Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Reassigned, no more foreign assignments

Punished for getting caught, or her reputation too tarnished to represent Xinhua abroad, Shi Rong is now in Beijing, and she’s not going anywhere

Back in September I was among a small group of reporters who argued that the “flirtatious e-mail” scandal surrounding MP Bob Dechert, an aide to Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, and Shi Rong (施蓉), the Toronto bureau chief for Xinhua news agency, was more problematic than Ottawa would admit. While Dechert did not suffer to consequences of his indiscretions being made public — at least not in terms of his position within the Stephen Harper government — soon afterwards Shi Rong was called back to Beijing, where she remains to this day. Xinhua has since announced that a replacement had been found at the Toronto bureau.

The whole affair received little coverage outside Canada, and practically none in China. Sources in Beijing have since confirmed to me that Shi Rong was now working at Xinhua headquarters in Beijing, and that she would not be posted abroad anytime soon, if ever. Whether this is punishment for her getting caught, or that her reputation is now too tarnished for her to represent the state-owned news bureau abroad again, has yet to be established. But the same sources in Beijing scoffed at the suggestion that she was not, in some way, acting as an intelligence officer for China.

Xinhua is regarded as an extension of the Chinese intelligence apparatus, with “reporters” often answering to the Ministry of State Security (MSS) or the People’s Liberation Army General Staff Department (GSD). Most, if not all Xinhua reporters, must also pass through Central Party School, and top universities often groom future Xinhua “reporters” with perfect party credentials.

The Shi Rong controversy may have made intelligence collection by Xinhua in Canada a little more difficult, but it didn’t end with the young woman’s departure.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Navy to bolster anti-submarine warfare capabilities with ‘listening sticks’

The 12 refushished P-3C Orion ASW aircraft that Taiwan has purchased from the US will be the likely platforms for the passive sonobuoys

The Taiwanese Navy is purchasing hundreds of specialized sonobuoys from the US to augment its anti-submarine warfare capabilities, a US Department of Defense notice said on Friday.

Under the Foreign Military Sale, Taiwan will acquire 440 AN/SSQ-53F sonobuoys for US$335,000, with work scheduled for completion by January 2014 (as part of the same deal, the US Navy is purchasing 49,900).

Sonobuoys, also known as “listening sticks,” are used to detect and identify moving underwater objects. The AN/SSQ-53F directional frequency and ranging (DIFAR) sonobuoy — the latest-generation passive sonobuoy used by the US Navy — is dropped from fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters and uses four hydrophones that operate at depths of 27m, 60m, 120m and 300m, as well as digital sound processors, to listen for enemy submarines.

Unlike “active” sonobuoys, which locate objects by bouncing a “ping” off a vessel, passive types gather emissions created by moving underwater objects. Aircraft can drop a pattern of sonobuoys, which relay information back to the aircraft by radio link to determine the exact location of enemy submarines.

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

Friday, January 27, 2012

Wang Dan, activists call for Want Want boycott

Maybe it’s only for his business interests, but Tsai Eng-meng has an uncanny ability to look the other way when it would be inconvenient to acknowledge Beijing’s dark side

One of the top student leaders during the protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989 has called for a boycott of the China Times after the wealthy entrepreneur who owns the publication denied the crackdown by the Chinese military constituted a massacre.

Tsai Eng-meng (蔡衍明, pictured above, standing), chairman and chief executive of the Want Want Group (旺旺集團), which owns the China Times, told the Washington Post in an interview published last Saturday that the crackdown on June 4 was “no massacre.”

Tsai told my friend Andrew Higgins of the Post that he had been struck by footage of the lone protester standing in front of a People’s Liberation Army tank — a now iconic image of the crackdown — and added that the fact that the man was not killed was proof that reports of a massacre were false.

Several hundred unarmed protesters, including students, were brutally killed in the government response to the protests.

