Tuesday, July 29, 2008

China's newest problem?

“Through this blessed jihad in Yunnan, the Turkestan Islamic Party warns China one more time … Our aim is to target the most critical points related to the Olympics. We will try to attack Chinese central cities severely using the tactics that have never been employed.” Thus spoke Commander Seyfullah, the purported leader of the Turkistan Islamic Party, after claiming responsibility in a video last week for three bus bombings in Yunnan earlier this month, along with previous attacks in Shanghai, Wenzhou and Guangzhou.

While there is little information about Seyfullah, the Turkistan Islamic Party is an offshoot of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which intelligence sources say was based in Afghanistan before the US invasion in 2001 and whose leader was killed in 2003. Analysts claim that members of the Turkistan Islamic Party (the group as a whole reportedly has no more than 100 members) may have received training at al-Qaeda bases in Pakistan’s North Western Frontier Province and/or Tribal Areas abutting Afghanistan. Based on the little information available about him to date, Seyfullah appears to be mimicking the tactics of terror group leaders such as the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, with a reliance on recordings to instill fear and attract retaliation — the more indiscriminate the better.

Since the release of the Seyfullah video, Chinese authorities have gone to great lengths to discredit the claims of responsibility, ascribing the blasts to a lone disgruntled gambler and an oil fire. While the credibility of both Seyfullah and Chinese media remains equally in doubt, what really matters is that a “terrorist” organization is seeking to lure Chinese authorities at a time when it is most sensitive, with the Olympic Games just around the corner.

In "Much suffering in store for Uighurs," published today in the Taipei Times, I explore the ramifications this new development will have for ethnic Uighur Chinese.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Canada’s child soldier

I have long meant to write about the Omar Khadr case, but somehow never got around to doing it, perhaps because I didn’t know which angle to approach the subject from. With demonstrations in major Canadian cities planned for this week and after calls by some readers that I tackle the subject, it is perhaps time that I make a few comments. What also prompted me to write about this was the revelation, a few weeks ago, that a Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) official had interrogated Khadr at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2003. It wasn’t the visit itself that grabbed me, but rather the callousness allegedly displayed by the official as the young Khadr displayed wounds, mental and physical, that bore all the hallmarks of torture. As a former intelligence officer at CSIS, I could not remain indifferent.

First, a bit of history. The Toronto-born son of Ahmed Said Khadr, an alleged al-Qaeda financier, Omar was raised in Afghanistan and in 2002 — then aged 15 — was captured by US forces following a firefight in Ayub Kheyl. Omar has been accused of lobbing a grenade that killed a US soldier, though information subsequently released puts that into doubt and fails to provide any evidence of his involvement. Still, Omar his since been held at Guantanamo Bay — the only Western citizen left at the base and the youngest detainee — on accusations of war crimes and supporting terrorism. Despite the lack of evidence and the uniqueness of the case, the Canadian government has refused to seek his extradition, a decision that has earned Ottawa widespread condemnation from rights activists and many Canadians. (For a full account of the case, readers are encouraged to turn to Michelle Shephard’s Guantanamo’s Child: The untold story of Omar Khadr.)

Three things stand out in the case against Khadr, and all three support the claim that he should, at minimum, be repatriated to Canada.

First, by their nature, military trials are stacked against the defendants and make it nigh impossible for them to challenge the accusations against them. As we have seen, the evidence against Khadr is less than airtight, but absent the means to mount an appropriate defense (to which we can add his young age), Khadr has been unable to make his case — a phenomenon that has become all too frequent in the “war on terrorism,” not only in the US but elsewhere, including Canada (e.g., Security Certificates, or the seventeen individuals arrested in Toronto in 2006).

Second, Khadr was a minor when he was captured and should therefore have been treated as such. By failing to treat him — at the very least — as a child soldier, the US, and by rebound the Canadian government, is violating UN conventions, but has relied on the exceptional clause of “terrorism” — which has no legal basis — to defy international law and the Geneva Convention. A case could also be made that as a result of his upbringing in Afghanistan among sympathizers of al-Qaeda, the young Khadr was not acting of his own free will, or that he had been “brainwashed,” two elements that argue in favor of his being treated as a child soldier rather than a soldier, a militant, a “terrorist,” or a war criminal.

