Thursday, October 30, 2008

Who is DPA reporting for?

On Oct. 24, the Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA) wire agency reported that the Taiwanese stock exchange, the TAIEX, had dropped nearly 3 percent as a result of a mass rally organized by (as it put it) the “right wing” and “separatist” Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) for Oct. 25. What the DPA failed to mention, however, was that on the same day, every single stock market in Asia was down, with much more serious drops recorded in Japan (7 percent) and South Korea (9 percent).

No stock analyst worth his weight, let alone critical thinkers, would ever link the drops across Asia with the demonstration in Taipei. It would be equally preposterous to think that the drop in the TAIEX was a result of the demonstration, given that the Taiwanese bourse was being driven down by regional and global trends that had begun weeks earlier. Still, in its report, DPA was establishing a direct correlation between “separatist extremism” and a sagging stock exchange. (Surely, if the demonstration had been such a big deal, the drop in the TAIEX would have been more severe, not less, than in other Asian bourses.)

This highly creative — and downright false — reporting was preparing the terrain for yet another piece of confabulation published today by DPA. This time around, however, the TAIEX was up more than 6 percent, and the wire agency was tying it to … “positive signs in Taiwan-China ties” ahead of “important dialogue from Nov. 3 to Nov. 7 to discuss expanding ties” and a seemingly “goodwill gesture” by Beijing in allowing Taiwan to send former KMT chairman Lien Chan (連戰) as its representative to the APEC Forum in Lime, Peru, next month. (A “goodwill” gesture it certainly isn’t, as the pro-China Lien has visited China on a number of occasions, met its leaders, and is on good terms with Chinese President Hu Jintao, who will also attend the Forum.)

Once again, the DPA failed to provide context and to mention that markets across Asia were climbing sharply, with the bourse in Hong Kong shooting up 12.8 percent, Tokyo almost 10 percent and Seoul 12 percent. Australia, Singapore and the Philippines added 4 percent or more, while Russia's two main indices were also up sharply.

If we were to follow the DPA’s logic, those markets would have been reacting to the so-called “positive ties” between Taipei and Beijing, an altogether farcical proposition. Asian markets were up for a number of reasons, including a US interest cut and a currency deal with South Korea. Like any other bourse, the TAIEX was simply following the trend and, unlike what the DPA would have us believe, the rise had little to do with politics.

As many foreign agencies did when the DPP was in power, the tendency continues to be to discredit the pan-greens on the economy. Back then, the DPP was “mismanaging” the economy, and now that it is in the opposition, its demonstrations are drawing down the stock market. It seems that no matter what the DPP does, it isn’t good for the economy.

Did anyone say bias in the KMT’s — and unification’s — favor?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Rise, o ye Taiwanese youth!

Visitors to this site are well aware that it does not condone, let alone promote, violence, regardless of whether the topic is the “war” on terrorism, the Taiwan Strait, Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, Iran or Iraq. But what The Far-Eastern Sweet Potato does applaud, however, is defense against aggression, especially when a people faces aggression by a stronger opponent (e.g., Palestinians versus Israelis, Taiwanese versus Chinese).

In "Wanted: angrier Taiwanese youth," published today in the Taipei Times, I argue that Taiwan — especially its youth — needs to be far more aggressive, if not angry, in the defense of its sovereignty and democracy, as it faces a formidable opponent that is anything but unmotivated and has expressed its readiness to use violence against Taiwan.

An apolitical, pampered youth living in luxury and altogether disconnected from the traumas of the country’s not-too-distant past is not only ill-prepared to meet the challenge that one day could threaten the very existence of the nation, but also sends a signal to Beijing that Taiwanese simply do not care enough to defend their land.

