Hawking Holograms

Beam me up! Professor Stephen Hawking turned into a 3D hologram at a lecture in Hong Kong

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Meeting Stephen Hawking in person is already an exciting experience. But this time around, the hype was not about what the world-famous theoretical physicist said but the medium that he chose to deliver his lecture.

Hawking appeared as a hologram in front of hundreds in the audience at the Hong Kong Science Park last month. With images being beamed live from Hawking’s office in Cambridge, the technology involved goes beyond the speech synthesizer that the British scientist uses.

The holographic projection, which was slightly larger than the professor is in life-size, was created by ARHT Media. The Canadian startup has partnered with NetDragon Websoft, a Hong Kong-based online games company, to market the imaging technology in Asia.

Photo-realistic human holograms are not new. Although they are still a novelty in commercial applications, they have been used by the entertainment industry which deems the six-figure production cost affordable.

Digital Domain, the Hong Kong-based owner of the Playa Vista visual effects studio, has resurrected a number of deceased singers, such as Tupac Shakur and Teresa Teng, through its hologram project. The virtual image of Teng performed on stage with Taiwanese pop singer Jay Chou in 2013.

ARHT Media is prioritizing application in education over entertainment, though. It wants to bring its HumaGram technology to students and teachers, building a “low cost, high distribution” learning platform that will pull together “some of the best educators in the world”.

“We believe the Asian market, in particularly China, represents a fertile ground for us to realize this technology,” said Paul Duffy, president and chief executive of ARHT Media. “In Hong Kong, we are actively pursuing a number of universities and corporations.”

The demonstration event in Hong Kong showed a glimpse of what to come. During the 90-minute lecture, Hawking spoke and answered inquiries about his career, current research, and where he stands on the issue of Brexit and Donald Trump.

Despite the speaker’s immobility and monotonous computer voice, the crowd was listening attentively. The novelty factor of a hologram prolonged the audience’s attention span, with them marveling at the life-like eyes and lips movement captured and recreated on stage.

Hawking’s lecture was taped. It will be broadcast as a pay-per-view program.

“We have an open system concept, which works on all devices – television, smartphone, iPad and augmented reality headset,” said Simon Leung Lim-kin, vice chairman and executive director of NetDragon Websoft. “All the experiences that we capture will be able to be enjoyed on any devices, anytime anywhere.”

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Creating a human hologram is simpler than one would imagine. Hawking was seated in front of a green screen that measured four meters wide and eight meters tall. Multiple shots were captured in advance. However, a single-camera setup would suffice during a live broadcast.

Transmitting the hologram require technical specialty. The Toronto-based company has developed an exclusive video codec to package the audio and images that can be sent with low latency over a cloud-based media server and broadband internet connection.

“We are able to create a primary, secondary and tertiary format so we have redundancy built in the system. When we have a clean line, which is typically what happens when we set up, we are able to take a human hologram from Los Angeles to Hong Kong in 400 to 700 milliseconds,” Duffy said.

In regions such as the mainland, where landline internet connection is unstable and expensive, sending a partial hologram – only the face, instead of the full body, as an example – is one solution.

Another option for transmission is via a mobile phone network.

“We typically need anywhere from two to 10 megabytes per second for transmission. That’s the low end of 3G. So most of the transmissions that we are doing now can probably be provisioned through a cell-phone network,” he added.

Reproducing a human hologram does not require the use of a special projector. But special mesh-like screens are needed. Two screens were used at Hawking’s lecture: a nine-meter-wide, four-meter-high one fixed at mid-stage, and another in the rear of the stage.

The virtual Hawking was projected in-between the screens. It was, in fact, a two-dimensional image. But stage lighting and fancy graphics can fool the human brain, making the screens invisible and the image convincingly three-dimensional, explained an engineer of ARHT Media.

The company is creating a smaller type of special screen for schools and home users. The new screen measures twp-meter-high and one to two meters wide. Only one of them, rather than two, is required to render a hologram image.

