Wednesday, March 31, 2010

PLA modernization and the implications for Taiwan

Earlier today, Jason Miks, an editor at the Australia-based magazine The Diplomat, asked me to comment on US Admiral Robert Willard’s remarks last week on the pace of Chinese military modernization and its implication for Taiwanese security. Part of my comments appeared in his entry here. What follows is what I provided Mr. Miks with in its entirety.

US Admiral Robert Willard’s comments are nothing new. China is a rising power and power projection is part of that, as has occurred with other rising powers in the past.

What’s more difficult to rationalize, however, is how little attention Beijing seems to be paying to the message that this sends at a time when the region, the US and especially Taiwan are increasingly concerned about China in terms of its ability to act as a responsible stakeholder. The Google case, disputes over trade and possible currency manipulation (among others), have only exacerbated those fears.

From a Taiwan perspective, every sign of modernization and build-up undermines President Ma Ying-jeou’s efforts to sell his cross-strait policy of détente. It makes it increasingly difficult for him to say, with a straight face, that Nature, not the People’s Republic of China (PRC), is now Taiwan’s No. 1 enemy, a comment he made not long after the Typhoon Morakot disaster in southern Taiwan in August last year.

Also worrying — and I’ve written about this before — is the fact that growing cultural and business exchanges are making it easier for China to spy on Taiwan, which, coupled with increasingly modern capabilities, would make it easier for the People’s Liberation Army to identify key targets, or even engage in sabotage in Taiwan prior to a military strike.

There is no doubt that Taiwan’s defense apparatus has lost its edge over China, especially since the Ma administration has advocated a more “peaceful” approach toward the PRC by being less “provocative” and holding fewer — and smaller — military exercises simulating a Chinese invasion. The Taiwanese military is therefore less prepared, at a time when the People’s Liberation Army is becoming stronger. This shows us that while Ma and his advisers may believe in the benefits of their policy of détente vis-à-vis China, Beijing wants to keep all its options open and to be ready if the necessary option turns out to be force.

Of course, Beijing and security experts have made the case that the modernization of the PLA is not solely aimed at Taiwan, and to a certain extent that’s true. Submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), for example, or the SA-20 PMU-2 missile defense system it has purchased from Russia to defend key areas like cities and the Three Gorges Dam, for example, have applications that go beyond a Taiwan contingency. But the problem, from Taiwan’s perspective, is that all those systems also have applications in a Taiwan contingency. In other words, even dual-use systems that can be rationalized as being part of the natural growth of a rising power can apply to a Taiwan scenario. True, the village bully could use his brand new baseball bat to play baseball, but given his tendencies, can we entirely ignore the possibility that he could use that same item to beat neighboring weaklings with it?

Lastly, China could be using military expansion to send a political signal to Washington: As long as you keep selling weapons to Taiwan, we’ll continue expanding (it’s no coincidence that China successfully tested a missile defense system just as the US was about to announce the US$6.4 billion arms package to Taiwan, which includes the PAC-3 missile defense system). This growth could also be used as a means to signal that the cost to US intervention in a Taiwan scenario would be such that Washington should think twice about coming to Taiwan’s assistance; in other words, with each addition to its offensive system (and provided the US does not increase its own forces in the region), the cost-benefit analysts for decision-makers in Washington regarding the entry into a conflict in the Taiwan Strait becomes increasingly in favor of non-intervention. If you look at those systems, many are intended as “area denial” weapons, which would force US deployments to stay further away from the Taiwan Strait, while others are now capable of targeting US bases in places like Okinawa, which also has serious implications for the risk to US forces in the region and could accelerate moves to relocate those forces further away, such as in Guam, which would add to the deployment time should the US need to come to Taiwan’s assistance.

PRC hand seen in Nan Shan bid: report

An electronic copy of a report obtained by the Taipei Times on the yet-to-be-approved sale of Nan Shan Life Insurance Co claims that the backers of the Hong Kong-based consortium led by Primus Financial Holding Ltd and China Strategic Holding may include individuals found guilty of financial irregularities as well as close relatives of senior members of the Chinese Communist Party.

The English translation of the report, which is dated March 10 and comes from the office of Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Pan Meng-an (潘孟安), also mentions risks of stock speculation and raises questions about the qualifications of major shareholders and the use of “shell” companies.

Pan's office told the Taipei Times yesterday the report drew from newspapers, magazines and investors in Hong Kong. The office confirmed the report received “government help,” but would not specify which agency or agencies were involved.

This lead front-page story was published today in the Taipei Times, and continues here. A Chinese-language version of this article appeared in Taiwan Tribune on April 30.