[中文譯] 徵求:更憤怒的台灣年輕人 courtesy of E.M.E. available here.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

What if the Taipei-Beijing courtship failed?*

The election in March of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in Taiwan on Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) economic platform and vow to improve relations with Beijing has led many to believe that the threat of war in the Taiwan Strait — a war that most assuredly would suck in the US military — has receded. Surely, many argued, with weekend cross-strait direct charter flights, intensifying economic integration, a greater number of Chinese allowed to visit Taiwan, KMT-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) meetings and other conciliatory measures, the tensions that characterized the eight years under the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party administration of president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and the last term of the Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) presidency from 1996-2000, were a thing of the past.

Even Washington, overtly critical of former president Chen’s efforts to create international space for Taiwan, welcomed Ma’s “modus vivendi” with China and regarded his administration’s efforts as a way out of decades of uncomfortable, and at times dangerous, “status quo.” While that optimism didn’t prevent Washington in early October from agreeing to sell Taipei US$6.5 billion in weapons, including PAC-3 missile defense systems and AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopters, the sigh of relief could be heard across the Pacific.

In Beijing, which has always regarded Taiwan as a renegade province and threatened to use force should the latter declare formal independence, Ma’s election in March was construed as Taiwanese’s recognition, however belated, that the island belongs to China. Celebrating the DPP’s abysmal showing in the legislative and presidential elections (the vote was closely watched on Chinese television), as well as scandals surrounding senior DPP officials as well as the Chen family in recent months, Beijing toned down its rhetoric on Taiwan while remaining intransigent in its stance on the island’s status, as demonstrated by its continued opposition to Taiwan’s bids to join multilateral organizations such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization.

While it is true that political tensions across the Taiwan Strait are at their lowest in more than a decade — since 1949, in fact, when the KMT was defeated by the CCP and fled to Taiwan — Beijing’s reading of the significance of the latest presidential election in Taiwan, and its equating it with a desire by Taiwanese to “reunite” with China, carries with it the seeds of future conflict. Part of this misreading could very well be the result of Beijing’s lack of experience with democracy.

Taipei and Beijing are currently courting each other, but if the budding relationship were sour and Beijing’s “love” was unrequited, there is no telling how the CCP, whose legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese is to a great extent contingent on its ability to “reunite” Taiwan, would react. Chances are its response would be of a belligerence that goes beyond the military exercises and firing of missiles off Taiwan’s coast it carried out in 1996, when Taiwan, China and the US ostensibly came the closest to trading blows since the 1950s.

Already there are signs that Ma’s efforts could fail. For one, his administration’s handling of the impact the global economic crisis has had on Taiwan, and more recently on the melamine-tainted Chinese products that entered the Taiwanese market, has led to accusations by many — including former president Lee — of incompetence, while its aloof response to devastation caused by two typhoons earlier this year has alienated many.

Furthermore, the Ma administration embarked on its peace bid with haste and has bent over backwards to please Beijing in a matter that, in the eyes of many, has threatened to undermine the sovereignty of Taiwan and the rights of its 23 million people. Making things worse has been the lack of transparency in the cross-strait negotiations, which has raised apprehensions that decisions on fundamental issues are being made without the consent, or even knowledge, of Taiwanese, which goes against the principles of democracy Taiwanese fought so hard to achieve, and which distinguishes their political
system from the authoritarianism that prevails across the strait.

Ma and his running mate, Vice President Vincent Siew (蕭萬長), won the March election with 58.45 percent of the votes, or 7.65 million ballots, to the DPP candidates’ 41.55 percent, or 5.44 million votes. A substantial number of those who voted for Ma did so because they believed the KMT would do better than the DPP on the economic front. In other words, the economy, rather than rapprochement or “reunification” with China, was the principal factor in their voting decision.

What this means is that in addition to the great majority of DPP voters who oppose unification with China, we can expect that a not inconsiderable proportion of those who voted for the KMT is also against unification — especially if it did not come about as negotiations between equals, something Taiwanese have always set as a prerequisite for any talks on the matter.

Thus, fears that the Ma administration is giving too much, too quickly, compounded by its failure to deliver on its economic promises, are threatening to undermine the government, whose popularity has plummeted since it assumed power in May. At this rate, it is unlikely that the KMT will be reelected in 2012, which could not only mean the return of a pro-independence party to power, but would severely compromise the KMT’s ability to implement its peace initiative.

