less personal publication than the Scholar's Stage. Here I will just share one of my strongest reactions to the booka thought that occurred again and again as I drifted through its pages. Esolen presents a swarm of maladies sickening American society, ranging from a generation of children suffocated by helicopter parenting to a massive state bureaucracy openly hostile to virtuous living. My reaction to each of his carefully drawn portraits was the same: this problem is even worse in China.

Are you worried about political correctness gone awry, weaponized by mediocrities to defame the worthy,  suffocating truth, holding honest inquiry hostage through fear and terror? That problem is worse in China. 

Do you lament the loss of beauty in public life? Its loss as a cherished ideal of not just art and oratory but in the building of homes, chapels, bridges, and buildings? Its disappearance in the comings-and-goings of everyday life? That problem is worse in China. 

Do you detest a rich, secluded, and self-satisfied cultural elite that despises, distrusts, and derides the uneducated and unwashed masses not lucky enough to live in one of their chosen  urban hubs? That problem is worse in China. 

 Are you sickened by crass materialism? Wealth chased, gained, and wasted for nothing more than vain display? Are you oppressed by the sight of children denied the joys of childhood, guided from one carefully structured resume-builder to the next by parents eternally hovering over their shoulders? Do you dread a hulking, bureaucratized leviathan, unaccountable to the people it serves, and so captured by special interests that even political leaders cannot control it? Are you worried by a despotic national government that plays king-maker in the economic sphere and crushes all opposition to its social programs into the dust? Do you fear a culture actively hostile to the free exercise of religion? Hostility that not only permeates through every layer of society, but is backed by the awesome power of the state?

These too are all worse in China.

Only on one item from Esolen's catalogue of decline can American society plausibly be described as more self-destructive than China's. China has not hopped headlong down the rabbit's hole of gender-bending. The Chinese have thus far proved impervious to this nonsense. But it would not be meet to conclude from this that Chinese society's treatment of sex is healthier than the West's. In far too many ways the opposite is true. Urban Chinese society is just as sex-obsessed as America's, and in many realms (say, advertising) far less shameless about it. Prostitution is ubiquitous. For men over 30, visiting prostitutes is socially acceptable. In many situations these visits are not just acceptable, but expected. Many a boss believes he can't trust his underlings until they have spent some time sinning together. No one blinks an eye at professional mistresses; a wealthy Chinese man is expected to keep up one of these "Little 3rds" and carouse about with karaoke bar hostesses and banquet call-girls. The worst of that culture has (thankfully) been cut down by Xi Jinping's anti-corruption drive, but there is no evidence that government campaigns have had any effect on pornography abuse. As the standard joke goes whenever some Chinese millennial wants to mock government weakness: "They've been at the anti-porn campaign for ten years now, but none of you have had any problem getting your hands dirty!"

All of this should lighten the tone of gloom and doom that pervades the traditionalist critique of modern America. The reference point of these writers is the American (or less usually, the European) past. Look instead at the present! It could be so much worse for those of our ilk. In some countries, it is. Thus I chuckled at a Jr. Ganymede thread from a few months back which solemnly declared that (spiritually speaking) modern Westerners have been "born into the most difficult, challenging environment that humans have ever experienced."[1] Those who say such things view spiritual life through a narrow lens. I cannot conceive making this claim after having lived in China.

There is much that I love about China. However, I must be frank: I live in China because I am foreign, single, and young. As a foreigner I am somewhat immune to many of the pressures of the Chinese scramble for success. That will not change. But were I the father of a young child I could not stay in this country in good conscience. Degraded and disgraceful as American culture may be, it is still possible to live a life of integrity within it. It is possible to secede from the main stream of its currents and follow a different course. In China this is a hard thing to ask. Integrity always requires sacrifice.  Yet what must be sacrificed to live with integrity in America is nothing compared to what honest Chinese must sacrifice to live with integrity in their own land. Nothing. My admiration for the Chinese who do manage to keep their integrity intact despite all of this is boundless. They have succeeded in a test of character few Americans will ever face. It is not a test I would choose for my children.

