Sunday, March 30, 2008

Book review: Bates Gill’s Rising Star

Despite all the alarmist rhetoric coming from the Pentagon and a handful of conservative think tanks, war with China is not inevitable, argues Bates Gill in his book Rising Star: China’s new security diplomacy. The key to avoiding conflict ( or making it less likely), he contends, lies in paying closer attention to and understanding Beijing’s interests as a regional power and encouraging it to continue down the road of multilateralism.

Despite all its virtues — and as a counterbalance to the US’ paranoid perspective on the rising giant it has many — Gill’s book barely touches on the Taiwan Strait, which among all the potential sources of war involving China and the US is by far the likeliest. That said, should Washington, Tokyo and others make some of the adjustments Gill hints at in his book, it could be possible to decouple the Taiwan problem from the encirclement issue, which as I have argued before has made conflict resolution in an increasingly militarized Strait a more onerous task than is necessary.*

There are certain areas, such as Beijing's alliances with murderous regimes like Khartoum, where Gill could rightly be accused of being soft, or at minimum too optimistic, but overall his book shows us that being too hard on it may not be any more constructive.

Readers can access my review of Gill’s book, “The twin rises of the Chinese superpower,” by clicking here.

* See “The missile blunder,” “Washington conservatives strike again,” “Washington celebrates, but other are fretful,” and “But are they really friends of Taiwan?” below.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The missile blunder

A lot has already been written about the erroneous shipment, a little more than a year-and-a-half ago, of ICBM nose cone fuses to Taiwan and the diplomatic storm that this has created. While I do not intend to belabor the details of the military faux pas, suffice it to say, for those readers overseas who have yet to hear of the news, that the items intended for shipment to Taiwan were four replacement battery packs for UH-1H helicopters. What the Taiwanese military received instead was a batch of precise instrumentation used to trigger nuclear warheads as intercontinental missiles approach their target.

As a former government employee and long observer of government institutions involved in military and intelligence matters, what I intend to discuss in this entry is twofold:

(a) a mistake such as this one is not altogether impossible. While one would like to think that ordering from the Pentagon involves a little more oversight than, say, ordering books from, we should never underestimate the incompetence of government. In many cases, reality defies fiction, and the case at hand is at least as good as anything one would encounter in Graham Greene, Joseph Heller, Evelyn Waugh or John Le Carre. Believe me: Despite all the nonproliferation mechanisms and mine field of checks and screening, errors remain possible. They're quite common, in fact.

(b) in spite of the above, one should equally never underestimate the capacity of government to cover its errors, and this is where things get really interesting. Given the magnitude of the mistake and the impact it can have on nonproliferation, the military buildup in China and regional stability (not to mention that it makes the Pentagon look utterly incompetent), we could assume that all the governments involved in the matter would have seen it in their best interest that the blunder never see the light of day. In fact, things like this would get the highest classification, something like TOP SECRET, US (AND MAYBE SIX TAIWANESE AND CERTAINLY NO CHINESE) EYES ONLY. People would be surprised how often the classification of documents is relied upon to ensure that errors such as this one are not exposed. And yet, in this case, press conferences were held, the Pentagon has been surprisingly open about it, the news has spread all over the world, and China, as expected, has reacted in anger.

It would be tempting to think of a conspiracy theory here, but I’ll do my best to avoid that. Still, given the stakes, for something like this to become public knowledge can only mean one thing: Someone, somewhere, wanted this to be known, and the intended audience was Beijing. Never mind that the timing of the “discovery” — the night before the presidential election in Taiwan — or its revelation days later is also, er, suspiciously suspicious, given that said equipment had been in storage in Taiwan for more than 18 months. Why now? Why at a time when, given the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) win, chances of diminished tensions in the Taiwan Strait have at least been imagined by both sides of the Strait?

Someone in Taiwan or in the US (or possibly on both sides) wanted this public, and I suspect the intended result was to ensure that tensions continued in the Taiwan Strait so that the flow of weapons to the region could continue. Too many people, both in Taiwan and the US, stand to gain from a continued military standoff. As I argued in the previous entry (“Washington conservatives strike again”) and in my article “Washington celebrates, but others are fretful,” peace in the Taiwan Strait just isn’t lucrative enough for certain parties.