“I realized that not that many people could really have died,” Tsai said, echoing Beijing’s propaganda in the weeks after the crackdown, which said the tank incident was proof that the military had acted with humanity against the demonstrators.

Wang Dan (王丹), one of the student leaders at Tiananmen Square who now lives in Taiwan, was among many who reacted angrily to Tsai’s remarks.

My article, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here. The Facebook link to the boycott of Want Want Group products.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Taiwan Navy's mine hunting capabilities to receive boost soon

China, whose navy has an estimated 10,000-100,000 naval mines, could use them to impose a sea blockade against Taiwan in time of conflict

Two refurbished mine hunters acquired by Taiwan will commence sea trials next month and are expected to be delivered to the Taiwanese Navy in May or June, British journal Jane’s Defence Weekly reported last week.

The two Osprey-class coastal mine-hunting ships USS Oriole and USS Falcon — both decommissioned from the US navy in June 2006 — were part of the US$6.4 billion arms package notified to US Congress in January 2010 as Excess Defense Articles.

The 895-tonne ships, renamed MHC 1310 Yung Jin and MHC 1311 Yung An, underwent comprehensive hull, machinery and combat management overhaul and upgrades in the US, Jane’s wrote.

At the time of announcement in 2010, the US$105 million deal was expected to include an overhaul of the AN/SQQ-32 sonar.

The ships, whose hulls are made of fiberglass and designed to survive an underwater explosion, use sonar and video equipment to detect moored and undersea mines and a remote-controlled mine detonating device to secure key waterways.

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

Friday, January 20, 2012

The DPP versus corporate greed

Beijing co-opted the elite and big business in Hong Kong to create dependence and ensure compliance. With four more years of KMT rule, the same could happen in Taiwan

The jury is still out on which factors were predominant in the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) inability to regain power in Saturday’s election.

Pundits have put forth sundry explanations as to why presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) did not do better, from a failure to allay fears in Taiwan and abroad of the potential impact of a DPP win on stability in the region to “gatekeepers” making it nearly impossible for her to access the information she needed from the intellectuals on her team.

The extent to which those aspects undermined Tsai’s efforts remains unknown and will be better understood in time. What cannot be denied is the impact of big business on the election. This is a serious challenge that the DPP will have to address if it is to regain high office. And that challenge will only become more formidable now that the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has been given four more years to further liberalize relations across the Taiwan Strait.

One clear theme that emerged from the elections is that Taiwanese, in general, desire stability. Rather than jump into the unknown by electing Tsai — notwithstanding her efforts to allay those fears — voters showed a preference for continuity and went for the devil they know.

One group, above all, that made the case for continuity, or the “status quo,” was the corporate sector, which resents instability and stands to benefit tremendously from closer ties between Taiwan and China.

My unsigned editorial, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Report slams US meddling in presidential election

Ma’s second term is expected to be much more difficult than his first, largely because Beijing will expect him to pay it back for its help in getting him re-elected

The outcome of Saturday’s presidential election led to a “heavy sigh of relief” in Beijing and Washington, and the US did much in the run-up to the elections to boost President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) electoral bid while also hedging against the possibility of a victory by the opposition, a report on the elections said on Sunday.

The possibility of a victory by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) on Saturday led to “very poor decision making” on some occasions within US President Barack Obama’s administration and a “reprehensible” attack on DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) via a leak to the Financial Times, at a time when Tsai was visiting Washington to explain her policy position to US officials, the US-Taiwan Business Council said in a report on the elections.

Ma defeated Tsai by a margin of about 800,000 votes on Saturday, defying expectations of a neck-and-neck race.

“With this statement, [Tsai] was greeted with what can only be seen as a slap across the face,” the report said. “This was not only meddling with the Taiwan elections, it was also inhospitable as it relates to Dr Tsai being a guest in the United States.”

