New Delhi: Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, is an illustrious man. A star in the Democratic Party, he is close to US President Joe Biden and is the latter’s pick for US ambassador to India, a country he apparently visited several times and even studied Hindi and Urdu in college for a year. He is also known to have shared Diwali greetings and observed Indian holidays. Those who know him and have worked with him, describe him as “bright and dynamic, kind, open hearted, and curious of mind”, someone who has travelled extensively in Asia and Africa; a Rhodes scholar, who has served in the Office of Naval Intelligence. He was also ambitious enough to toy with the idea of running for US President, until he abandoned it in 2019, and endorsed Joe Biden’s candidature. Biden made him one of his four campaign committee co-chairs, ahead of the election and eventually rewarded him with the ambassadorship to India. However, Garcetti is also close to China and a buzz is growing in the United States on why a “Sinophile” would be made ambassador to India at a time when ties between the two countries appear frayed beyond repair.

But incoming envoy Garcetti is a transparent man. He has not hidden his Chinese connections. On his LA mayoral website is a photograph of him sitting in front of a Chinese flag, meeting Hong Kong’s infamous chief executive Carrie Lam in 2018. The report is headlined “Mayor Garcetti wraps up Asia trade mission with stops in Vietnam, Hong Kong”. According to the report, when in Hanoi, he told the Vietnamese that “advancing human rights is an important goal for the United States”. However, when in Hong Kong, he “discussed best practices and future collaboration around trade, affordable housing, electric vehicles, innovation, and sustainability.” And this in spite of Carrie Lam’s track record of implementing Chinese Communist Party’s repressive diktat in the city state.

Eric Garcetti as part of the Asia 21 Fellows, Class of 2006 (seated, third from right).

In a rather damning article on 26 May 2021, National Pulse, a Washington-based media outfit, quoted Chinese media reports to charge Garcetti of having “a long history of collaboration with groups tied to the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department (UFWD)”, of praising Xi Jinping as a “remarkable leader” and “privately” messaging “Communist influence chiefs” during his 2014 visit to China. It is not known if Garcetti refuted the charges made against him in the article.

If influence-peddling is the name of China’s game, then the Asia Society in the US is alleged to be at the centre of it. No wonder Eric Garcetti’s critics find his association with Asia Society of Southern California (ASSC)—he is the board member “on leave” of the Southern California chapter—as problematic. In this context, some light needs to be shed on Asia Society to understand their concern.

ASIA SOCIETY

A non-profit organization, Asia Society says its focus is on educating the world about Asia—of “promoting mutual understanding and strengthening partnerships among peoples, leaders, and institutions of Asia and the United States in a global context.” Kevin Rudd, the former Australian Prime Minister is its current CEO and president—the infamous Rudd, who torpedoed the first version of the “anti China” Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) among US, India, Japan and Australia. It was during his tenure as Prime Minister that Australia walked out of the Quad in 2008, assuring China that it would not be part of any platform where China did not have a place. It took almost a decade to revive the Quad—in 2017—after that.

Headquartered in New York, Asia Society is spread across the US, and also has branches in Hong Kong, Mumbai, Manila, Seoul, Sydney and Tokyo, among other places. Founded by John D. Rockefeller 3rd, in 1956, Asia Society’s board has however changed from being “white, upper class, Upper East Side Manhattan, blue blood” to primarily Chinese and those with strong connections to China, say sources in the US.

Invitation sent out by the Asia Society of Southern California for the screening of the film Wolf Warrior II.

Before going into the deep suspicions that several China-observers harbour about Asia Society and what they allege is its “influence peddling on behalf of China”, even a cursory look through its publications and the events it hosts show that Asia Society is not unfriendly towards China. In fact, anything but.

