Wednesday, May 29, 2013

China’s amphibious game changer?

A Zubr LCAC during sea trials
The European Bison, the largest Landing Craft Air Cushion in service, could play a major role in amphibious operations in the South China Sea 

Amid simmering tensions in East Asia over a series of sovereignty disputes at sea, where new, unpredictable bouts of escalation are always around the corner, China has continued to build up the capabilities it will need should it one day decide to use force.

 The latest addition to its growing arsenal — the world’s largest Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) vehicle — reached Guangzhou earlier this month, and could enter service soon. 

The vehicle in question, a Ukraine-built “Zubr” amphibious hovercraft (also known as the “European bison”), is part of a US$315 million deal signed between China and the state-owned Ukroboronprom defense conglomerate in 2009. Under the agreement, two LCACs, developed by the Ukrainian Almaz Central Marine Design Bureau, are to be built by the Ukraine-based Feodosia Shipbuilding Company, and two more by Chinese shipyards, under the supervision of Ukrainian engineers. 

My article, published today in The Diplomat, continues here.

Growing threat to Taiwan’s airspace

A Taiwanese F-16 lands at Hualien AFB
By continuing to provide China with advanced military technology, Russia has become a key destablilizing factor in Asia 

The planned purchase by China of S-400 surface-to-air missiles (SAM) from Russia, which this newspaper first reported in March last year, is one of many reminders that despite warmer relations in the Taiwan Strait, China is relentless in its efforts to achieve complete military dominance over Taiwan. 

As Defense News reported this week, Beijing is in talks with Moscow for the acquisition of the S-400, which has a range of 400km. If everything goes as planned, the missiles could be deployed as early as 2017. At present, China’s air defenses in its Fujian Province rely primarily on the S-300 PMU2 and the HQ9, a local variant of the S-300. Both have a range of about 200km, which puts parts of northwestern Taiwan within range, while ensuring complete coverage within China’s side of the median line in the Taiwan Strait. 

With the deployment of the S-400, all of Taiwan would fall within range of Chinese missiles, which would put Taiwan’s aircraft at great risk from the moment they take off. Because negotiations are ongoing, it is not yet known how many systems the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) intends to purchase and whether this would be sufficient to threaten Taiwan’s airspace. Furthermore, Taiwan cannot rule out the possibility that the S-400 will not be deployed in Fujian Province, but rather near major cities or critical military installations further inland. 

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

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Notes on a crisis and the ugly side of human nature

Taiwanese express their anger
Online comments about the ongoing dispute between Taiwan and the Philippines are giving us a glimpse of the ugly side of human nature 

International disputes, such as the one that has gripped Taiwan and the Philippines following the gunning down of a Taiwanese fisherman by a Philippine coast guard vessel on May 9, inevitably arouse strong passions among the public; nationalism flares up as people rally round the flag. In the Internet age, everybody feels entitled, and has the ability, to share his or her opinions on everything. One unfortunate consequence of this empowerment — unprecedented in human history — is that it makes experts of each and every one of us, however ill informed or bigoted one might be. With the emergence of blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and the comments section on news Web sites, the traditional filters of education, expertise, and experience, which in the past promised a modicum of professionalism, are no more. As a result, when crises occur and tempers are set aflame, things can get ugly.

The spat between Taipei and Manila is no exception.

Two things have stood out since self-made experts and netizens began broadcasting their views on the Internet. The first, mostly on the Taiwan side, has been the tendency among some (invariably Caucasian) expatriates to accuse Taiwanese who were angered over the killing of one of their own of racism — “Han chauvinism,” even. Taiwanese who didn’t think Manila had shown enough contrition, who agreed with how the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration was handling the matter, or who criticized it for not doing enough, all were supposedly animated by a superiority complex vis-à-vis “lesser” brown men.