“More troubling still, this was a clear effort to telegraph to the Chinese that America doesn’t like the DPP either,” it said. “To marginalize Taiwan’s democracy through ill-planted media stories or disinterest in the bilateral relationship is to invite the Chinese to continue to push back American resolve to stand by Taiwan’s democracy and to ensure that China’s next government doesn’t coerce Taiwan into arrangements that cannot be supported in Taiwan.”

My article, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Beijing throws cloak over reporting on Taiwan elections

When it comes to democracy in Taiwan, the Chinese government remains as parochial as ever, imposing tight restrictions on the media and Chinese tourists

Beijing authorities ordered Chinese media, Internet portals and Chinese tourists not to comment on yesterday’s presidential election in Taiwan, BBC Monitoring reported on Friday.

The Hong Kong-based Oriental Daily reported that the Central Propaganda Department had ordered Chinese media and Internet portals to rely solely on official media reports and refrain from commenting on the election, the report said. Under the directive, media outlets could only carry reports by Xinhua news agency and China Central Television (CCTV) and were barred from carrying their own commentary on the election, the Oriental Daily quoted several senior Chinese media executives as saying.

Popular Internet portals such as Sina, Sohu and Tencent, which during the electoral campaign had been allowed surprising, if not entirely free, coverage of the election, have now been instructed to “limit” their coverage, the report said.

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

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Chief international observer Murkowski lambasts Paal

Even if he was speaking as a private citizen, as an electoral monitor the former AIT director should have avoided saying anything that can benefit either of the candidates in the election

The head of an international delegation of electoral observers yesterday said remarks by a visiting former American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) director concerning today’s presidential election were “inexcusable” and were contrary to US commitments to Taiwan’s democracy.

Frank Murkowski, head of the international delegation for the International Committee for Fair Elections in Taiwan (ICFET), called a press conference after former AIT director Douglas Paal strongly endorsed in a TV interview the so-called “1992 consensus” adopted by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), while calling the “Taiwan consensus” proposed by Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) “impractical.”

Paal, who was invited by the KMT-affiliated Prospect Foundation to lead a delegation of monitors, also raised doubts about Tsai’s ability to ensure stability across the Taiwan Strait and insinuated that Washington was apprehensive about a DPP victory in the election.

While describing the democratic process in Taiwan as “orderly” and “energetic,” Murkowski said the past two days had seen the emergence of “surprising activity.”

“I take strong issue with any inference of US policy favoring any candidate or party,” the former US senator told the press conference.

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

Friday, January 13, 2012

Chinese tourists ‘experience’ democracy, but …

It looks like being outside on election day could be too ‘dangerous’ for Chinese tourists

A couple of reporters from Reuters parachuted to Taiwan to cover tomorrow’s elections had an interesting piece today on Chinese tourists who, according to the headline, have “flocked” to Taiwan to “experience the elections.”

Kudos to the reporters for managing to get some Chinese to comment on democracy, an effort that yielded some very telling — and at times amusing — responses, including the inevitable tai tai dragging her husband away when he tried to share his views with the press (I myself saw months ago a wife slap her husband in public after he’d been handed a pamphlet by a Falun Gong practitioner just outside Taipei 101 in downtown Taipei).

Even more interesting, though, is information a fellow reporter passed on to me yesterday at a media gathering.

After a foreign reporter, perhaps slightly older than me, had shaken hands with Wu’erkaixi and, being introduced, asked the latter where he was from and what he was doing in Taiwan (“I’m from China, and I’m a political refugee,” which then required a hint on our part — “hum, June ‘89” — as the reporter seemed to be drawing a blank), another journalist, also a Canadian, told me he’d learned that a number of Chinese tour groups had been “ordered” to stay in their hotel rooms on election day.

Now, I have been unable to determine whether this directive applies to all Chinese tour groups or only a select few, and I also don’t know if the order comes from the Chinese side or Taiwan’s. One thing is certain: the Taiwanese tour guide who accompanied the group of Chinese walked away when the question was asked, while the ubiquitous Chinese tour guide/communist minder confirmed the directive.