Third is the nature of the accusations against him. Regardless of whether Khadr threw the grenade or not, or participated in battle or not, by international law attacking invading or occupying military forces does not constitute a war crime, nor does it imply supporting terrorism. While countries such as Israel and the US (among others) often refer to attacks against their military as “terrorism” (e.g., Palestinians resisting occupying forces, Hezbollah defending Lebanese territory or Iraqi insurgents targeting US forces), by definition terrorism only applies to indiscriminate use of massive violence against undefended civilian targets to bring about political change. Lobbing a grenade at US special forces obviously does not meet those criterion.

Another element that mitigates against the case is evidence that Khadr has been subjected to torture, which, if true, would break other conventions. Khadr’s best chance in that regard would have been for visiting Canadian officials to raise the matter with their masters in Ottawa. However, based on my previous experience at CSIS, there is little doubt that the officer who interrogated him in 2003 had been desensitized enough by his professional environment (a subject of Smokescreen, my book on CSIS published earlier this year) as to have prevented the empathy needed to raise the matter with CSIS headquarters, Foreign Affairs or the Prime Minister’s Office. In fact, a combination of hatred, racism, emotional isolationism and ideological brainwashing likely made it impossible for the agent to care. Cry as he might and profound though his wounds may have been, Khadr was facing an individual who was unable to make the necessary emotional connection. Khadr was the enemy, a case number, a dehumanized being, or “scum,” as I often heard targets referred to.

Sadly, in spite of all these factors, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper maintains that Ottawa will not request that Khadr be sent back to Canada, where he would have a better chance of getting a fair (or fairer) trial. By failing to do so, the Canadian government is complicit in a series of crimes committed by the US government and gives ammunition to those who argue that Canada should be a target of terrorism. Not only are Canadian troops in Afghanistan becoming increasingly active militarily and therefore seen as occupying forces, or agents of US imperialism, but Ottawa cannot even be bothered to care for its own — especially when the latter are Muslim.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Meeting the velociraptor

The man comes with some heavy baggage. US ambassador to Indonesia from 1986 to 1989, undersecretary of defense for policy from 1989 to 1993, deputy secretary of defense from 2001 until 2005 and president of the World bank from 2005 until 2007, Paul Wolfowitz — now at the American Enterprise Institute conservative think tank and chairman of the US-Taiwan Business Council — has had a long, eventful career in the US government. He is perhaps better known as a prominent neoconservative and principal architect of the disastrous US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Wolfowitz was in Taipei this week to give a speech to the American Chamber of Commerce, which the media was invited to cover. One could be of two minds about attending a speech by an individual who has played such a prominent role in the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq — or, for that matter, for having fleshed out, over the past fifteen years or so, a US policy underpinned by military preemption and hegemonistic ambitions that has resulted in the loss of so many lives worldwide. Still, others would argue that Wolfowitz, as he himself describes himself, is a “true friend of Taiwan,” having played a role, among others, in the George H.W. Bush administration’s decision to sell Taipei F-16 aircraft in the early 1990s, as well as remaining a proponent of providing Taiwan with the military capabilities it needs to defend itself. From Taiwan’s point of view, one could therefore twist the old saying by pointing out that he may be a neocon, but he’s our (Taiwan’s) neocon.

One interesting fact about Wolfowitz’s speech was the total absence of security at the Shangri-la Hotel. Anyone could just have walked in, grabbed a sandwich and a seat in the “media” section, or come within touching distance of the man during the question-and-answer session following his speech. No credentials or business cards were asked of us. While Mr. Wolfowitz is no longer a government official, one would nevertheless assume that his responsibility in the Iraq War and close involvement on defense matters would warrant a modicum of security. My suspicion is that when in Taiwan, Wolfowitz and other US officials, active or retired, feel they are “among friends.” The same probably couldn’t be said of any country with a Muslim population.

