Monday, May 21, 2007

It’s time for asymmetric warfare

In an article appearing in the May 21, 2007, issue of the Taipei Times, I take the discussion on Taiwan’s failed bid to become a full member of the World Health Organization (WHO) further and propose alternatives through which Taiwan could still tap into the global health resources and share its expertise with the rest of the world without having to rely on Geneva. Using a warfare analogy of a weak opponent facing a strong one, I argue that what Taipei must do is adopt guerrilla tactics, by attacking the stronger opponent — the UN-China nexus — where it is weaker by taking advantage of the possibilities offered by the 21st century in terms of connectivity and technology. In other words, what I propose for Taiwan is that it bypass the WHO altogether.

As I have proposed in my previous writings on the topic, by remaining fixed on sovereign states, the WHO is neglecting its duty to adapt to the changing realities of the world, a shortcoming that could prove disastrous at some point in the future. As a non-recognized state, Taiwan, with the help of non-state actors — NGOs, laboratories, donors, etc — could play a leading role in pushing the international community to join the 21st century on health and epidemiological matters by using non-state-fixed networks of communication.

Readers can access the full article by clicking here.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Behind the red veil in Beijing

As many readers will probably know by now, Taiwan’s application for membership at the World Health Organization (WHO) was dropped for the 11th strait time on Monday, mostly as a result of Beijing’s insistence that Taiwan is one of its provinces and that WHO membership can only be conferred on states recognized by the UN General Assembly.

In an article published today in the Taipei Times I argue that states must look beyond politics on international health issues and recognize that the fate of the planet’s 6.5 billion people should not rest in the hands of decision-makers in Beijing, who cannot even make the health of their own citizens a priority — except, as in 2003, when the SARS outbreak had reached such proportions as to threaten social stability and the economy. In other words, when it is too late. After dawdling for months, the central government shifted gear and mobilized its resources to contain the epidemic — and in all fairness it did so rather successfully, albeit using mass quarantine tactics that far exceeded (as only totalitarian state can) guidelines on the matter and may even have included dissidents. And while there were reasons for optimism during the months following the SARS outbreak that the lessons learned would have long-term repercussions on how China deals with its epidemics — including its very serious AIDS problem — recent analysis has shown that soon thereafter Beijing returned to normal business, as if SARS had not occurred.

This, above anything else, once again serves to prove that under normal circumstances, Beijing cannot be counted on to act as a responsible global citizen. And the fact of the matter is, epidemics and pandemics first emerge under normal circumstances. Absent a rigorous monitoring and reporting health system, and openness in the media — in other words, under the system China soon fell back into after SARS — the next epidemic will not immediately be detected, and by the time global resources are mobilized, it may be to late to prevent a pandemic.

If they stay the course, politicians in the rest of the world, I conclude, could wake up one day and realize that all their efforts to curry favor with Beijing and win the next big business deal were in vain, as they will have a major pandemic on their hands.

Enough said. Readers can access the full article by clicking here.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Thinking for an old world

In its rejection e-mail, a certain Canadian newspaper (hint: it is a pro-business, right-of-center publication) to which I had submitted a piece on Taiwan’s renewed bid to join the World Health Organization (WHO) was very revealing of how it sees things.

Taiwan’s application, the newspaper informed me, is a “stale issue,” nothing more than an indirect attempt by the “island” to obtain “some form of independence.” Debatable, but not impossible.

The really telling part in the editor’s answer, however, was that surely, in time of crisis, Taiwan could rely on the US and its Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for assistance, ergo, no need for WHO membership.

Aside from the fact that this response indirectly makes a case for China not being able to represent Taiwan on health issues (which it claims it should), it is indicative of a flawed understanding of international health in the 21st century. Before instantaneous international travel, the International Health Regulations (IHR), the WHO’s guiding principles, focused on eradicating known diseases and were, for the most part, sufficient. But as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2003 clearly showed, times have changed and fixing a problem once it has emerged is often far too late. The revised IHR — revised in the wake of the SARS outbreak — now emphasize monitoring and prevention so that outbreaks like SARS or H5N1 (avian flu) can be identified and kept endemic before they turn into a pandemic. By the time the CDC arrived in Taiwan to “give assistance,” it would probably be too late and the disease would likely have spread to other countries.