If the traditionalist jeremiads are correct, such tests will become more and more common inside America, and in the future my children may face them anyway. If so, then there may be much to learn from the great men and women of modern China. Jackson Wu explicitly made this point in his review of The Benedict Option, and I am inclined to agree with him. The Chinese Christians have much to teach American Christians on how to survive in a hostile, hopelessly relativistic, non-Christian milieu. However, I would go one step further: It is not just the Chinese Christians who can prepare us for the days to come, but the Chinese who came in the ages before them.

Learning from those who passed before is nothing new in traditionalist circles, of course, but their view is sometimes so less expansive than it could be. This was particularly painful in Esolen's case. Ranging from Orwell to Homer, he peppers his book with allusions and examples from the great literature of the Western tradition. I have never seen anyone so skillfully merge literary allusion with practical analysis. He has an unmatched skill for finding just the right allusion for the moment; each clarifies his meaning instead of obscuring it. He does all of this without showing off or belittling his reader. The sad part is that he left some of the most beautiful and meaningful meditations on the themes of his book untouched. I can only guess that this was because he is not familiar with their contents.

The 21st century is not the first era Chinese have been offered a stark choice between success and virtue. If there is one theme that threads its way through the great sweep of the Chinese tradition, it is a tragic recognition that the world we live in is not designed to reward the life most worth living. It is found in the opening pages of Sima Qian's historical masterwork. It is coded into the biography of Confucius, and debated by all of his intellectual heirs. Attempts to reconcile the pressures of the world with the honest life were made by the Mohist philosophers; the attempt was proclaimed impossible by both Daoists and Legalists (though for opposite reasons). The first named poet in Chinese history is survived by one poem, a lament on this theme. Be it the rural escapes of Tao Qian,  the drunken withdrawals of Li Bai, or the stubborn realism of Du Fu, this dilemma inspired the greatest of China's poets in the millennia that followed. The great Chinese novels are obsessed with the topic: Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Outlaws of the Marsh ask if one can live righteously in ages of corruption and violence; The Scholars (and less obviously, Journey to the Westviciously satire those who try to do the same in ages of corruption and peace. The beautiful, sorrow-filled Dream of the Red Chamber embraces this tragedy as Chinese women lived it. And so on right into the modern era. At the turn of the 20th century, Lu Xun kicked off modern Chinese literature with a short story that paints Chinese social life as a choice between becoming a monster or being considered insane. These are just the most famous names of a 3,000 year tradition. To neglect it is to neglect a well of experience seemingly prepared for our day.

"To be in the world but not of the world" is a Christian injunction. However, the sacrifices this ideal demands have been contemplated most seriously by the great thinkers of the of a different tradition. They were not Christian, nor were they the heirs to the treasures of Western thought. But not only the West created treasures. For thousands of years the treasures of China's tragic tradition history gave their Chinese readers the hope and the courage to live through immense trials and persecutions. They may provide the same strength to us today, if we allow them to.


[1] Bruce Charlton, "The Haves and Have-nots," Jr.Ganymede (22 April 2017).

06 March, 2017

A Parable Concerning Tolerance

There once lived in a far country a people of gentle nature and perceptive understanding. They were led by a man of great vision. At great cost to his person and his standing, he decided to dedicate his life to preserving his people's established way of life. He did this because he saw in them a beauty and virtue he could find nowhere else. In a world of bigotry and darkness they were a rare light: they blindly followed no authority, nor were they were slaves to custom. No trace of the regressive attitudes so common to their countrymen could be found among them. Women were valued highly among them. Indeed, their women were cherished not only as mothers or wives, but also as honored leaders. This was a people filled with a spirit of love: all men and all women were their friends, rich or poor, young or old, saved or heathen. The poor they sustained; the needy they gave generously to (and gave to, no matter how low their background or coarse their appearance). In their eyes, to be learned was considered good. The more learned one was, they supposed, the greater service one could give. Kindness was thus their byword; brotherliness their call-sign. They disdained violence. In politics it was their part to push for less war, smaller armies, and a more peacable way of living with other humans on the Earth. This view extended into the domestic sphere: in political controversies, theirs was always the voice of tolerance. Let the downcast, the unusual, and even the heretic be allowed their natural liberties, they would say, and do not fear if they live among us. In their conception a good society was a society that let men of different beliefs and customs all live happily together. It was a self-serving position: they understood that only if tolerance ruled the day could their less enlightened countrymen be compelled to tolerate them.But this did not bother them: they were happy in the knowledge that in this case self interest aligned so well with virtue.