Now, to the speech. After an unfortunate slip in his opening remark, where he said that the American Chamber of Commerce was looking forward to promoting relations between the US and China, Wolfowitz was all praise for Taiwan’s accomplishments, first on the economic side as one of the “Asian Tigers” and later as it embarked on the road to democracy — two successes that he claims have also had an impact in China as well as on the international stage. Taiwan’s democratization, he said, put the lie to the old belief that there is such a thing as “Asian values,” often a shorthand for the antidemocratic, authoritarian style of government epitomized by, but not limited to, Singapore. Wolfowitz also lauded the ability of Taiwanese to turn challenges into opportunities, which he said could be a byproduct of their country’s having the (mis)fortune of being located in a region of great strategic importance. Taiwanese always worry, they always need to fix something, he said, which perhaps makes them a nation of “warriors,” or “worriers.”

Throughout his speech and the question-and-answer session that followed, Wolfowitz made clear his view that the administration of Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) opening to China and conflict resolution drive across the Taiwan Strait had “lowered the temperature” and was a good thing, while hinting that the previous administration of Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) — whom he didn’t specifically name — may have created “unnecessary” problems. In the end, he said, closer ties between Taipei and Beijing are in the US’ interest, adding, however, that China’s military posture in the wake of warmer cross-strait ties remained an unknown and would play a significant role in how the US-China relationship develops.

Amid the new developments in the region, Wolfowitz said, Taiwan should strive to turn itself into a regional economic hub, much as Ireland did in the late 1980s. “If you set your mind to it, a lot of things can be done,” he said. He also looked favorably upon Taiwan’s revamping the rules on business investment in China and called on Taipei to move away from restrictions on sensitive technological investment, such as in the semiconductor sector.

His position on Taiwan gaining access to multilateral organizations was somewhat vague, although he seemed in favor of Taiwan joining the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization. Nevertheless, his emphasis on creating more international space for Taiwan did not seem to imply that joining official organizations was necessarily a prerequisite. Rather, he said that educating the world about Taiwan could be “a form of security expenditure.”

Regarding the likelihood that the US would move to strike a free-trade deal with Taiwan, he said he was pessimistic about the next congress’s willingness to move in that direction, given that regardless of which presidential candidate came into office, the composition of congress would not be as favorable to FTAs (in other words, Republicans are good for trade, while the Democrats aren’t).

Given his close past involvement in defense matters, it came as no surprise that the majority of questions asked by the media focused on that sector, especially the uncertainty that has surrounded the US$11 billion arms package to Taiwan. While distancing himself from comments by Admiral Timothy Keating, head of US Pacific Command (PACOM), last week that seemed to confirm that Washington had indeterminable “frozen” arms sales to Taiwan and adding that in his opinion Keating was in no position to officially represent Washington decisionmaking on the matter, Wolfowitz said that President Bush is a man who sticks to his commitments and that he would be surprised if, before his term expires, Bush did not honor that pledge. Asked about the impact of a longer-term “freeze,” Wolfowitz said he would not speculate on something that is unlikely to occur. (According to a source well-connected to the defense industry, nearly half of the items included in the arms package have either been delivered or will soon.) In other words, beyond US strategic interests in the region, congressional pressure, and notwithstanding the commitments included in the Taiwan Relations Act, Wolfowitz was saying that whether the full package of weapons gets delivered or not was contingent on whether Bush and the executive would stick to their word. (Depending on how it is played by the media, this remark could make waves in Beijing and Washington, as it either dares Bush to live up to his reputation or hints that the arms package will indeed pass before the end of Bush’s term.)

All in all, there wasn’t much to Wolfowitz’s speech that hadn’t been said already, and he kept the tough questions on defense at arm’s length by emphasizing that he no longer is a government official. Whether his new role in Taiwan affairs will be to Taiwan’s benefit or not remains to be seen, but my fear is that his track record will not go unnoticed in Beijing, which could over-interpret his role as meaning that the neocons are consolidating their grip on the Taiwan issue while reaching the conclusion that his appointment is part of a US grand strategy to encircle China in its own backyard. Whether Beijing would be right to believe this or not, labels do stick — especially when they were affixed at great human cost.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A different way in?

