Monday, December 29, 2008

Israel’s ‘all out war’ against Hamas

According to UN statistics, Palestinian Occupied Territories (OT) ranked No. 106 worldwide on the Human Development Index. Israel is No. 24. The OT’s GDP is estimated at US$3.3 billion; Israel’s is US$106.3 billion. Palestinians, who are crammed in disconnected statelets, have no official army, no modern weapons and only receive unofficial support by states such as Iran and Syria. For its part, Israel has a modern military, upwards of 100 undeclared nuclear weapons and receives on average US$3 billion annually in military assistance from the US.

Such numbers suffice to immediately determine who the occupier and the occupied are in this sad, sad story, for which yet another page of atrocities was written in the past three days with Israel’s bombardment of Gaza — the most severe attack since the war of 1967 — which so far has killed more than 300 Palestinians and injured several hundred more. Not that wars should be about kill ratios, but to underscore the unevenness of the situation, the ratio for the past three days is about 1:150.

Israel blockades, divides, subdivides, crisscrosses, checkpoints and embargoes the OT, impoverishes its population, displaces them, occupies their territories, ignores requests by the international community to halt the building of illegal settlements, only to recoil in horror when Palestinians not only refuse to cease resisting occupation but democratically elect hardline regimes like Hamas. The Israeli government (as opposed to Israelis, many of whom are clear-eyed about the situation) categorically refers to Palestinian resistance as “terrorism,” while claiming that military operations such as the one it launched on the weekend are either in self-defense or, as Tom Segev wrote in an editorial piece in the Ha’aretz newspaper today, to “teach Hamas a lesson.” It seems unable, or unwilling, to realize that its long-held assumption that Palestinians are barbarians who cannot be reasoned with, that razing villages, bombing universities and killing innocents by the dozens will not convince Palestinians to end their resistance. It seems unable, or unwilling, to realize that the more it humiliates, destroys and kills, the hardened the resistance will become, and the likelier it is that Palestinians will support regimes that use the language of violence. Surely the seeds of peace are not sown by creating an entire new generation of grieving sons, daughters, parents, cousins and friends.

Rather than break an opponent’s will or turn it against its own government, bombing civilian areas consolidates the population’s will to resist and rallies it around the flag. This was one of the lessons learned by NATO during its bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999, and this is a lesson the Israeli military should have learned during its invasion of Lebanon in 2006.

In many cities around the world today, demonstrations were held condemning Israel’s behavior. Even China, no champion of proportionality, expressed “shock” at Israel’s actions in Gaza, which some have already described as Israel’s answer to the US “Shock and Awe” in Iraq.

Despite what is said about them, the rocket attacks by Hamas militants against Israeli cities do not represent a fundamental threat to the survival of the Jewish state — not when a handful are killed and a little more injured in months of volleys. Reprehensible though these attacks are, in no way do they justify the kind and intensity of the violence visited upon Gaza this week, and it would be pure idiocy to believe that more violence will persuade Palestinians to end the attacks. Only dialogue between equal parties, with actionable solutions that equally benefit the two sides and provides them with the means to make a proper living, will ever succeed. Otherwise, what we have is an endless cycle of violence, page upon page upon page of one atrocity upping the one that came before it, from Jenin to Gaza and who knows where else.

Surely decisionmakers in Jerusalem are aware of this, as are its backers in Washington. That the self-evident would be so callously ignored, at the cost of blood spilled, bodies dismembered and lives ended, only means one thing: someone, somewhere, profits from all this violence. Now who might this be? (We are six weeks away from a national election in Israel. The current government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is centrist and opinion polls predict the right-wing Likud Party will win.)

Even if, theoretically, it were justifiable to use overwhelming force against an opponent, would one not be morally wrong in choosing that course of action if it knew before the fact that doing so would be self-defeating?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Taiwan removed from rights Web site [UPDATED]

By J. Michael Cole and Jenny W. Hsu

Last month Taiwan was removed from the list of countries appearing on the Web site of the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch. Prior to the removal, Taiwan had appeared under the “Asia” rubric of the site. At present, 23 countries are listed in the “Asia” section, with China and Tibet appearing under the same head. Other prominent rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders, continue to monitor Taiwan and have in recent weeks published reports on such matters as excessive use of force by police and threats to the independence of the media.

Human Rights Watch wrote on its Web site that: “In assessing trouble spots, we take into consideration the severity of the crimes being committed, the numbers of those affected and our potential to have impact.”

Taiwan has been listed throughout the 2000s, although reports of human rights violations were scarce. Its removal coincided with warnings by rights watchdogs, religious organizations, non-profit organizations, academics and various governments of possible human rights violations by the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration.

Requests from the Taipei Times for comment by Human Rights Watch on the removal have not been answered.

Full article, with section by Jenny W. Hsu, continues here.

I also sent a series of e-mails, using both my personal and Taipei Times account, during the violence and rights violations that surrounded the visit to Taipei last month of Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chen Yunlin (陳雲林). All went unanswered or as much as acknowledged.

In the “How do we decide which countries to focus on” FAQ section (partly quoted in the article), HRW asserts that “Although we outline a plan of action each year, we stay flexible, knowing that unforeseen crises will unfold and that we will sometimes need to quickly deploy emergency researchers. The more resources we have, the more trouble spots we cover.” The key phrase in this excerpt is “we stay flexible, knowing that unforeseen crises will unfold.” If flexibility and the assumption — sadly a correct one — that crises will emerge unexpectedly are part of HRW's planning, then why remove Taiwan? It is one thing not to write regular reports on Taiwan for lack of resources, but quite another to altogether remove the country from its list of potential trouble spots, as if the place didn’t exist anymore. The timing is a little conspicuous.

Two theories:

(a) While HRW does not receive direct funding from governments, private citizens and organizations provide it with about US$23 million annually. It is not impossible that some governments use front organizations, or quasi-governmental organizations, to provide funding. Given the focus HRW has paid on rights abuses in China in past years, it is not unlikely that Taiwanese donors, or indirectly the Taiwanese government, has been a donor. Seeking to avoid bad publicity as it commits rights abuses in the name of engineering better ties with Beijing, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government, or donors under its influence, may have threatened to withhold donations should HRW continue to list Taiwan as a potential rights abuser. As HRW is not bound by law to reveal the identities of its donors, this theory cannot be proven (in my view, this is the least likely scenario);

(b) As mentioned above, HRW has been very active in China. In light of Beijing’s tight control on who can and cannot visit the country, interview people and write critical reports on what’s going on in China, it is very likely that Beijing would have used that influence to impose conditions on HRW — if you want to continue to have access in China, you must stop mentioning Taiwan, which dovetails with its “one China” policy and its continued efforts to “internalize” Taiwan by whittling away at its international presence. As there are far more rights abuses in China than in Taiwan, HRW’s choice would have been an easy one to make.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Beijing's bid to 'internalize' Taiwan

One of the key components of Beijing’s policy on Taiwan and Tibet has been to internalize the problems and to fight efforts by so-called “separatists” to internationalize them. As the Chinese government accused in Question 38 of the 100 Questions about Tibet booklet it published in 1989, the Dalai Lama has aimed “to internationalize the Tibet Question” through his “New Proposal” of 1988 and meetings with leaders of other countries, efforts that continue to be met with the strongest of opposition by Beijing. In Taiwan’s case, Beijing started paying close attention to Taipei’s attempts to internationalize the Taiwan Strait issue when Taipei began using its considerable economic clout under former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) to launch, as author David Lampton argues in The Making of Chinese Foreign and Security Policy, an “aggressive campaign” to expand its foreign relations. This sparked the checkbook diplomacy tussle between Taipei and Beijing in Africa, the Asia-Pacific region and South America.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Han Kuang military exercises broken in half

A Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense official said yesterday that amid thawing relations in the Taiwan Strait, the live-fire portion of the annual Han Kuang series of military exercises would from now on be held every two years. The unnamed official unconvincingly said there was no link between politics (that is, more moves by the Ma Ying-jeou [馬英九] administration to please China) and the decision to skip a year for the exercise, adding — equally unconvincingly — that the hiatus would allow the military to “fix problems in the areas of intelligence and support.”

This development is the latest addition to a long list of recent initiatives by the Ma administration that have undermined the nation’s ability to defend itself, and this one is unlikely to be welcome in Washington defense circles.