The context for Ma’s death threats

There is not an ounce of doubt that in any respectable society, freedom of expression ends at the shore of hate speech or incitement of violence. While freedom of expression is a precious resource that, even to this day, is still denied to far too many people around the world, the liberties that it confers upon people should not be exploited in a manner that undermines the very foundations of freedom.

In this light, recent comments posted by netizens calling for the assassination of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and his daughters, as well as Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), deserve full condemnation and should be investigated in full. Decades ago, Taiwan shed its violent past — true, one in which the state visited violence upon its people — and it would be most unfortunate if such practices became the norm once again.

That said, attempts on Monday by Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Chang Hsien-yao (張顯耀) to portray the assassination threats as the result of “perennial ethnic tensions” incited by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) completely miss the mark and negate the context in which the threats were made.

This op-ed, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The ins and outs of the latest US arms package to Taiwan

In late January, the US Department of Defense’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced the approval of a major arms package to Taiwan. Included in the US$6.4 billion deal were PAC-3 missile defense systems and associated equipment, UH-60M Blackhawk helicopters, Osprey-class mine-hunting ships, work on command-and-control systems, and Harpoon training missiles. Also in the pipeline are P3-C Orion maritime patrol aircraft.

While Beijing has reacted with anger at news of the sale, threatening economic sanctions against the US defense companies involved, the Taipei Times takes a closer look at each item and its capabilities. To cap things off, we look at what’s missing — and desirable.

This feature, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Tibetans convicted for sending information abroad

Since the unrest in Tibet in March 2008, as many as 50 Tibetans have been arrested for sending reports, photos or videos abroad, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in a report on Monday. In some cases, those arrests resulted in long jail sentences, it said.

The latest conviction, the group said. Involved a netizen called “Dasher” who received a 10-year prison sentence on charges of “separatism” for sending reports and photos of the protests.

“The repression has never stopped since the March 2008 uprising in the Tibetan regions,” RSF said. “This persecution of Tibetans who take risks to send evidence of the human situation abroad is a tragic illustration of the state of exception that reigns in Tibet. We call for their immediate release.”

Dasher, who was arrested on March 13, 2008, was convicted and sentenced by an intermediate court in Lhasa late last month, meaning that two years had elapsed between his detention and trial. The exact date of his trial is not known. He is being held in Lhasa’s Chushur prison, the group said.

RSF’s claims that at least 50 Tibetans have been arrested for sending information out of China have been verified by the India-based Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy. Most of the material was sent via Internet, which is closely monitored by Chinese authorities, RSF said.

Another detainee, Tashi, is a 24-year-old Tibetan from Rata, eastern Tibet, who was arrested in the middle of last month. A Tibetan from the same village told RSF he was accused of “having contact with people abroad and watching political videos online.” He is being held in Nagchu district.

In Sog, Gyaltsing was sentenced to three years in prison in December on charges of “communicating information to contacts outside China” after downloading pictures of exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. While he is allowed to receive family visits, he is interrogated every week and is often given beatings, RSF said.

Tibetan journalists allege that a re-education campaign in Sog has resulted in the arrest of several Tibetans who refused to comply with the “Love your religion, love your country” campaign, RSF said.

Asked for comment, Taiwan Friends of Tibet chairwoman Chow Mei-li (周美里) told the Taipei Times last night that this shows that the situation in Tibet remains critical.

“The Chinese Internet police monitors content. Now we know they go further — by sentencing. This is a violation of human rights,” she said.

“As cross-strait relations become closer,” Chow said, “the Taiwanese government should use every opportunity to protest such activities by the Chinese government.”

For all we know, Taiwanese citizens and their Internet use could also be monitored.

Asked if the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration was likely to criticize Beijing for the repression unveiled on the RSF report, Chow said “it probably won’t.”

A shorter version of this article appeared today in the Taipei Times.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Interview with Cambodian genocide survivor Loung Ung

At the invitation of the Parent Teacher Association at Taipei American School, Cambodian activist Loung Ung, author of First They Killed My Father and Lucky Child, was in Taipei last week to talk about her personal experiences as a child under the Khmer Rouge. She sat down with Taipei Times staff reporter J. Michael Cole on Wednesday to talk about history, trauma and reconciliation.

Taipei Times (TT): Talking about the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) — better known as the “Khmer Rouge Tribunal” — some people have argued that we need prosecution before we can reach the point of true forgiveness for the 2 million people who were massacred in the genocide. Do you agree with this view?