While human hologram is not as widely popular as other existing types of video streaming technologies, important early adopters exist.

Duffy predicted that a critical mass of clientele will form when the price for purchasing projection equipment falls under US$1,000 (HK$7,800).

“The cost to build a display station is coming down dramatically. And mass proliferation of virtual reality and augmented reality headsets all make for the ability to create a fully formed human experience but in a life-size model,” he said.

“In the US, it costs from a few hundreds dollars all the way down to US$50 or US$60 a month to lease one of these projectors. It’s getting quickly into the realm of what’s possible for mass distribution.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on April 24, 2017.

Main Man

Gordon Ramsay wants to be judged by what he puts on a plate, not his TV persona.

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You hear Gordon Ramsay before you see him. Not profanity. It’s the oohs and ahhs uttered by the crowd – some hysterically waving behind the windows in a building across the street – that have gathered to catch a glimpse of the reality TV star.

What the British celebrity chef and restaurateur is like in real life is comparable to what you see on television.

The quick-witted talker can appear in different shades and threat levels, from being the benevolent fatherly host in MasterChef Junior, to the fiery-tempered culinary perfectionist in Hell’s Kitchen.

His self-introduction is not a one-liner: “I am a driven, passionate chef. I don’t suffer fools. I get straight to the point. I don’t like [expletive]. What you see is what you get. I love cooking. I cook from the heart. My job became a passion decades ago, so probably, I am one of the most hard-working chefs anywhere in the world today. Please to meet you. Now sit down and enjoy dinner.”

Ramsay flew over to inspect Bread Street Kitchen & Bar in Lan Kwai Fong. The restaurant, opened in 2014, is one of his 31 establishments spread around the world.

It had been 18 months since Ramsay last set foot in the restaurant. He started the Bread Street label in an attempt to branch into casual dining. When looking East for further conquest, the chef chose Central as his first foothold. Singapore and Dubai soon followed, and Ramsay will open a fifth in Sanya in October. He is also planning to open in Beijing and Shanghai.

The label was originally established in London in 2011. “The first Bread Street has five services in a day: breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and cocktail. It spans 12,000 square feet. The one in Hong Kong is 3.5 times smaller,” Ramsay said.

“Hong Kong is really important for us. It’s a highly pressurized tiny foodie city – landlords demanding ridiculous rents, independent restaurants being pushed out due to soaring overheads. What keeps restaurants full is quality.”

To maintain high standards, Ramsay rotates his head chefs every two to three years. Gareth Packman, a “young, tenacious and hungry” lad from Manchester, was recently hand picked to helm the restaurant in Central. While Ramsay is not physically present, he runs a tight ship by hiring mystery diners.

One would expect working under Ramsay, who currently holds seven Michelin stars, to be a kitchen nightmare. He’s actually not. “The pressure for being a young chef today is completely different from it was five, 10 years ago,” he said. “It’s the amalgamation of being socially astute, having an innovative mind, and understanding the Asian influence of the modern European all-day eater.”

The 50-year-old, who overcame a harsh childhood, personifies what it means to be social savvy. He cooks for those with money, fame, power, or all three. Princess Diana and Nelson Mandela were his patrons.

“The beginning of my journey was about improving what I grew up with,” he recalled. “When you have that hunger and that determination, you can have nothing in life, and still control the way you want to go.”

Still, he connects with common people.

His Twitter account has 4.71 million followers. “I have four amazing children, who update me on how to be trendy,” he said. “Megan is at Oxford. Holly is doing A-Levels, studying French. Jack wants to go to the Marines. Mathilda just wants to annoy everybody. She is 15.”

Ramsay’s straight-talking is a social media hit. Recently, a woman requested a special dinner to convince her boyfriend to propose. “How the [expletive] do I do that?”, he said. “If he is not going to propose naturally, then you’ve got no chance, love. Move on. Don’t think my dinner is going to make him change his mind.”