Their leader was not content (visionaries rarely are). The fight for toleration had been difficult. He and his allies had not been truly victorious. Their future was uncertain. He foresaw a rising tide of anger and reaction that could not be beat back. What then for his happy people? How could they secure their way of life then?

The answer was clear: separation. He would do what he could, of course, to bring about a victory for the light within the kingdom that then existed, but more drastic measures were needed. A new realm was needed. His people would secede. They would establish their own government that would protect the rights of his people. This new country would champion their values: it would be an example to the other nations of the Earth of just what humanity could achieve unencumbered by the dogmatisms and hatreds of the past. But it would be more than that. This new country would not just be an example to the world: it would be an invitation to it. His people would not just protect their own rights--they would protect and cherish the rights of any man or woman who moved there. All sects, all kindreds, all kinds of people would find a home in their homes. Love would be emblazoned in the title of her cities; toleration would be embedded in the hearts of her citizens. It would be a land without war, without fear, and without prejudice. It would be a country man (and woman) was meant to live in.

As he envisioned, so it came to be. The new government was formed. A new nation was forged. Its people lived in prosperity. In less than ten years their average worker and farmer could claim more wealth than their social betters in the old realm. They grew tall and healthy--taller than almost anyone else in the world! Their diets were nutritious, their environment was clean, and their children were happy. Onerous taxes they no longer needed, for they fielded no army, and manned no navy. Instead their leaders learned the languages of all potential enemies, and through deft diplomacy created a stable peace on all of their borders. They honored their treaties and treated all foreigners honorably. Instead of building armies, they built cities; instead of financing navies, they created vast trade empires that brought in wealth from all over the world. Amidst all of this growth and fortune, the original promise of the country was not forgotten. The people of the land did not let lucre crush their love. Nor did ambition warp the tolerance they extended to people who did not believe as they did. Under their government, freedom of conscience was protected. Heretics, communes, minorities--all were sheltered and nurtured. It was truly a land of love and liberty. 

As others saw the freedoms and prosperity citizens of this new realm claimed, the desire to experience these same blessings spread amongst the peoples of the Earth. It was not long before men and women from across the world were emigrating there. The population boomed; the capital became a multicultural entrepot, a critical node in a global trade network, her goods sold on shores thousands of miles away.

The scheme could not have succeeded more brilliantly. Now near the end of his life, the visionary could look on what he created with happy eyes. For the cause of decency and toleration he had bankrupted and exhausted himself. He had lost what influence he once had in the mighty country from which he came. The new land which he had created (filled as it was with men and women who blindly followed no one) had not always followed his plan of things. But in the final sweep of things he could be happy. He had created a new realm--a realm that aspired to embody everything he thought good in the world.

It could not last.

Far away there was another country. This realm was racked by horrors. War. Rebellion. Depression. This land had never been rich. It's soils were poor, its landscape stark. Those travelers who had misfortune to venture inside its bounds described it a land of crags, wastes, and blood. This was a marchland of great armies; the people who lived there survived on the margins, learning to eek out an existence between the ravages of roving armies on the one hand, and the extortions of the tyrannous and petty men who claimed lordship over their impoverished farms on the other. These were a people who could not afford to trust. War and hardship had turned them into a harsh, rough, and vulgar nation. Anything less would have meant their death and dwindling. Painful experience had taught to treat anyone outside of their extended family as an outsider. Their hostility amazed: in an age of general prejudice, they were famous for being filled with prejudice--even practiced bigots were shocked by their rage and xenophobia. Education was not unknown among them, but it was not treasured, nor widely spread. They sought for finer things in life than learning: drinking, brawling, and warring. So accustomed were they to this base way of life, that if they could not find an enemy to war with, they would soon descend into bloody feuds with each other.

