Wednesday, November 30, 2011

PLA sets up strategic planning department

Creation of the department formalizes what has been a longstanding and personalized ad hoc arrangement

China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) announced on 22 November that it had set up a strategic planning department aimed at providing guidance for increasingly modern and sophisticated military operations.

According to PLA analysts, the move is seen as a very important and long-awaited initiative, especially in linking policy planning and weapons development. It is ostensibly in response to increasingly sophisticated military operations that could involve multiple combat forces and headquarters.

My article, published on Nov. 29 in Jane’s Defence Weekly, continues here (subscription required).

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Chinese academic claims South China Sea holds no ‘high seas’

The rhetoric on the South China Sea in official Chinese media is becoming increasingly strident. But do those editorials really reflect Beijing’s policy?

An op-ed in the Chinese-language editions of People’s Daily and Global Times says there are no international waters in the South China Sea and that China should act with strength to repel US interference in the contested area.

In the article, which appeared last week, Pan Guoping (潘國平), a law professor at China’s Southwest University of Law and Politics, disputes the claim that the South China Sea comprises gonghai (公海), or “high seas,” as the term is translated in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

According to Article 86 of the convention, “high seas” refer to “all parts of the sea that are not included in the exclusive economic zone [EEZ], in the territorial sea or in the internal waters of a State, or in the archipelagic waters of an archipelagic State.”

By denying the presence of high seas in the South China Sea, China would deny freedom of navigation and use of airspace to other countries over the entire area, which Pan made clear.

“The United States is only a passer-by in the South [China] Sea ... As a country that has no sea coast in the region, does the United States have freedom of navigation and flight in the South [China] Sea? The answer is no! There is no international water in the South [China] Sea,” he wrote.

“China should act with stronger force ... to resolutely repel [US] interference, defend China’s nine-dotted line area that history has bestowed to us,” Pan wrote, referring to the large U-shaped swathe of territory claimed by China that encompasses most of the South China Sea.

My article, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here, with more on Chinese saber rattling, confirmation by Vietnam that China used force in 1974 over disputed islets, and the launch of a strategic planning department within the PLA.

A new Cold War looms in East Asia

The current dynamics in the Asia-Pacific region are making it likelier that states will engage in zero-sum behavior

Australian Minister for Defence Stephen Smith last week announced that Canberra would “seriously” consider the possibility of holding trilateral military exercises with China and the US; a move that, in a perfect world, would probably make sense.

However, the world is far from perfect, and Smith’s idea, which Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono purportedly raised with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the ASEAN summit in Bali the week before, fails to take current realities into account.

Live-fire exercises involving the US in the Asia-Pacific symbolize a key role for Washington in a region that China considers its own backyard. Rather than seek to reinforce the legitimacy of a US military role in Asia, Beijing has worked effortlessly to undermine such a role, mostly by dealing with its neighbors on a bilateral basis. This has been one of the principal reasons for the failure of regional powers to resolve long-standing tensions in the South China Sea, with Beijing refusing to participate in multilateral negotiations on the matter.

The recent announcement that the US could deploy as many as 2,500 marines at a base in Darwin, Australia, is likely to make Beijing even less inclined to give its seal of approval to such a relationship, as the deployment is anathema to China’s desire for a reduced US presence in what is rapidly becoming a key geopolitical and economic region.

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

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Friend or foe? Canada is a target of Chinese espionage

Stating the fact may be politically and economically inconvenient, but the reality remains that China has been, is, and will continue to be a major intelligence threat to Canada

The scandal surrounding the flirtatious e-mails from MP Bob Dechert, a parliamentary secretary to Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, to the Xinhua News Agency Toronto bureau chief appears to have awakened the Canadian public — and it is hoped, official — to the risk of greater engagement with China.

However, the risks associated with that bilateral relationship transcend political affiliation, and did not begin with Mr. Dechert’s first electronic indiscretion. Canada may not be China’s top priority for espionage activity, but as a highly industrialized economy with an abundance of natural resources, it nevertheless possesses a number of items that are of interest to Beijing. Only when those areas are identified will Canada’s counterintelligence authorities be able to determine the appropriate countermeasures that need to be implemented.