So much for experiencing the elections!

Politicizing electoral monitors

Through no fault of theirs, international observers arrive here facing a credibility handicap, victims of a political system whose impartiality is oftentimes observed in the breach

It is always encouraging to see members of the international community pay attention to Taiwan, whose travails as it navigates the rough seas of its relations with China are often conveniently ignored for the sake of “larger” considerations.

Given the potential ramifications of tomorrow’s presidential elections for regional security and Taipei’s relations with Beijing, it is unsurprising that an army of foreign reporters and academics would be parachuted into Taiwan to observe its rambunctious democracy at work.

Equally welcome is the arrival of international observers who have been invited by local organizations to monitor the elections to ensure that the process is fair and does justice to the sacrifices made by previous generations of Taiwanese who, for decades, did not have the privilege of selecting their leader.

In a highly charged campaign marked by scandals — from the possible falsification of evidence used in allegations against Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) to claims that intelligence agencies engaged in illegal surveillance against her — the presence of neutral electoral monitors from abroad could provide a much-needed dose of sobriety to the whole affair. Or it should have.

My unsigned editorial, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

China pans Taiwan navy’s new attack boat

The vessel is top-heavy because of its tall superstructure, which raises its ‘center of buoyancy’ and makes it bob around like a cork in high seas. That compromises its ability to go to sea and fight in all weather

The Ministry of National Defense yesterday refused to comment on a report in the Chinese Communist Party-run Guangming Daily saying that the Kuang Hua VI (KH-6, 光華六) fast attack missile boats that have been in service in the Taiwanese navy since 2010 were plagued by deficiencies and were a “fantasy.”

Taiwan commissioned its first squadron of 11 KH-6 radar-evading fast-attack craft, produced by China Shipbuilding Corp, in May 2010. Since then, 20 more of the 170-tonne boats have entered service, the most recent 10 on Dec. 2 last year at Tsuoying Naval Base in Greater Kaohsiung. The 31 boats comprise the navy’s three squadrons, which have been dubbed Hai Chiao (Sea Sharks).

Each boat, which costs about US$12.3 million, comes equipped with four Hsiung Feng II anti-ship missiles with a range of 150km, as well as a 20mm anti-aircraft gun, a 7.62mm machine gun and decoy systems. The KH-6s, which have gradually been replacing the Navy’s Israeli-made Hai Ou (Sea Gull)-class missile patrol boats, are integral to the defense of Taiwan’s waters. Given the narrowness of the Taiwan Strait, the boats would be able to attack targets at naval bases along China’s coast.


The Guangming Daily on Tuesday claimed that the program was beset with problems and called the Sea Sharks a “fantasy.” At issue, the paper said, was the fact that the guns on the KH-6 needed to be operated manually, which undermined the craft’s “stealth” capability. The article also said the craft was ill-suited for the rough weather conditions in the Taiwan Strait, pointing to an incident involving a prototype that lost power and became stranded on an outer seawall during Typhoon Jangmi in September 2008. In all, the paper said, those deficiencies imposed “several restrictions” on the boats’ use.

My article, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here, with comments by James Holmes and Wendell Minnick. My take on the same story for Jane’s Navy International can be accessed here (subscription required).

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A plot against first-time voters?

For generational reasons, young voters tend to support the opposition DPP more than they do the KMT. And it is this group that faces extra hurdles in making it to the voting booth on Jan. 14

As many as 1.8 million Taiwanese, or close to 10 percent of the about 18 million eligible voters,* could cast their ballot for the first time in Saturday’s elections, a number that could be a deciding factor in what has been a neck-and-neck presidential race.

As a young democracy that held its first presidential election in 1996 after nearly half a century of authoritarian rule, the impressive voter turnout in major elections — which this year will once again be above 80 percent — is commendable, and highlights the commitment of Taiwanese to a system that became theirs after years of democratic struggle by their forefathers.

Sadly, it now appears that not all voters are equal.

