Thursday, December 27, 2007

Condi spanks Taiwan

US' top diplomat wades into cross-strait row
Newsweek "Why It Matters" blog, December 27, 2007

The US is ratcheting up its opposition to an obscure Taiwan referendum. That's especially odd since the vote -- whatever its outcome -- will have no practical effect on Taiwan's standing or on the cross-strait status quo.

The referendum, if it goes ahead as planned together with the presidential vote on March 22, will ask Taiwan voters if the island should seek to join the United Nations with the name "Taiwan." Last Friday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the referendum a "provocative policy", adding, "It unnecessarily raises tensions in the Taiwan Strait, and it promises no real benefits for the people of Taiwan on the international stage."

Certainly, the vote won't change Taiwan's status. With China on the UN Security Council and only 24 small countries recognizing Taiwan as a sovereign state, any Taiwanese bid for UN membership -- no matter which name it uses -- is doomed. China views Taiwan as part of its territory and adamantly opposes even the most trivial Taiwanese claims to separate statehood.

Instead, the referendum is best seen as a domestic political tool: the pro-independence party, which backs the referendum, is using it as a "get out the vote" measure and to whip up Taiwan pride. To have any shot at winning, the pro-independence party needs to focus voters on the emotional issue of national identity. Thus the emphasis on using "Taiwan" -- which implies a complete break with the mainland -- rather than the island's formal name, "The Republic of China."

By contrast, if the election is decided on economic issues -- like the recent vote in South Korea -- the more China- and business-friendly Kuomintang has a strong edge. Indeed, its candidate is far ahead in the latest polls amid widespread malaise over Taiwan's anemic economy.

Given the referendum's domestic purpose, it would hardly seem to warrant the attention of a US Secretary of State who's already got her hands full patching up failed states in Iraq and Afghanistan and working on Middle East peace. So why the sharp remarks?

More than anything, they reflect China's nervousness about the coming months. Beijing fears Taipei will make a dangerous leap toward formal independence, taking advantage of China's focus on Olympic preparations. It's been leaning hard on Washington to rein in any such moves by its island ally. Rice's statements are likely the fruit of countless Chinese complaints -- and part of the give-and-take of big power politics between Washington and Beijing.

While Rice's comments may assuage Beijing, though, they're likely to backfire. The referendum looks almost certain to go ahead, despite Washington's knuckle-rapping. Meanwhile, Rice's labeling of the vote as "provocative" is an embrace of Beijing's view of the cross-strait conflict. By contrast, many in Taiwan argue that China's revanchism and rapid military buildup directly across the Strait -- now including more than 900 missiles aimed at the island -- is far more destabilizing than any symbolic, democratic vote.

As for saying the vote has "no benefits" for the Taiwan people, the fact of Rice's comments actually negates her point. Having the US Secretary of State highlight the referendum puts a rare global spotlight on the thirst of the majority of Taiwanese -- whatever their domestic differences -- for recognition as an independent, sovereign state. And in terms of Taiwan's domestic politics, her remarks only help the pro-independence party keep the campaign on its preferred battleground of national identity.

If the goal was to deter Taiwan's efforts to cement its independence, Beijing and Washington would have done better to ignore the vote altogether. Their high-profile opposition is merely likely to strengthen the hand of Taiwan's pro-independence hardliners.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Fear and misunderstanding

Survey highlights US-China perception gap

by Jonathan Adams
"Why It Matters" blog, December 14, 2007

The US and China are talking past each other. That's abundantly clear from a survey of US and Chinese perceptions released this week by the Committee of 100, an organization of Chinese-American leaders.

The biggest perception gap was on the question "What are your two greatest concerns about US-China relations?" On the US side, the general public and business leaders cited the loss of US jobs to China as #1. For China, the top worry was Taiwan -- the self-governed island that China considers part of its territory awaiting reunification, but which the US has pledged to help defend if attacked.

The top concerns reflect largely irrational fears that are being stoked by nationalists in both countries. In fact, recent business and geopolitical trends should be blunting both worries.

Take US hand-wringing over job losses. Several studies have shown that the number of US manufacturing jobs that have gone to China is likely far smaller than China-bashers would have the US public believe (last year the pro-free-trade CATO Institute estimated 150,000 jobs per year lost to China). Certainly, overall US manufacturing jobs are sharply down, but that's part of a long-term shift toward service sector employment in the US economy (and globally) that's accelerated as better technology allows factories to produce more with fewer workers.

Another reality check: according to one study, China has been losing even more manufacturing jobs than the US, due to the downsizing of state-owned enterprises and technological upgrades. CATO cited a 2003 study by Alliance Capital Management LP in New York that found that from 1995 to 2002, China's manufacturing sector workforce shrank 15%, compared to an 11% decline in the US in the same period. Moreover, labor costs in China are rising -- particularly in coastal areas -- as the nation grows wealthier and workers demand better compensation.

One telltale sign this week: the Taiwan stock market plunged Thursday in part on news that Taiwan contract manufacturing giant Hon Hai will soon offer permanent contracts to employees at its mainland units who have worked at the company for more than eight years.

That's a preemptive move to comply with new Chinese labor regulations that take effect January 1, and which are widely expected to further boost the labor costs of firms doing business in China. Those rising costs, combined with inflation, are already driving Hon Hai and other foreign firms to expand in lower-cost places like Vietnam instead of China.

Then there's China's obsession with Taiwan. It's certainly not surprising (they're constantly bending US officials' ears on the issue). But it reflects paranoid fears about what Taiwan might do, and about what support Taipei politicians would get from the US.

In fact, Taiwan is highly unlikely to formally declare independence or make any similar extreme moves -- there's simply no consensus on the island for doing so. Meanwhile, the Chinese should be reassured by recent public US remarks. Washington has been telling Taipei more clearly than ever that it can't necessarily count on US military support if the island is seen as provoking a crisis.

Case in point: Just this week, American Institute in Taiwan chairman Raymond Burghardt repeated US opposition to Taiwan's plan to hold a referendum this March on joining the UN under the name "Taiwan". That bid has sparked perhaps the most blunt public criticism the US has ever made of its island ally. Such tough talk should help put the brakes on any possible adventurism in Taipei, and so stabilize the Strait.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Taiwan's mountain retreats

By Jonathan Adams
Newsweek Web Exclusive, November 17, 2007

Since 2004, Jonathan Adams has lived in Taipei, Taiwan, where he reports on politics, business and economics for NEWSWEEK and other publications. Whenever he can he tries to get out of Taipei and head to the mountains. Few outsiders know it, but the small island boasts some of the most impressive alpine landscape east of the Himalayas, with jagged peaks towering as high as 12,000 feet, dramatic gorges and natural hot springs.

Headhunters and other aborigines of Austronesian stock once roamed these peaks, bedeviling waves of colonizers—Dutch, Qing Chinese and Japanese—who tried to tame the island. Now you're more likely to be attacked by aboriginal kitsch, in the form of overpriced gewgaws and "traditional" aboriginal dance shows that cater mostly to Taiwanese and Japanese tour groups. Here are some the island's most popular mountain spots:

Sun Moon Lake

At 2,400 feet above sea level, this scenic lake is tucked on the western side of Taiwan's central mountain range. When the Japanese occupied the island (1895-1945), they dammed up the Juoshuei River, enlarging this natural freshwater lake. A massive 1999 earthquake, whose epicenter was nearby, further expanded the lake to its current size and nearly inundated an island sacred to the Thao aboriginal tribe. That island now lends its name to one of Taiwan's top luxury hotels, the Lalu (, 886 49 285 6888). If you have about $500 to spare, spend an über-romantic night here amid a Zen-like calm that can make this elite retreat seem more like a church than a hotel. Much cheaper digs are dotted elsewhere around the lake.

Take a boat tour on the lake, wander its many scenic hiking trails and temples, and be sure to visit the Tsen pagoda, built by the late Kuomintang strongman and Taiwan president Chiang Kai-shek in memory of his mother. President Chiang had porters shlep him up the steep trail to pay his respects to Mom; you'll probably have to make the climb yourself.