My article appears on page 14 of the current issue of FrontLine Security magazine.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

It’s conspiracy season in Taiwan

With key elections coming, wild conspiracies are starting to circulate among the public. Skepticism is in order, but this does not mean we should not be paying attention

I have, on occasion, made the case that Palestinians and Taiwanese have several things in common, including the refusal by the international community to recognize their nation and statehood, an irredentist threat from a more powerful neighbor, and the perception that their predicament is inconvenient for the powers that be.

Like analogies, this is an imperfect one. For one, Taiwanese have not, for a number of reasons, chosen the path of violence to advance their cause and are, in many respects, far better off that Palestinians, despite the ever-present threat of an invasion by China.

However, this is another aspect that unites, if only symbolically, the two peoples: the preponderance of conspiracy theories that circulate among the punditry. The Arab world in general has long been animated by conspiracy theories concerning US and Israeli designs upon their resources and territories, assassination plots and so on.

A lot of this talk in the so-called “Arab street” tends to be speculative, with little grounding in reality, but not all those theories are wrong. What has been difficult for observers of the Middle East is extracting truth from the noise for the real information. To a large extent, the same applies to Taiwan, a reality that imposes upon people with real information on plots in the making a serious handicap in terms of credibility and the willingness of external actors to take them seriously, let alone intervene on their behalf.

Conspiracies usually thrive in environments characterized by fear, uncertainty and secrecy on the part of the stronger opponent, conditions that apply to a large extent to the Arab side in the Middle East, and to Taiwan as well. A history of repression by the stronger side also aliments conspiracy making, again an element that is relevant to Taiwan — twice so, in fact, if we take both the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and China as the oppressors.

Conspiracy season is upon us again, with the presidential and legislative election just around the corner. Not only is the race a very close one, but the outcome is seen by many as a pivotal point in Taiwan’s history, one that will determine whether Taiwan remains a distinct, sovereign state, or one that slowly but inexorably drifts ever closer to domination by China. Needless to say, the apprehension has reached feverish levels on the pan-green side, which expects the KMT — perhaps with help from Beijing, which would rather President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) be re-elected than see the Democratic Progressive Party re-enter the Presidential Office — to use a variety of underhanded means to ensure victory.

Representatives from the pan-green camp have already intimated to me, and presumably others, some plots they believe may be in the making. In such instances, one is counseled to take the information with skepticism. What is interesting is that the people I interacted with were already aware they were facing a credibility gap, the direct product of a culture that has allowed conspiracy theories to spread like brushfire.

When faced with such a situation, what one must pay attention to is the specificity of the information. Vague plots, those with no setting, timing, means or actors, can usually be discarded out of hand. Another important element is whether the information can be corroborated, meaning that it is obtained from more than one source (those two factors are at the core of the matrices used by intelligence agencies to assess the reliability of information in their possession, and should apply to a similar degree to the journalistic profession).

With this in mind, one piece of information that has been communicated to me in recent weeks makes me pause, as I’ve heard it more than once from more than one source. Even more importantly is how specific that information was. Starting about a month ago, I began hearing chatter about the possibility that the KMT, if defeated in January, would manufacture a crisis that would ultimately “force” the government to annul the results of the election. Back then such information remained in the “vague” and “unreliable” categories, failing as it did to provide setting, timing, means or actors (the age-old who, what, where, when).

Weeks later, however, I met individuals who did have specifics — not all of them, mind you, but enough to give the creature of conspiracy a little more flesh around the bone, as it were. And remember: I’ve been told this more than once, by more than one source. By no means should this be interpreted as meaning that the information is real, though it certainly makes it somewhat more credible and worthy of our attention.