There is nothing stale about Taiwan’s application to become a full participant in the WHO. It seeks to participate because it realizes the world cannot afford to have blind spots. While I have yet to fully study the issue, it is very likely that Taiwan’s efforts at combating its SARS outbreak in 2003 (in which 73 people died) were mitigated by the fact that it could not immediately tap into WHO resources. (Taiwanese officials posit that Beijing used politics to delay the dispatch of WHO medical specialists to Taiwan during the outbreak.)

The only stale thing is the archaic belief that reacting to a problem after it has emerged is sufficient. Stale, and dangerous.

For the 11th consecutive year, Taiwan's bid to join the WHO was rejected at the World Health Assembly in Geneva today. The reason given for this decision, as always, was that the WHO, in agreement with China's position, will only grant membership to sovereign states.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

A need to prioritize

Facing relentless pressure from Beijing, many Taiwanese pundits have made the claim that Taiwan is making a mistake by teaching Chinese Mandarin, as the language could serve as some kind of Trojan Horse for Beijing. Instead, they claim, Taiwanese should teach themselves and expatriates indigenous languages like Hoklo as a first line of defense.

In an article titled "Language is never a first line of defense" published on May 12 in the Taipei Times, I draw a parallel between this strategy and the belief in Quebec that only independence can protect the French language. Furthermore, I argue that in both cases the proponents of a language-driven strategy are looking at the wrong aspects of the problem and wasting energy that had better been used elsewhere. Ultimately, their error stems from the belief that language and culture are coterminous.

Readers can access the full article by clicking here.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

How the US is sparking an arms race in North East Asia

In a time when countries all over the globe feel the need to genuflect at the Washington altar before committing to any policy — and those who don’t are quickly labeled rogues — it would perhaps be in our interest to analyze the content of the White House dictates.

Leaving aside the Orwellian farce that US policy on Iraq has become, Washington’s rhetoric as pertains to North East Asia, and Taiwan in particular, reveals a leviathan that clearly has no idea how to articulate, let alone formulate, its long-term policies. More often than Taiwanese care to be reminded, US policymakers have held on to the principle of a “peaceful” solution to the dragging Taiwan Strait tensions. Whether the terminology comes from the White House itself, the Pentagon, Foggy Bottom or the countless talking heads at the various think tanks peppering Washington, “status quo,” “one China,” “strategic ambiguity” and whatever euphemism is de rigueur at the time, all the rhetoric posits that somehow, at some indistinct point in time, China and Taiwan shall miraculously drop the gloves and make up. Speaking earlier this week at a forum on US-Japan security at the conservative Heritage Foundation, former commander of US forces in the Pacific Dennis Blair added his voice to the above-mentioned chorus by saying that “the way to solve [regional festering problems] by peaceful means is to ensure that the use of military force by either the PRC [People’s Republic of China] or North Korea will be unsuccessful ... and therefore peaceful means will be the way to solve [them].”

This is all nice and well, but the problem is that parallel to all this abundance of “peaceful” talk is the forceful push by Washington for Taiwan to boost its defenses through the procurement of US-made weapons — most but certainly not all defensive in nature — and increasing anger over Taipei’s inability to unlock the funds necessary to do so. Simultaneously, and again a position echoed by Blair, Washington has been calling upon Japan to play a more proactive security role in the region, to such an extent that the White House is no longer averse to allowing Tokyo to alter the very peaceful Constitution that the US imposed upon Japan in the wake of its defeat in World War II.

The reason behind Washington’s change of heart on Japan, however, isn’t altruistic. In fact, in a different world, Washington would rather keep Tokyo under its heel, as it seeks to prevent countries that could at some point in the future challenge it militarily from doing so (a policy initially formulated by the embattled Paul Wolfowitz as the Cold War was winding down and appropriated for official policy a few years ago). But given the current template, with US forces stretched close to the limit and troop withdrawal from Iraq or otherwise, signs that they will remain engaged in the Middle East for years to come, Washington needs “dependable” allies — or proxies — to do its bidding in other regions of the world. For North East Asia, Japan is quickly becoming the US’ indispensable forward guard. Hysterical perceptions from certain quarters of the Washington establishment vis-à-vis the China “threat” aside, and in spite of the “peaceful” resolution rhetoric, what Washington is accomplishing in North East Asia is a militarization of the region, an outcome it conveniently blames on a Chinese military build-up.

No one, however, ever asks whether Beijing’s modernization of its military might not be in response to the sense of encirclement that the bolstered US-Japan alliance has engendered.