The lake is in betel nut country; look for groves of the mild stimulant, which is popular with Taiwanese truck drivers and other workers. Or if you're coming in on the road from Taichung, look for Taiwan's famous "betel nut beauties," teenage or twentysomething working-class girls who operate on a simple, effective calculation: the less they wear, the more customers they're likely to attract to their betel nut stands.

Alishan National Park

This is probably Taiwan's most well-known mountain resort, at least in the Chinese-speaking world, thanks to a beloved folk song that sings the landscape's praises. The name means "Ali mountain," but the resort covers a series of peaks. In my opinion the place is overrated, with ugly parking lots and concrete complexes of mediocre restaurants and souvenir hawkers lying in wait for tourists. And the social pressure to get up in the dark at 4 a.m. to see the sunrise over the mountains is intense; woe betide the tourist who would rather just sleep in.

But train enthusiasts should be sure to visit by the fantastic Alishan Forest Railway, which runs from the city of Chiayi to the west. The line was built by the Japanese in order to transport cypress and other woods from the mountaintop. It makes a steep climb across narrow bridges and over vertiginous ravines, and features a switchback toward the top in order to navigate the last bit. Be sure to check ahead that the line is running; the railroad is vulnerable to landslides and other obstructions, which frequently shut it down for days ( Bus lines and tour groups also take visitors up to Alishan from Chiayi. For high-end accommodations, try the Alishan House (, 886-5-267-9811).

Taroko National Park

This stunning marble-lined ravine is one of the island's most beloved sites. Tour buses driven by betel-nut-chomping drivers career down narrow cliffside roads blaring Taiwanese pop, periodically belching out camera-toting tourists at scenic sites along the way. Upscale visitors should spend the night at the Grand Formosa Taroko in Tienhsiang (, 886-3-869-1155); much cheaper and simpler accommodation is available just up the road at the Catholic hostel. The scenery is striking, sometimes literally—the gorge is one giant falling rock zone. Just outside Tienhsiang is an excellent outdoor natural hot spring. However, it's been closed ever since some rocks tumbled down in 2005, killing one person and injuring several others. Package tours, like those offered by Zion Tours (, 886-2-2100-1256), include the gorge; otherwise get to Hualien by train and switch there to a bus, taxi or rented scooter to Tienhsiang.

Chihpen Hot Springs

The Japanese brought their hot-spring culture to the island as colonizers. One of their favorite spots, and now the location of a strip of hot-spring hotels, lies just to the southwest of Taitung, in southeast Taiwan. The best is the Royal Chihpen (, 886-89-510-666); a personal favorite is Dongtair (, 886-89-512-918), which boasts a massive outdoor hot-spring complex just across the road from the main building. Those springs are coed, and swimsuits and caps are required; other hotels have male- and female-only springs where it's de rigueur to soak buck naked.

Try an invigorating hike in the nearby forest park, then a half-hour under the jets for utter relaxation. To get there, fly Far Eastern Air Transport or Uni Air from Taipei to Taitung, then switch to a hotel shuttle, taxi or train to Chihpen station.

Original site

Friday, November 9, 2007

Fantasy island

Dangerous delusions over Taiwan

Jonathan Adams and Colum Murphy
Far Eastern Economic Review, October 2007

It’s a sunny Friday morning in mid-September and You Si-kun is full of friendly banter as he tucks into his congee at a Taipei hotel. But as the then-chairman of Taiwan’s ruling pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party expounds his views, it becomes clear why he is the embodiment of China’s worst fears about Taiwan. “Taiwanese people want to be master of their own fate,” says the 59-year-old Mr. You. “Independence and building a new nation is our goal.”

On Mr. You’s “to do” list, which he mooted in an amendment for adoption at his party’s Sept. 30 congress: Changing Taiwan’s official name from the “Republic of China” to “Taiwan,” enacting a new constitution, and formally announcing to the world that Taiwan is a sovereign, independent country. Ambitious goals, to be sure. But they happen to chart Taiwan on a course careening toward China’s so-called “red lines”—the crossing of which Beijing views as possible grounds for war.

It’s perhaps reassuring, then, that Mr. You’s fortunes—and those of his proposed resolution—changed dramatically after that breakfast meeting. Days later, prosecutors indicted him on corruption charges. Then the DPP rejected his resolution in favor of a toned-down version. In response, Mr. You resigned from the party chairmanship on Sept. 28.

Mr. You’s loss may have been a small victory for moderation in Taiwan’s emotionally charged politics. But the surging Taiwan pride he represents has hardly been defused. In fact, the resolution that the DPP finally passed on Sept. 30 still commits it in principle—albeit without giving a timetable—to writing a new constitution and using referenda to affirm Taiwan's sovereignty.

One such referendum is already in the works—part of the party’s controversial bid to seek United Nations membership under the name “Taiwan.” The coming months will see the DPP gather signatures to put that issue on the ballot; the opposition KMT has initiated its own version that de-emphasizes the use of “Taiwan.” But China has warned that such referenda could trigger the use of “nonpeaceful” measures against the island. And in a Sept. 11 speech, U.S. diplomat Thomas Christensen voiced unprecedented harsh criticism of the DPP's referendum proposal, saying it was a “needless provocation that [is] patently not in the best interests of the Taiwan people or of the United States.”

Most analysts expect the U.N. drive to raise tensions in the coming months, then quietly fade away. A high bar for approval—50% of the eligible electorate—makes it unlikely the measure will pass. But at the heart of the current tensions are conflicting assumptions that have troubling longer term implications. Namely, each of the three parties concerned—Taiwan, China and the United States—clings to its own dangerous delusions. That adds up to the potential for miscalculation with grave results, particularly if Taiwan’s pro-independence party overplays its hand.

Mr. You and some colleagues cherish the impossible dream of creating a fully independent, new nation with all the trappings of formal statehood, including U.N. membership. This they see as the final act in the decades-long struggle to scrap the remains of the KMT regime that oppressed the island with a reign of terror after World War II. That regime may be gone, but its formal name, flag and territorial claims awkwardly remain. However, the reality is that two great powers—China and the U.S.—will oppose any such bid for the foreseeable future. Moreover, so will a majority of Taiwanese people themselves.

Some in China, meanwhile, hold to the fantasy that Taiwan will inevitably come back to the fold. Much of Beijing’s confidence is based on economics: closer integration between the mainland and Taiwan will lead to political union. Yet the evidence to date would seem to refute that. The two sides have never been so economically close, yet more politically distant. And neither China’s threats, nor international pressure, nor—more recently—goodies for targeted groups in Taiwan have blunted the island’s push for greater recognition.

For its part, the U.S. nurtures its own illusion—that there exists a static cross-Strait “status quo” that it can continue to referee. The truth is that between China’s rapid military buildup on one side, and rising Taiwan pride on the other, the situation in the Strait has never been more in flux.

One island; three fantasies. Those delusions aren’t likely to cause serious conflict in the near term. But in the years to come, dealing with Taiwan’s growing assertiveness and thirst for recognition without resort to war will require a strong dose of realism on all sides.

Turning Taiwanese?

If the UN referendum spat has a déjà vu feel to it, it’s because the 2004 presidential election was also accompanied by a referendum—Taiwan’s first. Then, Taiwan’s voters were asked about increasing military capacities and ties with the mainland. Both measures failed to get enough votes to pass. But that referendum also drew harsh criticism from Beijing and an admonition from U.S. President George W. Bush.

Four years later, all the trends that created those tensions are back with a vengeance. For one, a growing number of people on the island are identifying themselves first and foremost as Taiwanese—thanks in part to efforts by the DPP to strengthen a sense of “Taiwanese-ness.”

Data from the Election Study Center at Taipei’s National Chengchi University (NCCU) indicate that in December of last year—the latest such statistic available—the number of islanders who consider themselves “Taiwanese” only (not “Chinese”) was 44.1%, or more than double the 20.2% recorded in the same month in 1994, and up from 36.9% in June 2000, shortly after President Chen Shui-bian took office.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s legal, military and diplomatic campaign to politically isolate Taiwan and deter its “splittists” continues apace. With the passage of the Antisecession Law in March 2005 Beijing signaled its willingness, if necessary, to use military force against Taiwan. Under that law, Beijing codified its long-held stance that it would employ “nonpeaceful” means should Taiwan formalize its independence.

