Monday, March 26, 2007

Taiwan's new "anti-terrorism" bill

The Taiwanese Cabinet last week submitted a revised "anti-terrorism" bill that should alarm every Taiwanese. Lacking a definition of what constitutes terrorism and with little oversight to ensure that intelligence and law-enforcement agencies do not overstep their responsibilities in a way that would infringe upon the rights and freedoms of individuals, the new act, if passed, would represent a grave step backwards for the nascent democracy.

Having experienced and participated in activities that could only have been launched in a system where oversight is lacking and consequently where undue infringements are deemed permissible, I felt compelled to write about the dangers the proposed bill represents to Taiwan. Visitors can view the full op-ed, published in the Monday, March 26 issue of the Taipei Times, by clicking here.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Thursday Afternoon in Taipei

On of the perks of working as an editor for a newspaper is that my work schedule is from 15:30 until 22:00, which, provided I get up early enough, gives me plenty of time in the morning and early afternoon to accomplish what people abiding by more traditional schedules could never hope of doing. Another advantage is that as newspapers are also published on weekends, one’s “weekend” need not fall on Saturday and Sunday. In my case, “weekend” is Thursday and Friday.

One little indulgence I have developed in recent months is to go, mid-afternoon, to this place called in House, a lounge bar situated in the Xin-yi district, about a five minute walk from Taipei 101. Not only is in House one of my favorite lounges in Taipei, with excellent house music and a dreamy décor, but the fact that I am going there in the middle of the week before dinnertime certainly adds to the experience.

After you have been seated by one of the invariably good-looking, fashionable waitresses or waiters, you are handed a drinks menu to choose from which offers a nice variety, from wines to whiskeys to multiple cocktails. Comfortably seated in a leather sofa, with the not-too-loud mix playing round you and the faded pink and blue hues bathing you in a dreamy mood — to which we add hundreds of candles on tables, hanging from the ceiling and on windowsills — you place your order. From noon until 18:00, all drinks come with a cake or sorbet. What will it be, a 15-year-old single malt, or a kamikaze? Red wine, or a Mai Tai?

For me, part of the experience lies in the surrealism of it all. It’s as if reality were a dial and you shifted it, say, thirty degrees. There is something unreal about being in a lounge bar in mid-afternoon on a workday. It’s like stepping into a different world — not altogether unlike the real world, but like I said, a few degrees off. I also like to observe people there, for I never find myself alone in there. For me, I bring a book and read while I munch on peanuts, take a sip from my drink and eat my sorbet or cake. Others come in small groups. Some are hunched around a portable computer, talking shop, the bright monitor an out-of-place yet natural intrusion into the otherwise somber atmosphere. Others come alone, engrossed in a cigar, or deep in conversation on the ubiquitous cell phone. It’s amazing how many people one will find in a lounge at this time of the day. While some do conduct business there, for the majority it is, like me, leisure, a hedonistic escapade from reality. Looking at them, I always wonder what it is they do so that they can be there on a weekday. True, Taipei has more than its share of utterly rich people who need not have a day job for their entire lives. Maybe the people around me think I am one of them, who knows? I could very well see myself spending entire days there, writing a novel, perhaps.

At any time, it’s a place to see and be seen, where one drops all his worries and allows himself to be embraced by the alcohol and the enthralling lounge music. Make that a weekday experience, and the escapism is all the more complete.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Empty Rhetoric in Politics

Diplomacy, it seems, is as much damage control as it is the substantial fashioning of relationships between states. The principal tool of diplomats — especially when it comes to damage control — is, obviously, rhetoric. By paying close attention to what is being said, it is easy to determine whether a state has a well-rounded, coherent strategy or is just struggling to maintain the appearance of having a handle on things. As we saw last week with US Vice-President Dick Cheney’s threats to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on the issue of fighting the Taliban, contradiction are usually indicative of policymaking confusion.

This week, Washington once more proved that its policies on the Taiwan Strait issue is no more coherent. The first instance is actually a long continuation of a trend, which consists of (a) a paranoid view of Chinese military growth (the People’s Republic of China’s military budget increased 17.8 percent this year) and the incessant references to the “threat” that this poses to neighboring states and US interests in the region; and (b) of Washington’s recriminatory attitude whenever Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) makes any kind of reference to independence, which Washington never fails to slap down as a “threat to peace and security in the Taiwan Strait” and as threatening to US support for the democratic nation. Here again, the contradiction is a lurid one: non-democratic, expansionist China is a growing threat, democratic Taiwan is an ally worthy of protection, but any attempt at normalization of status or reference to independence in face of Beijing’s avowed threats of military aggression is portrayed as treason.

The reason why Washington’s rhetoric is so contradictory is that its policy on Taiwan is actually a non-policy — the maintenance, in lieu of progress, of the status quo whereby China will not invade Taiwan and the latter will not declare unilateral independence. It would be all nice well if the international system were static and the balance of power unchanging, but that is not the case. Beijing is building up and modernizing its military, and there are growing indications that Beijing may not always have full control of its military apparatus, which one day could result in enterprising individuals making military decisions that do not entirely correspond to or reflect the wishes of the civilian leadership. While the panicking, to the point of irrationality, segments of the US intelligentsia and policymaking circles overestimate the Chinese “threat” and misrepresent its aims and intentions, it remains that Beijing’s policy on Taiwan does include the use of force — and the odd 1,000 missiles it points at Taiwan as well as the language adopted in its “Anti-Secession” Act attest to that. With these two contradictory forces shaping Washington’s views, its language becomes one of obfuscation, one that simply cannot lead to political development.

Taiwan is therefore a friend, in extremis one worthy of protection, but it cannot be allowed to act in its own interest or to seek for its 23 million people the representation on the world stage that they deserve. Beijing, for its part, is at times friend, at times enemy, a partner in trade but a brewing storm over the horizon. The signals are mixed, and diplomats’ rhetoric reflects that.

Aside from contradictory language, empty, meaningless rhetoric is also part of the diplomat’s toolbox. Something needs to be said to fill a void, but once it is analyzed it is obvious that whatever was said makes no contribution whatsoever. The Taiwan Strait conflict offers many examples of this, such as when US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, visiting China over the weekend, said that the 450 air-ground missiles the US intends to sell Taiwan to equip its F16s “would be for strictly defensive purposes and consistent with our ‘one China’ policy.” Close scrutiny of the language cannot but beg the question: what other use but a defensive one would Taiwan make of these missiles — invade China, perhaps? Everybody and their dog knows that the only reason why Taipei would seek such weapons, along with other packages, is to defend itself from an eventual military attack by China (whether a successful defense, under the present conditions, can be achieved is beyond the scope of this entry).

One would think that clear, rational policies lie behind and inform the relations between states — more so when it comes to unstable issues like Taiwan and China. The reality, however, is otherwise. Look to the language, see what is being said. More often than one would think, the rhetoric is empty and the diplomat is no more than the messenger attempting to buy time.