Stay tuned, this one isn’t over yet.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Washington conservatives strike again

In an article published today in the Taipei Times, I once again turn to the reflex of US conservatives to militarize the situation in the Taiwan Strait, focusing this time on comments made by a well-known Washington advocate immediately after the presidential election on March 22. As I have lamented in previous articles, there is an undeniable overrepresentation — at least in the media — of those views on Taiwan, which in the end is unhealthy and undermines efforts to resolve the conflict by peaceful means.

The more I look at the conservatives’ position on Taiwan, the more convinced I become that the issue has now become intertwined with the Pentagon’s (and its think tank subsidiaries) efforts to encircle China through a system of well-armed proxies and regional alliances. While, for reasons financial, cultural or professional, many are willing participants in this endeavor, some who lie in that spectrum of the US establishment may not even be aware of this, as oftentimes the institution, much like the devil, is a master at convincing the world that it doesn’t exist. But the end result is the same: a Beijing that feels increasingly cornered, which cannot but lead to further militarization in the Taiwan Strait, more short-range missiles aimed at Taiwan, a greater likelihood that errors on either side will be committed, and therefore less security for all.

Readers can access the full article, titled “Washington celebrates, but others are fretful,” by clicking here.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Canada and the recognition of Kosovo

Ottawa joined a number of capitals last week in officially recognizing Kosovo as a country. Unlike most states that did so, however, Canada faces its own dilemma concerning domestic constituents — in this case Quebec — that have long sought independence, and the implications of that decision could be far reaching. So why did Ottawa officially recognize Kosovo, when it knew fully well that doing so was bound to reawaken the separatism question in Quebec?

Two principal reasons come to mind.

First, as a general rule Canada abides by the principle of self-determination contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (at least when doing so coincides with its own national interests) and has a long history of support for movements that sought to defend the national identity of a people.

Second is the fact that Canada was a participant in NATO’s air campaign against Serbia to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in 1999. It would have been embarrassing for it to have fought the war only to refuse to recognize the people in whose name it took part in Operation Allied Force. Not to mention the problems it could have created within the alliance at a time when it faces serious divisions over Afghanistan.

The problem with Ottawa’s decision, however, is that it is based on double standards. Why, some would rightly ask, recognize Kosovo, but not Chechnya, or Taiwan, especially when, as the world’s 16th largest economy, the latter would make a far more viable independent state, in the legal sense of the term, than a number of countries that have received official recognition in recent years, including Macedonia, East Timor and now Kosovo. As stated above, Canada’s adherence to the principle of self-determination is the result of a cost-versus-benefit analysis: What will be gained by recognition? The items are many, including (but not limited to) moral credibility, a new ally, new business opportunities and, in the case of Kosovo, the cohesiveness of the NATO alliance. Conversely, will there be negative repercussions? In this case, this means risking the alienation of countries or groups that disagree with the decision, both abroad and within ethnic minorities domestically. Only by weighing the pros and cons will a country decide whether or not to recognize a country. The cost of recognizing Taiwan, for example, despite the boost it would do to Canada’s image, would be too high at the moment, given the impact it would have on trade relations with China. Recognizing Kosovo, Macedonia, Bosnia and East Timor, on the other hand, while alienating Russia and Serbia in the first three instances and Indonesia in the last, was a cost Ottawa was willing to absorb and which was made all the more easier because of the quasi universal support those causes have received and the fact that those new countries were born in war, their populations repressed by the stronger party.