Ramsay still has unfulfilled ambitions. He wants his two Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Pressoir d’Argent, to nab a third star.

And he wants to start enjoying life a little.

“I want to buy a Sunseeker and go fishing. Also, spend more time with my mum. She is 70. She likes coming to our house to spend the weekend. She cooks for the children what she cooked for me.”

Most importantly, he wants to regain control of his life. “I don’t rely on television to make me or my food famous. I know [expletive] well that what I put on a plate will be better than what you see on television. Judge me for what I put on the plate – not what you see on TV.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on April 21, 2017.

Scot Free

Robbie McRobbie, the incoming CEO of Hong Kong Rugby Union, wants the eggchasers to play a wider game

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As excitement builds for the Hong Kong Sevens blockbuster, one thing is certain: Robbie McRobbie will have his hands full, not only with pleasing a stadium filled with passionate fans, but bringing a sport long overshadowed by football back to the mainstream.

He will succeed Vernon Reid as chief executive of the Hong Kong Rugby Union after the Sevens, working alongside fellow Scotsman and tournament head Sam Pinder.

McRobbie, a familiar face in local sporting circles, joined the union as its first community rugby manager in 2003, and his responsibilities grew to include oversight of facilities, commercial and event organization.

In his new role, staff development will be top priority. He is also hoping to make domestic championships and youth participation more popular.

“We want to take rugby to every corner of Hong Kong. It is a game for all,” he says. “Just kicking a ball by itself is not going to change a youngster’s life. But sports, used in the right way, is a powerful agent for social change.”

A key project involves the promotion of touch rugby in primary schools. The union is working with the Education University to train coaches and to double the number of schools that teach the game in physical education classes to 240 by 2019.

“Wong Tai Sin, Tin Shui Wai, Tuen Mun, Sha Tin, Tai Po and Tsuen Wan are where we want rugby to really take hold,” he says. “A lot of the schools we are working with are not traditional rugby schools or sporting schools. It’s amazing what they can achieve.

“For example, Choi Hung Estate Catholic Secondary School emerged as one of the strongest teams in the past few years. It has been beating La Salle College, Diocesan Boys’ School and Wah Yan.”

Managing a game and nurturing teenagers might sound like unlikely aspirations for a former policeman like McRobbie. But the Scotsman discovered his true passion did not lie in extracting confessions following a course in sports and recreation management.

He was athletic in school, being into football and rugby when growing up in Gullane, a coastal town near Edinburgh. He remained an active sportsman, when reading history at Oxford, with football, rugby, cricket and rowing.

“When I started out, I was quite fast. I played in the back. As I grew taller, I ended up as a forward,” he recalls. “But I was never that good to go professional. And professional rugby did not start in Scotland from 1995.”

In 1992, he joined the Royal Hong Kong Police Force at 20. He spent 11 years in the force, serving as inspector in the New Territories, instructor of the tactical unit, presenter of the Police Report TV program, and assistant manager of the Police Officers’ Club.

“In my career, I only arrested one person, who was burgling my flat. So I didn’t feel I was making a massive difference,” McRobbie jokes. “I was hoping I might do a much better job by working in the sports industry.”

Interestingly, the Scotsman who calls the SAR home is perhaps the best mascot the Sevens can get, as the game has two spiritual homes – Scotland and Hong Kong, where it was invented and reinvented.

Rugby Sevens originated in Scotland in 1883, in a town called Melrose. It became the global game that it is today after Hong Kong started an international tournament in 1976.

Entering its 42th year, the tournament in Hong Kong promises an exciting lineup, he says. A festival held at Chater Garden will televise the game live for free. And bars and restaurants will provide discounts via an app.

Most importantly, Hong Kong will make strides toward qualifying for the World Rugby Sevens Series in a first, if the men’s team comes out on top.

“The men will be playing against some strong teams, such as Spain, which plays in the Olympics, and Germany, which is getting very good very quickly,” McRobbie says.