Little did they know that their assessment of what motivated and united Taiwanese, their belief that Taiwanese were acting irresponsibly, were being racist, chauvinistic, fit perfectly well in an equally racist hierarchy of being, with the Wise White Men at the top of the food chain, free to pass judgment on the lowly colored races below them. Those who accused Taiwanese of chauvinism never sought to understand what it was about the incident that mobilized a large, politically heterogeneous segment of society. Instead of interpreting the reaction as nationalistic sentiment (normal in every society) and anger over a perceived injustice among a people that is continually victimized by the international community (mostly by “Han Chinese,” ironically), the wise arbiters needed to come up with theories as to why the usually meek Taiwanese were now up in arms. And instead of evaluating the Ma administration’s policies as a response to those domestic considerations, they instead came up with alternative explanations and conspiracy theories (Beijing’s hand). Some even flirted with the idea of unwitting “Han chauvinism,” which played right into China’s strategy for taking over the whole damn South China Sea, was at play. In the latter theory, Taiwanese are depicted as unaware, perhaps even “brainwashed.”

Meanwhile, those same critics who often deplored Taiwan’s inability to act like a normal country were now conjuring alternative ways to explain its response, including Taipei’s insistence on a government-to-government apology from Manila rather than its less-than-optimal response under its “one China” policy. As if that policy was invented by Taipei, and not the result of Chinese aggression and the willingness of the international community to play along. Critics also saw signs of racism in Taiwan’s decision to escalate with the Philippines, arguing that it unlikely would have been as hardline had it been China, or Japan, that had killed the fisherman. But here again, the reasons are far simpler: Taiwan is more powerful than the Philippines, but is much weaker than Japan and China. Which leader in his right mind would play David versus Goliath? The Taiwanese Navy cannot intimidate the People’s Liberation Army Navy or the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces. But it can certainly flex its muscles against the much weaker Philippine naval assets. It’s a law of international relations — the stronger pick on the weaker and usually avoids unnecessarily picking a fight with those who are stronger than them. But somehow it was beyond the ability of the Wise Ones to accept the fact that Taiwan was reacting like any other normal country would have reacted in such a situation.

Did Taiwanese get carried away and allowed nationalistic sentiment to cloud their judgment? Probably. Did the Ma administration overshoot when it tapped into that upsurge of emotions and didn’t know when to stop drinking from that fountain? Very likely. Countries, governments, people the world over commit such mistakes all the time. But there’s little more to it than that. Skilful or flawed, there is nothing unusual about Taiwan’s response. The second ugliness, which this time does have something to do with race, occurred mostly on the Philippines side.

The comments sections under the articles I have written on the subject for The Diplomat, or articles I edited for the Taipei Times, are filled with expressions of hatred. Granted, some Taiwanese commentators — even legislators — have used less than flattering language when describing the Philippines, alluding to the corruption that haunts the country and how vastly disorganized the place is. But in the racial-name-calling game that accompanied the crisis, the Filipinos have gone well beyond what the Taiwanese have mustered. Here are a few cringe-worthy examples. See if you can see the trend:
  •  “Chinks, keep away from our waters/land or else die”; 
  •  “Taiwanese and Chinese are just one blood one attitude! They must both vanish to [sic] this world!”; 
  •   “Taiwan is an island that can never be country. Dream on Taiwanese”; 
  •   “These poaching thieves robbers Chinese are or will never be in moral high ground. We just know them Chinese. In their racists [sic] eyes, they think they can kick a ragtag doll which they believe the Philippines is”; 
  •   “Idiot chinese attitude [sic]! Rude.” 
 There are many, many more.

Two themes stand out. The first stems from the Philippines’ inferiority complex and focuses primarily on reminding Taiwanese that Taiwan is not a country, but merely an island or a province of China. You may be stronger and wealthier than us Filipinos, it says, but at least we have a country. That point is often made in reference to the inability of Taiwan of applying international law because of its unofficial status, or to the illegality of its EEZ claims, since it cannot be a signatory of UNCLOS. What they fail to realize is that EEZs are customary international law, which means that even non-signatories are bound and protected by them.