Which raises what is perhaps the most important question, one that very few have asked to date, which is the utility of violence. Many forget that throughout the 1990s and in early 1999, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), then a small rebel movement fighting for independence, launched pinprick attacks against Serb forces, hoping that the response would be disproportionate — and it was, with the world media soon bringing back images and dispatches of mass graves and rampant human rights violations. Many of the people who now constitute the Kosovo government are former KLA members, but had history chosen a different course, the KLA today could very well have been considered a terrorist organization. While the Serb response to the KLA taunts was inexcusable, we must nevertheless not forget that to a large extent the successful realization of statehood came from an initial recourse to violence to publicize the conflict and draw in the international community, in this instance the NATO air campaign, followed by substantial NATO and UN peacekeeping forces. Had it not been for he KLA’s well-orchestrated invitation to violence, it is hard to imagine that Kosovars would have a country of their own today.

The danger in this, now that Kosovo has been embraced by a large number of countries, is that other “liberation groups,” in Quebec and elsewhere, might reach the conclusion that the only way to achieve statehood is to turn to violence, in the hope of repeating the Kosovo experience. In the case of Canada, it is highly unlikely Ottawa would use massive force to quell a separatist movement in Quebec — at least not to the extent that was seen in Kosovo in 1999. But some lunatics or deranged individuals could nevertheless see violence as the only option. Should, at some point in future, the “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait become untenable, a similar scenario might not be impossible in Taiwan either, and in this case the likelihood of disproportionate retaliation would be much higher.

While the recognition of Kosovo is not, in and of itself, a negative outcome, it nonetheless increases the possibility that separatist groups that so far have limited themselves to peaceful means may eventually decide that force is the only option. And thanks to the Kosovo precedent, they could be forgiven for believing that it is.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The BBC mucks up on Tibet, Taiwan

The following is a letter I sent to the BBC Web site in response to an article published on Thursday, March 20:

Dear BBC,

The following is in response to the article “China's quandary on Tibet's future” by Jill McGivering published on the BBC Web site on March 20, 2008. As is often the case with wire agency reporting or coverage from the outside, pieces on Tibet, Taiwan and China bespeak an unfortunate lack of understanding of the situation and misrepresent the facts. Your piece, sadly, is no exception. At a time when Taiwan seeks, despite oppression by Beijing, to make a place for itself on the international stage, reporting that distorts reality cannot but hurt its chances of getting the support that it needs globally, a support that, I must add, can only come when people are given the facts.

The “one country, two systems” alternative proposed by your author lacks the qualifications and caveats that would allow your readers to fully understand what this means. First, Taiwanese never had a say in the formulation of that system, which furthermore comes amid a buildup of short- and medium-range missiles aimed at Taiwan, now at about 1,300 and growing at a rate of about 100 annually. This model, “devised,” for Taiwan, as the author writes, is actually imposed, with the threat of force.

Secondly, that vaunted system, which your author claims worked well in Hong Kong, fails to mention that it has (a) come at the detriment of universal suffrage, which has been yet again delayed; and (b) resulted in an unprecedented attack on the rights of individuals and freedom of expression in the Special Administrative Region. Laws have been rewritten, critics of the authorities in Beijing have been threatened, silenced, and the powers of the state apparatus have gained in intrusiveness — perhaps not to the same extent as in the rest of China, but nevertheless, to such a degree as to represent an attack on the rights of people in Hong Kong. Beijing’s interference during the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, its blackout on health matters and heavy-handed treatment of medical workers who defied their authorities so that they could do their job serves as a stark reminder that all is not well in that model. In other words, economic performance cannot be used as the sole indicator of success.

The model would also have ramifications for the religious freedoms of the largely Buddhist Tibet. System or not, we can expect that Beijing would continue to meddle in religious affairs by picking and vetoing Lamas, which represents a grave infraction as pertains to ethnic, religious and identity rights.

Yet again, reporting of this type portrays Tibetans and Taiwanese as the irresponsible party, which rejects the sagacious and generous offers of the Beijing authorities, and leave readers with the impression that tensions and conflict, whether it be in the Taiwan Strait or in Tibet, should be blamed on the refusal of the underdogs to play along, to be responsible. This sends the signal that Tibetans and Tibetans are irrational, while Beijing is pragmatic.

Resolving the conflict over Taiwan, in Tibet and in Xinjiang (another repressed minority, this time Muslim Uyghurs) does not mean absence of violence on TV news or on your Web site, but rather respect for the human rights and grievances of the minorities involved. And, above all, justice, which will never happen if the so-called negotiations involve a stronger party that threatens the use of military force.

