Monday, October 29, 2007

Foreign nationals threatened

In a short opinion piece published today in the Taipei Times, I argue that China's insistence that health-related information from the World Health Organization (WHO) and its subsidiary agencies be relayed to Taipei via Beijing rather than directly from the WHO to Taiwan represents a threat not only to the 23 million Taiwanese whose safety, as recent events have shown, could be compromised, but also to the tens of thousands of expatriates who live in Taiwan. By giving Beijing control over health information, I argue, the WHO would simply be giving China an additional tool with which to blackmail Taiwan.

My piece is a call on foreign governments to let Beijing know, in no uncertain terms, that hostage-taking of expatriates in Taiwan — as the willful or neglectful withholding of health-related information or the failure to disseminate it in a responsible and timely fashion certainly represent — is unacceptable behavior.

Readers can read the full article by clicking here.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The turn of the screw

The Israeli government (readers will notice that I do not refer to Jerusalem to designate the state, as one would use Washington or Beijing, given that the switch of the capital from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem a few years a go has been largely successful in turning a contested geographical area into shorthand for the Jewish state and exclusion for Palestinians) has upped the ante by announcing it would cut off electricity to Gaza in increasing fashion every time Palestinian militants fire rockets into Israeli territory.

Note that in its report, the Associated Press vaguely refers to Israeli “territory,” without distinction between Israel proper and Israeli settlements.

The first cut, we are told, will last 15 minutes.

Yet again, the Israeli military will be resorting to “retaliatory” (again, AP at its best, which depicts the Palestinians as instigators without providing any background into the reasons why they feel the need to fire the rockets in the first place) measures that not only treat Palestinians like children who need to be brought into line but that punish the majority for the actions of the few, a clear violation of the laws of war. Even the usually meek UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon could not help but criticize the plan last month when it was first unveiled.

Stranger, even, is the fact that the “barrage” of rockets, which has allegedly “severely disrupted” life in the “area,” has only killed 12 Israelis in six years. That’s two Israelis killed every year killed by the supposedly dangerous Palestinian rockets. Car accidents, drinking, drugs, lightning, food poisoning, high cholesterol, attacks by dogs — all, and many more, are far deadlier everyday occurrences than those crude Palestinian rockets. And yet, cars are not being taken off the roads, alcohol and drugs are not being taken off the streets and pet dogs are not being culled. But the 1.5 million people who live in Gaza, however, will be made responsible.

Many, many more Gazans have died as a result of Israeli violence, but we don't see Palestinians cutting off energy supplies to Israel. That's because they can't, as the power dynamics in the conflict are very much in Israel's favor, with control not only over most of the electricity Gaza recives, but also water, goods, airspace, and so on.

Meanwhile, there is nothing in the AP report about how this illegal turn of the screw will “severely” disrupt the lives Palestinians, whose lives have already been severely disrupted by the fact that people have been crammed into a non-viable state whose survival is at the mercy of the Israeli state.

Friday, October 19, 2007

KMT shows its true allegiance

If anyone had doubts about the true allegiance of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), those should have been dispelled yesterday when it announced it was blocking the special budget set aside for the Ministry of National Defense to develop the Hsiung Feng (“Brave Wind”) IIE missile, a multiple-platform cruise missile capable of reaching Chinese cities that would have given Taiwan retaliatory capabilities it did not possess.

Already, with the US refusing to sell critical component parts for the development of the missile, the program was facing challenges, compelling the Taiwanese government to search for other markets for the parts or to seek to develop them indigenously. But now, with the budget facing a complete freeze by the KMT, its survival is at stake.

Granted, as belligerents add offensive weapons — and the Hsiung Feng is such a weapon — to their stockpiles and start deploying them, the risks of error increase, and with them the likelihood that wars could be launched by mistake. But as I have argued before, no defense is complete without a deterrent, and this is what the Hsiung Feng would have provided.