Military exercises exist for a reason. In peacetime, they provide the only means by which military forces can improve their skills, learn from their mistakes and perfect the art of joint operations between services using increasingly complex systems. Short of actual conflict, nothing — not computer simulators, and certainly not manuals — can compensate for these exercises.

All things being equal, when two armies of equal strength confront themselves on the battlefield, the side that has accrued the most hours of combat experience will be at a distinct advantage. Absent recent combat experience (which applies to both China, whose last conventional war was in the late 1970s when it invaded Vietnam, and Taiwan, which hasn’t seen combat since the 1950s), the next determinant will be training.

Analysts fearing that the modernization of China’s combat aircraft fleet is whittling away at the historical advantage the Taiwanese air force has enjoyed have nevertheless argued that in actual combat, the better-trained Taiwanese pilots would likely prevail. The same applies to other services, where Taiwan's advantage has been smaller. With the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) narrowing the quantitative and qualitative gap in the Taiwan Strait, the last thing Taiwan should do is cut by half the one thing that has given it that edge, especially when there is no indication that the PLA will respond in kind by ceasing exercises that simulate an invasion of Taiwan.

Furthermore, cutting training sends yet another signal to Washington that when push comes to shove, Taiwan expects it can rely on the US to come to its assistance — something that is less than certain under the present circumstances, with US forces bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and Washington becoming increasingly reliant on China on a number of issues, from the economy to combating piracy at sea to dealing with a recalcitrant North Korea.

Despite closer economic ties in the strait, it is far too early for Taiwan to let its guard down.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Asia’s insecure giant

So powerful has China become since its miraculous “rise,” so mighty has it grown since it began modernizing its military by injecting it with tens of billions of dollars annually, and so certain of the rectitude of its ways has it been that it launched a massive manhunt, involving more than 100 police officers and interrogating 873 suspects over 10 days, for — hold your breath — individuals suspected of “despoiling” the flag and symbols of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with ink-filled eggs. In the end, two arrest warrants were issued. In all, four flags were “despoiled,” police said yesterday, which “insulted” the national flag and “harmed the image of the party and the nation [in an attempt ] to damage our democratic [hum, sic] legal system,” in the words of Bo Xilai, Chongqing’s top CCP official.

Also yesterday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry maintained it was well within its rights to ban certain Web sites, especially those that refer to Taiwan and China as separate entities, discuss the Tibet issue or criticize the CCP. These include the BBC, Voice of America, as well as certain Hong Kong-based outlets.

Isn’t it ironic that a superpower that is so staunchly, unwaveringly and unflaggingly sure of the rightness of its positions on Taiwan and Tibet — not to mention the legitimacy of its government — fears it cannot allow its citizens to vent their anger by throwing a few eggs, or give them access certain types of information?

Of course, as anyone who has traveled to China and spoken to its people would know, the CCP’s plan is exactly that — to keep the population in the dark, to feed them lies, generation after generation, and to brainwash them to such a degree that otherwise educated and intelligent individuals, as a friend of mine related to me recently, cannot accept that Taiwan has its own currency, its own elected government or its own military.

Try as it might, however, and police the Web and other media as strictly as it can, this is a battle that in the long run the CCP simply cannot win. As electronic media will continue to develops at a pace security agencies cannot compete with, and as the Chinese population becomes richer, travels more frequently and increasingly has the means to access information (Internet access, mobile phones, TVs), Chinese will realize there is a wide gap between the information they obtain at home and the reality out there.

Beijing has every reason to be insecure, because when they are confronted to reality, its arguments don’t float.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Wild Strawberries evicted: Did Ma lie, or was he kept in the dark?

Hours after President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) praised Taiwan as one of the freest democracies in the world, about 200 police officers descended on the Wild Strawberries Student Movement (WSSM) sit-in at Liberty Square in Taipei, putting them, who numbered about 50, along with pro-Tibet elements, on buses and removing banners, placards and other paraphernalia. The time? About 4am.

The WSSM was launched early last month to coincide with the visit to Taipei of Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林). Ever since, it has held sit-ins demanding amendments to the Assembly and Parade Law (集會遊行法), a relic of the Martial Law era, and that the Ma administration and heads of the state security apparatus apologize for police violence during the Chen visit.

Of interest in last night’s developments is the government's decision to force the WSSM out of Liberty Square at a time when media was unlikely to be present — a strategy with a long history of use by governments wishing to delay bad news. Second is the timing, which could not have been worse, a mere hours after Human Rights Day and Ma’s speech on human rights an democracy.

Which raises the third, crucial issue, of whether Ma knew all along that the state apparatus — in this instance the Ministry of Education, which has authority over the National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall grounds, and perhaps the Ministry of the Interior, Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) and others — intended to end the students’ sit-in, or was kept in the dark.

If the first scenario is true, Ma’s speech on democracy and human rights was hypocritical and would feed speculation that the government is lying to the people. If, on the other hand, he was unaware of the imminent move, it would speak volumes about the compartmentalization of his government and Ma’s leadership abilities. It’s hard to decide which alternative is worst — a lying president or one who is kept in the dark by his subordinates or the various factions within the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).

Either way, last night’s move is sure to inflame the opposition and will likely bring the still disparate and generally disorganized anti-Ma/China factions, which includes pan-green political parties, the WSSM, pro-Tibetans and others, closer together.

With every day that passes, from the (mis)handling of the Chen visit to the detention of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) to Ma's (ostensibly unilateral) about-face on allowing a visit by the Dalai Lama to contradictions over a delay in year-end bonuses for employees of state-run companies, the Ma administration never ceases to impress with its proclivity for bad timing and ill-advised measures.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

US expert exposes pros and cons of the digital age

Before a packed auditorium at the Taipei American School yesterday, John Palfrey, Harvard Law professor and chair of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force discussed the dangers of the digital age, the myths surrounding cyberspace and the opportunities offered by the medium. Calling it “the greatest change in terms of access to knowledge we’ve ever seen,” Palfrey said about 1 billion people could really be called “digital natives” — people who have access to, and are proficient with, digital media.

Palfrey, whose most recent book Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives (co-written with Urs Gasser) was described as a “must read for adults trying to make sense of the next generation,” singled out five characteristics of the impact of the digital age on children: identity development (avatars and “second lives”), multitasking, malleability of content, productivity and socializing.

All these possibilities, Palfrey told the audience, which included TAS professors, parents and representatives from other international schools in Taipei, have given rise to fears and myths, especially among parents. Research has singled out four main fears: “stranger danger,” bullying, hacking and access to inappropriate content.

While meeting strangers in “realspace” after making first contact online presents dangers — especially sexual predation — Palfrey said data showed a drop in incidence, adding that robbers target banks because that is where the money is.

Online bullying, for its part, had seen a “sharp incline,” he said, cautioning that the ease by which digital content can be produced and shared with parents could have led to more frequent reporting of incidents rather than an actual upsurge in cases.

He then turned to what he called the “digital dossier” — the digital record that is written from our birth and through our various activities — and its impact on privacy. Through the information people put on sites like Facebook and YouTube, the digital generation could end up with “digital tattoos” that may prove difficult to get rid of in future, he said.

He said the aggregate effect of this phenomenon had yet to be fully understood.

Palfrey also touched on intellectual property and information overdose before concluding by presenting a flip side to every danger, from empowerment to creativity to information sharing.

In the end, it is down to parents and schools to determine which life skills — such as human interaction, argument-making, analysis — children should develop, he said, adding that digital content can be a powerful tool to support those goals.

More information available at Digital Natives.

Link to article.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Canada’s shameful opposition

Countries with long traditions of democracy often like to flaunt that accomplishment by either lording it over younger democracies or invading other countries. Democratic eminences grises like the UK, France and the US often use various platforms, such as the UN or the Organization of American States, to criticize authoritarian regimes (Cuba, Iran, China, North Korea, to name a few), starting from the position that their long traditions of democracy gives them the right to tell other countries how they should run their affairs. (Picture: Michael Ignatieff, left, with Bob Rae and Stephane Dion.)

Canada is not exempt from this and has often criticized other countries’ human rights track record (Iran, China) or on occasion participated in military invasions in the name of democracy (Afghanistan).