“It will be a tough competition but they are definitely a favorite. They have come close to winning and getting a promotion a few times. They have given us some really memorable moments. Fingers crossed, we hope that this year they can go that one step further and actually qualify for the series.”

“And Scotland is in the top series competition. So for me, the perfect weekend will be Scotland winning the cup, and Hong Kong the qualifier.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on April 7, 2017.

Music Man

New artistic planning director of HK Philharmonic Orchestra talks about from being a nobody to making an international debut at the BBC Proms

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Ask composer Lam Fung about an thorny issue in the local classical music scene, you will get an earful. Young artists, particularly those straight out of university, feel “entitled to be picked up by top-class orchestras.” He thinks their expectation is unrealistic.

“I understand the request but it won’t be beneficial to an orchestra, or the musicians themselves, if selection is made based on ethnicity. It’s quality that counts,” he says.

“That said, there should be more opportunities for emerging composers and performers. An example is composition workshops, which allow them to rehearse and record their music with a top-class orchestra.”

Strong words from Lam, who resumed the director role of artistic planning at the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra in February.

Local musicians hoped that, as a Hongkonger, he would promote them.

Lam’s new position makes him a force to be reckoned with. He has a say on the hiring of conductors and performers, music selection and commissioning new works.

Many might not like Lam’s answer, but there is a reason for it. Good musicians are never produced in a greenhouse environment. They are made in the thousands of hours of practices, endless exploration, and years of lost sleep over financial security.

That was how Lam was made. His list of achievements include three BBC commissions, two from the Hong Kong Philharmonic, performances at big concert halls, and tours in China, Europe, as well as Asia next month.

Not bad for a composer who just turned 37.

The cellist, and son of former director of the Hong Kong Observatory Lam Chiu-ying, has a doctoral degree in composition. He initially wanted to go into acoustical engineering, not contemporary classical music composition.

“I was raised with the mind of a scientist and the heart of a musician,” he says. “Being an acoustics consultant was a middle-of-the-road career path as it involves physics and music. I would have become a borderline architect – a safe choice in eyes of most parents.”

Lam studied under two respected British composers: Michael Zev Gordon and Michael Finnissy. The pedigree didn’t translate into instant success, though. In the first five years, his biggest paycheck came from a stranger he met on Old Bond Street, who paid him £50 for a sheet of piano music.

Lam hopped in and out of jobs to survive in London: concert hall usher, CD seller at Tower Records, administrative coordinator at music publisher Boosey & Hawkes, music arranger, to name a few. “I was even an extra in Keanu Reeves’ film 47 Ronin,” he says.

The breakthrough came in 2008. Then 29, Lam landed his first paid commission. The BBC paid him HK$100,000 for the score Unlocking. He had previously composed Illumination for the BBC unpaid in 2005.

“My musician friends joked that I got paid six-figure for a 23-minute work. But I spent two to three months to writing it,” he says. “There isn’t an obvious career path for composers. Most work freelance. Of course, financial pressure is eased when a big commission comes. But as young artists, you need to build up a portfolio and that means unpaid work.”

In 2012, Lam received another important commission from the British broadcaster. He composed Endless Forms for the BBC Proms. He was the youngest Chinese, and the first Hongkonger, to appear in the most prestigious orchestral festival in Britain.

“It was a commission every composer dreams of. My music was played by the flagship BBC Symphony Orchestra, and broadcast live to the world on Radio 3. It was a full house concert at the Royal Albert Hall, which sits almost 5,700 people,” he recalls.

“I couldn’t take credit for the attendance. People went for Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2 and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. But to me, it felt like going full circle. My parents took me to a concert there at 12.”

Critics said Lam’s performance reminded them of French composers Claude Debussy, Raphael Thierry and Olivier Messiaen.

The nicest compliment he received that night was: “I didn’t expect contemporary classical music to be so enjoyable.”

