Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Chinese security chief’s visit kept secret

A visit to Taiwan by Chinese Vice Minister of Public Security Chen Zhimin (陳智敏) and his delegation earlier this month was shrouded in secrecy and intentionally unpublicized, even as talks were held with senior government officials, an investigation by the Taipei Times showed yesterday.

This important story, co-written with my colleague Vincent Y. Chao and others at the Taipei Times, continues here.

It baffles me that no Chinese-language media in Taiwan — including our sister paper, the Liberty Times — has picked up on the story. Some international media have, however, and they all source us:

星島 Sing Tao (Toronto)
Straits Times 
聯合早報 Zao Bao
南洋視界 Nan Yang Post

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Shameless opinion poll shenanigans

It’s no secret that politicians often use opinion polls to support, rather than determine, policy decisions. Knowing this, the public is well advised to always approach such polls released by government agencies with skepticism, as numbers can be massaged to fit predetermined policy, just as intelligence can be used to buttress just about any plan, however frivolous.

One need only turn to an opinion poll on cross-strait relations released on Thursday by the Mainland Affairs Council for a perfect example of a politicized survey masking self-serving purposes.

The third question in the poll — “Stance on status quo, reunification, independence” — seems innocuous enough, until one looks at the answer categories: “Maintaining the status quo in the broadest sense” (86.2 percent), “Maintain the status quo forever” (30.5 percent) and “Maintain the status quo, and then reunify [sic] with the mainland or seek independence” (34.6 percent).

While on the surface there’s nothing wrong here, a hypothetical scenario can enlighten the situation.

Imagine a group of 20 judges is asked to decide whether a man caught stealing a goat should be (a) stoned to death for his crime; (b) allowed to walk free; (c) that further deliberation on the matter is necessary, though the end decision must be death or freedom; or (d) that deliberation should go on indefinitely. Unbeknownst to most but his closest aides, the village chief has already made up his mind and wants execution, no matter what. However, as he rules over a democracy, he orders an opinion poll to give the decision some veneer of legitimacy.

My unsigned editorial, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Six decades of made-up politics

Aside from the business and geopolitical imperatives that stem from the international community’s desire to interact with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), another reason why Taiwan remains in political isolation is that its history and domestic conditions are misunderstood, not only globally, but also in China and by many of the foreign correspondents who cover Taiwan.

Routine references to Taiwan and China “splitting” after the Chinese civil war, for example, or the mention that Taiwan and China have been ruled separately for “more than six decades,” are not only misleading — they are wrong. Beyond failing to get the facts right (disunited entities cannot split, and Taiwan was ruled separately for at least 11 decades, counting Japanese rule), these facile insertions tend to reinforce the view that Taiwan and China are one and the same — or rather, that one ought to be subsumed into the other.

These generalizations also fail to take into account the political fabric of Taiwanese society, which rather than being the monolith it is often portrayed as (a mistake that has equal implications when it comes to coverage of China), is far more complex and diversified.

Ironically, the external view of Taiwanese politics tends to attribute to the 23 million people in Taiwan the position of a tiny minority on the island. This has been the true since Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) forces fled to Taiwan after their defeat by the communists in 1949. Soon afterwards, this government-in-exile imposed itself on Taiwanese and arrogated upon itself the right to rule the 7.39 million people who lived in Taiwan at the time, 1.37 million, or 18.55 percent, of whom were refugees from China.

This op-ed, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Who said China must be ‘rational’?

Data recently released by the nation’s main spy agency, the National Security Bureau (NSB), put a new dent in President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) claims that his administration’s overtures to Beijing have helped reduce tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

Ma’s gambit, though initially hailed by many pundits as a brilliant move, has long puzzled experts who have been unable to account for Beijing’s failure to reciprocate. Indeed, its accelerating military buildup should only exacerbate fears in Taiwan.

The list of threats includes a growing arsenal of short and medium-range missiles that, perhaps even more importantly, are becoming increasingly accurate, as well as cruise missiles deployed further inland. To this we can add, among others, anti-ship ballistic missiles that would threaten any naval fleet coming to Taiwan’s assistance during a conflict and plans to acquire aircraft carriers, which would allow China to encircle Taiwan or extend its area of maritime denial.

While those developments have been apparent for a while, no one has managed to explain why Beijing would engage in what, prima facie, looks like self- defeating behavior. After all, why does China need such a large military, given that it faces no threat of invasion? Rather than reassure its neighbors, Beijing’s military buildup and increasingly aggressive positioning in the region are awakening some to the possibility that the paradigm by which we gauge China’s intentions may have been flawed all along.