Since 2000, Taiwan’s diplomatic allies have further dwindled from 30 to 24 small, low-profile countries as China aggressively woos countries away with generous aid and investment. In that time, China’s short-range missile arsenal targeting Taiwan has grown from about 200 to 1,000, according to Mr. Chen—a trend he never hesitates to publicly highlight (The latest Pentagon estimate is about 900 such missiles.) Taiwan has responded by developing its own missile—tested earlier this year—able to hit targets on the mainland, according to defense analysts.

Perhaps the biggest difference from 2004 can be seen in the U.S. attitude toward Taiwan, as exhibited in the Christensen speech. Never before has the U.S. so bluntly warned its island ally that military support is not a given. The reason, say analysts: Since 2004, the U.S. has become even more bogged down in Iraq, and a possible confrontation with Iran looms. The last thing Washington wants is any trouble in East Asia—particularly any that could pit it against a Chinese military growing more lethal by the year.

So why is Taiwan pushing forward a doomed U.N. bid that has only raised tensions with China and alienated its strongest ally? Not surprisingly, many observers in Taiwan see in the U.N. bid a political strategy by Mr. Chen to whip up support ahead of the March presidential elections. Campaigns that focus on emotional issues of Taiwanese identity favor the DPP, as the 2000 and 2004 elections showed.

KMT officials, in particular, dismiss the referendum as a futile exercise. “President Chen, the DPP and some rednecks are whistling in the dark,” says Su Chi, a KMT legislator and foreign-policy adviser to its presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou. Mr. Su and others in the KMT see the bid as an effort to detract attention away from the DPP government’s poor economic performance. Taiwan’s GDP growth may be respectable for a postindustrial economy (4.68% last year), and exports remain strong. But real incomes have stagnated for years, fueling the widespread perception that the island’s economy has flat-lined.

That would seem to leave an opening for the KMT to run a strong “it’s the economy, stupid” campaign. Instead, the U.N. referendum has grabbed attention and left the KMT struggling to compete on national identity, where it’s at a distinct disadvantage. Even the party acknowledges that its version of the U.N. bid referendum is largely a political tactic in response to the DPP. Failure to follow Mr. Chen’s lead on this issue could see the party branded as anti-Taiwan and antidemocratic, says Mr. Su. To that extent, the DPP's initiative is already serving its intended purpose.

Still, it would be unwise to dismiss the Taiwan’s U.N. bid entirely as an electoral gimmick. Behind the banners, the marches and the slogans and the slick, multilingual advertising campaigns, there is a genuine, deep-rooted sense of frustration among the Taiwanese people about being something less than a country.

‘Oppression complex’

To understand some of the emotions fueling the U.N. bid, go to the prison on Green Island, off Taiwan’s southeast coast. For four decades before the lifting of martial law in 1987, the KMT jailed Taiwanese accused of political crimes here. A wave of anticommunist hysteria saw at least 140,000 sent to die before firing squads or endure decades in crowded cells.

Chen Meng-ho, a former Green Island prisoner, ambles down a rocky seaside path, then stops in front of a cliff and takes off his hat. He pays respects at the final resting ground of the “13th squadron”—prisoners, including a close friend of Mr. Chen’s, who died on the island and were buried beneath the cliff because they had no relatives in Taiwan to claim their bodies. “Every single time I come here I have the feeling of sadness,” says the 76-year-old Mr. Chen. “I don’t feel angry anymore ... but I’d still like to speak out and say what happened here so that type of terror will never happen again.”

The DPP government is turning the old prison into a cultural heritage site; it arranged Mr. Chen's trip with journalists to the island. Many Taiwanese accuse the government of opening such painful wounds from the island’s past for political gain. That’s partly true. In the island’s no-holds-barred political culture, anything that can be used as ammunition, is.

But this past is also the key to understanding present-day politics. Many DPP leaders are former prisoners: Vice President Annette Lu, Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chu, and even President Chen, who served a one-year term for libel. As young activists and defense lawyers, that generation fought to democratize the island. By contrast, many still-prominent KMT politicians were part of the authoritarian machine.

The DPP emerged from that dissident movement and eventually took power in 2000. So far it has proven better at activism and protests than at governing. (In recent years, Mr. Chen's government has been rocked by one corruption scandal after another; its approval ratings have dipped below 20%.) Now, the very same people who helped bring down autocrats in Taipei are facing off against autocrats in Beijing, whose “red lines” are boxing in the young democracy.

The sense of a revolution on hold is galling enough for DPP true believers. But it’s compounded by Beijing’s concerted global effort to shrink Taiwan’s international space. According to Lo Chih-cheng, a political science professor at Taipei’s Soochow University who is close to the DPP government, China’s strategy is clear: “As China becomes more confident in isolating Taiwan internationally, it believes that Taiwan will be pushed into a corner and have nowhere to turn but to Beijing and ask its permission to become part of the international community,” he says.

That means freezing Taiwan out of regional groupings such as the Association of Southeast Asia Nations and its various add-ons, and preventing the island’s leadership from attending summits of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, which Taiwan joined formally as a member “economy” in 1991 under the name “Chinese Taipei.” At the World Health Organization, Chinese pressure has prevented Taiwan from gaining observer status, for which statehood is not a requirement.

The result is what some have called an “oppression complex,” which fuels extremist calls for bolder action to counter China. “A lot of people [in the DPP] say ‘Why should we limit ourselves?’” says Hsiao Bi-khim, a prominent DPP legislator and foreign-policy adviser to DPP presidential candidate Frank Hsieh. “Our leaders will have to balance hard-line views within the party with international constraints on our efforts.”

Those constraints come first and foremost from China. It claims Taiwan as its territory and has long threatened war if the island seeks to formalize its de facto independence. The current U.N. bid may not quite do that, but Beijing fears it’s just a prelude. “Next time they may use a referendum to decide whether Taiwan should be totally separate from mainland China,” says Chu Shulong, a foreign affairs expert at Beijing’s Tsinghua University.

China’s claim is rarely challenged, although its assertion that Taiwan is and has always been an inalienable part of China is a creative interpretation of history at best. The island wasn’t incorporated into the Qing Empire until the late 17th century; successive imperial courts regarded it as a savage wilderness, pirate haven, and as one emperor put it, “a place beyond the seas ... of no consequence to us.”

The claim is linked with China’s own cult of victimhood. The island was ceded to Japan in 1895 and Chinese nationalists view its return as the final act of their own fantasy: restoring China to its imagined Qing-era grandeur and thereby leaving behind once and for all a “century of humiliation” by foreigners.

For many years Beijing backed its claim with belligerent talk and military posturing; in 1996 it fired missiles into the waters off Taiwan in a particularly sharp fit of pique. In recent years, it has taken a more subtle tack; wielding the carrot in addition to the stick, by courting Taiwan's opposition, farmers and business groups.

Beijing has successfully outsourced much of the work of reining in Mr. Chen and the DPP to the U.S. Mr. Christensen flatly denies that Beijing and Washington coordinate Taiwan policy, saying “it just does not happen.” But observers of cross-Strait developments say the effect is just that. Washington’s desire for stability in the region far outweighs any sympathy for the frustrations of a fellow democracy. And so the two powers have found common cause in trying to put the brakes on Taiwan’s U.N. bid.

Too bad the DPP isn’t listening. “We are on a roll and I don’t think [anyone] can stop this—even the KMT has jumped on the bandwagon,” says Ms. Hsiao. So if China and U.S. warnings can’t stop such pushes for recognition, how can future cross-Strait conflict be averted?

A call for cool heads

Beijing and Washington argue that the current U.N. bid is “unnecessary.” They’re right, at least in the bigger picture. But as long as the emotionally charged issue of national identity works to its benefit, the DPP can be expected to play the independence card in this and subsequent elections.