Repeated attempts by Taiwan to gain access to the UN and the WHO have all been shot down, and despite “thawing” relations between Taipei and Beijing (the principal reason behind Taiwan’s repeated failures at the UN) it is unlikely that situation will change any time soon. Beyond participation, as a full member or observer, at various UN bodies, Taiwanese reporters have also been barred entry, as UN media accreditation is contingent on UN membership, which in turn has as a precondition official statehood recognized by the international community. What this means is that at such events as the World Health Assembly in Geneva in May, Taiwanese reporters are not allowed to enter the building to report on deliberations — even when the topic under discussion might be Taiwan’s application to join the body, or its diplomatic allies’ call that Taiwan’s application be considered.

Continuing to seek entry via regular channels, or awaiting media accreditation from an organization that is beholden to Beijing, will not bring Taiwanese the advantages they seek, and will leave it in the dark. A new strategy is therefore in order.

In "Acting with ingenuity at the UN," published today in the Taipei Times, I propose an alternative that could give Taiwanese media a way in.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Associated Press’ take on China

Language, language, how it shapes our perception of reality, especially when it is used by supposed “reliable” news organizations. I came upon a beautiful series of pictures taken in Taiwan yesterday of members of the country’s Amnesty International branch arranging their bodies to spell out 自由 “ziyou,” or “freedom,” in denunciation of human rights violations in China (see cover of the Taipei Times, July 13, 2008).

What readers of the Taipei Times will not see, however, is the original AP photo caption, which read “… as they denounce the Chinese government for allegedly violating human rights” (italics added).

“Allegedly? There is nothing “alleged” about human rights violations in China; rather, they are known and widespread. This is either sloppy journalism on AP’s part or an unconscionable attempt to demonstrate so-called journalistic neutrality to a degree that blinds it to reality. Did AP reporters in Rwanda in 1994 refer to an “alleged” genocide? Was a Palestinian family “allegedly” killed by an Israeli tank shell? Were Israelis eating at a pizzeria “allegedly” killed when a Palestinian suicide bomber detonated himself at the entrance of the restaurant? Why the special treatment for China, as it arrests its citizens, executes more prisoners in a year than anyone else and murders demonstrators and dissidents?

Such language is dangerous, as it could numb the mind to the amplitude of Beijing’s repression of its people. By dint of using terms that question the validity of what is (or should) otherwise be universally agreed upon, less-informed readers could eventually reach the conclusion that Chinese do not face human rights violations, at which point Beijing wins, and the people lose.

Or perhaps newspapers should add caveats of their own when the use AP wire stories. “A rose is a rose is a rose,” Ms. Stein told the allegedly credible AP.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The great disconnect

The reports we see every night about the G8 summit in Hokkaido, Japan, could not be more aggravating. As the planet heats up and everybody from the middle class down feels the pain of rising food, oil and commodity prices, the leaders of the world’s richest countries are carousing with each other and feasting on meals that select Japanese chefs have reportedly been practicing for six months. One such meal probably contains more calories than a poor child in Africa will absorb in a week. And yet, those leaders have the gall to pretend to be seeking solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. While we swallow advice on how to reduce gas consumption, cut down on meals, remove ties in the office and forsake the car for the city bus or the bicycle, G8 leaders and their spouses are flown from all over the world for meetings that appear more hedonistic than constructive, and from whose outcome we can expect very little results. Continued ...

Monday, July 07, 2008

Bush and Fukuda in La-la Land

US President George W. Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda officially announced yesterday that they would attend the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Beijing on August 8. The reason the two leaders gave for deciding to attend, despite pressure that they refrain from doing so, were somewhat interchangeable — they did not want to “offend” the Chinese people (note the parroting of the oft-used term by Chinese officials) and China had made “some progress, at least in the talks with [Tibetan spiritual leader] the Dalai Lama and “they’re now making an effort.”

What an odd thing to say, given that the same day representatives of the Dalai Lama who have been in talks with Beijing since the deadly crackdown in March were expressing frustration at how little progress has been made, with Chinese officials seen as stonewalling and lacking serious commitment to the process.

Maybe Bush and Fukuda had their geography wrong and meant other developments, such as media freedom, which Beijing had committed to when it made its bid to host the Games.