The timing is Ma’s concession speech. The location is presumably the Presidential Office or Ma’s campaign headquarters, with a crowd nearby. The means — and this is where things become very specific — is one or more hand grenades “without a metallic casing,” which is enough to cause bodily harm while keeping destructiveness to a minimum. The only questions left unanswered for the moment are the nature of the actor (on the pan-blue side, presumably, or someone associated with China) and the actual target of the attack (Ma, an aide, or the crowd).

As to what happens next, well…

Task force working on cross-strait CBM: source

Officials all denied knowledge of the alleged task force, while opponents of the Ma administration warn of the risks that under him, military CBMs with China could be signed under a one China framework

Soon after assuming office in 2008, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) established a “military confidence-building mechanism” (CBM) task force at the suggestion of then-National Security Council (NSC) secretary-general Su Chi (蘇起), a body that continues to function to this day, a source said.

From its inception, the task force was reportedly headed by Lieutenant General Lee Hsiang-chou (李翔宙), then-deputy dean of National Defense University (NDU), with Major General Tsao Hsiung-yuan (曹雄源), then the head of the school’s Graduate Institute of Strategic Studies, acting as deputy, said the source, who is affiliated with the Ministry of National Defense.

The task force was reportedly charged with evaluating and fleshing out a framework for Taiwan to establish military CBMs with China.

The Chinese-language United Evening News reported in August that Lee Hsiang-chou was highly trusted by the ministry and had been assigned to conduct research on certain “highly sensitive” national security issues, including a CBM with China.

The reports said Minister of National Defense Kao Hua-chu (高華柱) had specifically requested that Lee Hsiang-chou, who represented the ministry in communications with the NSC, apprise himself of developments on the CBM issue.

My article, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here, with responses from various current and former government officials, including Su Chi.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Fear descends upon the elections

Sources within the DPP have said that out of concern for Tsai Ing-wen’s personal safety, the presidential candidate is unlikely to campaign in Kinmen and Matsu

Although it is too early to tell whether a telephone threat to Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) presidential campaign office yesterday was the real deal, there are already indications that fear and intimidation could become an important ingredient in the January presidential election.

An unidentified man, who called twice, allegedly threatened to set Tsai’s office in Banciao (板橋), New Taipei City (新北市), ablaze. Tsai’s staff, who immediately called police, said it was the first time the office had received threatening calls.

While Tsai said she would not be intimidated by such threats, close advisers have admitted that fears for her personal safety are imposing limits on the type of campaigning she will be able to do in the lead-up to the Jan. 14 polls.

One example of this is the DPP’s campaign team’s purported decision to skip Kinmen and Matsu, despite the role Tsai played in the opening of the “small three links” with China under former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) administration in January 2001.

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

Monday, November 21, 2011

Do we need a Canadian CIA?

The Harper government shouldn't spend money on foreign intelligence if it doesn't plan to heed it

At a time when Ottawa is instructing federal agencies to trim their budgets, the Conservative government is reportedly contemplating expanding the Canadian Security Intelligence Service's mandate to allow it to engage in intelligence collection abroad, a measure that would signify additional costs and whose returns are by no means certain.

At the heart of the problem lies Section 16 of the CSIS Act, which contains a clause — "within Canada" — that has long cast a shadow on the agency's ability to operate abroad. The government wants to do away with that constraint, arguing that new imperatives, such as international terrorism and Chinese espionage, require that CSIS have the same powers to spy on people abroad as it does within Canada.

Now, it is an ill-kept secret that, thanks to built-in flexibility in the mandate, CSIS is already conducting operations abroad, sometimes in some of the world's most dangerous places. What a revamped mandate would signify is that CSIS would be able to engage in more such activities, or feel less like a criminal when it does so. Arguably, such intensification in espionage abroad would imply additional costs related to training and deployment, among others, which goes counter to the government's budget cuts plan. What this would create, in fact, is justification for CSIS to ask for more money.

My op-ed, published today in the Ottawa Citizen, continues here.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Funding for observers allegedly delayed

The decision has fueled speculation that the Ma administration is nervous about the outcome of the elections and does not want to lose face in the presence of foreign observers

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) has allegedly postponed all funding for groups of international academics who had applied to come to Taiwan to monitor the January elections, sources said yesterday.

