07 August 2017

Is Track II Diplomacy Dead in Singapore?

According to industry analysts, Singapore is the worst place to be a property developer, the worst place to be a tech start-up, and the worst place to be a software programmer. Add to that growing list, the worst place to be a Track II diplomat or lobbyist.

Singapore has proscribed Dr Huang Jing, a US citizen and top professor at its Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP). He will be summarily expelled, his permanent resident status torn up, and his directorships in several state-linked companies dissolved if he doesn't resign from them voluntarily. The communique from the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) adopts a security narrative: the professor was "an agent of influence of a foreign country", engaged in subversion and interference in Singapore's domestic politics.

Now let us tell you why this narrative is a giant fail and colossal joke, and what could be actually happening.

Diplomat, Spy, or Lobbyist? Track II Diplomacy in a nutshell

Of course the security narrative is improbable, implausible, and doesn't add up. Not even to the world of diplomacy, spycraft, or international relations.

Yet a cursory scan of Dr Huang Jing's career and publications reveals he is a pro-China "China hand" with a decades-long involvement in Track II diplomacy and lobbying at several policy institutes and think tanks in America and South Korea, and a foreign economics analyst for China's state-owned Xinhua News Agency. Some even openly state his credentials as a key actor in Track II diplomacy and multilateral dialogues.  And that's where the narrative from Singapore Ministry Home Affairs starts to break down entirely.

One thing about being a spy: you can't be one if you're recognized as a spy wherever you go.
One thing about being a diplomat or international lobbyist: you can only be one if you're recognized as such wherever you go.

And it's clear from historical record that Dr Huang Jing is a China analyst involved in lobbying and track II diplomacy.

Ceci n'est pas une pipe (diplomat)
Track II diplomacy, in a nutshell, is diplomacy conducted by unofficial, informal, or non-governmental actors and agents. That is, diplomacy conducted between non-diplomats. No war hawks or peace doves, just scientific, cultural, and economic analysts and lobbyists from each side speaking freely on a wide range of issues - something that cannot take place within formal diplomacy. No formal negotiations, whatever views proposed are seen as not necessarily the official stand of respective governments.

Track II diplomacy was "invented" as a way to resolve crises. Since then, it was further developed as a way to normalise relations and improve mutual understanding through regular dialogue. And yes, to ultimately persuade governments to adjust various policies and policy directions. Very openly acknowledged and studied in the literature and various institutes conducting Track II Diplomacy as lobbying. Whether or not such lobbying is successful depends on how convincing the lobbyist's arguments are, vis-a-vis the arguments of other lobbyists.

Put crudely, Track II diplomacy is all about lobbying. Of course Dr Huang Jing would continue lobbying within the LKYSPP. It's his key skill set and very clearly stated in his CV and previous appointments. When the government of Singapore luridly accused Dr Huang Jing of being a foreign agent who "engaged prominent and influential Singaporeans... to influence their opinions in favour of that country... recruited others in aid of his operations", were they accusing Dr Huang of being a lobbyist and Track II diplomacy actor working in a public policy institute?

Track II diplomacy can only exist in a country that has a certain freedom of speech to allow lobbying, robustness of debate to prevent one-sided lobbying, independent thinking to critically analyse debates, and a commitment to guaranteeing the safety of such diplomacy. By expelling Dr Huang, the Ministry of Home Affairs risks sending a signal that one, some, or quite possibly all of these are no longer true in Singapore.

And that's how much of a clown show this looks, if we were to buy into the official narrative.

Because if that's the official narrative, enjoy seeing Dr Huang Jing be deported to the USA, where he will continue to lead a free life and worse, continue to gain fellowship and academic appointments to other think tanks and research institutions in the USA and across the world. It would be highly embarrassing to Singapore. Probably more embarrassing than seeing Dr Shorvon being vindicated in London's High Court.

So what really happened?

Singapore has its own track II diplomacy think tanks and research institutes, some of whom have members or chairmen who publish articles in the Straits Times Op/Ed pages. Public lobbyists, if you will.

Short of monumental incompetence, in Singapore failing to understand what Track II diplomacy is, we can only speculate on what the real clown show was.

Scenario 1

The real issue is with the good doctor giving supposedly “privileged information” to senior members of his research institute, to quote the MHA. The good doctor did this in collaboration with foreign intelligence agents, again quoting the MHA. Again, this is part and parcel of Track II diplomacy and par for the course, and hardly reason for expulsion. (A good reason for expulsion would be if the doctor collaborated with foreign agents to take privileged information from Singapore, instead of giving it to Singaporeans.)

To proscribe Dr Huang on this basis would be to confess that the "privileged information" was true, that it really did come from intelligence sources. It isn't in Singapore's interest to remove a lobbyist who has good information, privileged information. But it would be in the foreign country's interest to pressure Singapore to remove a lobbyist who has privileged information that it actually doesn't want others to know. That's a danger with Track II diplomacy, when you use completely non-state actors.

The real incompetence is with MHA's flimsy, non-credible official narrative and how it undermines Singapore in the eyes of professional diplomats, lobbyists, and students of international relations.

Scenario 2

The real issue is with the good doctor being given permanent residence and directorships of various Singapore government linked companies since he was appointed to the LKYSPP. The failure would be on the part of whoever recruited and vouchsafed Dr Huang to LKYSPP, to realise that a track II diplomat should be treated as an unofficial diplomat and lobbyist. It's the stupidest idea to give a foreign diplomat citizenship, much less directorships in government-linked companies.

Heads should rightly roll for this, so watch out for upcoming "retirements" at LKYSPP, which will indicate a purge of the research institute of its incompetent clowns and head clowns.

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