Not according to the latest Human Rights Watch report on the matter, which says that media control in China has become worse in the past year and that Beijing has failed to lift restrictions on foreign correspondents — especially in the wake of the protests in Tibet in March. From January last year through April this year, more than 200 cases of officials interfering with reporting by foreign correspondents have been reported, HRW said, citing the Beijing-based Foreign Correspondents Club of China.

So things have not improved for foreign correspondents. What about Chinese dissidents and rights activists? As recently as the Sichuan earthquake, a number of activists were locked up for seeking to gain access to “restricted” areas or for criticizing how the government has handled the matter. Some were thrown in jail for trying to help families or for pointing out that a disproportionate number of victims were children who were crushed when the unsafe buildings (mostly schools) they were in at the time of the quake collapsed. Even as the Chinese government was applauded globally for its supposed “openness” during the emergency, it continued to harass and jail individuals who sought to tell a different story.

The search for the “improvements” and “efforts” continues.

As there are no perceivable signs of improvement on the Sudan/Darfur issue, perhaps the positive developments lie in the Taiwan Strait, where since Taiwan’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government came to power on May 20, tensions have lowered, culminating with the July 4 cross-strait charter flights and the arrival in Taiwan of hundreds of Chinese tourists. Surely Bush and Fukuda are elated at the possibility of peace in one of the world’s hottest “hot spots” for the past half-century, with the two sides finally talking to each other and committing to rapprochement.

But the problem is, that commitment appears to be one-sided. As Taipei gives and gives and gives, distancing itself from its traditional allies to please Beijing and opening its civilian airports — some critical to its military — to Chinese aircraft, Beijing has not done anything which would indicate that it is abandoning its plan to annex Taiwan, by force if necessary. In other words, despite Taiwan’s overtures, Beijing has retained the part of its policy on Taiwan that Washington has long characterized as a red line that cannot be crossed. In fact, not only has China not relinquished the military option, but it has continued to modernize its forces, conducted military drills involving civilian aircraft and airborne paratroopers that bore an ominous resemblance to an operation designed to occupy an airport and, as late as last week, it was reportedly deploying modern versions of Russia-made surface-to-air missiles that now brought Taiwanese airspace within range.

Tibet? Strike. Media freedom? Strike. Human rights? Strike. Sudan? Strike. Taiwan? Strike. Which begs the question: What improvements were Bush and Fukuda referring to? Either the leaders have the worst national security teams in the history of international relations, or, more likely, they simply chose to ignore reality to please Beijing, as everybody else does. Soon enough, other world leaders who in the past months have faced pressure from various groups to shun the Games in light of Beijing’s irresponsible behavior domestically and abroad, will have to decide where they want to be on August 8. Chances are, most will be in Beijing, cheering for the wolves in disguise.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Taipei’s deflecting strategy

With the Taiwanese stock exchange in a freefall and signs that Beijing may not be as indulgent on Taiwan as its negotiators had hoped, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) is in a bind. A little more than one month into the presidency, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and his Cabinet have proven incapable — or unwilling — to implement policies that under such circumstances could appease an increasingly restive population. While the global economic downturn, which is hitting Taiwan hard, cannot be blamed on the KMT government, the latter should nevertheless do more than simply call on Taiwanese to have “faith” — faith that things will get better, that the surge in Chinese tourists coming to Taiwan starting on July 4 will help improve the economy, and that better relations with Beijing will somehow make things right.

But in politics, faith is a dangerous commodity which can get depleted very rapidly — especially when people start losing millions of NT dollars in the stock market and when ordinary families start feeling the brunt of rising commodity prices and see that no action is being taken to help assuage the pain.

Seemingly without a clear strategy and uncomfortably dependent on the vagaries of the regime in Beijing, chances are that the full set of promises the KMT made during the presidential election will soon sound like a rhyme meant to put children to sleep. When that awakening occurs, and when discontent with the administration starts taking a shape other than dropping popularity polls, the government will either have to shift gear — and do so rapidly — or deflect attention elsewhere.

In an article titled "The oldest political trick in the book," published today in the Taipei Times, I explore the KMT’s possible use of that tactic, its historical precedents, and what this may mean for the nation’s future diplomacy.