Sunday, March 16, 2008

AFP creates a moral equivalence in the Taiwan Strait

In a piece posted on Sunday, Agence France Presse (AFP) painted the portrait of Yeh Chun-jung, a Taiwanese entrepreneur who decided to turn to China — the “obvious” choice — to expand his high-tech power cable business. Yeh, AFP tells us, will be returning to Taiwan to vote on March 22 to ensure that the “right” leader, one who can “accept reality and set political topics aside to seek peaceful cooperation with China for the good of the island,” is elected. In other words, given the hardly concealed slant of the story, to vote for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).

What really stands out in the AFP piece, however, isn’t the reporter’s seeming preference for the KMT over its Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) opponent, or his uncritical belief, held by many, that the KMT would be better for the economy. Rather, it is this little nugget of information, hidden half-way in, that makes one stop dead in his tracks.

AFP writes: “Despite the diplomatic insults and the missiles aimed toward each other’s shore, Taiwan and China are inextricably and increasingly connected by commerce” (my italics).

Diplomatic insults and missiles aimed toward each other? Since when is criticism of a repressive government, one that crushes Tibetan protesters, silences and locks away rights advocates and forcefully displaces tens of thousands of Muslim Chinese, or the desire to be left alone and develop one’s democracy in peace, “an insult”?

Let us allow for errors in judgment on the reporter’s part, or, to be charitable, let us assume that he or she misconstrued warranted criticism for an insult (in which case the annual human rights reports on China released by the US and the UN should also be called “insulting”). But “missiles aimed at each other” is pure journalistic nonsense, a blurring of the lines and the creation of a moral equivalence that borders on the irresponsible — especially when we take into account the fact that many readers of that AFP piece will be far away from Taiwan or China and therefore will have a poor understanding of the realities of the conflict.

US intelligence reports tell us that China is aiming about 1,100 DF-11 and DF-15 missiles (with 300kg warheads) at Taiwan, whose circle error probable (CEP) rate has been refined to less than 150 meters (meaning that the likelihood of making a direct hit on a target is very high). Taiwan intelligence and its military estimate the number of such missiles to be above 1,300 and growing at a rate of about 100 missiles every year (it was 650 in 2003).

Although Taiwan has in recent years intimated that it may seek to develop surface-to-surface missiles to target Chinese positions, their deployment remains uncertain and would most likely be targeted at Chinese missile launchers and only be used in retaliation, as opposed to a first strike, which is clearly what China's missiles are intended for. Furthermore, the US — Taiwan's principal source of weapons — has clearly stated its opposition to the development and deployment of offensive military technology, and most of its assistance has been conditional on Taipei respecting that arrangement. Even allowing for indigenous development of offensive missile technology against Washington’s wishes, Taiwan could not possibility hope to challenge China on missiles, both quantitatively and qualitatively. In addition, while through its “Anti Secession” Law China has made it official policy to use force against Taiwan should it ever declare independence or somehow alter the “status quo,” no such policy exists in Taiwan. In other words, the use of force is clearly on the table in Beijing; it isn’t so in Taipei.

But readers abroad don’t know that. By failing to quantify the missile threat on both sides or explaining the nature of Taiwan’s missile threat to China, AFP is giving readers the impression that there exists a moral relativism, that somehow Taiwan represents a threat to China — which no matter how you look at it isn’t the case.

In many cases, support for Taiwan abroad, for the underdog, will be predicated on its being seen as the small democracy, with limited defensive capabilities, threatened by a giant military bully bristling with missiles. If, as a result of irresponsible journalism such as the AFP piece discussed above, people are denied this reality, the precious little help that Taiwan receives from abroad will likely grow even weaker.

AFP should either prove its facts — number, type and quality of Taiwanese missiles targeting China — or drop the reference in future.

1 comment:

Brendan said...

Indeed. As a US citizen, I'm certainly not happy that we "have" to turn a blind eye to the freedom stifling Chinese government for economic benefits. It pains me that we don't fully support Taiwan's fledgling democracy! China cannot (and should not) be trusted until they hold free and fair elections and their press is free. While they do hold a mighty economic saber, they are (in all other ways) "paper tigers"...