Had the Gods purposed to make a more compelling contrast, they could not have found one. Friends of the earth, on the one hand, generous to all and intolerant of none. Scum of the earth, on the other, hostile to all and trusting of no one. They were united in one aspect only: a fervent hope for a future better than their past.

And so the refugees came. First it was a trickle. Then it was a flood. The visionary's people were aware of what was happening--how could they not be? Wherever these new people went, problems followed. Thievery attended their coming; bloodshed followed in their wake. The immigrants were not interested in assimilation. They cloistered themselves together, rejecting the friendship of the old folk. Those who did not speak their language they hounded; those who did not follow their customs were despised. Into this utopia they brought chaos--and even more worrisome, they threatened to spread that chaos outside the borders of the realm itself. None of the new people followed laws. Those who who settled near the frontier did not just break laws, but also brazenly disobeyed the realm's carefully constructed treaties. The newcomer's mere presence threatened to bring war to them all.

The elders of the realm met in council to discuss the problem. Their debates were long--and for a people of kindness, unusually heated. "Perhaps we have found the limits of toleration? The new comers do not understand our way of life," some said. "They are not capable of living it. If we do not halt their migration now, if we do not bar any more of them from entering these lands, we risk putting everything we have built into jeopardy. For the safety of my countrymen, for the peace of the realm, for the sake of the holy experiment being conducted here, whose example promises to benefit all mankind, do not let any more of these men in. They will ruin us all!"

That argument almost carried the day. Almost. At the critical moment one who remembered the visions of past years stood up. He stood to remind them all of why their realm had been founded: "We were created from a vision, and the vision was this: love and tolerance for all. We will be the friends to all. If we turn our backs now on this poor people, subject to lives of poverty and war, what shall we then be? You worry that they shall destroy our way of life. My friends, I worry that we shall destroy it before the newcomers ever get the chance. We were founded on a foundation of tolerance. We claim to be a people of tolerance. If we cannot find room for the newcomers, then we will have failed. The experiment will have ended. We will have ruined ourselves."

And thus the last chance the people of friendship had to preserve their way of live passed away. They had saved their souls, but lost their realm. Within a generation the old people and their descendants were a bare majority; within two generations they were no longer even a plurality.

As the men of the margins flooded in, all that was expected to happen did indeed happen: large parts of the realm became cesspools of senseless violence. The once peaceful borderlands succumbed to the terrors or raid and counter-raid. Warfare afflicted the realm. The special reputation for tolerance and generosity the commonwealth once claimed was forgotten. The realm was forever divided between two peoples, the barbarians on one side, and those who allowed the barbarians into their midst on the other. Never would the barbarians let their benefactors kindness go unpunished: as the centuries passed by, they broke laws, started wars, caused riots, dragged down the local economy, subsisted off the other half's taxes, and then gave the state's electoral votes to Donald J. Trump.

EDIT 6 March 2017: For those who have no idea what this is all in reference to, see here and here 

17 January, 2017

Travels and Meet Ups

One quick announcement for the readership: posting will probably be light over the next three weeks, as I will be spending that time away from Beijing, instead criss-crossing my way across America. I will certainly spend at least a week in Utah, and a week in DC, and possibly a bit of time in Texas as well. If you would like to meet up--or if you know anyone in these places you think I ought to meet--please send me a message and we will see if we can make it happen. You can contact me on twitter here, or through my e-mail, which can be seen on the right side-bar. 