Let us hope, therefore, that your author’s use of the “one country, two systems” model for Taiwan was, at worst, a false analogy.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Germany’s logic on Tibet

“A boycott of the Olympic Games, as some have demanded ... would only penalize the athletes and those who have been training for years,” a German government spokesman said yesterday in response to pressure on Berlin and other governments to pull out of the August Olympic Games in Beijing following its violent crackdown on Tibetan demonstrators. About 100 people are believed to have died since the clashes began.

The problem with that argument is that if we were to follow the logic of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, we could expect it to say with regards to the suspected military nuclear program in Iran, for example, that Germany should continue to sell dual-use equipment to Tehran because a ban, or sanctions, would be unfair to German companies that have worked hard for years to develop their industries.

The spokesman continues: “For human rights, for the people of Tibet and for the Tibetans in other Chinese provinces — a boycott would change nothing about their situation,” a view that almost simultaneously was shared by Patrick Hickey, the head of the European National Olympic Committees.

But this is wrong. As China strives to portray its “rise” as a “peaceful” one, it is at a point in its history where external pressure may be at its most effective. Consequently, to claim that a boycott of the Games — or the threat of doing so — would only hurt the athletes and fail to sway the authorities in Beijing is misguided at best. In the past decade or so, Beijing has backed down on a number of issues (natural resources in the South China Sea, to give but one example) largely as a result of its desire to maintain its image of a responsible power. While it is true that Beijing considers the Tibet issue a “domestic” problem, which means that international pressure is unlikely to be as effective in forcing China to change its policies than on external matters, the international community nevertheless cannot stand by and do nothing. And mere words of condemnation won’t suffice.

While it is true that the athletes have been preparing for years and that a boycott would obviate all that hard work, it remains that sports should not have precedence over basic human rights, including the lives of innocent people. But by publicly announcing its opposition to a boycott, Berlin (and Hickey) was telling Beijing that it has a free hand in how it deals with its people and that it will not suffer any consequences to its actions. This kind of language can only invite further abuse, perhaps even escalation, for which Tibetans (and by rebound Uyghurs and other minorities) will suffer.

As a purported leader of the European continent, Germany gets a failing grade on this one. Of course, what Berlin really has in mind isn’t the poor Olympic athletes it ostensibly wants to protect, or that so-called “Olympic spirit,” but rather, as always, the lucrative business deals that accompany smooth relations with Beijing.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

AFP creates a moral equivalence in the Taiwan Strait

In a piece posted on Sunday, Agence France Presse (AFP) painted the portrait of Yeh Chun-jung, a Taiwanese entrepreneur who decided to turn to China — the “obvious” choice — to expand his high-tech power cable business. Yeh, AFP tells us, will be returning to Taiwan to vote on March 22 to ensure that the “right” leader, one who can “accept reality and set political topics aside to seek peaceful cooperation with China for the good of the island,” is elected. In other words, given the hardly concealed slant of the story, to vote for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).

What really stands out in the AFP piece, however, isn’t the reporter’s seeming preference for the KMT over its Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) opponent, or his uncritical belief, held by many, that the KMT would be better for the economy. Rather, it is this little nugget of information, hidden half-way in, that makes one stop dead in his tracks.

AFP writes: “Despite the diplomatic insults and the missiles aimed toward each other’s shore, Taiwan and China are inextricably and increasingly connected by commerce” (my italics).

Diplomatic insults and missiles aimed toward each other? Since when is criticism of a repressive government, one that crushes Tibetan protesters, silences and locks away rights advocates and forcefully displaces tens of thousands of Muslim Chinese, or the desire to be left alone and develop one’s democracy in peace, “an insult”?

Let us allow for errors in judgment on the reporter’s part, or, to be charitable, let us assume that he or she misconstrued warranted criticism for an insult (in which case the annual human rights reports on China released by the US and the UN should also be called “insulting”). But “missiles aimed at each other” is pure journalistic nonsense, a blurring of the lines and the creation of a moral equivalence that borders on the irresponsible — especially when we take into account the fact that many readers of that AFP piece will be far away from Taiwan or China and therefore will have a poor understanding of the realities of the conflict.