At a time when the coronavirus pandemic had started sweeping the globe, Asia Society published a special issue called “The Asian Century at 2020”, where, in a piece called, “Xi Jinping’s China”, Kevin Rudd declared that “Xi…will remain China’s paramount leader through the 2020s and into the following decade. He…begins to loom large as a dominant figure not just in Chinese history, but in world history… It will be on his watch that China finally becomes the largest economy in the world, or is at least returned to that status (which it last held during the Qing dynasty).” Interestingly, the “text was adapted from an address to cadres delivered (by Rudd) at the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York in March 2018”.

In fact, sources say that as far back as 2017, ASSC familiarised its members with the term “wolf warrior” by showcasing the action-packed Chinese film, Wolf Warrior II. But to be fair, in 2017 the term “wolf warrior”, signifying Chinese-style aggressive diplomacy, had not been heard of.

ERIC GARCETTI AND ASIA SOCIETY

According to sources in the US, several of the board members and many of the others listed under “Our People” of the Asia Society of Southern California (ASSC), are either Chinese nationals, or have strong connections with China. In fact, Anders Corr, publisher of the Journal of Political Risk and Principal at Corr Analytics, who has been tracking the goings-on at Asia Society for a long time, posted in a long Twitter thread dated 10 November 2020, a series of articles and other evidence questioning the Chinese connections of Garcetti’s fellow board members. He gives the example of Seamon Chan, who, Corr tweets, is “associated with the Committee of 100 and was educated at Tsinghua University, Executive MBA, People’s Bank of China School of Finance, Belt Road Initiative”. According to a Newsweek article headlined, “600 U.S. Groups Linked to Chinese Communist Party Influence Effort with Ambition Beyond Election”, “The Committee of 100 (C100), a New York-based advocacy group for Americans of Chinese origin that was founded nearly 30 years ago with the help of Henry Kissinger, is another, according to multiple reports in Chinese-language media and United Front organizations.” As is well known, the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department reports to the Central Committee and is both a propaganda and an intelligence gathering arm. However, The Sunday Guardian is not able to verify independently the allegation made by Newsweek.

Garcetti’s association with Asia Society can be traced back to 2006, when he was selected for “Asia 21 Fellows, Class of 2006”. In his mid-30s at the time, Garcetti was the president of the Los Angeles City Council and was “overseeing the operations and initiatives of the legislative branch of government” in LA, according to the Asia Society website.

Sources also speak of Garcetti’s association with Ronnie Chan and can trace it back to 2011 at least. He was part of an event called Asia Forward, which Chan also attended. Billionaire Chan, a US-Hong Kong dual citizen, is the chairman of the Hong Kong-listed Hang Lung Group Limited and its subsidiary Hang Lung Properties Limited. He has “booming” business interests in Mainland China. Chan is the chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Hong Kong chapter of Asia Society and has massive influence on Asia Society in the US. His ties with the New York-based Society dates back to the 1990s. Chan is also a member of the Committee of 100 and has often been accused of toeing the Chinese Communist Party line on Hong Kong. One such instance was when Asia Society’s Hong Kong chapter barred pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong from speaking at an event in July 2017. This resulted in a backlash, because of which the New York chapter was forced to give a platform to Wong, say sources. An immensely influential man, Ronnie Chan has also made major donations to Harvard University and to University of Southern California. In fact, he was named the “hero of philanthropy” by Forbes magazine in June 2012 for donating $1.3 million to Asia Society Hong Kong. In 2018, during his earlier mentioned trip to Hong Kong, Garcetti, but naturally, met business tycoon Ronnie Chan as the report uploaded on the LA mayor’s website says.

Corr also points out that “Garcetti and John Long, another board member of @AsiaSocietyLA, both affiliated with a C100 conference in 2016 along with China’s Ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai.” But it is not just Garcetti, who is mentioned as “Official Support” of the C100 conference, but also the Governor of California, the then US Commerce Secretary, several US Senators and Congressmen and women. This was when Barack Obama was still US President and there was a belief that engaging with Beijing would make China more transparent, a policy that failed miserably.