05 January, 2017

The Cambodian Tilt Towards China

A map of "Khmer Krom," territory once dominated by Khmer speakers before it was conquered by Vietnam in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Image Source: Douc Sokha, "​សហគមន៍​ខ្មែរក្រោម​ថា​រកឃើញ​ឯកសារ​ជាង​៤០០០​ទំព័រ​ ទាក់ទង​នឹង​ការ​កាត់​ទឹកដី​កម្ពុជា​ក្រោម​ឲ្យ​វៀតណាម​​", Vod Hot News (15 February 2015)
Folks, I have a piece up at Foreign Policy on two of my favorite topics--Cambodian politics and China's international relations. Most analysts see the relationship between the two countries purely in terms of money. Hun Sen wants it, the Chinese are willing to give it, and Chinese money doesn't come with the -its-time-to-promote-human-rights type conditions Western aid does.

There is a great deal of truth to that narrative. However, I argue that is one an element critical to Sino-Cambodian ties that tends to get overlooked. It will remain a factor regardless of who is running the show in Phnom Penh: the Vietnamese.

Here are a few quotes:
Ethnic disharmony is not hard to spot in Southeast Asia, but few of its prejudices — outside of the Myanmese hatred toward the Rohingya, at least — can match the distrust and disgust the average Khmer feels toward the Vietnamese. Recall how conservative Americans talked about the Soviet Union at the height of communist power, add the way their counterparts in modern Europe discuss Arab immigration now, and then throw in a dash of the humiliation that marked Germany in interwar years, and then you might come close to getting a fair idea of how wild and vitriolic a force anti-Vietnamese rhetoric is in Cambodian politics....

Although both Vietnamese immigration and government influence has waned since Hanoi ordered its troops to withdraw from Cambodian territory, distrust of Vietnam’s government and disgust toward Cambodia’s Vietnamese minority remain. You can see this even in the Khmer communities of the United States. To walk the streets of an American Cambodiatown is to see a half-dozen posters warning of Vietnamese aggression, or (if you speak Khmer) be pressed to attend activist get-togethers or donate to help fight Vietnamese imperialism.

Many of these donations go straight into the coffers of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the opposition to Hun Sen’s ruling regime. The CNRP faces a stacked deck when squaring off against hostile authorities, but anti-Vietnamese agitation is a game they can’t lose. When the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge, the man they chose to head their new puppet regime was none other than Hun Sen. The party he now heads is a direct descendant of the party the Vietnamese created to rule Cambodia. While Westerners sometimes call Hun Sen a Chinese puppet, his domestic enemies are far more likely to attack him as a Vietnamese figurehead....

The United States, a longtime ally of the Thais and newfound courter of Vietnamese affection, could not be trusted to put Cambodian interests above the other powers in the region. In Beijing, the Cambodians see a more reliable great power — an ally that not only has a fractious relationship with Cambodia’s traditional enemy, but one that has demonstrated a willingness to go to war with that country to preserve a favorable balance of power in Southeast Asia. Indeed, the last war China waged was not only against the Vietnamese, it was against them in defense of Cambodia. Beijing’s decision to send troops across Vietnam’s northern border as the bulk of the Vietnamese army was fighting an insurgency in Cambodia, and then to keep a threatening military presence on that border through the next decade, badly hampered the Vietnamese push to become the premier armed power in Southeast Asia. For Cambodia, the strategic benefits of friendship with China could not be clearer. Playing spoiler in ASEAN meetings is a small price to pay to guarantee this friendship. [1]
and then the conclusion:
In Cambodian terms, Hun Sen’s decision to tilt Cambodian foreign policy toward Beijing is quite moderate. Other voices in Cambodian politics advocate even closer ties to China in hopes of generating more leverage vis-à-vis the Vietnamese. Rainsy declared in 2014 to a group of CNRP party supporters that his party is “on the side of China, and we support China in fighting against Vietnam over the South China Sea issue. … The islands belong to China, but the Viets are trying to occupy them, because the Viets are very bad.” He would later defend these comments in a post on his Facebook page, arguing, “when it comes to ensuring the survival of Cambodia as an independent nation, there is a saying as old as the world: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
The CNRP, acutely aware of its image in Western circles, has since distanced itself from Rainsy’s comments, but his logic is solid. If Vietnam truly does threaten the sovereignty of Cambodia, closer relations with China is a geopolitical imperative. Cambodia’s politicians have depended, since French colonialism if not earlier, on foreign sponsors. But being tarred as a friend of the Vietnamese is the most toxic slur in Cambodian politics. For Hun Sen or Rainsy, leaning toward China doesn’t send a message of dependence on Beijing, but of hostility toward Hanoi.
Even radical changes in Cambodia’s internal politics are unlikely to produce a revolution in Cambodia’s foreign relations. Hun Sen’s patronage machine requires huge influxes of money to maintain. China provides that. It does so without asking Hun Sen to protect the liberties of average Cambodians in return. But even if the machine were to fall apart and the opposition were to rise to power, Cambodia’s new leaders would face strong political pressure to give Beijing pride of place.
Cambodia is a small country tucked between its historical enemies. The grip anti-Vietnamese sentiment has on the Cambodian masses only strengthens this geopolitical anxiety. As long as Cambodian nationalism defines itself in opposition to the Vietnamese, Cambodian politicians will never stop searching for a great power that can stand as a bulwark against Vietnam. For the foreseeable future, that country will be China. Next to this, the perceived balance of power between China and the United States will never be anything more than a sideshow. (emphasis added, hyperlinks not included) [2]