There is a precedent for this, in the form of Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) decision to enter the Korean War after US and South Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel. At the time, the consensus in Washington was that Mao, who had just emerged victorious in a protracted and costly civil war against Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) Nationalists, would not expose China’s ruined economy to the risks of armed conflict with the US. This, however, is exactly what he did, and the West was caught off guard because analysts failed to think like a Chinese and assumed “rationalism” in the way it is understood in the West.

Although decision-making in China has become more complex and institutionalized since Mao’s time, this does not mean that how Beijing calculates costs and benefits has entirely changed or that what we think of as “rational” is seen as such at Zhongnanhai. Consequently, what might come across as paradoxical in our eyes could make perfect sense from a Chinese perspective.

We should keep this in mind as Taiwan develops closer economic, cultural and social ties with China. Case in point: The NSB reports that for the first half of this year, Taiwan was the target of 2.38 attacks by Chinese hackers every hour, or 10,346 attacks altogether, accounting for nearly one-third of all attacks directed at the country.

Cross-strait liberalization and “peace” notwithstanding, this shows that as with the military threat, China has maintained its aggressive posture vis-a-vis Taiwan. In turn, this reinforces the view that how decision-makers in Beijing evaluate costs and benefits can differ drastically from our own, resulting in acts that, from a business perspective, may make no sense whatsoever.

In this environment, the more Taiwan opens itself to Chinese investment, the more sectors will be exposed to the threat of espionage by Chinese individuals, firms and government agencies. This may seem equally self-defeating, but the danger to Taiwan, albeit more subtle, is no less severe.

Underfunded though it may be, the Ministry of National Defense has not been deceived by Ma’s window-dressing and continues to warn us about the threat posed by the Chinese military. Let us hope that the NSB and other agencies charged with protecting civilian and corporate infrastructure are equally aware that we are a long way from peace in the Taiwan Strait.

This editorial was published today in the Taipei Times.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Of nukes and men

The recent publication of a memoir by former US negotiator Jeremy Stone re-ignited a controversy last week over alleged plans under the former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) administration to launch a nuclear weapons program.

Stone’s allegations, which ostensibly were sourced from and corroborated post facto by former National Security Council secretary-general Su Chi (蘇起) — who at the time the controversy emerged was a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislator — are hard to substantiate. That the Chen administration, for all its faults, would have engaged in nuclear adventurism stretches credulity. Though it has the technical know-how to do so (and inside sources say a turnaround could take as little as one year), Taiwan could hardly have launched a nuclear weapons program without the US, let alone China, becoming aware of it.

One does not have to read Stone’s self-aggrandizing book too closely to realize that the views of the former president of the Federation of American Scientists-turned-cross-strait-troubleshooter are wildly skewed in Beijing’s favor. Nothing makes this more evident than the many variations he uses to portray the Chen administration as a “troublemaker,” which may account for Stone’s credulity on the alleged nuclear program.

Unbeknownst to Stone, this very bias against Taipei — not his alone, but that of the international community — lies at the very heart of Taiwan’s defense malaise. In fact, the inherent imbalance was the main reason behind this newspaper’s decision, in August 2004, to publish an editorial that put the nuclear option on the table (despite what Su and Stone may believe, however, the Taipei Times did not and does not have a direct line to the Presidential Office or Democratic Progressive Party headquarters).

More than six years have elapsed and the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait has only continued to shift in Beijing’s favor. Furthermore, nuclear-armed China continues to threaten Taiwan, the would-be “troublemaker” who at no point under Chen adopted anything that could have been interpreted as a belligerent posture.

Given that this situation appears to be a comfortable “status quo” for the likes of Stone, is it not conceivable that Taiwanese would ponder various means to oppose China militarily and present it with a credible deterrent? In and of themselves, peace and democracy (which other publications have advocated as the surest defense) will be of little help against an opponent who plays by different rules, as highlighted by Beijing’s refusal to renounce the use of force against Taiwan amid supposedly warming ties. While nuclear weapons may be an extreme recourse — and an unadvisable one at that — Taiwan cannot afford the gullibility that has marked the course adopted by President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration in cross-strait rapprochement.

(Side note: media have repeatedly referred to “warming ties” and “rapprochement” in the Taiwan Strait. It should be noted, howeverm that those “warm ties” have occurred mostly on a party-to-party basis — that is, between the KMT and the CCP — rather than among individuals, which means that any conclusion to the effect that relations between Taiwan and China are peaceful would be premature at best.)