One of Garcetti’s supporters, a source who had worked with him said, he had never seen Garcetti going out of his way to be pro China. The only China event he remembered LA mayor Garcetti hosting was in 2015 in Los Angeles—when Obama was President—which was a US-China climate leaders’ summit to bring sub-national, specifically, city and state leaders from the US and China on one platform. “John Kerry had attended it, but it was a policy engagement with China,” the source said. It was actually President Obama’s outreach to China.

SINOPHILE AMBASSADOR?

Questions are being raised in the US if the LA mayor should have been more discreet about associating with openly pro-Chinese organisations that have close ties with China’s Communist Party. However, there are enough people who are ready to give Garcetti the benefit of the doubt. Even some of his critics say that maybe he didn’t do the due diligence required of someone of his stature before lending his name to the board of ASSC. And then there is the matter of policy. The Democrats have been known to be soft on China and while they now seem to be waking up to the China threat, US sources claim that “Democratic policies to counter China are largely symbolic; they are not enforcing some of them, and declawing China legislation currently moving through the US Congress”.

The bottom line is, what was “normal” earlier, even “great policy” as recently as 2019, may appear “dubious” in 2021 as China becomes increasingly assertive.

Others like Corr are however categorical. In an email to this newspaper he wrote, “Asia Society is a China-linked organization that has reportedly accepted over $1 million in donations from billionaire Ronnie Chan, who has links to China’s United Front Work Department. Asia Society typically takes a soft-on-China position due, in my estimation, to its function as a place where businesspeople and government officials network and seek business advantages in China, albeit perhaps at some political cost. Mayor Garcetti has been groomed by Asia Society for years, and like his peers there, typically takes a soft-on-China position given the genocide against the Uyghurs, and extreme repression of other minorities like Tibetans and Falun Gong, that has been well known for years. Asia Society is influential in the US Democratic Party, and particularly on its foreign policies related to China. Garcetti’s lack of experience on India should raise questions about exactly why he was chosen for the post. US administrations of both parties should stop using ambassadorial posts as a reward to electoral campaign allies, which is a legal form of corruption, and start using them to promote US national interests through the best regional experts available.”

The Indian reaction to Garcetti’s nomination is however much more lenient. In fact, many in the establishment are looking forward to having a US ambassador who has the President’s ear.

Ronnie Chan

Also, as some China observers say, Garcetti, even if he is found to be pro-China, cannot alter the current geopolitical trend, which is while US-India relations are improving, US-China relations are deteriorating. “Even if he is a political appointee, he cannot cross India’s red lines,” said one observer, who did not want to be named. The red lines are, namely, Kashmir, trans-Himalayan borders, Indian Ocean, and any future sharing of critical technology. In fact, raising the Kashmir issue will be a deal breaker, which the US knows. The last person to have raised Kashmir was the pro-Pakistan State Department head of the South Asia division, Robin Raphel, in 1993, who inflicted great harm to India-US relations. But times have changed. India and US are strategic partners. The foundational agreements on intelligence sharing have enhanced US-India defence cooperation. The US has been indirectly supporting India along the Himalayan region against China post the Galwan clash on June 2020 by sending winter clothing, other supplies, and by stationing B-2 stealth bombers at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean in India’s neighbourhood, bombers that are likely to be used in case of a conflict with China along the Line of Actual Control next to Tibet, said the observer. In the Indian Ocean Region, the Quad appears to be here to stay. However, with Garcetti turning diplomat, will the White House now be more sensitive to China’s concerns about the Quad? A possible problem area could be technology sharing by the US. If the Chinese insist against US sharing critical technology with India, will the US pay heed? However, as the observer says, South Block is very good at “softening up” “tough” appointments and lest we forget most of the US ambassadors to India have been political appointees; also, with the India caucus in Washington carrying major weight, there is no reason to worry. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that Garcetti will be a “tough” appointment.

As for those in the US, many of them are wondering if with India on his bio-data, Garcetti will revive his plan to run for President sometime in the future.