The second, more prevalent one is meant as an insult. It compares Taiwanese to Chinese, which were are repeatedly told are of “the same blood.” It is meant as an insult because, as we know, the large majority of Taiwanese do not regard themselves as Chinese (another blow to the “Han chauvinist” theory). Filipinos know that, and are equally aware that the comparison will sting. Perhaps one positive offshoot of such rhetoric is that it demonstrates awareness among Filipinos that Taiwanese are indeed not Chinese.

What a fascinating subtext to this very complicated story!

Xi’s memo is a wake-up call

Chinese President and CCP Secretary-General Xi Jinping
For the CCP, there is nothing more dangerous and threatening than for Western 'pollutants' to be picked up, internalized and adapted by 'Chinese' societies 

Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and his comely wife, Peng Liyuan (彭麗媛), may be the most outwardly attractive first couple to lead China in several generations, but behind the smiles and the glamor lies a hardline streak that Taiwan should not — cannot — ignore. 

For months before he became president and chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), China watchers were divided on whether Xi would be a reformist in the same vein as former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev or the continuation of more conservative elements within the Chinese leadership. 

That speculation came to a head last week, when sections of a secret memo to Chinese officials were briefly made public in Chinese media. 

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

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

How Taiwan (ultimately) bungled the Philippine crisis [UPDATED]

Taiwanese protest against the Philippines
Taiwanese diplomats missed a golden opportunity to de-escalate when Aquino dispatched MECO Chairman Amadeo Perez to Taipei to convey his apology 

The art of diplomacy involves not only the ability to maximize the returns for one’s country but also a keen awareness of the most propitious time to cease escalation. The dispute between Taipei and Manila over the killing of a Taiwanese fisherman by a Filipino coast guard vessel is a case study in how initially skilful diplomacy can quickly be undermined by missed opportunities. 

During the first days of the crisis, Taiwan indisputably had the moral high ground. Hung Shih-cheng, a 65-year-old Taiwanese fisherman, had been killed when a Philippine coast guard sprayed the Kuang Ta Hsing No. 28 with machine gun in disputed waters between the two countries. As a joint investigation had yet to materialize, it still wasn’t clear whether the ship had ventured into the Philippine’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Regardless, the 45 bullet holes discovered on the hull of the Kuang Ta Hsing pointed to a disproportionate response by the Philippine authorities. 

My article, published today in The Diplomat, continues here.

The New York Times/IHT picks it up.
The Manila Standard also picks it up, and adds criticism against the Aquino government.
For an example of selective and self-serving use of my article, see ABS-CBN News.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Announcement: Working on a new book – Official Facebook page

Readers may have noticed that my output has diminished somewhat in recent months. There are two principal reasons for this — one that I will not discuss for the time being, and the other, which is that I have been writing my third book. I have finished drafting Officially Unofficial: Confessions of a journalist in Taiwan (it stands at about 78,000 words), and am now hard at work editing it.

The book uses my personal experiences as a foreign journalist in Taiwan as a point of departure for a meditation on the role and significance of journalism in the modern age, freedom of expression, and the larger issue of politics of Taiwan. (To find out more about the first reason why my output has dropped, you'll have to read the book!)

Please visit the official Facebook page for news updates, publication details, and the occasional excerpt!

Cool heads needed in Taiwan-Philippines row

DPP members protest on Monday
Taiwanese have been even-handed in their response to the killing of one of their own. Overzealous theatrics, such as burning the Philippine flag, does no good 

The small group of city councilors from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), accompanied by DPP Legislator Pasuya Yao (姚文智), formed a half circle on Monday morning as they burned reproductions of the Philippine flag and images of Philippine President Benigno Aquino III outside the Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO) in Taipei. 

Yao and the participants at the small protest were expressing the outrage many Taiwanese feel at the Philippine Coast Guard’s killing of a Taiwanese fisherman on Thursday. They were joined by dozens of members of the 908 Taiwan Republic Alliance, a pro-independence group, who, along with DPP city councilors, lobbed green flippers at the office. 

Their anger at the use of indiscriminate force against an unarmed fishing vessel — regardless of whether it indeed crossed into the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, as Manila claims — was entirely justified, as were their calls on President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration to ensure that the matter is resolved in a just and timely manner. 