His parents were in the audience. “My father didn’t tell me he was proud of me. He only said he thought my music was interesting. Neither he nor my mother are into classical music. They prefer dance,” he says. “But I am happy that they now go to my concerts regularly. Recently, my father said he sensed a hint of Buddhism in my latest work, Quintessence. It was exactly what I had intended.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on March 24, 2017.

Ticking All the Boxes

Walter von Kanel: an old China hand and the numbers man of Longines

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Watch veteran Walter von Kanel knows many figures by heart. But there are two numbers that he is particularly proud of.

The first, four. Longines, the label which the Swiss German manages, is the world’s fourth best-selling brand after Rolex, Omega and Cartier.

The second is number six. Longines is one of only six watch companies – the other two are Tissot and Patek Philippe – whose annual sales exceed a billion Swiss francs (HK$7.69 billion). Von Kanel helped Longines achieved that feat in 2012.

Currently, the 185-year-old Swiss label, the oldest registered trademark for a watchmaker, produces more than a million watches a year, raking in almost 1.5 billion Swiss francs in sales.

“Omega and Tissot are from my group so I know their figures,” said the president of Longines and a member of Swatch’s group management board. “We are getting very close to overtaking Cartier to become No 3. Very close.”

Longines appeals to its customers not with a forward-looking visage, but with consistency, continuity and focus. Two of its heritage collections – Lindbergh and Flagship, first produced in 1930 and 1957, respectively – are still in production without many alterations.

However, von Kanel revealed that Longines would spring surprises at Baselworld next week. Expect a new quartz movement to mark the return of the Conquest VHP collection and a family of mechanical watches with additional features.

Whichever watches von Kanel decides to make, they are likely to become gold. “The name of the game is price segment,” he explained. Longines dominates the price bracket between 1,500 and 3,000 Swiss francs. And an entry-level piece can cost as little as 700 Swiss francs.

The pricing strategy has helped the label to buck the trend in 2008 and 2014. “It was the US shock in 2008. But thanks to our strong position in Asia, and the booming period in China, I did not lose anything,” von Kanel said.

“From 2014 onward, globally, we had a plus. China, a slight plus. Hong Kong, we lost due to the Umbrella Protest but we now do okay. Macau is improving. The disaster is Taiwan because madame le president [Tsai Ing-wen] is not kissing China. So no group tourists, no sales.”

Destiny dictated von Kanel’s career. His childhood was spent in the Saint-Imier Valley, site of Longines’ headquarters. He has worked for the company for 48 years and been president for almost two-thirds of that time.

A strong market sense and an inquisitive personality play a big part to his career longevity. He once visited the Umbrella protesters in Admiralty at 5am out of curiosity. “The tents reminded me of my military days. I wanted to see how they were organized,” he said.

The watch executive is an old China hand. When he talks about the mainland, he is akin to a professor giving a history lesson.

He can tell you about the competition between the Japanese label Citizen and Swatch’s subsidiary ETA during the quartz crisis, how he used to buy parts from a factory next to Kai Tak Airport, and about CP Wong, the Hong Kong businessman who took control of the American label Bulova in 1976.

“When I arrived at Beijing airport in 1971, an immigration officer greeted me in Swiss German. He had spent five years in the Chinese embassy in Bern. Switzerland was the first occidental country to recognize China,” he said.

“The government sent me a car. Back then, there were almost no cars on the streets, but millions of bicycles.”

At 75, von Kanel still travels to China six or seven times a year. With the business there growing over the past decade, he has all the more reason to visit a country that fascinates him. “In China, we are attractive to the workers and the common people,” he said. “I am convinced that, in my price segment, there is no saturation. There will still be big growth.”

Is he not worried about the rising sales of smart timepieces? “I didn’t lose any sales. And you have to remember I am an old schmuck in the industry. In this case, I will let you dream about those figures,” he said.

“This territory belongs to Apple and Samsung, and all those new manufacturers in China. It’s not my territory. I will not go into this business. If our group decides to do so, I think it should be Swatch and Tissot.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on March 17, 2017.