Loung Ung: What’s true forgiveness? Is that even possible? All these standards and all these arguments from people with feelings of justice and true forgiveness, this is verbiage that really isn’t going to be possible. Whether it’s the ECCC or the tribunal, truth and reconciliation or the ICC [International Criminal Court], I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to find a method to give Cambodians true justice and true forgiveness.

It really is about education. This is an opportunity to centralize information and to use it as a tool to educate the next generation. [Cambodian genocide researcher] Khamboly Dy just came out with the historical textbook of the Khmer Rouge era. That was only two years ago and it is now being used in school. When I was at the tribunal last year on Feb. 17 — the opening of the tribunal — I was talking with students who didn’t know anything that was going on.

My full interview with Loung Ung continues here.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Google China unblocks sensitive keyword results

US media reported on Tuesday that search engine Google was rumored to have lifted restrictions on its Chinese search engine at

“Web sites dealing with subjects such as the Tiananmen Square democracy protests, Tibet and regional independence movements” could be searched and accessed through, the Epoch Times newspaper quoted MSNBC as saying.

NBC said that while search results were “erratic” and access to certain Web sites was occasionally denied, the improvement from just six months ago was nevertheless significant.

Performing searches using keywords such as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the Times said that some photos and related material were accessible.

A search for “Falun Gong” — the spiritual group with ties to the Times — resulted in one image of anti-torture exhibits held by Falun Gong adherents, the Times said. While official Falun Gong Web sites did not show up in search results, a link to Tian Ti Books, which sells Falun Gong books, showed up at the top of the search results, the paper said.

Most of the keywords were in Chinese, the Times said.

Searches conducted by the Taipei Times last night revealed that English searches for Falun Gong returned results for Tian Ti Books, the English Wikipedia page on the organization, various videos and the Web page of the Falun Dafa in Singapore. Searches using Chinese keywords were not as successful, while searches for the Tiananmen Square Massacre or “Incident” in Chinese and English appeared to be censored again.

Searches for key student leaders during the Massacre, including Wang Dan (王丹), provided some results, including a picture of him standing in front of a board reading “Taiwan Foundation for Democracy.” Searches for Taiwanese independence, using both Chinese and English keywords, yielded several results, including blogs.

This story appeared today in the Taipei Times.

What's equally interesting — but was cut from my story, for some reason — is the fact that a Google spokesman on Tuesday denied that Google had stopped censoring search results. What's going on there, an internal battle? 

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Reaching out

This morning I attended the “Gaining International Support, Accelerate Taiwan’s Nation Building” conference organized by the World Taiwanese Congress at National Taiwan University Hospital’s convention center in Taipei. With guest speakers including former US diplomat John Tkacik and Nakajima Mineo, and opening remarks by Democratic Progressive Party Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu (陳菊), I had reasons to hope that the conference would provide new ideas to help Taiwan break out of its isolation and fend off Chinese encroachment.

Turnout was good, with perhaps 100 people showing up. The great majority of them, as always, were elderly Taiwanese, with perhaps 10 percent of attendees below the age of 40. Aside from Tkacik, the only foreigners in the audience were Austin University’s Donald Rogers, American writer Jerome Keating, Monash University’s Bruce Jacobs, and myself. Several Taiwanese-Americans or US-based Taiwanese were in attendance. Media coverage appeared to be limited to Public Television Service, which took some footage of Tsai and Chen.

After brief opening remarks — all in Taiyu, with the exception of Tsai’s, which were a mix of Mandarin and Taiyu — Tkacik gave his presentation, using both English and Mandarin, focusing mostly on history and providing as few anecdotes (by that time, Tsai and Chen had already left). This was followed by a brief question-and-answer session, which, like Tkacik’s presentation, didn’t yield anything groundbreaking. After a short break, Nakajima took the podium and delivered a speech in Japanese, with translation in Taiyu. After about 20 minutes of this, nearly one third of the audience was fast asleep, text messaging on their cell phones or, as Jacobs did to my right, reading newspapers. Nakajima was telling us that China and the US had entered a new cold war and that the turning point was the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989.

By 12:10, Don, Bruce and I had had enough and called it quits. Not before noting, however, that if such conferences can’t manage to captivate people who, like us, are interested about Taiwan and care about its fate, then there’s no way they will attract younger generations of Taiwanese upon whom the future of this nation depends. As I’ve mentioned before through my observations of demonstrations, I find it disheartening that there are so few young Taiwanese participating in political events that will affect the fate of their country. If the current leadership sticks to geriatric events such as the one I attended today, however, there’s very little hope younger Taiwanese will get involved. Putting them to sleep on a Saturday after a long week at school or at work won’t do it.