US intelligence reports tell us that China is aiming about 1,100 DF-11 and DF-15 missiles (with 300kg warheads) at Taiwan, whose circle error probable (CEP) rate has been refined to less than 150 meters (meaning that the likelihood of making a direct hit on a target is very high). Taiwan intelligence and its military estimate the number of such missiles to be above 1,300 and growing at a rate of about 100 missiles every year (it was 650 in 2003).

Although Taiwan has in recent years intimated that it may seek to develop surface-to-surface missiles to target Chinese positions, their deployment remains uncertain and would most likely be targeted at Chinese missile launchers and only be used in retaliation, as opposed to a first strike, which is clearly what China's missiles are intended for. Furthermore, the US — Taiwan's principal source of weapons — has clearly stated its opposition to the development and deployment of offensive military technology, and most of its assistance has been conditional on Taipei respecting that arrangement. Even allowing for indigenous development of offensive missile technology against Washington’s wishes, Taiwan could not possibility hope to challenge China on missiles, both quantitatively and qualitatively. In addition, while through its “Anti Secession” Law China has made it official policy to use force against Taiwan should it ever declare independence or somehow alter the “status quo,” no such policy exists in Taiwan. In other words, the use of force is clearly on the table in Beijing; it isn’t so in Taipei.

But readers abroad don’t know that. By failing to quantify the missile threat on both sides or explaining the nature of Taiwan’s missile threat to China, AFP is giving readers the impression that there exists a moral relativism, that somehow Taiwan represents a threat to China — which no matter how you look at it isn’t the case.

In many cases, support for Taiwan abroad, for the underdog, will be predicated on its being seen as the small democracy, with limited defensive capabilities, threatened by a giant military bully bristling with missiles. If, as a result of irresponsible journalism such as the AFP piece discussed above, people are denied this reality, the precious little help that Taiwan receives from abroad will likely grow even weaker.

AFP should either prove its facts — number, type and quality of Taiwanese missiles targeting China — or drop the reference in future.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Hau Lung-bin on Israel

Attending an exhibition titled The 60th Anniversary of Israel — Birth of a State Photo Exhibitions of Paul Goldman and David Rubinger & the Art of Design: Dan Reisinger, co-organized by the Taipei Fine Arts Museum and the Israel Economic and Cultural Office in Taipei on Thursday, Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) praised Israel’s achievements and said that other countries (ostensibly including Taiwan) should learn from its economic prosperity, democracy and technological achievements.

Such vapid comments could only have been made by someone who either has no clue how the state of Israel came into being or who has bought the false analogy of “Taiwan as the Israel of the East,” which I expose as altogether false and unhelpful in my Nov. 7, 2007, response to the “Our moral nakedness” piece by Ha’artez columnist Adar Primor. Once we look past the facile analogies, it becomes clear that Israel does not serve as a model for Taiwan. In fact, the only thing these two nations have in common is the fact that they are large recipients of US weapons.

On the democracy side, Hau seems to paper over the fact that Israel is a Jewish democracy as opposed to a universal one, meaning that the democratic rights of Jews are fuller, if you will, than those of non-Jews who live in Israel, such as Arab Israelis. This has implications for non-Jews living in Israel, from the ability to work in government to a set of social issues, such as housing. If democracy, as Hau would have us believe, were one of Israel’s achievements we should learn from, we wouldn’t be hearing the Palestinian Prime Minister on Friday saying that Israel is conducting “ethnic cleansing” in East Jerusalem. Although the term “ethnic cleansing” may be a little overdone, it is no less true that in recent years, through unequal laws and social repression, Israel has made life extremely difficult for those who remain in the Arab part of the city. Jewish extremists (how rarely we see the term used) have made no secret of their desire to see Jerusalem in its entirety as the capital of the Jewish state.