And therein lies the key danger. Current tensions over the U.N. bid are likely just a tempest in a teapot. But it’s not hard to imagine, years down the road, a DPP-backed referendum that more explicitly affirms the island’s distinct sovereignty. Such a vote might be dangerously ambiguous. Taiwan could calculate that it was within bounds, while Beijing would interpret the vote as a formal, legally binding declaration of independence—and so, a casus belli.

“The future depends not only on what Taipei is doing, but also what the politics are in Beijing at the time,” says Steve Tsang, head of the Taiwan Studies Program at Oxford University. “And that’s a big imponderable. "In principle, China’s ‘red line’ is crystal clear, but in reality, it isn’t.”

It’s possible the DPP might drop its referendum gambits on its own if they backfire at the polls. And a KMT-dominated legislature could amend the referendum law to make such ploys more difficult. But neither of those domestic “fixes” is guaranteed.

For Beijing, the key will be to avoid overreacting. The fact is, plebiscites that will put the island on a collision course with China are not likely to find much of a market in Taiwan, even if they make it to the ballot. So far, there’s no indication that the groundswell of Taiwan pride has translated into support for an all-out independence push. According to data from the NCCU, the
number of Taiwanese supporting immediate independence has bounced between 3% and 7% since Mr. Chen took office. (The latest data from December 2006, was 5.5%.)

Beyond that, the best way to blunt the appeal of extremists like Mr. You would be to address Taiwan’s legitimate desire for more international space. That would reassure Taiwanese that their diplomatic oxygen isn’t running out. Beijing should realize that its aim of isolating Taiwan in the international arena only gives fuel to the island’s hardliners. Rather, it should work out a compromise with the island on its participation in key international organizations such as the WHO. A formula that stops short of recognizing Taiwan as a state can surely be found; after all, Taiwan successfully joined the World Trade Organization.

That give and take won’t be easy, particularly in the current climate. “At least some in China understand that they’re not winning hearts and minds on Taiwan by being hard-line on the international space issue,” said Richard Bush, an expert in cross-Strait relations at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “But as long as there’s a ‘deep green’ [hard-line pro-independence] domestic agenda in Taiwan, the P.R.C. isn’t going to back down.” Case in point: talks on allowing the Olympic torch to pass through Taiwan en route to Beijing ended unresolved last month. Taiwan’s top China policy-maker Chen Ming-tong said the UN push helped derail those torch talks, as well as other unofficial cross-strait negotiations on a range of issues.

Washington therefore has a key role in maintaining Taiwan’s international breathing room. In cases where formal statehood is not an explicit requirement, it, the European Union and other democratic allies should help secure Taiwan’s participation. But it would be naïve to think that will happen soon. The EU reportedly expressed its strong rejection to the UN bid to Taiwan in private. And Washington’s relations with Taipei have never been worse; it’s in no mood now to go to bat for its island ally on WHO participation or other issues.

Such measures will have to wait until May 2008 at the earliest, when a new president takes power in Taiwan. It’s assumed Beijing would prefer to deal with KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou, who accepts the “one China” principle. Ma leads in many early polls, though analysts dismiss those as unreliable, and note that the DPP traditionally runs stronger national campaigns. But even if the DPP candidate Frank Hsieh does win, many expect better cross-strait (and Taiwan-US) relations, as Hsieh is considered a moderate.

All three sides would do well to put aside their illusions and seize that expected window of opportunity. The alternative is a worsening of today’s vicious cycle in which Beijing’s bullying and Taiwan’s push for recognition continuously feed off each other.

Even in the best of scenarios, though, the hopes which Taiwan’s DPP is raising with its U.N. bid—like those raised by Mr. You—are almost certain to be dashed. At a rally in Kaohsiung supporting that bid, those aspirations were clear. “We have to tell the world we are not a part of China,” said 22-year-old Hsu Li-ta, as he marched down an elevated highway with crowds of others. “I’m not Chinese; I’m Taiwanese. We’re a country, so why can’t we enter the U.N.? That’s really ridiculous, and makes me feel upset and depressed.”

That, unfortunately, is part of the “sadness of being Taiwanese,” as one of the island’s politicians once put it. And the only cure—short of what would certainly be a disastrous war—is cold, hard pragmatism.

Midnight maneuvers

Military muscle-flexing gets mixed reaction in Taipei

Jonathan Adams
Newsweek "Why It Matters" blog, October 3, 2007

At one in the morning Wednesday, downtown Taipei looked eerily like it was under military occupation. The narrow, dimly-lit side streets near the Presidential Office bristled with combat equipment -- mobile missile batteries in front of a TGI Friday's; tanks parked next to a 7-11; amphibious vehicles taking the place of the city's ubiquitous scooters.

That was all part of rehearsals for Taiwan's Oct. 10 National Day. Every year rifle-twirling troops march in formation at the celebration. But this year, they'll be joined by more military hardware than in the last 15 years, says the defense ministry. Some of Taiwan's most advanced equipment will be on display -- including, it's rumored, a new surface-to-surface missile for striking targets insideChina.

Why the show of force? This year's parade comes amid renewed cross-strait tensions. The island's President Chen Shui-bian is pushing a controversial referendum on joining the UN under the name "Taiwan," to be held alongside elections next March. That's part of an agenda to boost Taiwanese pride and assert the island's sovereignty before he steps down next May.

China's on edge, and it's responded with its own tough talk and posturing. (Beijing considers Taiwan a part of China awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.) On Sept. 15 -- the same day as a huge rally in Taiwan supporting the UN bid -- the city of Shanghai held its biggest airraid drill in decades. It held a smaller drill when Chen was inaugurated in May 2000.

Back in Taipei, some passersby gaped openly at what looked a scene out of a war movie. "I don't feel good about it -- I don't think all these military vehicles and soldiers should be on the streets," said one store clerk. "It's just like in an authoritarian country."

Others were more cynical. Chen is especially unpopular in the capital Taipei, where many view his administration as thoroughly corrupt after a string of scandals involving his aides and relatives. "It's just a show," said Chen Kuang-shing, as US-made Patriot missile batteries rumbled by. "He screwed up Taiwan's democracy, so he wants to show his authority."

Original site

Monday, October 22, 2007

UN bid puts Taiwan on skids with China

Taiwan's push for a seat in the UN has complicated cross-strait relations and rattled Washington

By Jonathan Adams
The Christian Science Monitor, September 25, 2007

Taiwan and China are gearing up for another season of escalating tensions that many, including Chinese President Hu Jintao, are calling a "high-risk period" for cross-strait relations.

Taipei's announcement Friday that the Olympic torch will not pass through Taiwan was one of the first major embarrassments for Beijing as it prepares for next August's Olympics.

Meanwhile, the island-nation's ruling party is pushing to join the United Nations under the name "Taiwan" – a bid the UN General Assembly rejected last Wednesday. But Taiwan plans to force the issue by holding a referendum that appears planned to help the party drum up nationalistic sentiment ahead of a presidential election next March. The US government, keen to avoid a conflict, has taken an unusually strong public stance against the vote, which officials see as a foolish provocation.

Taiwan's UN referendum may be timed for maximum political effect. But it's tapped a powerful current of Taiwanese national pride whose implications extend far beyond the next election. Beijing fears that nationalistic trend, and Washington has little sympathy for it. But in the coming years, both may well have to come to terms with it to avoid confrontation.

China sees the referendum as a step toward formal independence, which it's threatened to prevent by military force if necessary. The US, which has pledged to help defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression, wants to nip any cross-strait spat in the bud. But the island's ruling party looks set to press ahead with the referendum in order to fire up supporters before they go to the polls in March.

The result won't likely be war, say analysts. But the UN push has already helped derail cross-strait talks on a range of issues, including the Olympic torch. And Washington and Beijing are concerned that the referendum could set the stage for an all-out independence push.

That's a reckoning both the US and China are keen to avoid. On Sept. 11, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Christensen described Taiwan's UN gambit as "ill-conceived and potentially quite harmful," as well as a "needless provocation."

Meanwhile, the island's political logic means there's little prospect that it will back down. The ruling pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party is bent on holding on to power, and it's strongest when fighting on themes of Taiwanese identity. Indeed, the UN referendum issue has already helped it seize the initiative and set the agenda as the presidential campaign begins to heat up.