And for an event that supposedly focuses on gaining international support for Taiwan, focusing on the past, rehashing the same platitudes over and over again — and doing this in a language that next to no foreigners understand (with no simultaneous interpretation at hand) — will hardly make that come true.

The intentions were good, undoubtedly, and there were lots of good people in the room. But it was disappointing and somewhat depressing. At some point the old leaders will have to pass on the torch and help awaken young minds to the cause. Discussing the future, using engaging venues and speakers, and making the whole effort energetic — that’s what Taiwan needs. Youth need to be brought in, not excluded, and the old guard must start listening to the younger generation, something to which, I am told, there is a lot of resistance in the Taiwanese-American community and, I’m sure, in Taiwan as well.

Friday, March 12, 2010

China shows signs of neo-fascism

With its strong emphasis on technology, the military, strong single-party leadership and a collective national identity that refuses to recognize pluralism, China is displaying increasing — and worrying — symptoms of fascism. From the military parade surrounding the 60th anniversary of the birth of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on Oct. 1 to forced relocation and assimilation programs targeting ethnic minority groups such as the Uighurs, China is in many ways reminding us of the fascist states that reared their ugly heads in the first half of the previous century.

In some ways, it is difficult to apply that term to the rising dragon, primarily because of some marked differences from its predecessors. For one, fascist states tended to be short-lived and led by strong — and often charismatic — rulers. China, even if we take 1949 as its starting point, has a long history and its leaders, with the possible exception of former premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來), are not known for their charisma.

China’s embrace of capitalism in the early 1990s has also masked its fascistic tendencies, because “unrestrained capitalism” was one of the principal targets of fascism. The fact that the PRC finds its roots in communism and class conflict — both of which fascism traditionally opposed — can also mislead the observer.

Still, today’s China arguably represents fascism 2.0, neo- fascism or “fascism with Chinese characteristics.”

One of the most peremptory signs of fascism is the state’s negation of individualism and the idea that citizens draw their identity and raison d’etre from the state. Evidence of this emerged earlier this week when Chinese Vice Sports Minister Yu Zaiqing (于再清) chided 18-year-old Olympic champion short track speedskater Zhou Yang (周洋) for thanking her parents — but not her country — after winning gold at the Vancouver Winter Games last month.

“It’s OK to thank your parents, but first you should thank the motherland. You should put the motherland first, not only thank your parents,” Yu told the Southern Metropolis Daily.

This article, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

It’s a crude, crude world out there

The global economy needs it. Nations laid their foundations upon it. It has yielded untold riches. But it has also proven a ruinous curse: wars have been declared over it; tyrants and corporate greed have thrived on it; and lives and nature have been ravaged — often irreparably — by it. Oil.

It’s running out, quicker than we thought, New York Times Magazine contributing reporter Peter Maass argues in Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil. But after reading his expose of the evils, intended or otherwise, of the oil industry, this development might not be such a bad thing.

In this highly entertaining investigation, Maass, whose previous book was about war in the Balkans, takes us from the palatial oil ministries of the Middle East to the heart of darkness in Equatorial Guinea, with stops in the war-ravaged streets of Iraq, the militia-infested jungles of the Niger Delta, a cut-throat, spy-infested hotel in Baku, Azerbaijan, and the environmental catastrophe in Ecuador’s Oriente.

No less fascinating are the individuals we meet who are caught in the unforgiving wheels of the oil industry. We meet jet-setting star attractions like Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi, who reassures an audience in Washington that Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves are plentiful; and Matthew Simon, a former adviser to former US president George W. Bush who would very much be part of the oil nomenklatura were it not for his belief that “the American dream and the world as we know it are on the verge of falling apart” because Naimi is wrong. Guerrilla leaders, crusading lawyers, oil executives from all the best-known oil giants and ordinary soldiers, all get sucked in by the folly of oil, and Maass provides us an intimate portrait of their motivations. The full spectrum of emotions, from greed to fear, alienation to desire, inhabit this bizarre world; appropriately, they are used as titles for each section. (Interestingly, almost every person we meet is male, which, from a sociological perspective, says a lot about the oil sector.)

This book review, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Beijing sees culture as a weapon

Addressing the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) on Wednesday, Jia Qinglin (賈慶林), the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) No. 4 official and chairman of the CPPCC national committee, reaffirmed his government’s commitment to the “peaceful” development of cross-strait relations.

“We will constantly increase contacts with political parties, organizations, social groups, influential figures from all walks of life and the general public in Taiwan,” he told the more than 2,000 delegates at the Great Hall of the People.