The same applies to the prosperity of Israel. Part of this success has been the carte blanche support is has received from the US as well as policies of outright theft of natural resources (mainly water) from Palestinian territories. The military assistance Israel receives from the US is so large that it can afford to develop its economy while it continues the longest occupation of another territory in modern history. Israel’s military-industrial complex, backed by the US, is also quite healthy, and that sector has sold many weapons to China, some of which could one day be used against Taiwan and possibly put at risk the life of the mayor who showered praise on Israel yesterday.

It is about time that those who ascribe to the “Israel as Taiwan,” or the “David of the Far East” analogies abandon them, for the similarities between the two nations are in fact minuscule. As I have argued before, the view that Israel and Taiwan are two small democratic islands surrounded by hordes of barbarians is not only misleading, but it fails to bring to the surface the root causes of that “hatred” and does not take into consideration the quite different power imbalances involved in those conflicts. In the Levant, Israel is very much in a position of power, and no group, state or combination of state could ever mount such a force as would threaten the survival of Israel. It is that advantage in military might, added to its indiscriminate use with full backing of the US, that has generated the resentment. One finds no equivalents in Taiwan’s situation. Whatever hatred Chinese may have for Taiwan certainly does not stem from Taipei’s military advantage against China, or use of force against it. Taiwan does not flex its muscles abroad; it does not occupy a people and its main backer, the US, never hesitates to berate its client publicly whenever the latter is perceived to be heading in the wrong direction (e.g., Washington’s overt criticism of Taiwan seeking to develop offensive weapons; of Taipei changing the “status quo” or, more recently, of its desire to hold referendums on joining the UN).

All that to say, if we really wanted to force the “Israel as Taiwan” analogy down people’s throat, a more militarized and less law-abiding Taiwan would have to invade and occupy a weaker people in, say, the southern Philippines, kill its people (mostly children and civilians) at a 1-3 ratio, convince the world it is doing so to (a) protect itself and (b) as part of the “war” on terrorism and receive the full moral blessing of Washington. Of course this little scenario is ridiculous, but so are analogies that Taiwan is like Israel, or that it can learn from its democracy and prosperity.

What Hau should have said instead is something like “Congratulations on your first 60 years; let us hope that the next sixty will not be as bloody — and the onus is on you.”

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Pyongyang’s joke

With the presidential election in Taiwan approaching, the number of countries that have voiced reservations concerning the referendums on joining the UN — to be held simultaneously with the vote on March 22 — has risen. China, of course, has stated that the referendums are wrong, while other countries, foes and allies alike, have used the full spectrum provided by the English language to express their disagreement. Another country joined the fray yesterday, whose pronouncement, though it did not add an ounce to the diplomatic pressure on Taiwan, surely added humor to the otherwise sad attempt to smother a democratic voice in Asia.

That country was North Korea.

Pyongyang condemned Taiwan for attempting to join the UN, arguing yesterday that the move would escalate tension in the region. "This move by Taiwanese authorities is a grave act that aggravates the situation in the Taiwan Strait and in Northeast Asia,” the North Korean Foreign Ministry said.

A grave act? Aggravating tension in Northeast Asia? If one country is not qualified to make pronouncements on what other nations should or shouldn’t do, it is North Korea, which in recent years has, to name a few transgressions, starved its people, broken every existing non- proliferation regulations, tested a nuclear weapon and fired missiles over Japan.

Oddly, Pyongyang’s statement could be helpful to Taiwan, as it adds an international basket case to the group of countries that have expressed their opposition to the UN referendums. Should the choose to continue opposing Taipei on the matter, they might now be compelled to qualify that opposition, lest it be seen to mirror Pyongyang’s. It is one thing to side with China or fear the consequences of a referendum; it is an altogether different one to hum the same tune as the Hermit Kingdom’s and its megalomaniac leader.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Language and the “terror threat”

One reason why intelligence agencies will never run out of work isn’t the bottomless source of threats, but rather the language they use to describe threats. A good example of this was provided by US Northern Command and the Department of Homeland Security on Thursday, as they made public their views on the al-Qaeda threat to the US. Let us look at the specific language used as they outline the threat — all italics are mine:

Northern Command chief US Air Force General Gene Renuart, paraphrased by Associated Press: “terrorists may be plotting more urgently to attack the United States to maintain their credibility and ability to recruit followers.”