The problem, however, is that even mature democracies are under threat, and the more one digs, the more rotten the democratic foundations reveal themselves to be. The US’ long history of military intervention or CIA meddling in other countries — Cuba, Guatemala, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Italy, Greece, Chile, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, to list just a few — activities that, one must add, went against its vaunted regard for democracy and people's right to self-determination, or the disregard for due process that accompanied Washington’s “war on terrorism,” show us that the so-called leader of democracies would not like what it sees if it were to take a long look in the mirror.

For its part, Canada, which often likes to portray itself as the “wiser” democracy, is not without problems of its own, as its participation in the US-led “war on terror” and adventurism in Afghanistan have made clear.

Nothing could have prepared proud Canadians, however, for what’s happened in recent weeks, with the opposition, led by the Liberal Party, the New Democratic Party and the separatist Bloc Quebecois, virtually attempting a coup d’etat by forming a coalition to overthrow Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. Aside from the fact that this triumvirate includes a party whose political goal is to separate from Canada, the problem with this scheme is that it is undemocratic.

Like him or not (and I personally don’t), Harper was elected by voters and his party even gained a few seats in the latest election, a sign that his policies have appeal to a large swath of the Canadian polity. To remove him from office via backroom deals in parliament not only insults everybody who voted for Harper, but also opens the door to more such arrangements in future, which could threaten the stability of government whenever the country is run by a minority government. Liberal leader Stephane Dion had an abysmal election campaign and, in Quebec at least, he has long been known to be uncharismatic and uninspiring. In other words, his party did not deserve to win in the elections — and it didn’t. Any attempt to overturn the democratic process and turn loss into victory should be met with the strongest opposition.

And just when we thought things couldn’t get worse, the Liberals have now begun to fight among themselves, with Dion co-conspirators Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae distancing themselves from the party leader and calling for his dismissal by January. Surely their position would have been drastically different had the triumvirate’s gambit succeeded, which speaks volumes about the integrity of the future leaders of the Liberal Party. (It also emerged today that the party's national executive had given a cool reception to a plan, proposed by Rae, to use democratic means within the party to elect the new party leader.)

In democracies, governments should only fall at the ballots, not as a result of unaccountable machinations behind the scenes. What Dion, Ignatieff (who in recent years has supported US military interventions in his books and articles), Rae, NDP leader Jack Layton and Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe attempted was disgraceful. Let us hope that come election time, voters will remember what these five did in their bid for power and how they made a mockery of the democracy Canadians pride themselves in. (Picture: Duceppe, left, Harper and Layton.)

Saturday, December 06, 2008

It’s everywhere you want to be — except Taiwan [UPDATED]

I finally received yesterday my renewed Visa card from the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), which kindly used a courier service to expedite it to my address in Taiwan. No small was my surprise, however, when upon opening the Purolator Express envelope, the RBC envelope it contained referred to TAIWAN PROV. OF CHINA. The latter three words had obviously been added to the address I provided RBC with (for its part, the Purolator envelope only read TAIWAN).

I immediately send a letter of complaint to the office of the ombudsman at RBC asking that the unseemly reference be removed, and will share with readers whatever response, if any, I receive. (Some companies, after receiving complaints, are known to have corrected the error.)

This instance is part of a trend in recent months where major companies and institutions around the world have begun adding the “Province of China” to Taiwan, if not changing the designation altogether to “Taipei, China.” iUniverse, the publisher of my book, uses the “Province of China” designation, as did a NASA database before the error was pointed out, while at the Asian Development Bank, of which Taiwan is a member, the long-used “Republic of China” designation was recently changed to “Taipei, China.” has used “Province of China” on certain orders, though not all of them, which raises the possibility that human intervention, rather than company-wide policy, might be behind the addition.

Although this would require further investigation, it is also very possible that China has begun asking companies wishing to do business with it to make that addition as a condition. The danger in this, of course, is that by dint of exposure, people outside Taiwan, who for obvious reasons do not follow regional politics or who are not aware of the distinction, could come to the conclusion that Taiwan is, indeed, part of China, and see any indication otherwise as fabrication or the dream of passé “radicals.”

Readers are encouraged to challenge every reference, in print or company documents, to TAIWAN PROV. OF CHINA or TAIPEI, CHINA by writing to those responsible and asking them to get their facts right. Otherwise, in global consciousness, China could be creating, one designation at a time, a fait accompli.

RBC responded on Dec. 7:

Dear Mr. Cole:

We sincerely apologize that a mistake was made on the address. Since Taiwan is an independent country, we will definitely correct our records.

[name removed]
Customer Service Representative
RBC Royal Bank

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Cross-Strait Developments and Implications for Northeast Asia:
Views from the Region
Institute of International Relations – Brookings forum

National Chengchi University and the Brookings Institution held a panel on the future implications of cross-strait détente for the region today, where speakers discussed the reactions of Hong Kong, China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and Taiwan to recent developments in the Taiwan Strait. Mr. Richard Bush III, former director of the American Institute in Taiwan and current director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies (CNAPS) at Brookings, acted as moderator. Former Taiwanese envoy to Washington Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) attended. (Picture: from left, Alexander Lukin, James Tang, Chung Jae-ho, Richard Bush, Liu Fu-kuo, and Liu Shih-chung.)

“Nobody knows where [cross-strait] efforts will lead. It might not work out,” Bush said in his brief opening remark before turning to the panelists, who each gave a 7-10 minute presentation on how the cross-strait talks are seen in their countries and what they could imply for the region.

First in line was Richard Weixing Hu, professor of international relations at University of Hong Kong and visiting fellow at CNAPS (2007-2008). Hu argued that starting with President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), Beijing was very open minded and pragmatic about Taiwan, while pointing to the desire, on Beijing’s part, to move from the “internationalization” of the Taiwan issue to “internalization,” which could be interpreted as meaning that China seeks to further portray the Taiwan question as a domestic matter rather than one that should involve the international community.

Taiwan is divided, Hu said, with the “other Taiwan” — the part of the country that does not feel represented by the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) “peace” bid — comprising large numbers of Taiwanese who have never visited China and therefore know very little about it and how it has developed in recent years.

While, in Hu’s view, Taiwan and China have made a “good start” in improving relations, future success hinges on reciprocity. Taiwan’s bid to join the World Health Assembly as an observer in May will be an indicator, and Beijing must find creative ways to give Taiwan more international space, especially as the region enters a “crucial stage” in architecture building.

The second panelist was Chung Jae-ho, professor of international relations and director of the Institute for China Studies at Seoul National University, who argued that diminished tensions in the Taiwan Strait could free up the US and China so they could devote more energy to resolving the crisis in the Korean Peninsula. While the likelihood of conflict in the Taiwan Strait has diminished, Chung said, the Korean Peninsula is heading in the opposite direction. Improved relations between Taiwan and China also makes it less likely Seoul would have to deal with a “Taiwan contingency” as to how it should react if war broke out in the Taiwan Strait, which could force its government to make hard — and possibly divisive — choices (remaining neutral, favoring China, siding with the US, and if so, what would be the nature of that support, etc).

Chung also mentioned that during his remarks yesterday, Taiwanese Vice President Vincent Siew (蕭萬長) mentioned the need for Taiwan to develop alliances with more countries or regions, such as the US and the EU, but did not mention South Korea, which, when it switched diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing in 1992, nevertheless retained the designation “mission” for its representative office in Taiwan (the highest status for an NGO), something Chung argued should be acknowledged.

After Chung came Alexander Lukin, director of the Center for East Asian and Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, who said that Moscow’s policy on the Taiwan Strait has been consistent: No support for Taiwanese independence, recognition of “one China,” and hopes for a peaceful resolution. Lukin, who as a Moscow official visited Taiwan in the early 1990s, bemoaned the status of trade relations between Russia and Taiwan (about US$3 billion annually, versus US$43 billion with China) and claimed that Taiwanese officials had, on the one hand, failed to recognize the importance of emphasizing trade relations, while on the other mistakenly pursuing diplomatic relations with Russia, sometimes with attempts to lure senior Russian officials to create the illusion of diplomatic ties, he said. “There is no reason why trade with Taiwan should only be US$3 billion,” Lukin said, hinting that more intimate trade relations should precede, and in time perhaps influence, diplomacy.

“Most Russians don’t even know where Taiwan is,” he said, while later adding, somewhat philosophically, that “Taiwan is a great place, but its greatness exceeds its territory.”