On the surface, Washington's stance puts it in an odd position: Joining with an authoritarian regime to oppose a democratic vote in Taiwan. But analysts say that's just realpolitik at work.

The US may cast itself as the global champion of democratic values, but in East Asia, as elsewhere, it has more pressing strategic concerns. And Washington can ill afford to wage a war with an increasingly strong Chinese military.

"The US doesn't want any scope for miscalculation that would require American flyboys and sailors to go to that part of the world," says Steve Tsang, director of the Taiwan Studies Programme at Oxford University.

Taiwan is also a unique case: The US military is the ultimate security guarantor of the island's democratic choices. But the US is not bound to defend the island in all circumstances. The Taiwan Relations Act, a domestic US law, merely requires Washington to offer the island weaponry to defend itself and for the White House to notify Congress if hostilities break out. Beyond that, any US administration is free to define the extent of its commitment to Taipei.

Former US diplomat Chas Freeman perhaps says it best: Taiwan "does not have a blank check that it can fill out in American blood," he wrote in a 1996 New York Times editorial.

This time around, the Bush administration sees the UN referendum as a move by Taiwan to unilaterally change the cross-strait "status quo." What's more, Washington views the referendum's use of "Taiwan" as a violation of the spirit of President Chen Shui-bian's past pledges to the US not to change the country's name.

So it is putting Taipei on public notice that it can't rely on US military muscle to back up its latest push for greater recognition.

"I don't think the US is trying to intervene in Taiwan's democracy," says Andrew Yang, a security expert at the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei. "They are trying to emphasize that if you decide [to go ahead with the referendum], we will not be responsible for the consequences."

The result – whether coordinated or not – is something akin to a "good cop, bad cop" routine in which Washington and Beijing have joined ranks against Taipei. China rattles the saber, while the US tries to reason with its island ally.

Washington's public lectures have sparked indignation in Taipei. Chen Ming-tong, head of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, acknowledged that the UN bid had likely thrown a wrench in cross-strait talks on the Olympic torch and other issues. But he insisted that China's bullying disrespect for the Taiwanese people is ultimately to blame.

"The criticisms are unfair," says Mr. Chen. "Can you imagine, our people go to peacefully cast their vote to show their will to join the UN, and people say that will cause disaster? What kind of world is that?"

Original site

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Footwear fight

"Why It Matters" blog, Newsweek, September 18, 2007

Taiwan's ruling and opposition parties are notorious for their endless bickering, including food fights that disrupt parliament sessions. Now there's a new front in the war: footwear.

Both parties hit below the belt in the leadup to dueling political rallies last Saturday, asking supporters to conform to a dress code. Opposition Kuomintang supporters were told to sport traditional Taiwanese blue and white slippers, the better to promote a "down with the people" image. (The party's major weakness is being seen as too China-friendly and out of touch with grassroots Taiwanese, especially in the south.)

Then a wag in the ruling pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party suggested its people wear tendy "Croc" shoes, in an obscure jab at U.S. President George. W. Bush.

Supporters of a planned Taiwan referendum on joining the United Nations under the name "Taiwan" are annoyed with the U.S. for its public opposition to the plan. (A top U.S. diplomat called the planned referendum "ill-conceived and potentially quite harmful"). In Taiwan, Crocs have been called "buxi xie" -- or "Bush shoes" -- ever since the fashion-challenged U.S. president was photographed sporting a pair with socks earlier this year. The point of wearing Crocs on Saturday? Stomp on Bush.

The footwear fracas turned out to be more public-relations gimmickry than anything else. Some opposition supporters -- and the party's presidential candidate -- did sport blue-and-white slippers. And blue-and-white-clad dancers -- dubbed "la mei" or "spicy girls" -- took to the stage to whip up the crowd.

But precious few Crocs were sighted at the pro-independence party's rally to show support for joining the U.N. Why the no-show? For one thing, the DPP ultimately decided against instructing followers to symbolically stomp on Bush. "It's not necessary," said rally-goer Wong Chin-jan, "The U.S. is still our friend, so there's no need to wear Bush shoes."

Goop 1, China 0

Environmental activist Zhang Zhengxiang points at toxic algae on China's Lake Dianchi

The goop that's swallowing the world

Across the globe, toxic algae outbreaks are getting bigger, nastier and more frequent. Can anything stop the rising tide of poisonous muck?

By Jonathan Adams
Newsweek International, September 24, 2007 (original draft)

Beside a lake outside Kunming, China, environmental activist Zhang Zhengxiang jabs his finger angrily over the water. The surface shimmers a bright, fluorescent green from the toxic algae that now clogs large swathes of the high-altitude, freshwater Lake Dianchi for most of the year.

The day-glo water may be pretty from a distance. But it's the tell-tale sign of a lake that's profoundly sick. Before the early 1980s, says Zhang, this was a swimming area, and shrimp from the lake was a prized delicacy at high-end restaurants in Shanghai and Beijing. Now, the lake's shrimp are inedible, and the toxins in the algae make swimming a decidedly unpleasant experience.

Zhang yanks up his trouser leg to show the rash left on his ankles from a recent wade into the once-pristine waters. "If you go in, your skin will turn red immediately," said a disgusted Zhang.

China's breakneck economic development has resulted in the world's fastest-growing toxic algae problem. But it's hardly alone.

Red tides of algae

Across the globe, scientists and officials are scrambling to contain a rising tide of poisonous green, brown and red goop. Monster algae blooms and toxic strains are laying waste to coastal fisheries, poisoning shellfish, sickening beachgoers, driving away tourists and fouling freshwater lakes and reservoirs -- some of which are critical sources of drinking water for nearby communities. Economic losses from toxic algae have been estimated at 830 million to 1.3 billion euros per year in Europe alone.

Pollution is the primary culprit. But now, scientists say a "perfect storm" of that and other causes -- overfishing, the transport of toxic algae species in the ballasts of ocean-going vessels, freak storms and global warming -- is raising the problem to unprecedented levels.

"We have more toxic algae species out there, more fisheries resources affected and higher economic costs," said Don Anderson, a top algae expert at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. "Globally, things are getting worse."

Growth in coastal algae blooms from 1970 to 2006

From Friend to Foe

Of course, most algae is harmless. In fact, it produces much of the oxygen necessary for animal life on earth, absorbs carbon dioxide, decomposes into critical fossil fuels, and is the base of marine food chains.

"If there's no algae, there's no ocean life," explained Wang Zong-ling, an algae expert at the First Institute of Oceanography in Qingdao, China.

Some algae is naturally toxic to humans and other animals, possibly to ward off predators, guess scientists, or else as a chemical fluke.

But rapid economic growth in advanced countries in the 20th century -- and now, in booming Asian economies like China's -- have increasingly turned algae from friend to foe.

Rising human exploitation of coastal areas has led to more run-ins with naturally occurring toxic algae. Meanwhile, pollutants have greatly increased the size and frequency of high-density "blooms" in oceans and lakes. In a reversal of algae's usual role, such blooms actually suck oxygen out of the water as they're dying, killing or driving away nearby aquatic life. And as such algae blooms increase in frequency, the amount of toxic blooms -- about a quarter of the total -- soars in proportion.

Fertilizer runoff from farms, factory waste, and untreated sewage are the key ingredients for many runaway algae blooms. Nutrients in such pollution fatten blooms to previously unseen sizes. Red algae feast on nitrogen, causing massive coastal "red tides", freshwater blue-green algae munch on phosphorous. Both types can also feed on nutrients from the atmosphere, for example in dirty rain.

Perhaps the most striking proof of the link between pollution and monster algae was the dramatic decline of such blooms' size and frequency in the northwest Black Sea in the early 1990s. That happened just after the former Soviet Union halted subsidies to the area, which greatly reduced fertilizer usage.

China: goop central

Today, the link between pollution and monster blooms is most apparent in China. Rogue algae is just one symptom of the environmental price China is paying for its roaring economy. Rapid growth has meant a surge in nitrogen and phosphorous pumped into the nation's waterways, which has fed both ocean and freshwater blooms.

