Thursday, January 24, 2008

Welcome to Beijing’s world, Malawi

Malawi’s switching relations from Taipei to Beijing on Jan. 14 is already having repercussions on the lives of ordinary Malawians — and not necessarily for the better.

The ink on the new diplomatic relationship hadn’t yet dried when the Chinese ambassador to Uganda, visiting Malawi this week, said that the 26 Malawian students currently studying in Taiwan should be transferred to China. In other words, relations with Beijing now means that Malawian students don’t get to choose where they go; they are ordered by Beijing. Not only does this constitute yet another attempt to humiliate Taiwan — which said that no matter what, the students would be allowed to remain in Taiwan should they choose to do so — but it is also an attempt to “shield” those poor Malawians from the terrible influence of living in a democracy. It would be much safer for them, in Beijing's Orwellian worldview, if they could continue their studies in an authoritarian state where the information they receive and that finds its way into their curriculum is filtered from above.

Meanwhile, whatever benefits that are to be reaped from the new diplomatic ties will remain in the hands of a few back in Malawi and will certainly not trickle down to improve the lives of the ordinary people. For despite the loads of money Beijing is said to have offered Malawi to abandon Taiwan, the former cares not one iota for the welfare of Malawians. The development projects initiated by Taiwan that Beijing claims it wants to take over will become mired in corruption, or will simply be abandoned when — and this is to be expected — Beijing breaks its promises and the money fails to materialize.

For readers of this site who are based in Asia, such developments have nothing unusual about them. At the WHO, for example, Taiwan and its allies are routinely humiliated, repressed and snubbed, and, despite Beijing’s claim to the contrary, the rights of the 23 million Taiwanese ignored.

Readers who are not based in the region, however, may not be aware of this. But little by little, Taiwan’s democracy is getting crushed by Beijing. I have tried, on a few occasions, to raise the issue with publishers in North America — especially at the height of Taiwan’s bid to join the WHO — but absent a regular flow of information on the subject, the interest simply isn’t there. Politics, such as elections, are mentioned briefly in international pages, but the human impact — hell, the health impact — never finds its way in.

More and more it looks like the only way Taiwan can remain an independent democracy will be for the regime in Beijing to be overthrown. Anything less, given the regime’s inflexibility, will likely fail.

The rest of the world must know.

Ironically, a few hours after I made this entry the Nyasa Times, a Malawian newspaper, was reporting the following:

[Malaysian] Minister of Presidential and Parliamentary Affairs Davis Katsonga has angered President Bingu wa Mutharika who has since demanded his immediate return to Malawi and hand back the sweetener he collected from Mainland China. Kastonga is said to have pocketed the “Chinese sweetener” meant for the President for sanctioning [the Dec. 28] diplomatic switch from Taiwan to Beijing, government sources have [said].

Sources at State House said Katsonga, a close ally to Mutharika, has not remitted a substantial amount of money running into billions of Kwachas from the Chinese dragons for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) 2009 general elections. "Honourable Katsonga has angered the President [Mutharika] since his return from China [,] where he signed the memorandum of understanding that established the China-Malawi diplomatic relations."


Nation newspaper revealed that Katsonga was on the run [after] he left Malawi on January 16 for the United Kingdom through [the] Malawi-Zambia boarder [sic] […] He is believed to have boarded via Lusaka International Airport the following day.


[The Malawian] Government has downplayed […] Katsonga’s exit [,] describing it as a private holiday.


Some observers say they have warned the President and DPP officials to tread carefully in their pursuit for the fruits of the Chinese chequebook diplomacy as Katsonga can reveal damaging secrets in his defense. And [the] Mutharika cabinet has since agreed to damage control the matter, according to sources.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Beyond the kickbacks and rapprochement

The Defense News Web site dropped a bombshell of sorts this week with an article on the possible ramifications of a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) victory in Taiwan’s presidential elections in March. In it, a Taiwanese military official raises the specter of a return to the era of kickbacks — i.e., corruption — in military spending, while a former American Institute in Taiwan official is quoted as saying that rapprochement between the "pro-China" KMT and Beijing could spell the end of major US arms sale to Taipei, as Beijing would be unlikely to perceive the “friendlier” KMT regime with the same amount of animosity it has shown toward the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party government.

While these two scenarios are certainly feasible, the article leaves out a third, equally alarming, possibility: that Washington, perceiving a KMT government to be on the brink of capitulating to Beijing, should not sell Taiwan advanced military equipment lest that technology end up in the hands of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). (This fear explains why the US has so far denied Taiwan more advanced aircraft like the F-35 and would instead limit sales to older-generation F16s.) In other words, even if the KMT did not intend to hand over Taiwan “on a platter,” as some analysts have put it, the perception — right or wrong — that Taiwan is headed for “peaceful” annexation via KMT rule would have dire consequences on Washington’s willingness to sell it advanced military technology or even share military intelligence — SIGINT, IMINT, COMINT — with it, something else that was left unaddressed in the Defense News article.

What this means is that even if fears of KMT capitulation turned out to be wrong (and let us pray that this is the case), Taiwan would nevertheless find itself weakened in its defenses, as the US — Taiwan’s only real source of weaponry — would be unwilling to provide it with the equipment, quantitatively and qualitatively, it needs to keep pace with the PLA’s rapid modernization.