Meanwhile, a mass rally against Ma and his pro-China policies is being organized for Saturday (see map, left), while Zhang Mingqing (張銘清), the vice chairman of Beijing’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait — the main instrument of cross-strait negotiation — who was in Taiwan this week, faced protests on Monday and was “pushed” to the ground by protesters while visiting a Confucian temple in the southern city of Tainan on Tuesday.

Peace in the Taiwan Strait will not come easy, and if the current initiative gets sidetracked, what comes next could have serious implications for peace and stability in East Asia.

* Readers in Taiwan should be aware that this article is intended for a wider audience and includes information that may seem redundant to them.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The dangerous politics of ethnicity

Little did I know when I sat down to write an article about the dangers of using the “ethnic” card in cross-strait relations that, days later, vice chairman of China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) Zhang Mingqing (張銘清), in Taiwan for a visit, would be “pushed” to the ground by demonstrators during a visit at a Confucian temple in Tainan. Reacting to the incident, Beijing officials said Zhang, who shortly afterwards announced he would cut short his visit to Taiwan and return to China today, was “violently attacked by some extremists, seriously violating his safety and dignity” and expressed “strong indignation and condemnation at this type of uncivilized behavior,” demanding “severe punishment of the culprits.”

Leaving aside the fact that the “uncivilized behavior” the Chinese spokesperson was deploring occurs on a state-sanctioned daily basis throughout China and involves acts of violence that go far beyond shoving, it remains that such incidents (and I do not condone, in any way, shape or form the use of violence to achieve political ends) could play into the hands of demagogues on either side of the Taiwan Strait who seek to turn the conflict into one of “ethnicity,” with China and “Chinese compatriots in Taiwan” — in other words Taiwanese who are in favor of “unification” — on one side, and Taiwanese who oppose it on the other.

As I argue in "Danger in playing ethnicity card," published today in the Taipei Times, this road can only lead to catastrophe and, somewhere down the road, could in the extreme invite a military attack against Taiwan, under the guise of the Chinese military seeking to help its “ethnic” kin and/or restore order, for which there are many historical precedents worldwide.

However minor the incident (it wasn’t the “violent attack” the Chinese spokesperson claimed it was) involving Zhang on Tuesday, the pan-green camp and Taiwanese across the political spectrum should quickly condemn the use of violence and thereby retain the moral high ground. Some could argue that the Chinese, what with their constant threat of invasion, military exercises simulating an assault on Taiwan, firing of missiles off the waters of Taiwan in 1996 and unflagging repression of Taiwanese, had it coming. But violence can only breed more violence and takes us down a dangerous path — one that encourages the reliance on, and feeds off, the “ethnic” card.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

PRC spooks back in Taiwan

In July this year, Taiwan’s Government Information Office (GIO) announced, among other policy relaxations, the resumption of the posting of Xinhua News Agency and People’s Daily correspondents in Taiwan, the “first step in implementing President Ma Ying-jeou’s [馬英九] policy to normalize the process for correspondents from the two sides of the Taiwan Strait to carry out newsgathering activities in each other’s territories.”

Queried on the matter on July 17, Mainland Affairs Council Vice Chairman Johnnason Liu (劉德勳) said that Xinhua reporters had not been suspended from Taiwan in 2005 because of “hostile” reporting on Taiwan following China’s enactment of the Anti-Secession Law, but rather because their reporting was “extremely divergent from the actual facts.”

But the situation now, Liu said, is “slightly different,” likely a reference to the rapprochement between the Ma administration and Beijing, adding that “the executive agencies cannot request the media to do reporting or to make guarantees for their reports, [as] this is an absolute precondition of media freedom.” Absolutely.