Taiwan can go in two directions, Lukin said: Either it becomes a prosperous country separate from China, or its democracy, as part of a future “unified” China, helps improve China and the lives of its 1.3 billion people. While in his view the latter option would be of greater benefit to humanity, the choice is for Taiwan’s 23 million people to make.

Masahiro Matsumura, professor of international politics and faculty of law and political science at St. Andrew’s University, Osaka, came next, with a more cautious perspective on the implications of warming relations in the Taiwan Strait. There is “growing uncertainty” in Tokyo about the impact of closer ties between Taipei and Beijing with regards to the future regional “power balance,” Masahiro said, adding that Japan had adopted a “wait and see” strategy. Still, with Taiwan as Japan’s No. 4 trade partner, and given the historical, cultural and emotional baggage between the two nations, Japan is torn and has had to reconcile its “neutralist” approach to Taiwan, adopted after it abandoned claims on the island at the San Francisco Treaty of 1952 — that it has no say as to whom should have claim over Taiwan — with security considerations and the need to ensure freedom of the seas in Taiwanese territorial waters. The prosperity of Taiwan and its democracy are of significant importance for Japan, he said.

In a crisis in a Taiwan Strait, Japan would likely “piggyback” on the US and limit its activities to intelligence and support operations while avoiding direct confrontation with China. He said, however, that the current economic crisis could hamper Washington’s ability, or desire, to confront China militarily over Taiwan, which would present Tokyo with a hard choice of either coming to Taiwan’s assistance, which would necessitate a rewriting to Japan’s Constitution, or adopt an accommodating strategy.

Next came James Tang, professor of social sciences and University of Hong Kong, who said that opinion polls in the Special Administrative Region have historically shown 80 percent support for Taiwanese unification with China, with a steady 10 percent strongly supporting an independent Taiwan. Tang also pointed to high support for President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) in Hong Kong, given his family connections there. Still, the Hong Kong government remains cautious about its approach to Taiwan, and there are growing apprehensions that closer economic ties between China and Taipei could have an adverse effect on Hong Kong’s economy, especially in the air travel sector. Tang also observed that while statistics show a great number of Taiwanese flying to Hong Kong annually, those numbers are deceiving, as many only use it as a transit to fly to China proper, meaning that the economic impact of Taiwanese flying to Hong Kong is much smaller than the number of visits would indicate.

Tang said Hong Kong and Taiwan share similar challenges in dealing with Beijing, while adding that closer Taiwan-China relations could nevertheless create opportunities for Hong Kong to act as a “middleman” or in the financial service sector. He also pointed to opportunities for closer Taiwan-Hong Kong cooperation in the fashion and entertainment industries.

Last but certainly not least came two speakers from Taiwan, with Liu Shih-chung, an advisory committee member at Taiwan Thinktank and CNAPS visiting fellow (2008-2009), turning to the domestic challenges arising from the Ma administration’s efforts to forge closer ties with China. Aside from an “ABC” policy (“anything but Chen [Shui-bian (陳水扁)]), Liu said, Ma's cross-strait strategy relied on four pillars.

First, Liu said, was Ma’s “fast-track” cross-strait normalization, with his government immediately launching cross-strait talks after coming into office in May. Liu said that Ma appeared to have construed his electoral victory as Taiwanese giving him a mandate.

The second pillar resides in gaining and maintaining the support of key allies like the US, who for the most part have welcomed his cross-strait policies.

The third pillar, Liu said, is the “institutionalization” of cross-strait talks and reciprocity in “goodwill” and accomplishments.

The fourth leg of Ma’s strategy is highly contingent on the third, as it involves gaining and maintaining domestic support. Adding a twist to Richard Hu’s “one China, two Taiwans” concept, Liu said there existed instead “two Chinas, one Taiwan” — the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China and Taiwan. Taiwan, he said, has many voices, which by default makes it difficult to please everybody, and Ma’s impression that he has some kind of “mandate” to turn things around may have disconnected him from certain swaths of Taiwanese society, which Liu said could be addressed by Ma embarking on another “long stay,” such as the one he held during his election campaign. Another recommendation was that Ma explain to Taiwanese that he does not intend to “sell out” Taiwan, a perception that has only grown given the lack of transparency that has characterized much of the cross-strait exchanges to date.

Liu was also of the opinion that Ma had fain proceed with caution and perhaps adopt the approach of former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), which called for a more patient strategy. “Ma appears to be too hungry,” Liu said, and his chances of re-election could be jeopardized if his efforts fail to bring deliverables to Taiwanese, in other words, if two or more of his pillars crumble. “The next year will be crucial for his re-election chances,” he said.

In closing remarks, Liu Fu-kuo, research fellow at the Institute of International Relations (IIR) at National Chengchi University in Taipei, said that Taiwanese need to take a close look at what they expect from China and integrate those views to present a unified front. The main opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party, he said, is itself divided, has been unable to present a clear platform, and its leadership under Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has been put into question.

Given all this, “there is a need for caution,” he said. “We are vulnerable.”

As for Bush, who may have been tapped for a senior position in the administration of US president-elect Barack Obama, his comments were extremely cautious and noncommittal (even turning down interview requests throughout his stay in Taiwan), which leads me to believe that he wants to avoid saying anything “controversial” that could hurt his chances of appointment.

Overall, panelists reflected optimism in their respective countries for ongoing cross-strait talks, except in Japan, which for obvious geopolitical reasons sees no advantage in seeing Taiwan join the Chinese camp. There was general consensus, even among strong supporters of cross-strait rapprochement, that Beijing must find ways to give Taiwan more international space, and that failure to do so would jeopardize the project. It is obvious, however, that the greatest impediment to Ma’s cross-strait talks lies at home — the very stuff of democracy.

There is a great need for debate of this sort in Taiwan, especially under the current circumstances, where things are changing so fast they often give rise to more questions and fears than answers. Today’s forum was a great step in that direction, and the IIR’s Liu informed me that NCU would organize more forums in future. It was also very encouraging to see Brookings, a somewhat left-leaning institution, engage Taiwanese academia and policymakers, which historically has been the almost exclusive territory of right-wing American think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute, or hawks like Paul Wolfowitz and John Bolton, whose support for Taiwan is very much the end result of an even stronger opposition to China rather than enthusiasm for Taiwanese democracy.
Ma in a corner over the Dalai Lama

The announcement by Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama on Friday that he hopes to visit Taiwan — where he has a large base of supporters — sometime next year will present an immense challenge to the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration, which in recent months has endeavored to improve ties with Beijing. Despite the Dalai Lama’s assertion that, given the improved relations in the Taiwan Strait, “maybe this is a good time” to visit Taiwan, the symbolism of the presence in Taiwan of such a paramount icon of autonomy would be such that Beijing would bring tremendous pressure to bear on Taipei not to permit it.

Read the full article, published in the Taipei Times today, here.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Ninety minutes with Ma Ying-jeou

President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) addressed a room packed with foreign correspondents at the Sherwood Hotel in downtown Taipei yesterday, where talks covered such matters as the state of the economy, cross-strait relations and demonstrations last month. The entire meeting was carried out in English. Amid tight security, Ma opened the meeting by jumping straight into economic matters, arguing that his administration came to power just as the global economy was souring and pointing to inflation and a rising consumer price index. After clumsily joggling with economic numbers and figures, Ma briefly touched on his cross-strait “truce” initiative with Beijing before opening the floor to questions.

A little more than half of the questions pertained to economic matters, from whether, given the current economic environment, Ma’s “6-3-3” economic policy (annual GDP growth of 6 percent, annual per capita income of US$30,000 and an unemployment rate of less than 3 percent) remained achievable, to the impact of improved cross-strait relations, Chinese tourism, and agreements signed last month, on the domestic economy.

The “6-3-3” plan, Ma said, was initiated about a year ago, when the economic situation was entirely different. “Nobody could have foreseen that Lehman Brothers would go bankrupt,” he said, adding that given’s Taiwan’s strong reliance on exports for economic growth, a slowdown in countries such as the US and China can only but “negatively impact” Taiwan’s economic growth. Ma said various measures, such as encouraging domestic consumption to make up for slouching exports, were being considered, without going into details.

Ma also made it a point to highlight his administration’s accomplishments in allowing more Chinese to visit Taiwan and opening the door to direct flights across the Taiwan Strait, while remaining optimistic that further increases in the number of flights, as well as Beijing’s allowing more provinces and tour operators to participate in cross-strait travel, would help take us closer to the number of Chinese he had promised would visit Taiwan during his election campaign.