AP continues: While [Renuart] said that US authorities have thwarted attacks on a number of occasions, he said terrorist cells may be working harder than ever to plot high-impact events. He did not point to any specific intelligence that authorities have received but said the “chatter” they are hearing “gives me no reason to believe they’re going to slow down” in their efforts to target the US.

So he has no reason to believe that an attack is not being planned, but there is nothing to back that claim. He continues: “I think there may be a certain sense of urgency among that organization to have an effect. So it would tell me that they’re trying harder.”

The sun may not rise tomorrow. It may rain tomorrow. Or again, it may not. Is this why our countries are pouring billions of dollars into security intelligence, so that generals and NORTHCOM chiefs can state the obvious? It gets better.

While Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke was saying that: “There continues to be no credible information telling us about an imminent threat to [the US] homeland at this time,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was telling us he had a “gut feeling” that the US faced a heightened risk of attack.

I have a gut feeling it may rain tomorrow. Are you going to decide whether to cancel that picnic in the park based on that, a gut feeling?

Readers should always be wary of threat assessments that use such language as may — which, if we pay close attention, is used on a frequent basis. “May” means absolutely nothing, as it is simultaneously a positive and a negative, which simply cannot exist. Either they will, or they won’t, based on the would-be terrorists’ intent and capabilities.

To the uncritical reader, however — of which there must be plenty else all those buffoons at DHS and NORTHCOM would be laughed out of town — the message maintains the level of fear that those agencies thrive on. It justifies budgets, intrusive powers, and wars, allowing those agencies and contractors that stand to gain from the perpetual war footage to make a profit.

Of course I may be wrong about all this…

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Altruistic or interested?

In a short piece published in the Taipei Times on Feb. 27 I raise the question as to whether the segment of US academia that has “seized” the Taiwan Strait issue is doing this out of a fundamental belief in the value of democracy or rather for more obscure reasons, such as the belief (originating from that same sector) that no power should ever be allowed to challenge the US militarily, which in the present case would mean using Taiwan as part of a strategy to encircle and contain China.

Is the militarization of the conflict — selling Taiwan,* Australia, Japan more US-made weapons, or encouraging those states to further develop their defense trade industries — the answer to the problem, or should there be more focus, perhaps by another segment of the US diplomatic/defense/intelligence/academic sector, on diminishing Beijing’s perception that all help to Taiwan is but a cynical use of the terms democracy or freedom to contain it, especially when those very same states openly chastise Taipei for seeking to hold a referendum on joining the United Nations?

Arguably, as some have pointed out in response to my article (many thanks for that), the “hawkish” or “conservative” think tanks are no monoliths, and even among those circles there is disagreement on the road taken when Taiwan is concerned. Which is a good thing. Nevertheless, given the reputation of those think tanks in the wake of the disaster in Iraq and the fact that as with every institution dissent among the ranks will unlikely lead to organizational reorientation or policy change, governments such as Beijing that are on the receiving end of the policies promoted my American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation and others may be excused for looking at their intentions with wariness, if not paranoia.

As I argue, a balance of “left” and “right” think tanks fighting for Taiwan would present Beijing with a unified front that perhaps would make it a little more hesitant to rattle the saber at Taipei for wanting to retain its democratic system. (Which raises the important question, Why hasn't the American "left," with a few exceptions, shown an equal interest in safeguarding Taiwan's interests?)

Readers can access the full article, titled “But are they really friends of Taiwan?,” by clicking here.

* By means of reference, Canada spends approximately C$13 billion, or 1.1 percent of its GDP on defense, to Taiwan's C$10.5 billion, or 2.6 percent of GDP. Canada therefore spends C$1,302 per square kilometer, while Taiwan spends C$291,800 per square km on defense and is among the top-three, with Saudi Arabia and Israel, buyers of US weapons.