So-called "red tides" off the Chinese coast have become larger and more frequent in recent years, particularly in the East China Sea off Shanghai. There were 22 red tides on the Chinese coast in 1998, according to government statistics. By 2005 there were 82 -- including 38 toxic blooms --covering more than 27,000 square kilometers and causing economic losses to the tune of $9 million.

"I wouldn't be surprised if more red tide events are reported along Chinese coasts in the near future," said Zhou Mingjiang, a red algae expert at the Institute of Oceanography in Qingdao. "The problem is getting worse."

Toxic blooms on China's freshwater lakes and reservoirs are even more worrisome, since they can impact critical tapwater supplies. This summer, the worst-ever such blooms were a media focus in China, as one lake or reservoir after another fell victim to poisonous goop. In May, a blue-green algae bloom on Lake Tai caused mass panic when it contaminated the water supply of 2 million residents of the city of Wuxi, in Jiangsu Province. Huge blooms were also reported on Lake Chao, further inland. And in late July, 100,000 residents in the northeast city of Changchun went waterless when a toxic bloom appeared on a key reservoir.

But the Ground Zero of China's toxic algae problem may be Lake Dianchi, in southwest Yunnan province. The situation's so bad that the nearby city of Kunming is now forced to gets its drinking water from upstream reservoirs instead of the lake. For at least five years running Dianchi's water has rated "5" or more on a key water quality index, meaning it's completely useless.

One reason: unlike with lakes further downstream in the Yangtze river system, officials can't divert river water into Lake Dianchi to help flush out toxic algae blooms. That's because it's too high -- nearly two kilometers above sea level – and fed by small mountain springs, or rivers that are themselves polluted. Nitrogen and phosphorous pours in from all sides and accumulates, turning the lake into the equivalent of a 200-square-kilometer clogged toilet bowl.

Lake Dianchi, outside Kunming, China

Other causes: overfishing and global transport

Such pollution isn't the only cause of monster blooms. In the Baltic Sea, the overfishing of cod has thrown the food chain out of whack in a way that leaves algae -- including the toxic kind -- the big winner. Fewer cod has meant more herring and less tiny critters called copepods, which are algae's natural predator.

Add plentiful nutrients from decades of fertilizer use and untreated runoff from countries surrounding the sea, and the result is goop gone wild: The largest-ever algae blooms were recorded in July 2005 and 2006, covering almost 150,000 square kilometers. (This year wasn't as bad due to heavy rains).

In Sweden, tourism has suffered, and swimming is a no-no in many areas because the toxins in the algae burn the skin. Unlucky dogs have slurped up algae-filled Baltic seawater containing hallucinogenic neurotoxins that give them the equivalent of a canine acid trip before killing them. And the blooms have become a massive eyesore on what was once an idyllic sea view.

"It's this huge brownish thing floating on the surface," said Edna Graneli, an algae expert at the Department of Marine Sciences at the University of Kalmar in Sweden. "If Jesus walked on water, it must have been on one of these blooms."

Algae blooms, Baltic Sea

Meanwhile, toxic algae is being shuttled around the globe by weird weather and ocean-going ships, whose numbers have soared along with globalization. The recent red tides off the northeast US coast, for example, are blamed primarily on a massive 1972 storm that introduced a foreign strain of algae to the region. This year for the third summer running, those tides led to a ban on shellfish harvesting, because mussels and clams mop up toxins in algae that can sicken and even kill humans if consumed in high enough concentrations.

And scientists suspect that a strain of toxic algae only recently seen in the Mediterranean may have hitched a ride on a ship from Brazil, where a genetically identical type has also been found. That toxic algae first grabbed headlines in July 2005 in Italy. Swimming was banned along a 15 kilometer stretch of the Italian Riviera near Genoa (including the elite, yacht-packed Portofino) after 200 people sought hospital treatment for nausea, diarrhea, stomach cramps, breathing difficulties, irritated eyes and vomiting. Such was the impact that local officials initially feared a bioterrorist attack.

What's most caught scientists attention is that this algae can spread toxins in airborne water droplets over large areas. Climate change may abetting the troublesome strain through warmer, more algae-friendly temperatures in the Mediterranean.

"We are facing a new kind of problem," said Naples-based algae expert Adriana Zingone. "But we're doing our best not to spread alarm about the situation."

Mission impossible

Battling toxic algae isn't easy -- and requires expensive and in many cases coordinated, multinational efforts. For low-density toxic algae like the one now plaguing Italy, there's very little that can be done. Strict new rules on the ballast discharge of ocean-vessels will hopefully reduce the further global spread of such species, and other "bioinvaders."

But where such strains have already set up shop, avoidance may be the only option. Experts cite the US state of Florida -- where red tides have long plagued Gulf of Mexico coastal waters -- as a model in creating monitoring and warning systems to keep humans out of harm's way during toxic algae attacks. And Japan has become adept at simply moving its aquaculture when it's under threat.

South Korea has successfully protected small aquaculture sites by dumping clay pellets in the sea; algae sticks to the pellets and then sinks to the ocean floor. But that technique is controversial in the west, where environmentalists worry about the unknown long-term effects. It's only feasible for small, targeted areas -- not for battling blooms like the Baltic's that spread over thousands of square kilometers, or for larger-area industries like Chile's salmon farms. And it deals with the effects of blooms, rather than their cause.

"Algae problems aren't something you can get rid of easily," said Ma Jun, an environmental activist at the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. "There's no silver bullet."

China's learning that the hard way. For its lakes -- and places with similar high-density blooms like the Baltic Sea -- the only real solution is to tackle the problem at its root. That means curbing the amount of nitrogen-and phosphorous rich pollutants that enter the water.

View of Lake Dianchi from Xishan

But at Lake Dianchi, the challenge of doing that is evident. Some $660 million has been spent on the problem in the last decade, with measures such as curbing industrial pollutants, building sewage treatment plants, intercepting polluted water and banning detergents containing phosphorous. But the situation remains dire. One reason, say environmentalists, is that the government hasn't been willing to crack down on fertilizer use.

"We've been using too much fertilizer in agriculture," said Liu Hongliang, a retired environmental engineering expert. "[Lake algae] will become more and more serious in the coming years."

By one estimate, 40% of pollutants that continue to pour into the lake come from agricultural runoff that continues unabated. The farms on the lake's eastern shore produce massive crops of roses and other popular flowers for markets in Asia and beyond. Farmers douse fields with fertilizer to increase yield.

One elderly couple wrapping bundles of flowers at a lakeside farm told NEWSWEEK that lakewater was pumped up the lake banks to irrigate the flower fields, and then drained -- untreated -- back into the lake. Bright green algae floated in the drainage ditches dug between fields lined with plastic hutches. Such farms provide livelihoods and critical growth for the local economy -- even as they dump noxious chemicals into the nearby lake.

No easy fix

Even countries that have successful curbed pollutants haven't solved their algae problems. With the most advanced water treatment plants on earth, Sweden is a model in this area. But it can't fight the Baltic's megablooms without help from neighboring countries whose water treatment is far less stringent. Japan spent massive amounts to successfully reduce high-density blooms on the inland Seto Sea, only to see lower-density toxic algae actually become more frequent.

And stopping the flow of new pollutants into waterways doesn't clean up the accumulated gunk of decades that's already fouled many lakes and coastal areas. Experts say removing such existing nutrients from lakes is possible but exorbitant -- and removing them from coastal waters may be impossible.

"How do you empty huge ecosystems of nutrients? There's no easy answer to what can be done," said Henrik Enevoldsen, coordinator a the IOC Science and Communication Centre on Harmful Algae in Copenhagen.

In many places, there's also little urgency in tackling the algae problem -- until it affects drinking supplies, as in China. Though its impact on marine species is at times dramatic, such species usually rebound nearby: Witness the rock lobsters periodically decimated by dying red tides that suck oxygen out of water off South Africa.

Shellfish poisoning due to toxic algae strains can be life-threatening, and contaminated drinking water is linked to liver and other cancers. Still, as a health problem, toxic algae pales next to greater global threats.

Its major impacts are economic and social. Developing countries like China are increasingly dependent on freshwater lakes and reservoirs to supply drinking water to swelling populations, and on coasts for food, tourism and livelihoods.