All of this, of course, stems from the fact that the end of the Taiwan Strait crisis on Beijing’s “peaceful” terms would by no means mean that US-China competition for regional influence would disappear. Far from it. And with that in mind, the last thing Washington would want is for US-made advanced military technology, transferred from or handed over by Taiwan, to be turned against US soldiers in a future Sino-US armed conflict.

In the end, no matter how one looks at it, a KMT victory in the presidential elections would have catastrophic consequences for Taiwan’s ability to defend itself.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Beijing gains leverage on Canada

If we ever needed an example of the kind of influence Beijing has on the behavior of democratic governments, it was provided last week during Canadian Trade Minister David Emerson’s visit to China. All that trade talk — unaccompanied, of course, by any reference whatsoever to human rights or the environment — culminated when Emerson hinted at the possibility that Ottawa would go to the World Trade Organization to “force” China to allow its citizens to visit Canada as tourists.

“Hinted,” because the last thing Canada wants to do is go to the WTO court against China at a time when bilateral trade between the two countries is at its highest and when China is now tied at No. 3 with Japan as Canada’s largest export market. In making the reference to the WTO while in Beijing, Emerson was telling Beijing Canada took the tourism issue seriously and was hoping for results. But not at the WTO, please.

In other words, Canada went to China as a beggar, kneeling at the throne and willing to sacrifice something in return for a favor by Beijing. When a country threatens to do something but, in the same breath, says it would rather not do it, what it means is that leverage is possible, a weakness can be exploited — and Beijing is a past master at seizing upon such openings in one's armor.

In an article published today in the Taipei Times I explore some of the “sacrifices” Canada may be willing to make so that Beijing will reengage it on the tourism issue. I also warn against the great danger of Beijing coupling trade issues with politics in such a way that democracies risk undermining their principles in the process.

Readers can access the full article, titled “Finding Canada’s Achilles’ heel,” by clicking here

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Book Review: Bernard D. Cole's Taiwan's Security

Soon after coming to power in 2000, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) launched a massive reorganization of its defense system, starting with the civilianization of the services, a reorientation of its defense posture and attempts, so far largely unsuccessful, to move from compulsory service toward an entirely volunteer army. Democratization, meanwhile, has imposed restrictions on the military — on budgets, for example — that hitherto had not existed. While in the long run these efforts will likely lead to a more professional and accountable military, the road there can be a difficult one for service members who see their budgets get cut, the number of troops dwindle and their equipment become older.

In isolation, these problems and challenges would not pause an existential threat to the nation. But in Taiwan's situation, with China accelerating the modernization of its military without the barriers set by the checks and balances of a democratic system, this period of reorganization leaves it comparatively weakened and therefore more vulnerable to an attack by China. Furthermore, Taiwan's long guarantor of security, the US, is locked in the Middle East and shows no signs of soon extricating itself from the mess it has created there. This means, among other things, that a US intervention on Taiwan's behalf cannot — and should not — be taken from granted.

All of these, and more, are explored in Bernard D. Cole's Taiwan's Security, which I reviewed in the Taipei Times today. Readers can access the full review by clicking here.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Could this be Tonkin redux in the Strait of Hormuz?

It is much too early to make a formal assessment of the incident early on Sunday in which five suspected Iranian Republican Guards Corps “attack boats” “harassed” US Navy vessels in international waters close to the Strait of Hormuz. But already, as the details trickle in, we can begin to lay out hypotheses.

One element that stands out is the lack of corroborating information and the one-sidedness of the reporting on the incident, with an anonymous source in the Pentagon, a spokesperson and CNN providing the bulk of the story. No coordinates are given to tell us whether the US vessels were clearly in international waters or sufficiently close to Iranian waters as to constitute a provocative act. Furthermore, the transcript of the communications between the Navy and the IRGC vessels — this we must take on faith, as nothing has been provided to prove that these were, indeed, of the IRGC — has not been made public, so it remains impossible to ascertain the nature of the “threatening” language (was it English?) used by the Iranians, which could very well be a mistranslation (if it wasn't English), as has often occurred with speeches by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

News coverage to date has been limited to Reuters and AFP, whose wire copy has been mostly quotes from a report on CNN. Iranian authorities have yet to comment on the matter, and major Middle Eastern media, including al-Jazeera, have nothing on the incident.

So did it really happen? Or is this just a fabrication, or a series of errors and misjudgments, just as occurred in the Gulf on Tonkin in August 1964, which provided the US with the argument it needed to attack North Vietnam? It is also interesting that such an incident would occur amid news that the US may be on the brink of recession. As history has demonstrated, states have an inclination to look abroad whenever trouble brews domestically and to deflect the attention from themselves onto an “enemy.” It is no secret, either, that Washington has for a long time now sought an argument to pound Iran — even after an US intelligence assessment argued that Tehran had long abandoned its nuclear weapons program.

All the above are but hypotheses and may yet be proven wrong as more details are made public. Conspiracy? A warning to George W. Bush as he prepares to visit the region? Fabrication? Blunder? At the moment, all are possible. But this one has all the hallmarks of a US administration that once again is asking us to trust it.

Stay tuned.