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The Nail that Sticks Out Gets Hammered Down

Guermantes Lailari
President Tsai Ing-wen opens the Ketagalan Forum: 2019 Asia-Pacific Security Dialogue

The Japanese have a long history and have a lot of wisdom that is separate and different from other Asian countries. Many English speakers are aware of the famous proverb “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”; most do not know that it originated in Japan (some claim the proverb is Chinese). With respect to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) the proverb’s significance is that if one country stands alone against the PRC, the PRC would hammer it to submission to conform to its authoritarian demands. We have seen the PRC’s aggressive and expansionist behavior, especially to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and each country with claims in the South China Sea (SCS) and will continue to see it—until nations decide to take a stand together against the PRC’s voracious appetite for power.

The world saw the severe economic pressure the PRC applied to Australia starting in May 2020 when the PRC decided to punish Australia for 14 perceived “mistakes”, including Australian: legislation scrutinizing foreign influence in national security matters; appeal for an independent inquiry into the source of COVID-19; and new defense agreement with Japan. The Chinese Embassy in Canberra leaked a list of 14 complaints to three Australian newspapers coupled to a threat to alter national policies or face more threatening actions.

The Sidney Morning Herald noted that the PRC would conduct “trade strikes on up to a dozen products including wine, beef, barley, timber, lobster and coal now threaten $20 billion worth of Australian exports. China accounts for up to 40 per cent of Australia’s exports and one in 13 Australian jobs.” The economic effect of the PRC’s trade strikes, according to Jeffrey Wilson from the US Asia Centre in Perth, was measured in billions of Australian dollars. PRC trade pressure is real and significant. Included in the cost of the PRC trade strikes—and noticed by PRC leaders—was the lack of a comprehensive response by Australian allies. The PRC is teaching the world the proverb: “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) applies this same principle to countries that recognize Taiwan’s independence. The CCP uses carrots and sticks or inducements and pressures on each target country to shift recognition from Taiwan to China. The CCP’s political warfare involves a variety of tools including media warfare, psychological warfare, legal warfare, and, most importantly, diplomatic warfare and economic or trade warfare via “carrots” (or bribes) that are hidden as infrastructure development and trade deals. When the international community does not offer alternatives to the PRC’s inducements and pressure, targeted nations are left to fend for themselves.

Analyst Cleo Paskal reported a classic example of this situation recently in the Sunday Guardian by reminding readers that in September 2019, the PRC pressured the Solomon Islands, a country of 650,000 people, to switch their recognition of Taiwan to the PRC. The PRC followed the Solomon Islands’ new diplomatic position by providing payoffs of $200,000 to 39 members of the 50 parliamentary districts. This new diplomatic situation leaves Taiwan with only 14 countries and the Holy See (mostly small countries in the Pacific Ocean and Latin America) that recognize Taiwan’s independence instead of the PRC.

The CCP uses the following logic: why should the rest of the smallest economies in the world stay with Taiwan and lose opportunities of economic development funding when most of the industrialized world recognizes the PRC? This reasoning is an element of CCP propaganda doctrine. When enough countries recognize that Taiwan is part of China (One-China Policy), then Taiwan will be the last proverbial nail standing for the stage of conquest of nations on the PRC border; Taiwan would be added to Hong Kong (de facto in 2020), Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Xinjiang (also called “East Turkestan” or “Uyghuristan”).

Taiwan is the CCP’s next target. Chairman Xi Jinping believes that all Chinese should be under the sovereignty of the CCP. This thought was elucidated clearly during Xi’s Centenary Speech of the Communist Party on July 1, 2021 when he declared “… so that all Chinese people, both at home and overseas, can focus their ingenuity and energy on the same goal and come together as a mighty force for realizing national rejuvenation.”

The CCP’s trade war tactics have been applied against Australia, South Korea, the US, and Japan. In July 2016, the South Korean government allowed the US military to deploy a missile defense system (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) near Seoul to defend against North Korean ballistic missiles. The PRC was upset about the deployment, and proceeded to apply economic sanctions, including Grey Zone measures, against South Korea to show their displeasure. Some of these activities included preventing Chinese tourists from visiting South Korea ($15.6 billion in lost revenue), shutting down stores (Lotte Mart stores lost $1.78 billion in 2017), and claiming fire code violations in South Korean businesses operating in the PRC. After about 18 months, according to Darren J. Lim and Victor Ferguson, the dispute was resolved by South Korea declaring the three noes: “on October 30 Seoul declared the so-called ‘three noes’ (no additional THAAD batteries, no participation in any US regional missile defense system, and no trilateral alliance with the US and Japan), and the next day the two nations agreed to restore relations to the ‘normal development track.’”