While Ma’s Cabinet has rightly stuck to less problematic, though by no means inconsequential, matters like economics in its dialogue with Beijing, there is no doubt that in the months ahead — especially as we get closer to Chinese President Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) stepping down as head of state — talks will touch on more controversial issues such as identity and sovereignty. Once those topics are tackled, friction is bound to emerge, which could quickly escalate and spin out of control. Any outcome to the 2012 presidential poll in Taiwan that isn’t to China’s taste could also serve as a catalyst for a military option.

In such a situation, Beijing, seeing a weakened opponent, could calculate that it can get away with the use of force at little cost, making military action more likely.

That is why, even amid untested signs of rapprochement, Taiwan must continue to acquire and develop not only the means to protect itself, but solid deterrent capabilities so that any military adventurism on Beijing’s part to fulfill its irredentist dreams would come at great cost. 

A strong Taiwan means less risk of war, not the other way around. Does Taiwan need nuclear weapons for this? Probably not, but it certainly needs more than naivety and Ma sloganeering, and more than the dishonest diplomacy exercised by the likes of Stone.

It is interesting to note that Jeremy Stone is the son of maverick reporter I. F. “Izzy” Stone. 

This unsigned editorial appeared, in slightly different form, in the Taipei Times today.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Sucked into the Chinese Civil War

There is no knowing whether an editorial in the People’s Daily on Friday that for all intents and purposes removed the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) as the principal defender of China against Japanese invasion during World War II was simply out-of-control Chinese nationalism, or a more sinister attempt to blur the lines in the Taiwan Strait.

For years now, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda has played down the KMT’s role in the war of resistance and elevated that of the communists to one that defies the historical record, a form of revisionism that, sadly, continues to be swallowed and reproduced by a number of Western academics, one of the latest being Martin Jacques in his influential book When China Rules the World.

While, for reasons of historical accuracy, the CCP’s claims should be countered with factual information (in many instances, CCP forces avoided directly confronting the Japanese, preserving their strength and weapons for the continuation of the Chinese Civil War after the war), the editorial comes at an odd moment in cross-strait relations, at a time when we would expect Beijing to play nice with the KMT as it gets ever closer to accomplishing the annexation it has long coveted.

At its most innocuous, this could be yet another example of Beijing shooting itself in the foot by failing to rein in its brimming nationalism. That it would downplay the KMT’s leading role in the war against Japan would be par for the course for the Chinese propaganda apparatus. However, that it would ignore the KMT’s role altogether gives the impression that it is attempting to pick a fight, and that it is doing so with an ulterior motive.

This op-ed, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Invading Taiwan through investment

The Financial Supervisory Commission’s rejection last week of a bid by a Hong Kong consortium to acquire Nan Shan Life Insurance Co was a welcome development because it demonstrated the government can, when it wants, protect the interests of Taiwanese.

Commendable though the decision was, however, the outcome was far from certain. The commission’s examination of the bid, spearheaded by China Strategic Holdings and Primus Financial Holdings, took several months and a final decision was delayed a number of times.

Admittedly, the case was a major one, as it affected about 4 million policyholders, 4,000 employees and more than 34,000 insurance agents. Questions surrounding the bidder’s ability to ensure operational continuity at Nan Shan, coupled with uncertainties about the nationality and political connections of the ever-shifting shareholders and board members in the consortium, made the bid an altogether problematic one. Over the months, the many reports prepared by Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Pan Men-an’s (潘孟安) office on the matter were helpful in highlighting the scope of the problem.

Celebrations among those who opposed the deal could be short-lived, however, as the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), which is set to come into force imminently, will usher in a new era of cross-strait investment. The combination of China’s substantial investment power, Beijing’s long-term political objectives via investment in Taiwan, and President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration’s hankering for foreign investment, could present the commission with an insurmountable challenge simply by virtue of the workload it may face.

In other words, even with the best intentions in the world, the commission’s finite resources could be overwhelmed by a sudden bombardment of Chinese investment bids, some of which could be equally, if not more, problematic than the one involving Nan Shan, especially after Taiwan opens more, and increasingly sensitive, sectors to Chinese investment.

It is no secret that under Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) many “private” Chinese companies have either been renationalized, become dependent on loans by state-owned banks or have their board of directors controlled by former or current Chinese Communist Party officials loyal to the party. It is also well known that tracing a Chinese firm’s money to its source or determining who the real decision-makers are, is a daunting task requiring tremendous amounts of effort and time.