Last year the Taiwanese government announced that, for the first time in the nation’s history, the presidential and legislative elections would be merged. As a consequence, the presidential election, which historically had been held on March 20, was moved up by more than two months, to January 14.

Although the authorities claimed the measure was adopted to cut expenses on expensive electoral campaigns — and no doubt holding the elections concurrently will achieve this aim — it also leaves some voters at a disadvantage. And this includes young voters.

My article, published today on the University of Nottingham's Ballots & Bullets Web site, continues here.

*The original numbers I gave in my piece were substantially lower than actual figures. I have fixed them here, and am hoping that Ballots & Bullets will be kind enough do so on their site as well. According to the Ministry of the Interior, the size of the population that is expected to reach voting age by election day is 1.8 million, not 760,000 as I originally stated in my article, making it about 10 percent of total voters, not 4.2 percent. If one reads the CEC figures carefully (which I did not), the number 760,000 represents the increase in registered voters from the election in 2008. That said, this figure does not take the mortality rate into account, which means that the number of first-time voters must be higher — the 760,000 plus the replacement for voters who died between 2008 and 2012.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

MND closely monitoring Chinese SLBM tests [UPDATED]

After several years of delay, the PLA Navy could now able to launch submarine-based ballistic missiles at a near wartime frequency

The Ministry of National Defense yesterday said it was closely monitoring the situation amid reports that China had test-fired Julang-2 (JL-2, 巨浪-2) submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) before the New Year.

Chinese military bulletin boards recently lit up with reports that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy might have test fired as many as six JL-2 SLBMs near Dalian in Liaoning Province, China. At least two Type 094 Jin-class submarines in China’s Northern Fleet are known to operate out of Xiaopingdao Submarine Base close to Dalian (see satellite imagery below).

China plans to introduce up to five Type 094 second-generation nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) armed with JL-2 missiles. Each Type 094 submarine can carry as many as 12 missiles. The JL-2, designed by China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp’s 4th Academy, is a solid-propellant derivative of the Dong Feng 31 (DF-31) intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The JL-2, one of China’s three long-range strategic missiles, has a maximum range estimated at 8,000km and can carry a thermonuclear warhead with a yield ranging from 25 kilotons to 1,000 kilotons, or about 80 times the force of the nuclear device dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.


The state-owned Chinese-language Global Times reported yesterday that a Chinese fisherman in Shandong Province had retrieved cylindrical wreckage from what appeared to be a missile booster, which could provide confirmation of the SLBM test.

My article, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here. My coverage for Jane's Defence Weekly can be accessed here (subscription required). NOTE: While MND initially seemed to confirm in comments to the Taipei Times that the missile tests had taken place, it has since claimed that it neither confirms nor denies the reports.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Facing Reality in the Cross-Strait Balance of Power

Rather than enter a plane-for-plane arms race with China, Taiwan must adopt an asymmetrical strategy that involves a focus on offensive weapons and the means to render the cost of war too high for China

For years, defense experts have predicted there would come a time when the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait would shift in Beijing’s favor. That moment has arrived, and barring a catastrophic implosion in China, there is no going back. For more than a decade, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has benefited from substantial increases in annual defense expenditure. What are the implications for Taiwan, and how can Taipei best deal with the great changes brought about by the shift in the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait?

My full paper, presented to the Taiwan Society on Thursday, can be downloaded here. My presentation can be watched here.

Taiwan first international client for AH-64D Apache Longbow [UPDATED]

The announcement confirms that Taiwan will be the first country outside the US to obtain the world's most advanced combat helicopter, whose fire control radar can locate as many as 128 targets within one minute

Taiwan has become the first country to make an international purchase of the Block III Longbow Fire Control Radar (FCR), a powerful target acquisition and prioritization system and a key component of the AH-64D Apache helicopter.