The KMT rationalizes its decision to block the budget by saying the missile could have “provoked” Beijing — again, as always, it is Taiwan that is provoking Beijing, never the other way around — and that it was therefore safer to halt its development. But this fails to take stock of reality and starkly shows in whose camp the KMT really is. In the process, it irresponsibly puts the security of the nation at risk.

The only way the KMT could have won the “provocation” argument would be for it to set preconditions for freezing the budget. Those would be, at modicum: (a) the dismantling or de-targeting of the odd-1,000 missiles China is aiming at Taiwan and (b) the renunciation of the use of force to annex Taiwan. China’s continued — and increasing — threat to use force against Taiwan is the true provocation, and yet the KMT remains silent on that issue, a silence that tacitly acknowledges Beijing’s right to break international law by threatening the use of force against another nation.

What’s next? Perhaps the KMT, realizing that the very existence of Taiwan is “provocative” to China, should freeze agricultural, social, health and other budgets that allow for the state to exist in the first place. After all, and if we follow the party’s logic, only when a free, democratic Taiwan ceases to exist will the so-called provocation completely vanish.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A parade not for all

Last week on Oct. 10, the Republic of China (ROC) celebrated its National Day with the biggest military parade in 16 years. The practice of showcasing one’s armaments — at least to such an extent — had been abandoned in 1991 for fear it might provoke Beijing. Although the reasons for the resumption of massive military parades have yet to be known, it is not difficult to imagine that nationalism, riding the winds of Taiwan’s bid for UN membership, has something to do with it, as is the fact that this was the last such event with President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) as leader of the country.

Sold on the promise of seeing a wide array of the nation’s military equipment, from an Air Force flyby to armored personnel carriers to various missiles, I, and many others, headed for the Presidential Office, in front of which said parade was to begin. It soon became evident, though, that reaching the Presidential Office proper would be impossible, as every artery leading to it had been blocked with gates, barbed wire and rows of police officers, some of whom were equipped with the body shields so prominent at WTO summits while others held long hardwood staves that, if used, promised much pain. So, like water we gathered up at the dam, vying for positions from which, we hoped, we could see some of the parade as it passed by. Around us, rows of ROC flags beat to the breeze.

And we waited. And waited.

With the parade scheduled to begin at 9:19am, many among us began showing signs of impatience when, one hour later, we still hadn’t seen or heard anything, except for the occasional shift in police deployment. Many pictures were taken of the police officers who stood impassively behind the barbed wire, many of whom appeared to be much younger than me.

At one point a woman began shouting something incomprehensible, whereupon three or four police officers, prompted into preventive action, seized her and carried her away. That was the end of the momentary disturbance. Then, walking solitarily on the boulevard, with media and a few security officials in his wake, strolled Shih Ming-teh (施明德), former chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party and, since last year, the leader of an anti-Chen movement, looking very much as if he were going to a golf game. Some people near me shouted words of support, but quickly the eerie quietness — quite unusual for the usually rowdier national day celebrations I am accustomed to — descended upon us once again, with people chatting calmly, taking pictures (mostly of themselves and their friends) and placing calls on their cell phones.

Then, all of a sudden, the skies above us were pierced by rolling thunder, the crowd cheered, and the flyby began, with dozens of helicopters, followed by F-16s and Mirage-2000s, training aircraft and transport aircraft. No sooner had they shot above our heads, though, than things once again quieted down and the waiting resumed.

I approached a police officer and showed him my press card, hoping it might allow me to reach a better vantage point, but it turned out I didn’t have the proper pass. So I waited with the rest of the crowd, a mix of Japanese and Philippine tourists, Taiwanese and curious expatriates. Come 11:30am, I decided to leave, knowing by then that the parade wasn’t coming our way and confident that, once back in the office, I would have access to all the wire pictures taken during the day.

Follow-up inquiries showed that the military parade was a closed event and that people (and even there not the average Joe) who wanted to attend needed to obtain a special pass from the Government Information Office beforehand. In other words, this was not an event for public consumption — at least not one in which ordinary Taiwanese could participate. So, I wondered, aside from the dignitaries and reporters who did have the special pass, who was this massive display of military technology intended for?