Feets of Joy

Jimmy Choo: designer to the well-heeled

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There are those who measure their achievements in life by the number of designer shoes they have in the wardrobe.

Then there is Jimmy Choo. Not that the celebrity footwear designer is not crazy about shoes. He has three cabinets filled with stylish shoes at home.

But Choo, a Buddhist, sees life through the lens of benevolence. The goodwill of others has made the Malaysian Chinese the world’s famous footwear icon that he is today. Choo feels obliged to reciprocate by promoting the virtue of education and bringing up young designers from Asia.

“A Chinese saying goes: a master should always have a few tricks up his sleeves, lest his apprentice outstrips him one day,” Choo said after attending a British Council award ceremony held in Hong Kong. “I don’t believe that. A true master shouldn’t be afraid that his proteges would become better than him. I teach mine everything I know. It was how I learnt the craft. My father was my master.”

Choo’s father Choo Kee Yin, an immigrant from Mei County in Guangdong, was a shoemaker. Born in Penang to a Hakka family, the junior Choo learnt about design and pattern-making at the family’s shoe factory.

At 11, Choo made his first pair of shoes: dog-patterned leather flats for his mother’s birthday. “I made that because my mother liked wearing slippers. And my childhood nickname was Doggie,” he said. “Many parents in Malaysia gave their children an animal nickname, hoping they would grow up strong like an animal even in difficult circumstances.”

Although Choo moved to London in his teens and lives there ever since, he hasn’t forgotten his roots. He speaks fluent Cantonese and Hakka. And after selling his shares in his eponymous label in 2001, he started another company named after his Chinese name, Zhou Yangjie.

“I used to speak Cantonese a lot in London because there were a lot of Hongkongers there,” said the 68-year-old. “Most restaurant staff spoke Cantonese. Some spoke Hakka.”

London made Jimmy Choo famous. In 1983, he graduated with a degree in footwear design at the Cordwainers Technical College, today’s London College of Fashion. Three years later, he opened Lucky Shoes in Hackney.

Choo’s father-in-law suggested the name. Choo is married to a designer from Hong Kong.

“My father-in-law said the name would bring me good fortune so his daughter wouldn’t starve,” he recalled. “I was quite handsome when I was young. So I didn’t need much effort to court my wife. When we were dating, she often invited me to her place for dinner. She said Hongkongers are good at making soup. In return, I made her shoes.”

Good fortune didn’t come immediately – even though Choo was selling his handmade shoes at £50 (HK$472) a pair. “No one wanted my shoes because I was a nobody. My parents gave me their retirement savings to keep the business afloat,” he recalled.

To make ends meet, Choo went into making cheap sandals and uncredited pieces commissioned by theater producers and famous fashion designers. Although his creations would appear in fashion magazines, he was only paid £6 per pair sold.

Luckily, it didn’t take long for his reputation to grow. Within two years of opening Lucky Shoes, his works were featured in an eight-page spread in the UK Vogue. Then Choo went into business with society girl Tamara Mellon – and the rest was history.

Throughout the years, many celebrities and royalty have stopped by Choo’s shop – Princess Diana, the queens of Jordan and Brunei, Michael Jackson, Kylie Minogue, and Kristin Davis, to name a few.

“When Katie Holmes was in London for the premiere of Batman Begins, she visited my shop on 18 Connaught Street,” he said. “Turned out, that location really brought me good fortune.”

Choo’s niece Lucy Choi has taken over his London shop but he is still accepting bespoke orders from close friends. “I’ll never stop making shoes – not even when I am 100.”

When he is not busy entertaining clients and scouting for young footwear talents, he would fly to Kuala Lumpur to get his suits and shirts made at Lord’s Tailor. The man is, in his own right, a purveyor of fashion.

“Being a designer is not only about making fashionable shoes. It’s also about making shoes that bring joy, comfort and a sense of wholesomeness.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on March 10, 2017.