The combination of these two phenomena — an upsurge in Chinese investment bids in a number of sectors and the lack of transparency in the Chinese corporate system — could make it impossible for the commission or other regulatory bodies to handle future cases with the same level of professionalism it did throughout the Nan Shan case.

Added to the political pressure from an administration that gets high on good relations with Beijing, the commission could in certain cases be forced to cut corners or, for political considerations, look the other way. Intelligence agencies preparing threat assessment face this dilemma on a daily basis, where finite resources must tell signal from noise and consciously de-prioritize some information. In many instances, mere fatigue amid a constant barrage of threat information makes it possible for important information to slip through the cracks, sometimes with catastrophic outcomes.

There is a very high likelihood, therefore, that some Chinese investments that endanger national security, just as the one for Nan Shan did, will nevertheless be allowed — not because nothing untoward was found or because the threats were not apparent, but because regulatory authorities were overwhelmed.

Taiwan may have won this battle, but this war by other means is far from over.

In all honesty, I never thought I would get to write an editorial about the Nan Shan bid that opens on a celebratory note. Having spent a lot of time researching and writing about the Hong Kong consortium (thanks to Legislator Pan's office sharing documents with me), I am convinced that this was the right decision, especially in light of what I have also discovered in terms of Chinese espionage and the infiltration of the business sector by the CCP. Richard McGregor's book The Party has a good chapter on this. 

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Our soldiers deserve better

The Ministry of National Defense last week took a group of reporters on a tour of the nation’s three military services, an event meant to highlight their ability to defend the nation from foreign aggression.

The visits, which included stops at an air defense base in Chiayi, an Army base in Penghu and a Navy base in Zuoying, Kaohsiung, drove home a few points about the state of the nation’s military: While the services are filled with dedicated men and women, and although every effort was made to showcase their high morale, there is no denying that the equipment they use is aging — fast.

This situation would not be so alarming if Taiwan did not face a strong adversary or was not facing the all-too-real threat of invasion. Nor would it make one apprehensive if the enemy had maintained a pace of modernization similar to that of Taiwan. However, the reality is that the frontline systems presented during the media tour — battle tanks, mine hunters, fighter aircraft — seem increasingly antiquated when compared with the weapons fielded by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in recent years. Some are, in fact, museum pieces kept operational for lack of newer equipment.

From the German-built minehunter ship boarded by reporters and the lone submarine submerging in the distance at Zuoying, to the M60A3 main battle tanks rumbling by on Penghu and the F-16A/Bs firing flares during a simulated air attack in Chiayi, it is becoming clear that despite the impeccable maintenance of those platforms, Taiwan is fast losing its edge in the Taiwan Strait. Even non-military experts could see that.

Despite the scarcity of modern systems acquired by Taiwan in recent years, such as Patriot air defense systems and Apache attack helicopters, which in qualitative terms may still keep up with Chinese equivalents, the balance quickly evaporates when the orders of battle are weighed in quantitative terms. In other words, with few exceptions, both qualitatively and quantitatively, Taiwan is running out of gas while the PLA is rushing ahead at breakneck speed.

Furthermore, since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) came into office, the defense ministry has been ordered to cut back on live fire drills, the utility of which in ensuring military preparedness cannot be compensated for no matter how many computer simulations are held. For three years in a row, the nation’s defense budget as a share of GDP has also fallen and will be just 2.6 percent of GDP next year — this amid very expensive efforts to create a fully professional military by 2015, a goal that increasingly looks like a pipe dream.

The Ma administration has staked its defense posture on the premise that its diplomatic overtures to Beijing will succeed. Though a peaceful approach to conflict resolution is commendable, doing so with China carries far too many unknowns for Taipei to forsake a robust defense. In fact, investment in the military is not antithetical to a diplomatic approach to longstanding tensions in the Taiwan Strait; it is, rather, responsible planning for various — by no means impossible — scenarios.

For the sake of the dedicated men and women, career soldiers and conscripts alike, who every day put their lives on the line to ensure that Taiwan’s way of life continues unthreatened, the Ma administration should get serious about defense and stop pretending that, a mere two years into cross-strait rapprochement, peace in the Taiwan Strait is upon us, or that today’s relative calm will inevitably extend into the future. Our men and women deserve systems and resources that are equal to the immense challenge they would face should confrontation replace diplomacy in a future scenario.

Though for the moment Beijing’s “peaceful” approach appears to be paying dividends, we should be in no doubt that it is equally prepared for a non-­peaceful outcome.

This editorial, based on my two-day tour with the Ministry of National Defense last week, appeared in the Taipei Times on Tuesday.