Then came a comment that should make us pause both for the strategy that it highlights as for the lack of understanding of Taiwan that it elicits: “All this [growing exchanges] greatly enhanced the acceptance of the Chinese nation and Chinese culture by our Taiwan[ese] compatriots.”

Chinese officials have made no secret of the fact that they see Chinese culture as a weapon by which to persuade Taiwanese to agree to annexation. After many years of seeing Taiwan allegedly “drift” from its Chinese cultural heritage — efforts that accelerated during the administration of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) — Beijing is now seizing the opportunity created by the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to impose a Chinese cultural template on Taiwan. Given the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) acquiescence in this endeavor, and Ma’s repeated references to Chinese culture, the situation is somewhat reminiscent of Taiwan during the era of White Terror, when symbols of Taiwaneseness, including the language, were barred from the media and Chinese — as opposed to Taiwanese — history was taught in the nation’s schools.

As contact between the two sides accelerates and the creative industries cross-pollinate (this will likely be mostly one way, given China’s greater financial resources and censorship at home), the assault on Taiwanese consciousness through cultural means will only intensify. By dint of repetition and subtle changes here and there (on television, in schoolbooks and academic forums), the Chinese plan could succeed in eroding Taiwanese cultural identity — at least to a certain extent.

Other countries with a powerful neighbor, such as Canada vis-a-vis the US, have often raised the specter of a culture threat, mostly through the flooding of their domestic markets by films, music, literature and McDonald’s. Under such circumstances, however, if there is a threat, it is an indirect one in that no conscious effort is being made by Washington to shape minds through cultural bombardment.

In Taiwan’s case, however, it has become rather clear that cultural influence is no mere collateral — it is, in fact, the tip of a missile aimed straight at the heart.

This effort at cultural transformation to achieve political objectives, however, is of limited effectiveness and will be less likely to achieve its ultimate aims if the strategy becomes too transparent (external factors, such as the Chinese military threat, will also undermine such a strategy).

Comments such as those by Jia, to the effect that cross-strait exchanges highlight “the acceptance of the Chinese nation and Chinese culture by ... Taiwan[ese] compatriots,” underscore the political elements of China’s cultural strategy and are an example of the transparency that could throw Beijing’s plans off track. That is so because of the false assumptions that buttress those efforts.

The willingness of Taiwanese to engage in more discussions with Chinese, to watch Chinese movies, attend Chinese art expositions (or gaze at pandas) is simply natural curiosity. By no means does this signify, however, that by doing so Taiwanese accept the so-called Chinese nation — by which Beijing means “one China” — or see it as their culture. Quebecers, for example, may show a great deal of interest in a French troupe performing in Quebec City (or Hollywood movies, for that matter), but this does not mean that they “accept” France, or the US, as the seat of their culture.

A better analogy, perhaps, would be that of a Palestinian interested in learning more about Israelis living across the fence by attending discussion groups involving the two people. However high his interest might be, it remains purely academic and under no circumstances would it imply the acceptance that Palestinian land belongs to some Greater Israel.

If Beijing subscribes to the belief that interest in seeing things Chinese means acceptance of its dominion over Taiwan, it is in for a very unpleasant surprise.

Slips like that made by Jia on Wednesday are not infrequent and should serve as a warning to Taiwanese that for Beijing, nothing is sacred, or off limit, in its pursuit of unification.

This article was published today in the Taipei Times.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Overinterpreting signals

In an entry on Feb. 26 I speculated on the possibilities behind a decision by an international wire agency to hold, for about three weeks, a story with implications for the Taiwan Strait. Based on the information that I had received at the time, I listed some possibilities based on the assumption that the news would be political in nature.

As it turns out, my assumptions were flawed, likely influenced by the fact that local by-elections would be held in Taiwan the following day. This was a classic case of looking at an object from too narrow a focus, or of looking at everything from a very specific lens, which in some cases will either mislead the observer or constrain his ability to explore other possibilities (I should have known better, as this though-mode is something that I criticized in my book about Canadian security intelligence and is proof that no one is immune from that intellectual trap).

This said, the “big news” were not as “big” as I believed they would be, nor will its implications for Taiwan be as ominous as I led readers to believe. Last night, The Associated Press’ Peter Enav and Debby Wu filed a story about the role of a Taiwanese firm, as well as possible shortcomings by Taiwanese authorities in matters related to nonproliferation, in the transshipment of transducers to Iran, a story that AP broke back in January. This time around, however, the story provides far more specifics, including the names of the firms involved. It’s a good read and an important story.

I still haven’t been able to determine why AP chose to hold the story for that long, however, or to release it a mere 24 hours after the election (this could be a pure coincidence).

A lesson learned, and my apologies to my readers for the alarmism.