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

Monday, May 13, 2013

Asia’s next high seas drama — tensions rise between Taiwan and the Philippines

A Lafayette-class frigate accompanies a CGA ship
Taipei has reacted with restraint to the killing of a fisherman by the Philippine coast guard last week. But escalation could easily ensue if the crisis is not handled properly 

The 15-tonne Kuang Ta Hsing No. 28 was docked at the Ta Fu fishing port on Siaoliouciou, off Pingtung County in Taiwan’s south. Forensic technicians were busy photographing the 55 bullet holes, some in thick parts on the port side, that had been discovered on the fishing vessel — evidence, preliminary analyses said, that a heavy-caliber machine gun was used. 

Two days earlier, on May 9, the fishing boat had been fired upon by a Philippine government vessel while operating some 164 nautical miles southeast of Taiwan’s southernmost tip. The unarmed crew took cover in the cabin, but for Hung Shih-cheng, a 65-year-old Taiwanese fisherman, it was too late. He was killed when a bullet penetrated the right side of his neck. 

My article, published today in The Diplomat, continues here.

Taiwan’s military flexes its muscles: A photo essay on Han Kuang 29

Main battle tanks ready to unleash their fury
The recent Han Kuang series of exercises on Penghu Island was a serious display of Taiwan's military power 

The Taiwanese military recently held the 29th edition of its Han Kuang series of exercises with a display of force unseen since President Ma Ying-jeou came into office in 2008. A total of 7,682 soldiers from the Air Force, Navy and Army took part in the counter-assault exercise on the outlying island of Penghu that simulated an amphibious attack by the People’s Liberation Army. 

My article — and photos — published today in The Diplomat, continues here.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Let the conspiracy theories begin

Map of the incident on Thursday morning
The killing of a Taiwanese fisherman by the Philippine coast guard on Thursday is already fueling rumors of a joint Taiwan-China plot

Here we go again. Something happens, the Taiwanese government reacts like a normal country, and some people in the opposition camp — people who presumably hope that Taiwan would be recognized and treated as a normal, sovereign state — instead interpret Taipei’s reaction as a sign that there is a conspiracy afoot.

Just last month, some critics of the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration were arguing that there probably was more to the fisheries agreement that had been signed between Taiwan and Japan in April. Without providing a shred of evidence, they posited that somehow the Ma administration must have struck a secret deal with its “master” in Beijing, some quid pro quo, before it could ink a pact with Tokyo that had remained elusive for more than sixteen years.

Prior to that, those very same critics had claimed more than once that there were “evident signs,” such as sorties by fishing boats, that Taipei had allied itself with Beijing against Japan in the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) dispute. Taipei issued dozens of denials, and senior advisers to Ma’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) stated in no uncertain terms that they would never join forces with pro-unification “crazies” in the dispute, but those signals were never sufficient to convince Ma’s detractors that such cooperation did not, in fact, exist.

The Ma government had created some noise to ensure it was not ignored in the triangular island dispute, and had succeeded in reaching an agreement with Tokyo that upheld the rights of Taiwanese fishermen in waters near the islets, but the other camp couldn’t bring itself to admit that what it had accomplished was a success. It couldn’t be diplomacy. It couldn’t possibly be as simple as that, a government acting in the interest of its constituents. Heaven forbid that they could say or write anything that would make Ma “look good.” It was safer, therefore, to stick to “unprovables” and conspiracy theories.

Now an incident at sea on Thursday in waters between Taiwan and the Philippines, in which a Philippine coast guard vessel opened fire on the Kuang Ta Hsing No. 28 (廣大興28號) Taiwanese fishing boat, killing 65-year-old Hung Shih-cheng (洪石成), along with Taipei’s reaction to the matter, is again fueling speculation that the Ma administration is up to no good. And here again, the specter of a secret deal with Beijing is raising its sinister head.

As both governments investigate the incident, Taipei has done what any government would do in such a situation and has asked Manila to apologize and provide compensation to the family of the victim.