Let’s Talk Politics

The Trump presidency is a big test for America’s friends and foes in Asia Pacific, says Australian professor of international politics Mark Beeson

Donald Trump Addresses Republican Retreat In Philadelphia

For Mark Beeson, there is no better time to be teaching international affairs than now. Hardly a day goes by without new shocking revelations coming to light about how ideologically divided the United States is these days.

And President Donald Trump’s antagonistic positions on numerous issues are a textbook case of what a global leader should not have adopted.

But underneath the polished intellectual exterior, the professor of international politics at the University of Western Australia is deeply worried.

The unpredictability of Trump’s leadership is a big test for the rest of the world as a misguided response could bring cataclysmic consequences.

“It’s now quite a remarkably interesting time, and quite an unsettling one,” said the Australian. “The Trump administration sends out contradictory signals all the time. So it’s really hard for friends and foes to know what they are likely to do.”

The Trump presidency brings uncertainty to the already debilitated relationships of powerful nations. On the global economic front, Trump kept his election promise and ripped up his predecessor’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement on his first day in office.

The decision to kill off one of the most far-reaching and binding free trade agreements has effectively snubbed America’s closest allies, Australia, Canada and Japan, which are signatories.

“That’s been a real blow for many of the countries in Asia, particularly to Australia and Japan, which has put a lot of time and effort in trying to get that agreement up. It was a good agreement,” Beeson said.

“In fact, as far as America’s national interests go, the TPP might not have been done too badly by its multinational corporations. So you have got to wonder about whether the Trump administration really understands the nature of that agreement and global trade.”

China, America’s strongest competitor in jockeying for world dominance, is also receiving the same incoherent, and at times, contentious treatment.

Trump has yet to slap a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports as promised, but did reiterate last week his stern stance on China. The latest rhetoric saw the new White House occupant slamming the Chinese as the “grand champions” of currency manipulation. But then immediately, his Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin softened the tone at another occasion.

In stark contrast to Trump’s protectionist “America first” policy is President Xi Jinping’s defense of a liberalized global trade system. There are several free trade initiatives already in discussion that look destined to cement China’s dominance in Asia.

For example, the ASEAN-sponsored Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific. The United States was not involved in either before Trump was elected so it is highly unlikely that it will get involved now.

“They are both potentially significant if China will be the driving force behind them,” Beeson said. “Yet, there is a big debate around how serious and willing China would be about actually following through what it has implied doing.”

China’s growing influence has unnerved the China hawks in the Trump administration. Key skeptics include trade chief Peter Navarro and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. They advocate a more combative rhetoric toward China economically and militarily.

“Navarro has a very old-fashioned mercantilist, zero-sum view. He turns out to be a big influence on Trump, who doesn’t seem to have a fixed position on trade. Trump is clearly open to be influenced,” Beeson said.

“Tillerson has said the United States is going to stop China from reinforcing in the South China Sea. The only realistic possibility to doing that is by military means. Trump has already said he would increase the size of the navy from 272 to 355 ships.”

“The Chinese government will find it difficult to back away from their claims and desire to remain in control of those islands. The dangerous thing on both sides now is that they are both painting themselves into a corner from which it is very difficult to retreat.”

The war of words between the two superpowers not only would end up turning Asia Pacific into a flash point for an actual war, but also hurt innocent bystanders economically as the United States has been a key importer of goods produced in the region since the East Asian miracle.

Smaller entities in this part of the world, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, regardless of where their allegiance lies, will become “the meat in the sandwich” to the transactional approach to diplomacy of the two great powers.

“It’s naive to have blind faith in any allies or alleged friends. All countries pursue what could be in their national interest to some extent. But it’s much more consequential when the country is America or China,” Beeson said. “Their ideas of pursuing their national interests have ramifications for the world.”

“So can countries trust them? Probably not in the sense of whether they are going to stick to their words if the circumstance doesn’t suit them or there is a change of administration.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on March 7, 2017.