The problem, however, lies less with whether Xinhua, as a state-owned news agency, will provide skewed reporting on Taiwan (it will), and more with the fact that it serves as a cover for Chinese intelligence officers — something any intelligence agency with counter-intelligence capabilities will tell you. In fact, according to an unnamed Western intelligence service with a solid reputation for its counter-intelligence efforts against the People’s Republic of China (PRC), officials always assume that any new Xinhua reporter posted to the country either works for or colludes with Chinese intelligence. Given the situation in the Taiwan Strait, there is no reason to assume that the function of Xinhua in Taiwan would be any different.

As per new regulations, Chinese correspondents will be given one-time permits valid for three months that can be extended once for three months after getting approval by government agencies concerned. Chinese correspondents already posted in Taiwan will also be able to apply for an extension if the requirement arises. GIO Minister Vanessa Shih (史亞平) also said that to make the application process more convenient for Chinese correspondents, renewable entry and exit permits valid for one year will be issued.

With a greater influx of Chinese coming to Taiwan following the Ma administration’s new policies, the return of Xinhua reporters (and perhaps, starting next year, the arrival of Chinese students at Taiwan’s universities), Beijing finds itself in a far better position to collect intelligence on Taiwan’s defense, command-and-control, communication, emergency preparedness, media and civilian infrastructure. We can also expect Xinhua to establish list of names from the opposition and to be present at any anti-Ma demonstrations organized by the pan-green camp, including the one planned for Oct. 25.

“Reciprocity” and media “freedom” are a deceit, as they continue to be conspicuously absent on China’s part. Through this measure, however, the Ma administration has ensured, by design or omission, that names and pictures of various opposition figures in Taiwan will be circulated in Beijing’s vast intelligence apparatus.

Perhaps we’d better find out who they are and what they look like…

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A world transformed: Why Taiwan gets its weapons

Less than a month ago, with the US Congress set to go into recess, very few but the overly optimistic would have ventured that Taiwan would get the go-ahead from Washington to buy the series of weapons it has long sought to obtain. In fact, most analysts were of the opinion that the “arms freeze” on Taiwan would soon congeal into something long-term, if not permanent.

Then, on October 3, Washington announced that it had given the green light on US$6.5 billion in weapons sales to Taiwan, including AH-64D Apache helicopters, PAC-3 air defense systems, Javelin anti-tank missile systems, submarine-launched Harpoon anti-ship missiles, as well as F-16 and E-2T parts. (Not released, however, were UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and 66 F-16C/D aircraft.)

Washington’s decision took most by surprise, not the least Beijing, which after months of being led to believe, based on its reading of the signals coming from Washington, that the US had finally agreed to China’s interpretation of the so-called “one China” principle, lashed out in anger, threatening “grave” consequences for US-China relations. (Rather than agree with Beijing on Taiwan's status, the “arms freeze” was more the result of US unwillingness or inability to spark a new arms race in Asia, where its allies must remain weak enough military to require a permanent US military presence, as with Japan and South Korea, or over-the-horizon US capabilities, as with Taiwan. Weapons sales to Taiwan could propel the Chinese authorities into an acceleration of the already rapid modernization of their military, which in turn could force countries in the region to address their new insecurity by purchasing, developing and deploying more arms. Should such a situation obtain, to maintain hegemonic primacy, the US would have no choice but to invest heavily in its military presence in the Asia Pacific in order to retain its comparative advantage. For more on this, see “Hegemonism behind 'arms freeze,'” Taipei Times, Aug. 1.)

While Washington’s about-face may have seemed sudden and out of character for an administration that, since 2003, had shunned Taipei, it makes sense if it is taken in context, which itself has changed dramatically in the past few months. Although there were some, like US-Taiwan Business Council Chairman and former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, who back in July would tell journalists in Taipei that US President George W. Bush had made a promise to Taiwan and that, as a man of his word, he would deliver on that promise — comments that, in other words, hinted at foreknowledge of Washington’s true intentions — it is likelier that the volte-face was the result of a rapid world transformation over the past few months.