China, which is involved in various territorial disputes in the South China Sea, weighed in on Thursday; the Taiwan Affairs Office strongly condemned what it called a “barbaric” shooting and also called for an investigation. There is nothing new here. Every chance it has, Beijing will try to demonstrate that it sides with Taiwan in regional disputes, and will call for unity with the island to counter common external threats. It did that several times at the height of the Diaoyutai dispute, and this is what prompted senior officials in Taipei to deny, time and again, that such cooperation existed. This is Chinese propaganda, and somehow critics of the Ma administration seem to swallow it, well — hook, line and sinker.

If Beijing’s usual response wasn’t enough for Ma’s critics, KMT Legislator Alex Tsai’s (蔡正元) comments on his Facebook page on Thursday night certainly provided the ammunition they needed. No sooner had Tsai remarked that the killing was not an accident, but “war with the Philippines” than Ma’s detractors saw signs of foul play behind the scenes. It goes like this: Beijing claims the entire South China Sea and has overlapping claims with the Philippines; all it needs is an incident, such as the killing on Thursday, to justify intervention; by calling for “war,” Tsai — and probably other KMT officials — showed that he is part of a well orchestrated plan between Taipei and Beijing to take action.

Then again, wouldn’t every government in a normal country react with some indignation when one of its citizens is killed? Tsai’s comments are over the top — in fact, they’re downright ridiculous, as were similar calls for war with Japan a few years ago when fishermen got into trouble near the Diaoyutais. But proof that Ma is part of a conspiracy involving China to seize islands in the South China Sea? Come on. Occam’s razor, people.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Approaching China with intelligence

TAO Deputy Director Sun Yafu speaks at a forum in Taipei
The majority of cross-strait cultural events are handled by Chinese intelligence officers, and they are components of an aggressive political warfare campaign 

As the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) China Affairs Committee takes shape, now is a good time to start thinking about how to best engage China. 

Two principles stand above all others in how Taiwanese should interact with their giant neighbor: First, engagement is unavoidable, though the scope, breadth and nature of such interactions should continue to be determined by the Taiwanese side; and second, such engagement should be conducted under the premise that the entire enterprise is part of a large united front campaign orchestrated by Beijing. 

Consequently, the Taiwanese side must never lose sight of the dangers that stem from interacting with China, and should therefore arm themselves with sufficient intelligence about their interlocutors before making contact with them. They should also be ready to launch their own counter-propaganda campaign to defuse the primary message that Beijing wants to drill into people’s minds, and that is the “historical inevitability” of “reunification.” The worst that the DPP, or any other Taiwanese organization, for that matter, can do is walk in unprepared and assume that the Chinese side is well-intentioned. It is not. 

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

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Israel’s target in Syria was Hezbollah, not Assad

IDF aircraft in flight
Iran and Hezbollah may fear that the collapse of the Assad regime would close an important arms conduit into Lebanon 

At first glance, the two series of Israeli air strikes inside Syria on Friday and Sunday may suggest that Israel is no longer reluctant to take sides in Syria’s two-year-old civil war. But the likelihood that Jerusalem would seek to precipitate the by-now almost inevitable toppling of the Bashar al-Assad regime by cooperating with the rebels is low. Based on what is known, the target of the air strikes, which reportedly killed as many as 42 Syrian soldiers, were Iranian arms bound for Lebanese Hezbollah. 

The reason is simple. For all its other faults the Assad regime has ensured a relatively stable border with Israel, and whatever comes after its downfall — likely, a mixture of Islamist rebels, some of whom have pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda — would likely be more threatening to the Jewish state. 

My article, published today in The Diplomat, continues here.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Why Taiwan’s youth movement matters (sow a wind)

Protesters show what they think at a protest in late April
Vague talk about how to ‘protect’ Taiwan is no longer sufficient. What the times call for is action, and a group of young Taiwanese is doing just that  

How refreshing the past few months have been! At long last, a group of young people, still relatively small, yes, but certainly mobile, and extremely canny, has achieved what well-funded and established political parties, concerned as they are with continuity, can only hope of accomplishing. 