"If coastal zones are constantly impacted by massive blooms or toxic species, then we can't exploit these resources," said Enevoldsen. "That's very problematic."

Humans are turning critical waters to goop through unchecked economic activity. Unless that's curbed, more and more will suffer the toxic fate of China's Lake Dianchi.

With Wang Zhenru in Beijing

Friday, September 14, 2007

Balancing act

Taipei's military muscle is only just enough to deter Beijing

by Jonathan Adams
"Why It Matters" blog, Newsweek, September 13, 2007

Taiwanese Rear Admiral Liu Chih-chien isn't afraid of China. "We're confident that we're stronger than they are. Our training is better," he said on the flight deck of a hand-me-down, U.S.-built destroyer churning straight toward the Chinese coast Wednesday. Later, the thundering clap of the ship's five-inch guns provided an exclamation point to his comments.

Wednesday's mission: to impress a pack of journalists with the respectable (though less than awesome) might of the Taiwanese military. For all the talk of China's rapid military rise, Taiwan still has a qualitative edge in several key areas. One is on the high seas of the Taiwan Strait, where experts say Taipei's four destroyers -- put into service only in the last couple years -- are slightly better than China's Russian-built ships. Earlier in the day, reporters watched the best of Taiwan's Air Force -- U.S.-made F-16's from an elite unit -- scramble into the skies from their base in central Taiwan. The island's crack U.S.-trained pilots are still considered better than China's.

Still, Taiwan's hardware is far from cutting-edge. Take the destroyer: it was originally earmarked for the Shah of Iran, back in the 1970s. But the Iranian Revolution changed those plans. U.S. forces used the ship themselves, then gave it a makeover and sold it plus three others to Taiwan for USD$800 million. Uncle Sam only wants to provide Taiwan with the warships it needs to keep pace with China, nothing more. Ditto for fighters -- Taipei's request to buy top-of-the-line jets has so far been met with stony silence from Washington.

That's part of Washington's delicate balancing act in the Strait. The U.S. wants Taiwan to be strong enough to deter a Chinese attack, but not so strong that it's tempted to formalize its independence, risking war. Washington is able to maintain this balance because it's now the only country willing to sell the island major weaponry. Thus Wednesday's modest display -- a flexing of Taiwan's just-barely-strong-enough military muscle.

Original site

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Weak winds of the east

China's Olympic wind woes
By Jonathan Adams
Newsweek 'Why It Matters' blog, August 16, 2007

They can make it rain in Beijing, but can they make the wind blow in Qingdao?

The answer is no -- at least judging by the opening day of the 2007 Qingdao International Regatta, a test event for the Olympic sailing races that will be held here next August. Chinese authorities have boasted of their ability to provide clear skies for the Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing next year with technology to empty rain clouds. But in this picturesque coastal city on Wednesday, six of the eight scheduled races were cancelled due to light winds.

That disappointed Chinese spectators, many of them sporting Coca-Cola paper hats and waving red People's Republic of China flags. They'd paid to watch the races from picnic benches at the impressive Olympic sailing center here. But the fact is that Qingdao's winds just aren't that strong compared to similar Western venues, particularly in August. Average August wind speeds here are about 5 meters per second -- over the minimum required for racing by international rules, but short of the ideal, 7 to 8 mps.

Which raises the question of why the northern China city was chosen to host Olympic sailing in the first place. Speaking to a small pack of foreign journalists, Qingdao Vice Mayor Zang Aimin defended the selection, saying the city's wind conditions were not bad compared to those in other Chinese cities that vied for hosting rights, such as Hong Kong, Shanghai and Dalian. But she acknowledged that wimpy winds are a challenge. "Of course, it's a problem for European and U.S. athletes," she said with a cheerful smile. "They'll have to adapt to the winds of China."

Canary in a coalmine

A dolphin's demise: another alarm bell for China's blighted environment
Jonathan Adams, Newsweek 'Why It Matters' blog, August 10, 2007

For the last few years, scientists have feared that the baiji -- a freshwater dolphin unique to China's Yangtze River -- was critically endangered. Late last year, an international team spent six weeks scouring the river for any remaining baiji. On Wednesday, they published their results: they didn't find squat, despite twice covering the dolphin's range along a 1,669-kilometer channel of the Yangtze. That means that -- barring an errant baiji here or there -- the species is, for all intents and purposes, extinct. It now represents the first global extinction of any creature exceeding 100 kilograms for more than half a century.

That fact alone is enough to depress animal-lovers. But the baiji's fate has a far larger significance. It's the latest warning sign that China’s paying an increasingly high price for its breakneck economic development. The baiji's demise was caused in part by overfishing and an increase in ship traffic on the Yangtze -- many of the dolphins got fatally entangled in nets or sliced to ribbons by ship propellers. But another cause was the pollution dumped in ever-larger quantities into the Yangtze, by factories, farms and communities.

That pollution is exacting a high toll, and not just for the baiji. In a report last month, the OECD said that up to 300 million people are drinking contaminated water in China each day, with 190 million suffering from water-related illnesses each year, and 30,000 children dying annually from diarrhea caused by befouled water. One third of China's rivers and three-quarters of its major lakes are "highly polluted."

China's government appears to be taking notice. The nation's environmental agency last month announced strict new rules on lake pollution, which include banning all projects discharging ammonia and phosphorous, the removal of all fish farms by the end of 2008 and a ban on fish ponds, vegetable fields and flower farms that use fertilizers within one kilometer of a lake.

Yet recently I’ve talked with Chinese environmental activists, and the picture they paint is far from optimistic. Government crackdowns, new regulations and promises are usually only lip service, backed up by weak enforcement, they say. Nor are courts immune to the pressures of politics and cronyism. Central government diktats are often enforced only temporarily, until Beijing's attention turns elsewhere. Then, things go back to business as usual: powerful bosses, in collusion with local government officials, keep the factories and farms churning away.

Those officials are at times out-and-out corrupt. But they also have a strong incentive to avoid measures that would slow development: GDP growth is a key yardstick by which their performance -- and so, their promotions and salary -- is measured.

Public activism could pressure local governments, but that's rare due to a culture of fear. Those who speak out publicly against local business bosses or officials are often intimidated and beaten, and are quickly abandoned by friends and family afraid of trouble.

Take Zhang Zhengxiang, 58, an environmental gadfly I met recently in Kunming. For decades now, Zhang has fought to protect his beloved Lake Dianchi from illegal logging, pollutants and mismanagement. He says his land was taken away, his wife and daughter left him, and he had to sell his house. He's been roughed up many times by thugs he says were hired by local village officials or factory owners; in May they beat him and smashed his camera when he was taking pictures of the lake.

He pulled up his shirt to show me one nasty scar on his lower back. Now, he says he's heard that local officials plan to throw him in prison next month. He's agitated, angry, and more than a little eccentric -- living proof that some of the only Chinese brave (and crazy) enough to stand up to powerful local interests are those with little left to lose.

What Zhang says openly and defiantly, other environmental activists say off the record: China's environmental crisis is rooted in a rotten culture of corruption. Local officials incentives just aren't aligned with the public interest. Grassroots authorities and courts need to be more accountable to their communities, rather than to Communist party bosses who can make or break their careers. Only a more responsive political and legal system is likely to force such officials to better protect China's blighted waters.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

English is (still) king

Forget the hype about how everyone's learning Mandarin: the dominance of English as the world's unofficial second language is growing

Jonathan Adams and Max Hirsch, Newsweek International, August 20-27, 2007

In a cramped, colorful Beijing classroom on a Sunday afternoon, Cindy Wang, age 4, is learning the English words for body parts.

"Head and shoulders, knees and toes, eyes, ears, mouth and nose," she repeats, while doing her best to touch each body part in correct order.

"Toe" is particularly tough: it sounds the same as the Mandarin word for "head," which leads to some comic confusion.

Yet the instructor at the New Oriental language school perseveres, putting Cindy and 14 other hyper Chinese preschoolers through their paces with a rapid-fire mix of vocabulary, games and drills. In the back of the room, 15 parents watch the weekly ritual intently while scrunched into kid-size chairs.