Though seemingly isolated from one another, the following factors are nevertheless bound to influence decision-making at the strategic level. They are as follows:

Russia’s invasion of Georgia and the beginning of a new “Cold War”: As I argued in “The wider implications of Georgia” (Taipei Times, Aug. 19), Moscow’s and Beijing’s reaction to US/NATO encirclement, and the opposition to US hegemonism they share with countries like Iran, Syria and Venezuela, is creating a new quasi Cold War, with two main blocs that are, however, less ideologically-driven than during the conflict that from 1949 until 1989 pitted the East against the West. While the divide had been apparent for some time (at the UN Security Council, for example), it took Russia’s intervention in South Ossetia in August to underscore just how wide the chasm had grown. As the world aligns itself into two camps (the West and the “objectors”), Washington is bound to seek to reinforce its regional allies, just as it did during the Cold War. In Asia, this means Japan, India (last month’s landmark nuclear deal is a clear indicator), South Korea — and yes, Taiwan.

North Korea’s change of heart on disarmament: The connection may have appeared tenuous when I raised the possibility in late September (“Beijing’s ‘North Korea’ card no ace, Taipei Times, Sept. 29), but it would now appear, as Defense News Asia chief Wendell Minnick himself pointed out on Oct. 6, that Washington felt it had been let down by Beijing in the North Korea nuclear disarmament talks. The timing is too conspicuous for there not to be a connection. After making his “whatever it takes” pledge to Taiwan in 2001, Bush’s tone changed in 2003, just as the six-party talks with Pyongyang were beginning, for which Washington needed Beijing’s help. Many, as I have, argued that the US’ snub of Taiwan had more to do with its need for Beijing to facilitate the talks than with Washington’s antipathy toward the pro-separatist and “troublemaker” Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). With Pyongyang reneging on disarmament and reopening of the Yongbyon facility, Beijing’s influence on US decision-making may have been severely weakened, and Taiwan may no longer be useful as a bargaining chip. (It remains to be seen what impact the US decision over the weekend to remove North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, in exchange for the resumption of nuclear inspections, will have on the regional dynamics. If past history is any indication, Pyongyang will comply for a while and then find something else to justify a new round of brinkmanship. Despite this latest development, Beijing’s influence over, and usefulness in the talks with Pyongyang appears to have diminished.)

US presidential election: Regardless of the outcome of next month’s elections, if the Bush administration had left office with an “arms freeze” in place it would have become the baseline for future relations with Beijing, whereas agreeing to the arms sale maintains the status quo and provides the next administration with more flexibility on the China-Taiwan question.

The global economic crisis: For some decision-makers and influential parties in Washington, conflict is a positive development; it distracts the population from fears of a tumbling Wall Street and fuels the defense industry. Faced with the current economic crisis, Washington would be hard pressed to explain to the military-industrial complex why it cannot deliver US$6.5 billion in weapons to its old ally Taiwan. Lobbying by Congress, the defense industry (perhaps even Mr. Wolfowitz, who remains a very influential individual) and states with major defense manufacturers must have shifted into high gear since Wall Street took a hit. At this point in time, if selling weapons to Taiwan means creating jobs and bringing money into the US, Washington will give the okay.

Sino-Taiwanese rapprochement: As the Congressional Research Service (CRS) indicated in a report last week, many in Washington are becoming wary of Taipei’s rapprochement with Beijing since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) came into office in May. A Taiwan that becomes “Finlandized” (another reference to the Cold War, this time to Finland’s relations with the Soviet Union during the Cold War), or gets too close to Beijing, would be detrimental to US strategic positioning in the Pacific. Though the Ma Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) administration’s peace bid with China is partly of Washington’s making (through overt US favoritism during the elections in March, which put the Democratic Progressive Party at a marked disadvantage), some in the Bush administration have begun to fear that the Frankenstein monster has gotten out of control and needs to be brought back into line. Selling weapons to Taiwan could be such an instrument, as it is sure to rekindle the “status quo” (pardon the oxymoron) in the Taiwan Strait by infuriating Beijing (Ma, meanwhile, would be hard pressed to refuse the weapons at this point).