This was made official in a Lockheed Martin Corp press release on Wednesday, which stated that Longbow Limited Liability Co, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman Corp, had received a US$181 million contract from the US Army for AH-64D Apache Block III Longbow systems.

According to the press release, the contract includes the first international purchase of the Block III Longbow Fire Control Radar (FCR), for a total of 15 Block III Longbow FCR systems.

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

UPDATE: A source close to the defense industry informs me that due to cost considerations, Taiwan has for the time being delayed purchase of the AGM-114L Hellfire missiles included in the October 2008 package. In other words, the fancy FCR capabilities will be essentially useless.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Rumors, scandal and the outcome of Taiwan 2012

In a presidential campaign that can only be described as underwhelming, the scandals have failed to convince voters to change their longstanding political preferences

The campaigns for the January 14 presidential and legislative elections in Taiwan will be remembered mostly for the allegations and counter-allegations made by the main contestants in the race rather than their policy platforms. It would therefore be logical to assume that the headline-grabbing scandals will be determinant factors in voting decision.

They will not. Despite claims, which first emerged in Next Magazine and have since been picked up by international media, that the National Security Council ordered the national security apparatus to spy on President Ma Ying-jeou’s opponents in the election, there is little evidence that such allegations have had any impact on expected voting patterns. This also appears to be the case with repeated allegations that cabinet officials have violated political neutrality by supporting Ma.

The same applies to the charges by Ma’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) that Tsai Ing-wen, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate, illegally profiteered from her role in Yu Chang Biologics Co when she was vice premier. In both cases (there were other, lesser ones), documents have been brought forth that appear to support the claims advanced by the accusers.

My article, published today on the University of Nottingham’s Bullets & Ballots Web site, continues here.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Chinese satellites turn ‘dumb’ bombs into ‘smart’ ones

China has been developing the GPS-based kit since 2003. Now that the Beidou positioning system is operational, the smart bombs have gotten smarter

Fears surrounding the commercial debut of the China’s Beidou (北斗) satellite navigation system last week have centered on the development by the Chinese military in recent years of a bomb kit that can transform “dumb” bombs into “smart” ones.

Chief among them is the Lei Shi-6 (LS-6, 雷石-6) “Thunder Stone” precision-guided glide bomb first unveiled by the Luoyang Optoelectro Technology Development Center in late 2006. The guidance “fit,” which is attached to conventional bombs and has deployable wings, can support a number of bomb weights, from 50kg to 500kg.

Once installed, a “dumb” bomb becomes a “standoff” maneuverable precision-guided bomb similar to the US-developed Joint Attack Direct Munition (JDAM), which relies on US satellites for guidance. Unlike laser-guided weapons, projectiles using satellites for guidance can be used in any weather conditions.

Relying on the navigation capabilities provided by the Beidou satellites, aircraft pilots could limit their exposure to an enemy’s aircraft and air defense system by releasing their smart bomb from a distance. The LS-6 has a range of 40km when dropped at an altitude of 8,000m and 60km at 10,000m, bringing its ordnance at a speed of Mach 1 to within 15m of a target.

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

A professional military comes at a cost

Creating an all-volunteer force is a hugely expensive endeavor that requires fundamental changes in training and organization. Getting it wrong could severely undermine national defense

The Ministry of National Defense confirmed on Thursday that it would implement an all-volunteer military system next year and drastically cut down on the military training citizens born after 1993 will have to undergo.

Plans to create a professional military did not begin with the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). Not only did Ma allude to a similar commitment in 2008, but the idea was already being discussed under former President Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government.

Why two administrations that tend to disagree with each other on so many issues have both expressed a desire to create an all-volunteer military is simple: It makes sense — at least on paper.

However, if such a plan were to materialize next year, the legislature would either have to be willing to release extraordinary budgets or substantially increase the annual defense budget. Judging from its performance in the past four years, the Ma administration, even with his Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) enjoying a super-majority in the legislature, has shown no inclination to release such a budget.

My unsigned editorial, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.