One of them is Cindy's father, Wang Ming-ju, a software developer for Sony Ericsson. "No matter which field she chooses, English will be important for her future," he says.

China's recent rise has led of late to a new conventional wisdom: that Mandarin training is a must for much of the world. Learning Chinese has certainly become faddish, with reports of well-heeled New Yorkers hiring Mandarin-speaking au pairs for their kids or sending their high-schoolers to Chinese classes.

But the truth is that interest in Chinese still pales next to the lust for English that continues to grow in Asia and elsewhere.

Consider just one fact: Beijing now guesses that more than 40 million non-native speakers are studying Mandarin worldwide. But in China alone, some 175 million people are now studying English in the formal education system. And an estimated 2 billion people will be studying the language by 2010, according to a British Council report last year.

"The impression is that 'Mandarin fever' is rampant and spreading, but a close look shows this is an exaggeration," says Stephen Krashen, a second-language acquisition expert at the University of Southern California. "The dominance of English as an international language is growing."

To be sure, Mandarin has become increasingly useful, particularly in Asian business circles. And its utility will rise as China's clout grows.

But for the time being--and the foreseeable future--English remains an essential skill for those hoping to compete in the globalized world. From Brussels to Beijing, English is now the common language spoken in multinational firms, top universities and the scientific community.

A recent survey by the San Francisco-based firm GlobalEnglish found that 91 percent of employees at multinationals in Latin America, Europe and Asia believed English was "critical" or "important" to their current positions.

And the consulting group McKinsey warned China in 2005 that less than 10 percent of its college graduates were suitable for employment at multinationals--primarily because they couldn't speak English. "Any nation that ignores English learning does so at its own peril," says James Oladejo, an expert in language acquisition at Taiwan's National Kaohsiung Normal University.

In recognition of this fact, numerous countries are now starting to teach their kids English at ever-younger ages. According to the British Council, the prevailing model is to ensure that students gain basic-English proficiency in primary school and then to use it as a language of study in secondary school.

This model is much evident in Europe; according to Eurydice (an EU unit that shares information on education), more than 90 percent of primary students in Austria and Norway study English, as do more than 80 percent in Spain. In South America, Colombia and Chile have implemented ambitious to boost English skills nationwide. And the Philippines in 2003 mandated that English be the medium of instruction for math and science beginning in third grade, and for all subjects in secondary school.

No country is ramping up its English education as much as China, which already has the world's largest number of English students.

In 2001, the country mandated that English classes start in the third grade, rather than in secondary school, as before. In big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, such instruction now begins in grade one. And Chinese parents are trying to accelerate the process by sticking their kids into English buxiban--cram schools--as early as possible.

New Oriental alone says it alone has enrolled 4 million students, including 1 million last year; in total, China's English-language training market is now estimated to be worth $2.6 billion a year and to be growing at some 12 percent annually.

Driving that growth is China's rising standard of living: ever more parents can now afford supplementary English classes for their kids. These parents feel intense social pressure to enroll their offspring in buxiban so they can keep pace with their peers.

And the long-term benefits of English acquisition are widely touted. According to New Oriental, which says it has China's largest chain of private English-teaching centers, medium proficiency in English gives a Chinese child an almost 25 percent salary boost when he or she enters the working world; advanced English provides a more than 70 percent boost.

Of course, companies like New Oriental have a vested interest in making such arguments, but many outside experts echo them. Asians who work at multinationals but speak broken English are likely to bump up against a linguistic "ceiling" and be passed up for promotions.

Chinese firms aren't the only ones cashing in on this rapidly growing industry. According to the Educational Testing Service (ETS) --the U.S.-based organization that administers the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and similar exams--Eastern European countries and Persian Gulf states like Qatar have become big new English growth markets.

But even they are dwarfed by the hot economies of Asia. In Vietnam, for example--the region's newest "tiger"--an estimated 90 percent of all foreign-language learners now study English.

China's size makes it enormously attractive, but the market there remains restricted; ETS, for example, must work with government partners to administer its tests. But the English markets in South Korea, ETS's biggest moneymaker, and Japan, its second best, are far more mature with fewer restrictions, ensuring both are very good for business.

Indeed, South Korea seems to have the world's most extreme case of "English fever." "The hunger for Western--and specifically U.S.--education in Korea seems to have no limits," says Bhaskar Pant, head of ETS's Asia-Pacific operations. Many Korean universities now require all students to pass the TOEFL in order to graduate, and many employers won't hire applicants for domestic jobs unless they're similarly qualified--even for jobs where English is not routinely used.

The result has been a surge in demand for the test: according to ETS, the number of South Korean TOEFL takers grew from about 50,000 in 2001 to some 130,000 in 2006.

To prepare for the ever more important exam, South Koreans are seeking ways to expand their English training beyond rote memorization. An entire English-only town--where all conversation and instruction will be in English--is due to open in 2010 on Cheju Island. English hagwon (cram schools) have opened for moms so they can better help their kids, and more and more South Korean families now pack their young ones off to the United States for expensive English-only summer camps.

The country also now boasts at least 10 "English villages," mock Western-style communities complete with "post offices," "pharmacies" and the like, where kids can practice their skills in everyday environments. One Korean Internet provider has even gone so far as to start offering English courses for fetuses still in the womb.

The Koreans' motivation for pursuing such programs is clear. "Chinese is seen as a regionally important language, [but] not a globally important language on par with English," says Marilyn Plumlee, the president of Korea TESOL (an organization for English language teachers). At the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, where she teaches, Plumlee says interest in Chinese has spiked, but English majors still outnumber Chinese majors by more than 2 to 1. In fact, China's rise has actually increased the desire to learn English among the country's neighbors, as they seek to maintain a competitive edge.

Take Taiwan; in 2005, it made English education compulsory starting in the third grade. Three million students now study English in Taiwan's schools, compared with roughly 1 million in 2001. And nearly 60 percent of all primary and secondary students attend a growing number of private crammers. Taiwan is also following South Korea's lead by opening an "English village"--all part of an attempt to raise Taiwan's "global IQ," says Poly Chang, an official with the King Car Education Foundation, which promotes English education."

A similar process is underway in Japan. Mandarin has surged past French and German to become the second most popular foreign language taught in the country, after English. But Chinese still ranks a distant second, and English learning is increasing. According to government statistics, in 2005 there were some 3.6 million high-school students studying English, and just 22,000 studying Chinese. And last year Tokyo created 100 "Super English High Schools," where core classes are taught exclusively in English.

Farther afield, Mandarin also trails far behind English in influence. Prominent language researcher David Graddol, the author of last year's British Council report, says that in the U.K. Chinese has started to "challenge French as the foreign language of choice." But he's skeptical it will ever weaken English's hold over the EU.

"It won't happen," says Graddol flatly. "English has become the lingua franca of Europe … it's the language of integration."

The statistics are telling: from 2002 to 2005, the numbers of German primary-school students studying English soared from 16 percent to 47 percent, and in Greece they've doubled from 44 percent to nearly 90 percent. And throughout the EU, more and more universities are now offering instruction in English to make themselves more attractive.

Of course, none of this guarantees that English's current importance will last forever. Graddol, for one, predicts that after peaking at 2 billion in 2010, the number of English students worldwide will begin to drop sharply. Eventually, other languages like Mandarin could replace it.

But the operative word is "eventually."

"Chinese will not challenge English any time soon," says David Nunan, a Hong Kong-based expert on teaching English as a second language. "English will remain the dominant global language for at least the next 50 years because of its pre-eminent position as the language of science, technology, tourism, entertainment and the media."

If study patterns are any guide, even many Chinese seem to agree with this assessment. Back at New Oriental's classroom in Beijing, Wang Ming-ju and the other parents give silent encouragement as their kids wrestle with new vocabulary.

"What do you use to listen to the radio?" the instructor asks. "Eyes?" ventures a girl named Kitty. "Foot!" insists John. After some fidgeting and murmuring, Anny finally pipes up with a tentative "Ears?"

No one said learning English would be easy. But these preschoolers, at least, have got a running start.

With Nick Hayes in London