In one case, a group of four academics from Australia that obtained approval more than a month ago was informed by officials at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Canberra on Thursday that the grant would be postponed until late January, meaning that it would be made available only after the elections.

For that delegation, funding was to cover accommodation for four nights and five days through the Jan. 14 elections, as well as airfares. The members of the delegation were informed about the decision in writing.

According to one source knowledgeable of the affair, the decision came from “high up” at the ministry and “all delegations,” including those from the US and Europe, were also reportedly informed that funding deals were postponed.

My article, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Strange structures in Gobi perplex China-watchers

Experts are struggling to explain the purpose of a series of large structures in the Gobi desert, but all the evidence points towards bombing practice sites

Unidentified structures spotted by satellites on the borders of Xinjiang and Gansu Province, China, and posted on the Google Earth Internet service recently are giving rise to speculation about possible military activity, reports say.

The vast structures, all situated in parts of the Gobi used by China for its military, nuclear and space programs, have puzzled analysts. The imagery also leaves unanswered questions over whether the structures are dug in or painted.

Some of the sites observed are situated less than 160km from Jiuquan, where China’s space program and its launchpads are located. The Ding Xin military airbase, where China is believed to conduct classified aircraft tests, is 640km from some of the sites.

One picture taken in 2007 shows an aggregate of orange blocks the size of shipping containers arranged in a circle, with three military aircraft occupying the center. A more recent satellite sweep of the area shows the blocks scattered as far as 4.8km from the site.

Another image shows a series of metallic squares littered with what appears to be the debris of exploded vehicles, lending credibility to claims that some of the structures are used for gunnery or airstrike practice. Other structures consist of kilometers-long grids.

With the Lop Nur nuclear test site located about 600km away from some of the structures, some experts have suggested the latter could be optical test ranges for missiles simulating the street grids of cities, with some speculating that this could be a replica of a Washington street layout. Others posit that the grids could be used for satellite calibration.

My article, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

‘Ditch Taiwan’ camp hits new low

A virtual unknown somehow managed to place what can only be called a mediocre op-ed calling for the abandonment of Taiwan in the journal of record in the US

Calls by what remains a small number of voices in the US academic community for Washington to “ditch” Taiwan for the sake of better relations with China reached a new low last week with the publication of an opinion piece in the New York Times by Paul Kane, a former international security fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Earlier this year, a handful of articles were published in journals, including Foreign Affairs, making the case that realist US foreign policy required the abandonment of Taiwan to clear the way for a full relationship with China in difficult economic times. Reactions to those pieces then showed beyond doubt that the arguments advanced by those academics failed on several grounds, including moral.

As this newspaper argued in response to the previous articles, the 23 million people who inhabit this nation are not mere commodities who can be traded by larger nations on a diplomatic chessboard. Not only is the commodification of human beings morally bankrupt, it is also a recipe for disaster, as the subjects — treated as pawns in the machinations of great power politics — are unlikely to regard such decisions with equanimity.

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

Monday, November 14, 2011

New US defense body could focus on Chinese threat

News of the new office comes as US President Obama is expected to announce the deployment of US Marines to a base in Australia

The US Department of Defense last week announced the creation of a tri-service Air-Sea Battle Office (ASBO) that, according to defense analysts, is directed mostly at the Western Pacific and its principal actor, China.

The new office, which was created on Aug. 12, but whose existence was only confirmed in a press release on Wednesday, integrates the US Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps and will develop a “comprehensive concept to counter emerging anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) challenges.”

One Pentagon official has described the office as a “highly classified clearinghouse set up to consider a wide range of current and potential threats.”

The ASB concept will guide the services to ensure continued US advantage against the global proliferation of advanced military technology and A2/AD capabilities, Marine Corps News reported on Friday.

The tri--service collaboration will “leverage military and technological capabilities that reflect unprecedented Navy, Marine and Air Force collaboration, cooperation, integration and resource investments,” it said.

My article, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.