Sadly, most of the questions that did not pertain to the economy were on the “soft” side, such as asking Ma's opinion of US president-elect Barack Obama, or whether he would like to meet senior Chinese officials like President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) or Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) — questions that can hardly lead to surprising answers. Asked about a Cabinet reshuffle, Ma said there were no such plans for the moment.

One question, by Kyodo news agency, however, did generate an interesting response. Asked if he would welcome a visit by Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama next year, Ma said that while Taiwan “generally welcomes” spiritual leaders, the timing wasn’t right for a visit by the spiritual leader. There were no follow-up questions on that issue.

On defense, Ma regurgitated the usual, claiming that while his peace initiative had led to diminished tensions in the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan nevertheless needed to procure weapons from the US to defend itself should China turn to “military adventurism” and so on, adding that a well-defended Taiwan would allow Taipei to negotiate from a position of strength. He also said that Taiwan remained interested in acquiring F-16s, as they were a crucial component to the nation’s ability to defend itself.

He said Taiwan had not changed its strategy of “offshore engagement,” meaning that it would continue to prepare for a military engagement in the Taiwan Strait rather than on Taiwan proper, adding that the defense philosophy remained one of deterrence so that China would not be tempted to launch a “preliminary war” — a quick, final battle by the People’s Liberation Army.

Asked what he thought of the so-called “porcupine” strategy discussed in the article “Revisiting Taiwan’s defense strategy” by US Naval War College associate professor William Murray, who will be in Taiwan on Sunday to discuss such matters with the defense establishment, Ma said that while Murray’ ideas were controversial, they had sparked a needed debate within Taiwanese defense circles.

Ma seemed optimistic on Beijing’s willingness to explore “peace” with Taiwan, but said that a truce in the Taiwan Strait would only be possible if Beijing stopped isolating Taiwan internationally. On that issue, Ma referred to the US arms package, the visit by Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林) and Beijing’s okaying former vice president Lien Chan (連戰) as Ma’s envoy to the APEC leaders’ summit in Lima, Peru, added to Beijing’s “goodwill” on Taiwan’s designation during the Olympic Games (“Zhonghua Taipei” as opposed to “Zhongguo Taipei”), as signs of flexibility on Beijing’s part, while mentioning that at the Asian Development Bank (ADB), of which Taiwan is a member, the nation’s title had recently been changed from Republic of China to “Taipei, China,” and that while Taiwanese representatives still attended ADB meetings, they did so “in protest.” He also said he had yet to see any concessions on Beijing’s part regarding the WHO question.

Very little, unfortunately, was said about the demonstrations that surrounded Chen’s visit early last month or the series of arrests of pan-green officials, including former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), although a booklet containing a series of responses to articles and letters by academics on the erosion of human rights in Taiwan was made available (though not publicized). Ma clearly blamed the violent demonstrations on organizers, pointing to the odd 140 police officers who were injured against the few dozen demonstrators who also suffered injuries, numbers that not only come from police authorities but that also fail to answer why things turned violent in the first place. Ma drew a direct line between the “violent” incident involving ARATS Vice Chairman Zhang Mingquing (張銘清) in Tainan City in late October and the clashes in Taipei a week later, while mistakenly attributing a cash offer for anyone who managed to hit Chen Yunlin with eggs during his visit to the DPP rather than the Northern Taiwan Society. No one bothered to ask if the large police presence surrounding the visit, or the fact that police barred demonstrators — sometimes violently — from displaying Taiwanese or Tibetan flags, might not have been the proximate causes for the violence that ensued, or, at minimum, provocation.

Ma said he remained committed to creating a “clean” government and fighting corruption, adding that the political allegiance of suspects did not matter. The president said he was aware of 61 convictions of government officials since 2000, of which slightly more than 50 percent were from the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). He did not explain, nor was he asked, why in recent months only pan-green officials have been held, questioned, or indicted for corruption, or why cases involving KMT officials have been put on hold or have dragged indefinitely. He said a pardon, similar to that extended to former US president Richard Nixon, for Chen Shui-bian was not being considered, as it was too soon and the cases were different.

On the unification issue, Ma said that since he became involved in Mainland affairs 20 years ago, opinion polls in Taiwan have shown consistent support for maintaining the “status quo” (about 60 percent), while 30 percent either favored independence or sought unification. He reiterated his pledge of “no independence, no unification and no use of force” during his term, adding that the previous administration’s pro-independence policies had failed and only resulted in further isolation for Taiwan.

Ma said a “peace accord” between Taiwan and China would not be signed anytime soon, as both sides have focused on issues that are relatively easy to achieve results on, such as the agreements signed during Chen Yunlin’s visit last month.

Throughout, Ma consistently referred to China as “the Mainland.” Before leaving, he shook hands with everyone in the ballroom.

Perhaps as a result of infighting or territoriality at the Taiwan Foreign Correspondents Club, only foreign correspondents (such as Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and Kyodo) were allowed to ask questions, while representatives from “domestic” publications like the Taipei Times, such as myself, had to remain silent, which could explain the paucity of “harder” questions. (I suspect Xinhua news agency was there, but they did not ask questions.) It is hard to tell whether Ma would have been candid if more incisive questions had been asked, but given how rarely the president addresses foreign media, better efforts should have been made to ensure that full use was made of those precious 90 minutes.

In related matters, I ran into a former colleague at the Taipei Times who now works at the Government Information Office’s Taiwan Review, who informed me that his superiors had asked him to remove all references to the Martial Law era in an entertainment article he was working on.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Cape No. 7: A movie 'most offensive'

Taiwanese director Wei Te-sheng’s (魏德聖) hit movie Cape No. 7 is as inoffensive a movie as I have seen since, well, Disney’s Lilo and Stitch years ago. It is a gem of a movie, beautifully portraying the idioms and idiosyncrasies of Taiwan’s rich multicultural fabric, juxtaposed with echoes of its colonial past. In a nutshell, the story revolves around efforts by the town of Hengchun (恆春) to put together a rock band in time for the arrival of Japanese superstar Kousuke Atari and the lead signer’s developing love affair with Tomoko, a Japanese woman tasked with supervising the endeavor. Running parallel to the story are voiceovers from 60 years earlier, telling of a romantic relationship between a repatriated Japanese and a Taiwanese.

Romantic, hilarious, cute, honey-dripping — all would be proper ways to describe the movie. But offensive?

According to China, which had initially said it would allow the screening of the movie, Cape No. 7 could cause a “nationalistic backlash” and announced yesterday that the movie would not be available in China — at least not until it has been processed by the censors/cultural butchers. Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chairman Chen Yunlin, whose visit to Taipei last month resulted in massive demonstrations, called it the result of “colonial brainwashing,” ostensibly because the movie allows for the possibility of love between Taiwanese and Japanese, or perhaps for different ethnic groups to coexist peacefully.

Hollywood movies such as Spy Games can depict the US military invading Chinese airspace to rescue Brad Pitt with no problem, but a comedy with Taiwanese and Japanese loving each other? No way, this is unconscionable moviemaking, brainwashing, Japanese propaganda that would — to use Beijing’s favorite spin — “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.”

Cape No. 7 may just be a movie — the highest-grossing in many years in Taiwan at that. But it is as inoffensive as it is charming and, to anyone who bothers to watch, it offers a lovely introduction to the cornucopia of Taiwanese colors, dialects, habits and mores that make this land so fascinating. (In fact, I would strongly recommend it as a cultural icon for people abroad interested in learning more about Taiwan.) Offensive it certainly isn’t. In fact, it is so innocuous that paranoid Communist Party apparatchiks couldn’t even find anything “wrong” (from an ideological point of view) with it — that is, if they bothered to watch it in the first place.

At a time when ties between Taipei and Beijing are supposed to be warming, and with Beijing allegedly making a number of “goodwill” gestures to Taiwan, the banning of Cape No. 7 in China is undeniable, picture-perfect proof that China is far, far from ready for peace with democratic, multicultural Taiwan.