I encourage you to go over to Foreign Policy and read the whole thing.

One of the themes that I touch on in this piece, but don't fully develop for reasons of space, is that we sometimes focus too much on the grand drama of great power rivalry when looking at regions like Southeast Asia and don't narrow in on the smaller domestic pressures that might force politicians to choose one great power over another. This is probably because most analysts who focus on things like Sino-American rivalry don't have much experience or interest the domestic political squabbles of small countries on the Pacific periphery. But this is and always has been a major part of the 'why' behind who joins one side or another in great power competitions. It is a pattern that stretches all the way back to the Peloponnesian War. If you think the Bangkok's decision to work more closely with the PLA, or Duterte's unremitting efforts to undermine the U.S.-Philippines alliance have nothing to do with the domestic political economy of each country, then you are foolish. There is much more afoot here than a simple calculation of Chinese and American power, and if we refuse to recognize this we will be continually blind-sided by events to come.

Some folks have suggested on twitter that it is a bit silly to call Hun Sen "hostile" towards Hanoi, and I agree with this. Hun Sen is not hostile towards the Vietnamese--but he does benefit from appearing to be so when the occasion demands it. This is Hun Sen's special skill: an ability to appear to be exactly the person his wants his audience wants him to be. I cannot think of very many other actors on the international stage who are as talented at, well, acting, as he is. The best way to judge Hun Sen, then, is from his record. That record suggests Hun Sen has long been accustomed to accommodating Hanoi, while slowly building up the strength of Sino-Cambodian ties in the background in case Hanoi ever asks too much of him. 

The CNRP is harder to judge, for the simple reason they have never actually been in charge of Cambodian foreign policy, and thus have no real track record to judge from. All we have to go on for them is rhetoric, and as the article notes, that rhetoric is mixed. I reached out to the CNRP to get a clarification of what official party policy is at the moment. Monovithya Kem,  Deputy Director-General of Public Affairs for the CNRP, sent me a response, but it came too late to make it into the article's final draft. As I had extreme trouble finding any statement from the party on the South China Sea problem issued in the last year, it will be a public service to publish :
The CNRP official position on foreign affairs is a non-alignment one, meaning Cambodia will not be a client state to any foreign power. Our position on any international matters would take into account regional security and Cambodia's interests. We believe in the empowerment of ASEAN to be a stronger institution so that through this platform ASEAN nations can address critical regional issues together. [3]
I suspect there will be need to quote this in the future. 


[1] Tanner Greer, "Cambodia Wants China As Its Neighborhood Bully," Foreign Policy (6 January 2015)

[2] ibid

[3] Personal correspondence with  Monovithya Kem, dated 3 January 2017.