The new phenomenon, which sprouted legs sometime in the middle of last year, is the youth movement, which over time has expanded from a single-issue group into a multifaceted and cross-pollinating entity that mobilizes wherever injustice rears its ugly head. From Tsai Eng-meng’s (蔡衍明) now-defeated efforts to create a media goliath through the acquisition of Jimmy Lai’s (黎智英) Next Media outlets in Taiwan to an ongoing campaign against the destruction of the Losheng Sanatorium (樂生療養院) and the forced eviction of elderly residents of the Huaguang Community (華光), the several hundreds of highly educated, connected, Internet-savvy youth who form the core of this group are showing the way ahead for Taiwan. 

It would be easy to dismiss their protests as simple show, of protest for the sake of publicity, were it not for the fact that their acts are serving as instruments of education. The social media platforms that have been created in parallel with the protests are by themselves often more current and learned than anything one will find in the media. Furthermore, their mobilization, with support from a number of academics, is engendering essential public debate on issues that otherwise would be ignored. 

Even more important is the fact that their protests are actions, not the hollow talk we are usually served by politicians from both sides of the political divide. And those actions are, in turn, prompting reactions. And occasionally, those reactions are overreactions, such as the targeting of young students like Chen Wei-ting (陳為廷) by both Mr. Tsai’s media empire and government authorities, or just this week, the Miaoli County Police Department’s handling of the protests over the wind turbine project in Yuanli Township (苑裡). Through its actions, the youth movement is bringing out the best and the worst in government officials and ordinary people alike, which inevitably creates a clash in values and interests. 

When peaceful protests in Yuanli are broken by police who ride roughshod over the law, using disproportionate measures such as handcuffing the activists at the site, or threatening their immediate arrest if they turn out again today (May 2), it forces people to scrutinize how our law enforcement agencies, along with the Ministry of the Interior, are abiding by the rules of a democratic system. And using every electronic tool at their disposal, the young protesters, aided by a pool of stalwart journalists, make sure that everything is well documented. When the authorities fail, as they evidently did in Miaoli in the past week, senior officials come under fire, as occurred on May 1, when Minister of the Interior Lee Hong-yuan (李鴻源) faced heated questions (here, here and here) in the legislature, and promised an investigation. Look how this focuses the minds of DPP legislators.

When’s the last time, really, that political parties forced all of us to look at articles of the law, or to think about such fundamentals as freedom of the press or the right to property? In the past year, the youth movement has dared to dream and to take a stand in the defense of the values that are supposed to serve as the foundations for this nation. Unlike the politicians who speak in abstract terms and often seem to take those values for granted, this nascent youth movement is willing to fight for them, and to teach us lessons in the process. 

The time has come for rejuvenation, and for that to happen, what is required is action — physical involvement, and the catalysis of anger in the face of injustice. Yes, such mobilization causes disturbances and sometimes leads to clashes, but it’s now clear that this is what is necessary to shake the majority of Taiwanese out of their comfortable stupor … before it’s too late. (Taipei Times version here.)

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

The rape of Taiwan

A protester is taken away by police on April 29
Police can no longer be allowed to be complicit in a system that cracks down on innocent Taiwanese who are fighting for the future of their country, while allowing Chinese visitors to get away with murder 

At the drop of a word by a pugnacious superintendent, the young protesters were suddenly handcuffed and brusquely forced to the ground by police officers before being dragged away, some screaming in pain, others at the brutality with which their peaceful sit-in had been broken up.

The dozens of activists, many of them veterans of other campaigns in recent months, were in Yuanli Township (苑裡), Miaoli County, to support local residents who oppose a controversial wind turbine construction project that has been forced upon them by an intransigent county government. Amid the commotion, the superintendent, who earlier had been caught on film saying he “doesn’t understand the law,” warned the protesters they could be charged under articles 304 — causing, by violence or threats, another person to do something they have no obligation to do, or preventing another person from doing something that they have the right to do — and 306 — unlawfully entering a dwelling or structure of another person, the adjacent or surrounding grounds, or a vessel belonging to another — of the Criminal Code. Articles 304 and 306 carry a maximum of three years and one year imprisonment respectively.

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