In late July 2021, the CCP presented a list of demands to a senior US Department of State official. This list was preceded by a stormy meeting in Alaska in March 2021 between PRC senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs and US Department of State officials. The CCP’s list of wrongdoings and grievances by the US against the PRC included “removing visa restrictions for Chinese Communist Party members and their families… suppression of Chinese companies, “harassing” of Chinese students overseas and attacks on the Confucius Institute” and other offenses. European allies did not make any public statements in support of the US. The PRC is isolating the US to make it easier to hammer.

Even earlier than the Korean, Australian and US examples, Japan experienced PRC economic warfare in 2010–2012 when the PRC stopped shipments of rare earth elements; China controlled 97 per cent of the market at the time. A collision between a Chinese fishing trawler and a Japanese Coast Guard patrol boat near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu island chain in September 2010 was the initial cause of the incident. Later, the Japanese detained the skipper of the ship over Chinese protests. According to a report by the Center of New American Security, the Japanese worked internally and externally with the US and the EU to mitigate the effects of the boycott:

Throughout the crisis, Japan worked closely with the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the U.S. trade representative, as well as with trade policymakers from the European Union (EU). Together, they developed initiatives to diversify supply and seek legal recourse against China. The most notable of the efforts to confront China was the cooperation among Japan, the United States, and the EU that resulted in a case against Chinese quotas at the World Trade Organization (WTO), which the challengers won in 2014.

One way to counter “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” is to create too many nails for the hammer to be used against a single nation. In other words, the PRC power and attention have to be dissipated among many nations for their power to diminish. Just as when a person may rest on a bed of nails; one cannot sleep on one nail without causing injury. Therefore, many nations must work together to form many nails; thereby preventing the PRC from employing the classic Latin phrase divide et impera, divide and rule/conquer.

A first step to creating an alliance of many nails is to mobilize existing groupings of countries and reinforce these groups with additional countries. For example, during the Ketagalan Forum- 2021 Asia-Pacific Security Dialogue discussions in late August 2021, much was said about the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (also known as the Quad) countries—Japan, India, Australia and the US. Michael Green, former special assistant to the President for national security affairs and senior director for Asia at the National Security Council from 2001–2005, noted that one of the first times that the Quad countries came together for something significant was during the massive 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake (over 9.1 on the Richter scale) and the tsunami which killed over 225,000 in south and south east Asia including in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Somalia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. The four members of the Quad agreed to work together to ameliorate this humanitarian crisis.

In a recent Epoch Times article titled “Japan-Taiwan ‘Security’ Talks: Something New and Significant”, Grant Newsham proposed that Japan and Taiwan have security discussions and develop areas of common interest such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) training, exercises, and operations are positive developments. He recommended future Japan-Taiwan security discussions include long-term military cooperation and exchange of liaison officers. This growing relationship would be enabled by the U.S. ending its forty-year isolation of the Republic of China’s military.

The example of coordinated action to respond to the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake returns us to Grant Newsham’s article encouraging Taiwan and Japan to work together on HADR training, exercises, and actions. To diminish the attempt by the PRC to try to proverbially place Japan as a single nail on the wooden board and consequently hammer Japan, the Quad and Taiwan should be the minimum number of members to conduct HADR training and operations in the Indo-Pacific region. These five countries should be core regional members that develop and enhance HADR training and exercises—thereby developing a common operating picture, common standard operating procedures, and common standard lexicon. Other countries that have significant HADR capabilities could join this grouping.

Developing HADR common standards will also assist these and other nations to operate together on land, in the sea, and in the sky to enhance their interoperability and operational abilities for the common purpose of providing efficient and effective HADR. In effect, by assembling this grouping of countries, they will be able to counter the threat of the PRC’s policy of applying the proverb “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” and, instead, make a coalition based on a more relevant phrase proposed by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson in 1776: E Pluribus Unum, “One from many,” the motto on the Great Seal of the United States promoting the idea to form, in this case, a unified alliance from a collection of capable countries.