And Taiwanese, who (rightly) cherish the movie, are hearing Beijing’s message loud and clear.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Book Review: The thin red line in the Taiwan Strait

If the world is to see its first hot war between two nuclear superpowers in the 21st century, its principal cause will likely be a small democracy of 23 million people. Or so argue Richard Bush and Michael O’Hanlon in their timely A War Like No Other: The Truth About China's Challenge to America. Bush, a former director at the American Institute in Taiwan and current director of the Center for Northeast Asian Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, and O’Hanlon, a senior military analyst at Brookings, use their considerable knowledge in the fields of diplomacy and defense to show how the longstanding political dispute between Taipei and Beijing over Taiwan’s sovereignty could escalate to devastating effect and why world leaders should do everything in their power to avoid this contingency from becoming reality.

In commandingly clear prose and avoiding overly technical terminology, the authors explain why the decades-old US policy of mutual deterrence against Beijing’s hard-line “one China” stance and Taipei’s desire for sovereignty has worked and why future US administrations should continue to abide by this guiding principle. By opposing unilateral moves by Taipei to break the status quo — such as the declaration of a Taiwan Republic — while providing assurances, as stipulated in the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), that the US would help Taiwan defend itself against an unprovoked Chinese military attack, Washington’s strategy has been to create space and buy time so that leaders on both sides of the Strait can resolve the conflict peacefully.

Published one year before the election of Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to the presidency and the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) victory in the legislative elections, one can nevertheless imagine the author’s sigh of relief at Ma’s election and his peace initiative, which would seem to confirm the wisdom of Washington’s longstanding policies on the Taiwan Strait. In this vein, the authors also make no effort to conceal their assessment of the administration of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) as having been “provocative,” “unreasonable” and taking unnecessary risks. Still, Bush and O’Hanlon helpfully point out that Beijing, having no substantial experience of democracy, is bound to misinterpret political developments in Taiwan, which could precipitate conflict. As such, one conflict-preventing measure the authors propose is for Washington to ensure that Beijing is able to “distinguish actions that the island’s politicians take for political gain and those that reflect policy intentions” as well as to impress upon the Chinese that Taiwanese are not necessarily opposed to all forms of unification.

Another important point the authors make is that the leadership in Taipei tends to assume rationality in Beijing regarding the Taiwan question, which could prompt the former to act “recklessly” — codeword for a move toward independence. Either as the result of misinterpreted signals or actual “provocation” by Taipei, China could feel compelled to abandon diplomacy and apply military pressure on Taiwan. Such action would involve a variety of scenarios, from a naval blockade to limited missile strikes to amphibious invasion, used separately, incrementally, or in combination.

Despite the authors’ assertion that war in the Taiwan Strait remains unlikely given what the participants stand to lose in terms of economic loss and casualties, there is a small chance that the Chinese leadership could think that war against Taiwan — or even against the US — is winnable, which could make conflict likelier.

Regarding Taiwan’s or the US’ ability to counter a Chinese attack, Bush and O’Hanlon are optimists, concluding that with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) lacking three critical determinants for a successful amphibious assault — air superiority, initial troop/firepower superiority at point of attack, and reinforcement advantage at point of attack — added to hardened targets throughout Taiwan, an invasion would be prohibitively costly, if not impossible. Other analysts, including William S. Murray, an associate professor at the US Naval War College, are less optimistic and counter that the optimistic view, including the one O’Hanlon has held for years, fails to take into account the leaps made by the PLA in terms of modernization and accuracy.

Regardless of whether one sides with O’Hanlon or Murray on this issue — and admittedly Bush and O’Hanlon’s position appears to be slightly overoptimistic — the likeliest scenario of a Chinese attack remains the blockade, which Taiwan’s growing economic dependence on China has turned into a tempting, and possibly quite effective, weapon. As the TRA refers to such a contingency as a “threat to peace and security of the Western Pacific and of grave concern to the United States,” an economic embargo against Taiwan would likely prompt a response from the US military, which could be required to ensure safe passage for Taiwanese and international ships entering the Taiwan Strait.

Once the PLA and the US military are brought within proximity to each other, with a third party — Taiwan — beyond the control of both but capable of inflaming the situation, the likelihood of escalation becomes dangerously real, the authors argue. Errors could be committed that, unlike the peacetime mid-air collision between an EP-3 naval reconnaissance plane and a Chinese fighter in 2001, could easily spin out of control in a war scenario. With Beijing perhaps working under the assumption that Washington would be unprepared to suffer mass casualties to defend Taiwan (the so-called “imbalance of fervor”), the PLA could target a few US Navy ships, or an aircraft carrier and hope that a few thousand US casualties would be enough to deter further US action. Bush and O’Hanlon, however, argue that rather than break Washington’s will, such a “limited” option would spark retaliation and widen the war to China’s shores — including preventive conventional military strikes against Chinese nuclear installations. In return, fearing that its nuclear arsenal would be obliterated before it could use it, China could feel impelled to turn to the nuclear option.

With such imponderables, Bush and O’Hanlon contend, if perhaps alarmingly, that war in the Taiwan Strait could “create the most serious nuclear risk since the Cuban Missile Crisis.” It is, therefore, in everybody’s advantage to prevent the cold war in the Strait from turning into a hot one, and to this end, leaders in Taipei, Beijing and Washington would benefit tremendously from heeding the warnings and prescriptions provided by the authors in this highly relevant book, and, for those in Taiwan, to overlook the authors’ creeping bias against the Taiwanese independence movement.

Link to article (.pdf format)

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Advice in a vacuum

Every time the European Chamber of Commerce Taipei (ECCT) gives advice to Taiwan on how it should run its economy, I get a strong impulse to visit their office and tell them to pack up and go home. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, an economist, but I know enough to distinguish between measures that would benefit Taiwan and those that would be detrimental to its survival.

The main problem with the ECCT is that aside from its neocolonial “Europe knows best” approach to Asia, its recommendations are usually made in a vacuum, as if Taiwan did not face an existential challenge political in nature. As such, the ECCT’s “solutions” are always to “prioritize cross-strait trade normalization” or some variation on that theme. Never, in its wisdom, does the ECCT take into account the long-term impact of further coupling Taiwan’s economy to the “greater China” area, which not only makes Taiwan increasingly dependent on its gigantic neighbor for its economic survival, but also makes it much more exposed to economic embargo, blockade and blackmail should Beijing decide one day to rely on such measures to force Taipei’s hand on political matters, such as unification.

It is quite obvious that the ECCT cares not one iota about Taiwanese, their independence, or the survival of their country as a political entity separate from China. It completely fails to understand, or refuses to see, that the “red tape” it complains about is a means by which Taiwan has managed, sometimes by a thread, to retain its independence and identity.

Until the ECCT sees Taiwan as more that a means to an end, as a market for European products or a mere “springboard” to China, it should keep its self-serving, if not condescending, recommendations to itself.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A strong dose of fear

Despite high expectations by the world, and Americans alike, that the election on Nov. 4 of Barack Obama would bring about a sea change in US policies — and by default an end to the disastrous past eight years of the George W. Bush administration — there are strong signs that continuity, rather than a fresh start, is what’s in store when the new administration comes into office in January. In fact, one need only look back at the transition from the Ike Eisenhower administration to that of John F. Kennedy in 1961 for another period of high hopes that were later deflated by more of the same (three words: Bay of Pigs). Back then, the enemy was communism; today, it is terrorism and nuclear proliferation, threats joined at the hip during the Bush presidency.

Just as then, fear — fear of the unknown, of an enemy “out there” but also among us — is being used to justify continuity or to undermine efforts to bring about change in policy direction. Under Kennedy, who inherited plans drawn up by the CIA under the Eisenhower administration for the invasion of Cuba, fears that the Caribbean country would serve as a forward base for communism in the Western hemisphere undermined whatever intent Kennedy and his administration may have had to create a better world, leading to a retention of Republican policies, government officials and advisers, by the Democrat government.

Fast-forward about half a century, and Cuba is now Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and the “war” on terror into which all three have been subsumed.

It is certainly no surprise, then, that one of Obama’s first announcements regarding his foreign policy team was that he would ask Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to stay on the job — at least for a little while.

To ensure that a public with high expectations of change does not feel betrayed when those expectations are unfulfilled, the state will turn to fear and imponderables. One example will be former secretary of state Colin Powell’s hinting, during an interview on Oct. 19 with Meet the Press, that on Jan. 21 or Jan. 22 — just as Obama comes into office — a “generated crisis … that we don’t know about right now” would test the new leader. This vague assertion, which was quickly picked up by the media, left everybody wondering what the threat might be. An invasion of Iran? A terror attack? There was no way of telling, but everybody assumed that as a former government official and retired military officer, Powell had access to “special” information or “intelligence.”