The answer is fairly simple. This was a signal, sent via the media, to (a) the nation’s allies — in other words the US — who frequently have criticized Taiwan for not doing enough to defend itself, especially in the wake of the drawn-out, KMT-stalled efforts to purchase armaments from the US, and (b) China, in a flexing of muscles intended to make it think twice about embarking on a military course to gain control over Taiwan, a message that was emphasized by recent news on the development of surface-to-surface missiles capable of hitting cities in China — the first time in years Taiwan had developed offensive military technology.

So as an exercise in nationalism, the parade cannot be deemed a success, for it did not generate the “cheer on the street” and flag waving where national dreams are born. For those who viewed the parade in the news, the emotional reaction of pride, if we can characterize it as such, was more distant. One, obviously, does not obtain from an image on TV or in a newspaper the same chill one gets from experiencing the real thing.

As a signal to the US and China, it may have worked, but the effects have yet to be felt. One thing is sure, however: the Taiwan Strait conflict is getting increasingly militarized.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Whose parliament is it?

Anyone who, against all reason, had managed to retain a strand of belief that the UN Security Council — and the UN in general — was a functional body that could speak in the name of humanity must have felt like hiding in a basement in the past weeks.

Day after day, starting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s arrogating powers that aren’t his on Taiwan’s UN membership bid, followed by a succession of heads of state achieving nothing of substance during the 62nd General Assembly meeting other than vying to see who would manage to make this year’s most unorthodox, media-grabbing diatribe against the leader of another state (to think that last year’s “sulfur” comment is already passé) and, finally, by the Council’s failing, on Tuesday, to agree on a formal condemnation of the attack on African Union troops in Darfur simply because Council members could not reach consensus on whether the attack by rebels constituted a “terrorist” attack or not — day after day, indeed, the UN has proven without doubt that its utility is waning, and fast. Oh, and one should not omit mentioning UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari’s visit to Myanmar, a meek, beggarly attempt (no offense, Mr. Gambari) that seems, at the most, to ask the junta to refrain from terrorizing its population too much while the envoy is in the country.

Underscoring all this, no sooner had the General Assembly closed its Babel-like exercise in futility than heads of state, from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, to name but two, were making bilateral declarations whose ramifications will far outpace whatever was achieved at the UN.

Not to be unfair (and to rehash an old saying), the UN is but the sum of its constituents — member states — and some of its branches, such as the IAEA, have managed to function. But irrespective of what it is, as a decision-making body it seems to have reached a point in its history where it cannot do anything, a situation that has a lot to do with the cynical coterie of world leaders, elected and not, we have today, many of whom seem to see the body as nothing more than a podium where one slams a shoe on a table, brandishes a marijuana plant, speaks of the devil, lies about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in another country, berates the body for picking on Israel and so on, ad nauseam, until their antics are pushed off the front page as news develop elsewhere in the world. So far removed has the body become from reality that it now draws comparisons with the so-called ivory towers of academia — an unfair allusion, perhaps, as universities and think tanks come nowhere near the level of cynicism one encounters at the UN, and the destitute do not place their hopes and trust in them.

One must wonder why, aside from the recognition it would grant it, a country like Taiwan has worked so hard to obtain membership at the UN, given that it probably can achieve far more working outside that institution than it would once inside its antediluvian walls.

It would be a great loss to humanity if the UN — as a concept — were to bring about its own demise through sclerotic turpitude, and every effort should be made to ensure that this does not happen. But in its current form, its disappearance would not be of great consequence.

It is with some trepidation that I write this, as I once harbored great admiration for an institution that, sixty years ago or so, was founded on principles that should have served us all and made the world body a true parliament of man[kind]. To this day and the above notwithstanding, I remain a strong believer in the superiority of multilateralism to ameliorate the lot of humanity.

How Canadian of me.