From Washington’s perspective, the push for militarization stems from two drivers: lucrative contracts for its flowering military-industrial complex and, the one it more readily admits to and uses in its rhetoric, military deterrence. Regardless of the efficiency of the types of weapons Washington has been pressing on Taiwan — raising the question often results in accusations of Taiwan “freeloading” on defense — the pressure is on Washington, through various defense lobbies, to complete the transaction.

Past experience, with Saudi Arabia providing a lurid example, shows that billions of dollars of US weapons cannot guarantee the security of a state. When, in 1990, Iraqi forces threatened to press forward into the Kingdom after invading Kuwait, Riyadh found itself incapable of mounting a proper defense and nearly begged Washington to come to its rescue (after first turning down Osama Bin Laden’s offer to do so). Given the force disparities between China and Taiwan, it is unlikely that a few additional air defense systems, along with some submarines, would represent so formidable a deterrent as to make Beijing think twice before launching an attack. US defense analysts debating this issue with regard to Taiwan (or any of the small states in the Middle East to which the US has opened its arms catalogues in the past years, culminating in an unprecedented shopping spree in Abu Dhabi in February), sadly, have distinguished themselves by their silence.

Japan, on the other hand, does hold the potential to mount a formidable military. Thanks to the size of its economy and a stunningly healthy military with an estimated US$45 billion budget and one of the world’s most advanced navies, a Japan freed of its pacific Constitution and unleashed as a regional peacekeeper would be a tremendous force and, in Washington’s view, a powerful deterrent to Chinese (and North Korean) aggression.

The flaw in Washington’s strategy of militarizing the region, however, is that it is predicated on a flawed understanding of deterrence, with its proponents having developed the concept during an altogether different era — the Cold War. Back then, deterrence worked mostly because failure to prevent war ran the risk of resulting in nuclear annihilation for both sides of the divide, the West and the Soviet Union. The reason why you are able to read this blog today has much to do with the fact that rational decision-makers chose to abide by the logic of deterrence from the perspective of the nuclear threat.

Absent the threat of annihilation, however, deterrence loses much of its effect and is even more fickle when one of the belligerents is the size of China, with numerous key cities and multifarious strategic nodes. In fact, in conventional warfare, an arms race — such as the one that has been sparked by the US, Taiwan and China — creates its own upwards dynamics, but it does not make the threat of war any less. In fact, it only exacerbates the likelihood of error resulting in military exchanges. The more players are part of the conflict equation, the greater the quantity and complexity of the weapons involved, the likelier that, at some point, human or systems error will lead to an accident with terrible consequences — and this is before we even add political tensions resulting from such conflict accelerators as nationalism and disputed territory to the mix.

Two belligerents armed with nothing but slingshots cannot do much damage, accidental or otherwise. Four belligerents equipped with advanced systems involving thousands of missiles, with intricate, shifting alliance structures, however, and any mishap can be catastrophic.

If Washington means what it says about facilitating a peaceful resolution to the Taiwan Strait conflict, it had fain reconsider the dangerous arms race it is on the verge of sparking in North East Asia. Faith in conventional deterrence amid a modern arms race simply comports too many risks.

Thursday, May 03, 2007


A week has now passed since my article “Why Celil doesn’t stand a chance” was published in the Taipei Times (see “The forgotten Canadian,” April 28 below). Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay has done his visit to Beijing, where, as he had said prior to leaving Ottawa, he “raised” the issue with the Chinese authorities and in return received a healthy dose of propaganda to the effect that Celil had been treated humanely while in jail. As I predicted in my article, little more has happened since, and MacKay, who continued on to South Korea to talk trade and pressed Seoul to life its ban on Canadian beef, seemed content with the “assurances” he had received concerning the jailed Canadian. Equally sad, a mere day after MacKay’s talks in Beijing and already the news wires had abandoned Celil, as did the Canadian media. The Canadian embassy in Beijing’s Web site, for its part, did not carry a single item on the issue, aside from the mention, prior to the visit, that the foreign minister intended to raise the issue.

Meanwhile — and perhaps more encouragingly — my story has appeared on a number of Web sites (one dedicated to freeing Celil, another calling for a boycott of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and the Uyghur American Association), and the Voice of America interview that I did on April 27 has been carried by at least two dozen Chinese-language Web sites in Taiwan, the US and Canada.

Hopefully things will change. But I strongly doubt it.