As I have pointed out before on this site and in my book Smokescreen, intelligence is a powerful tool by which the state can manipulate public opinion, for three principal reasons: (a) it feeds on the assumption that intelligence officers know more than ordinary people; (b) in the name of secrecy, sources, corroboration and credibility cannot be shared; and (c) it exploits public fears.

Another example of this was provided today, with the US government warning that al-Qaeda suicide bombers were allegedly contemplating an attack on New York’s mass-transit system. The timing, less than two months before the new administration comes into office, could not be more conspicuous.

A closer look at the wording used in the warning is quite revealing.

We are told that an “internal memo” showed that the FBI had received a “plausible but unsubstantiated” report that al-Qaeda terrorists in late September may have discussed attacking the subway system and that they may also target passenger rail lines running through New York, such as Amtrak and the Long Island Rail Road.

The problems with this report are many. We are not told what makes the threat “plausible,” or why it could be “plausible” if it is “unsubstantiated.” Another problem with this “memo,” of course, is the use of the word “may,” which in and of itself should be sufficient to make us question the credibility of the warning. An asteroid may collide with planet Earth tomorrow; you may get hit by a bus walking your doggie. The nature of the so-called “memo” is also left to our imagination. Is it an official threat assessment, operational notes, an intercept?

The report then goes on to say that “We have no specific details to confirm that this plot has developed beyond aspirational planning, but we are issuing this warning out of concern that such an attack could possibly be conducted during the forthcoming holiday season.” No specific details; no assessment of the individuals who may have discussed the plan; no reason to believe that it has moved beyond an idea; and no information that would indicate why, if the plotters actually met, they moved beyond planning or whether they have the capabilities (material, assets in the US) to carry out the plan, or why the attack would take place during the holiday season, are provided. Note, too, that the “persons” mentioned in the articles have all requested anonymity, ostensibly because we are dealing with intelligence matters, which adds a second layer blocking our ability to critically assess the information.

Finally, to ensure the threat prompts an emotional response, news reports conclude with references to foiled plans to attack various targets in the New York area — all plots whose credibility is also impossible to assess, given the dearth of information about them.

With the Obama cabinet-in-the-making’s connivance or via more obscure channels, fear is being used either to limit the possibility of change, or to ensure that those who stand to profit from the perpetuation of past policies (from the defense industry to imperialists to Israel to al-Qaeda itself) continue to do so.

Either way, expect more fear in the coming months.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Wo Weihan, a case for Taipei [UPDATED]

With organizations such as Amnesty International calling on Beijing to commute the death sentence against Wo Weihan (伍維漢), 59, a medical scientist convicted of spying for Taiwan, authorities in Taipei, already embattled by accusations of politicizing the judicial system, cannot afford to remain silent. Despite Taipei’s attempt under the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration to mend ties with Beijing, or Wo’s alleged intelligence collection on Taiwan's behalf, the Wo case is such an example of Chinese injustice that failure to make an appeal would be tantamount to Taipei forsaking the moral high ground in the Taiwan Strait.

Wo (pictured above, with daughter), who was sentenced to death in May 2007 — a sentence that was recently approved by the Supreme People’s Court — could be executed as early as tomorrow.

The reason why Taipei should follow Amnesty and Wo’s daughter, Ran Chen, in appealing to Beijing to extend the stay of execution is that aside from China executing more people annually than any other country (470 documented cases last year), there are indications that Wo did not face a fair trial: He was not represented by a lawyer, the trial was held behind closed doors, and he was forced to make a confession while in detention, which he later recanted.

Furthermore, the nature of the accusations — even if they turned out to be true — certainly should not carry the death sentence. Wo was found guilty (the indictment actually reads “might”) of discussing the health of Chinese leaders, which under Chinese law is considered a “state secret,” as well as passing on, or “leaking,” unclassified publications available in library (subsequently classified) to a group with alleged ties to Taiwanese intelligence.

At the very minimum, Taipei must publicly and in no uncertain terms, even if this means undermining warming relations with China, appeal to Beijing and use whatever leverage it has with the regime to have the ruling overturned. Failing to do so, failing to stand by and defend due process, the Ma administration would only confirm what many fear is a slow erosion of Taiwan’s sovereignty, as no Taiwanese government that respects itself would remain silent in the face of such a gross miscarriage of justice. (Not to mention that a man, even if he were guilty, would be executed for reasons that by whatever yardstick one evaluates the case, should not have been sentenced to death.)

Ironically, while this case is in China, it provides the Ma administration with an opportunity to uphold Taiwan’s sovereignty and show the world what Taiwan stands for. Whether it seizes that opportunity or not will be a test of its independence vis-a-vis Beijing and indicative of whether Taipei sees itself as an equal, or a lesser partner, in its dealings with China.

Update: Mr. Wo was executed on Friday, sparking strong condemnation from the US and EU. At this writing, I am not aware of any comments being made by Taipei.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

PAC-3: Costly, costlier and of marginal value

A major component of Taiwan’s planned US$6.5 billion arms acquisition from the US is 330 Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) interceptor missiles, as well as associated equipment and services. If all options are exercised,* the total value of the missile acquisition would be US$3.1 billion, nearly half of the total value of the arms package. Adding to this cost would be an as-yet unspecified “research and development” and “production line reinitiation” fee that, according to United Daily News, could reach as much as US$800 million, with possible sharing with other clients (Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among others, who have confirmed purchases this year).

Conservatively, this means that Taiwan’s acquisition of the 330 PAC-3s could amount to US$3.5 billion.

The problem with this purchase, however, is that is does not meet Taiwan’s defense needs against a growing arsenal of Chinese missiles. Given standard procedure of firing two PAC-3s for every missile to be intercepted and assuming an unlikely 100 percent kill ratio (the Pentagon estimates a nine-in-ten hit ratio against incoming Chinese short-range ballistic missiles), Taiwan could, at best, intercept but a fraction of a missile attack, perhaps not even enough to defend critical infrastructure such as command-and-control and airstrips. Analysts have argued that given China’s arsenal of about 1,400 SRBMs — which is growing at an estimated rate of 100 missiles annually — the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could easily overwhelm Taiwan’s PAC-3s, perhaps by using less-precise missiles to deplete the interceptors, followed by a second strike using more precise missiles.

Ironically, the acquisition of PAC-3s by Taiwan could prompt the PLA to increase the number of missiles it aims at the island and, if an attack were launched, to greatly augment the number of missiles used in a strike, to devastating effect for Taiwan.

Given the steep cost of acquiring PAC-3s versus the marginal defense advantage the system confers on Taiwan, it would be fair to caution against the purchase. At best, the PAC-3 should be used ONLY at critical infrastructure and in combination with other measures, such as hardening and redundancy. But even there, the financial cost is prohibitive, perhaps reflecting Washington’s strategy of tying weapons purchases by allies with diplomatic support and, in Taiwan’s case, of confusing “warmer ties” with defense acquisitions.

* Four AN/MPQ-65 Radar Sets, two Tactical Command Stations, two Information and Coordination Centrals, six Communication Replay Groups, four Engagement Control Stations, 24 Launching Stations, 12 Antenna Mast Groups, 282 Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System (SINCGARS) (115 AN/VRC-88E, 96 AN/VRC-90E, 13 AN/VRC-91E, and 58 AN/VRC-92E), 9 Electronic Power Plant III, 50 Multifunctional Information Distribution Systems, battery and battalion maintenance equipment, prime movers, generators, electrical power units, personnel training and equipment, trailers, communication equipment, tool and test sets, spare and repair parts, publications, supply support Quality Assurance Team support services, US Government and contractor engineering and logistics services, technical documentation, and other related elements of logistics support.
A lesson in life for TAS students

It is often said that young people have it easy, that they have everything served on a silver platter and that they do not know what it means to live in hardship. But for a group of 34 students at Taipei American School (TAS), a recent trip to Cambodia not only taught them a lesson in hardship — it also changed how they look at Taiwan. For eight years TAS, in cooperation with the Tabitha Foundation, has dispatched teams of students to rural Cambodia to build houses for families in need. While the foundation provides the building materials, the families of the students pay for the plane tickets and the students give their time.

Armed with little more than nails and hammers and a desire to do some good, what awaits the students is much more than blisters, hammered fingers and crushing heat.