Washington’s “sudden” decision wasn’t made on a whim, nor is it illogical, however radical a departure it may seem to be from its policy in the past five years. It is, rather, a response to the new strategic realities that have emerged in succession over the past few months. It has, I fear, little to do with preserving Taiwan’s democracy, and much with a grand chessboard, to use Brzezinski’s coinage, that has been dramatically reshuffled.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

C$18.1 billion later

The report is out. Every Canadian household is paying C$1,500 to support a military operation that, by any yardstick, is failing fast — or not so fast, given the seven years that the US, Canada and NATO have been in Afghanistan. Kevin Page, the Canadian parliamentary budget officer who inked the report on the cost of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan, admits that the C$18.1 price tag expected by 2011 could even be higher, as some agencies have provided what is, at best, inaccurate accounting, while others (which shall remained unnamed because of their unofficial role in Afghanistan) are probably even more opaque.

Inarguably, the US was distracted in Afghanistan by its ill-timed misadventure in Iraq in 2003, but even if that strategic blunder hadn’t occurred, Afghanistan today would likely still be a mess, with a resurgent Taliban, a porous border with tribal areas in Pakistan and poppy cultivation booming. In fact, seven years on, Iraq or not the dire warnings by Pentagon officials that next year could be “even worse” for Afghanistan would not be unfeasible.

The quagmire is not for lack of good intentions — it’s just plain bad planning and atrocious communication within the coalition. No clear end goals have been set, other than “bringing democracy,” “fighting terrorism” and “rebuilding the country” — all noble goals, except that there are no benchmarks to determine success and the one condition that could make the above possible — negotiating with the Taliban — has been ruled out by the US and most other countries. So the catchphrases remain broad objectives that cannot be met, and even on the rare occasions when clear benchmarks were set, as the Department of National Defense and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) established for their Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Kandahar, those remained local and were not part of a comprehensive, country-wide effort, which means that whatever objective was met failed to have an influence at the strategic level, where the “rehabilitation” of the country lies.

The bungled intervention and failure to deliver on initial promises has now made matters even worse and embittered a large part of the Afghan population whose hearts and minds the West was so intent on winning in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001. This long string of failures, added to costly mistakes by NATO and the US, has cost countless Afghan lives, given the Taliban time to regroup and turned an insurgency into a regional catastrophe by sucking in Pakistan in a way that al-Qaeda and the Taliban would never have dreamed of seven years ago.

While, compared with the trillion-dollar war the US has waged in Iraq, C$18.1 billion might not seem much, for a country like Canada, whose military is but a tiny fraction of the US’, the bill is a heavy one, especially when one takes into account that Canada’s participation in the Afghan fiasco probably has undermined, as I argue in my book Smokescreen, Canadian security and made it a likelier target for retaliation, either against its troops in Afghanistan or Canadian interests worldwide, including at home. Furthermore, Canada’s image as a peace-loving country, with a rich tradition of peacekeeping, has also been tarnished and given many of its critics ammunition in their accusations that Ottawa is at best a puppet of the US, at worst a willing participant in the US empire.

Close to 100 Canadian soldiers have died serving in Afghanistan. Its security has been undermined. Afghanistan is still a mess and will remain so by 2011, when Ottawa has said it will bring the troops back home (as might many others, which means that the only thing the Taliban has to do is wait another two years before it can fill the vacuum left by departing troops). Had Canadians known how things would turn out, few are those who would have accepted to foot the bill with their taxes.

But it’s not too late to set clear goals and do what the coalition should have done years ago — negotiate. Only by doing this would the West have a shadow of a chance to turn things around, avoid further misery and, perhaps, make 2011 a year by which real progress can be observed. Only by doing this and setting clear goals can the C$1,500 that every Canadian household will have paid (not to mention the lives lost on both sides) be an investment rather than a waste.