“Hard to forget,” 17-year-old Stephanie Hsu said after returning from her second trip to Cambodia in as many years.

“We don’t really get lots of chances to go to exotic places,” said 16-year-old Catherine Tung, adding that the Cambodia trip was “a great opportunity to help out” as well as a way to make new friends.

In less than two days, the army of 34 dedicated students — the school’s biggest showing so far — built 10 houses in a marathon they said often turned into a deafening cacophony of hammering.

Asked what aspect of homebuilding was the most difficult, all agreed that getting the nails straight was the greatest challenge.

“As we pretty much hit the ground running, the first house was the most difficult,” 17-year-old Christine Aurlund said, adding that locals looked on and laughed as they riddled it with crooked nails.

But they learned their lessons.

“You really want the second house to look good,” she said.

For Andrew Crawford, a teacher in the English department at TAS who took charge of the initiative this year, the greatest reward was seeing the immediate results of their hard work.

“These people have nothing,” he said.

So the moment a house is completed, the entire family moves in. The green-paneled houses are elevated on long wooden legs to deal with flooding, with animals — goats, cows — often living underneath the structure.

“They get to go home,” Catherine said, her eyes aglimmer.

But the eye-opening did not end there. In fact, for all the muscle-numbing hard work, building the houses may have been the easy part. Cambodia had other things in store for them. First, it was the poverty, which could shock anyone who had never seen it before, especially young TAS students, who have lived in Taiwan, the US, Canada and other more developed countries where poverty is of a different gradient.

“It’s sad to see how little they have,” Christine said. “And yet, they never complain.”

“It made me realize how truly lucky, how well provided for we are in Taiwan,” said Stephanie Lin, another chaperon.

Children run around naked and nothing is wasted, something else youngsters from an affluent society were not used to. In fact, so destitute were the people there that it sometimes complicated exchanges with them. Among other things, it meant not holding young children — especially the good-looking ones — as parents might feel pressured to repay you with them.

Janne Ritskes, the Tabitha Foundation representative in the country, drilled the rules into the young minds from day one. It also meant not giving out any presents, Andrew said, recounting how the simple gift of a soccer ball the previous year had created a commotion in the village.

“It’s hard,” Stephanie Lin said, “but you have to tell them that their kids are ugly” so that they won’t give them to you. “But they’re all so beautiful.”

Still, the students were able to organize simple games with the local children and partake in the simple joys of a different life.

The second unexpected thing for many students was Cambodia’s history, which is still very visible today. The scars of war and the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot have not been hidden or forgotten. In fact, the infamous “killing fields” are still dappled with human remains, the odd bone, a piece of clothing at the bottom of a tree once used to hang people, an open-air museum of atrocity.

For the students, all of this was transformative and, beyond serving as a contrast to their couched lives in Taiwan, where the ghosts of its own troubled history are often hidden, it gave them a new perspective on education.

“In school, there is so much focus on academics,” Stephanie Hsu said, that we tend to lose sight of everything else that’s out there.

Christine concurred.

Trips like this one “teach you to learn about something else. Not everything is in books,” she said.

The foundation, founded and organized by Ritskes in 1994 and whose patron is Canadian Governor General Michaelle Jean, continues with its efforts, of which the annual TAS trip is but one part.

Among other things, its integrated development initiatives provide help safely delivering newborns and building wells, adequate sewage and roads. It also provides assistance for small businesses and sells various hand-made items to help local women. According to its Web site, as of this month, 63,280 families, representing 506,240 Cambodians, had graduated from poverty through the Tabitha Savings Program. (More information about the foundation is available at

Photos by Stephanie Lin

Link to article (.pdf format).

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Peace in the Strait? ORBAT says otherwise

Intelligence analysts are trained (sometimes mistakenly) to assume the worst in their field. The assumption that the other is up to no good is so endemic that even the absence of intelligence is often construed as an act of maliciousness. This phenomenon, though not restricted to counterterrorism, often manifests itself in two ways: either the individual or group is “inactive” or in “sleep” mode (as in so-called “sleeper cells”), or the target is so proficient that nefarious activities remain beyond the reach of surveillance, communications intercepts and intelligence officers.

In this world of the paranoid, Ockham’s razor principle, whereby — to paraphrase the English logician from whom the principle gets its name — all other things being equal, the simplest explanation is best, absence of evidence is in and of itself incriminating, just as the infamous Team B in the 1970s sought to discredit absence of intelligence by the CIA on a secret Soviet submarine project by arguing that the Soviet Union had succeeded in developing subs that could not be detected, known as anti-acoustic submarines. (No such subs were ever developed.)

With this in mind, we have two ways to assess Beijing’s recent conciliatory moves toward Taipei, which include dispatches of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait vice chairman and chairman to Taiwan last month and this month, and Beijing’s supposed “goodwill” act of allowing President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to send former Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) chairman Lien Chan (連戰) to represent the country at the APEC leaders’ summit in Lima, Peru, this weekend and for Ma to be referred to as president of “Chinese Taipei” — a first, we are told, since Taiwan joined the group in 1991.

The first more optimistic interpretation, if we were to abide by Occam’s principle, would be to see these developments as proof that Ma’s “diplomatic truce” is bearing fruit and that Beijing has become less strident on the Taiwan issue since the KMT regained power in March and replaced the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).

Under this scenario, the Ma administration’s flexible interpretation of sovereignty and concessions to China, added to a series of measures taken in recent months to facilitate trade and travel between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, are making war in the Strait less likely, as both sides see the advantages in stepping away from the brink.

The second more pessimistic interpretation — the one that intelligence analysts would probably favor — is that Beijing is bidding its time, putting Taipei, and perhaps the US, to sleep through deception by giving Taiwan crumbs, such as allowing Lien to represent the action at APEC, or even allowing Lima to refer to Ma as president.

In this view, absence of threat information and indications of reconciliation are smoke and mirrors and China’s option of a military attack on Taiwan remains as real, if not more so, than it has been in the past 20 years or so.

To put this in counterterrorism terms, China would be in “sleep” mode, seemingly inactive but readying for activation. China watchers all agree that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will never agree to anything less than “one China,” with Taiwan as one of its provinces. Given this, Beijing’s “goodwill” on such matters as APEC and cross-strait travel is counter to the CCP’s ideology and must be something other than a heartfelt concession. In other words, as there is no room for such a paradox in the CCP universe, the gifts must be something else.

Having said this, which option is most feasible — the optimistic view, or the pessimistic one?

All things being equal, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Order of Battle (ORBAT) says it all. Despite the cross-strait rapprochement that we have seen in recent months, the PLA has failed to deactivate or redirect the odd-1,300 ballistic missiles it aims at Taiwan, something that even Ma has said would be a road block to negotiations. That he has chosen to negotiate despite this speaks volumes.

In other words, where confidence-building measures would be expected to accompany diplomacy, we have seen nothing that suggests the PLA is reducing its threatening posture. Furthermore, news this week that the PLA had deployed YJ-62A anti-ship missiles that, with a reach of 400km, would bring most of Taiwanese ports within range, points to continued acceleration and refinement in range, precision and destructiveness of the arsenal at the PLA’s disposal.

Given the relatively weak Taiwanese navy, it is likely that the YJ-62As (pictured above) are meant to deter US Navy warships and aircraft carriers, which could be deployed to the Taiwan Strait should Washington feel compelled to come to Taiwan’s assistance during a military crisis.

Also, despite Beijing’s longstanding claims that the modernization of its military is in line with its growing global responsibilities rather than directed at Taiwan, the YJ-62A’s 400km range means that their only use is for a Taiwan contingency, as the distance between Fuzhou and Xianyou, Fujian Province, where most of its DF-11 and DF-15 short-range missiles — and the YJ-62s — are likely deployed, and the closest likely target after Taiwan, namely Okinawa, is between 834km and 903km respectively and thus well beyond range (the only other target in the region would be Guam, which lies more than 3,000km from the missile bases).

While analysts often confuse capability — in other words, the ORBAT — with intent, a growing and modernizing ORBAT with capabilities specific to a given target — in this instance Taiwan — that occurs parallel to “peace talks” is either an indication of malicious intent or the belief by one of the parties to the talks that a diplomatic resolution to the Taiwan question is unlikely.

Link to article.

Apologies to regular readers. I was in Japan for a few days. Regular postings should resume forthwith.