Sunday, May 27, 2007

Battle of the moderates

Frank Hsieh's clinching of the pro-independence party's presidential nomination spells a close race in 2008

By Jonathan Adams
Newsweek Japan, May 16
(untranslated and unedited draft)

In January 2006, Frank Hsieh stepped down from the premiership after a disappointing year. He'd taken office with a new, conciliatory approach -- both toward China, Taiwan's rival across the Strait, and to the domestic Kuomintang-led opposition. But his outstretched hand was met with a cold shoulder: Beijing passed its "Anti-Secession Law" formalizing its threat to use military force against Taiwan, and the opposition continued to block the ruling party's agenda at every turn. A disillusioned Hsieh left the country to nurse his wounds abroad. Some observers thought his political career was finished.

Less than a year and a half later, Hsieh has become the pro-independence party's candidate in the closely watched 2008 presidential race -- and quite possibly, the next leader of Taiwan. It's a dramatic change of fortunes for the mild-mannered Hsieh -- a lawyer educated in Taiwan and Japan's Kyoto University. His win last week in the Democratic Progressive Party primary means he'll face off against the man who, until recently, was seen as shoo-in for the presidency: the Kuomintang's equally gentle Ma Ying-jeou. With the race now underway and nine months to go, observers say the vote is up for grabs -- and some give the DPP an edge. But regardless of who wins, hopes are already high for a thaw in cross-strait relations, as both Ma and Hsieh are moderate centrists who back closer economic links with the mainland. Their softer rhetoric contrasts with Chen Shui-bian who constantly irritates Beijing with his brash trumpeting of the island's de facto independence.

More than anything, Hsieh, 60, is known for his flexibility and strong work ethic -- qualities that date back to his days as a champion gymnast in his youth. His defense of pro-democracy activists in a famous 1980 trial gives him credibility with the Democratic Progressive Party's true believers. A few years after that, his dogged legal work was instrumental in revealing ties between the KMT and the gangsters who murdered author Henry Liu, a vocal critic of the KMT, in California. "Hsieh took the lead and proved to be a good advisor and courageous and effective lawyer," said Jerome Cohen, who represented Liu's widow in legal proceedings in Taiwan and is now a professor of Chinese law at New York University. And Hsieh was the party's vice presidential candidate in the nation's first free presidential election in 1996 -- running alongside a staunchly pro-independence figure.

But he also earned a reputation as a competent, pragmatic administrator during his time as mayor of the port city of Kaohsiung from 1998 to 2005. Hsieh is credited with giving the city a much-needed makeover, infusing it with culture and cleaning its polluted industrial waterfront (Kaohsiung's once notoriously dirty Love River is now lined with outdoor cafes and boasts brightly-lit tour boats). He pushed for cross-strait shipping links then to revive Kaohsiung's flagging port business, and even tried to visit the mainland to discuss the issue -- only to see his proposal nixed by Chen's government.

Hsieh's proven commitment to Taiwan's democracy and push for warmer economic ties with China make him a formidable candidate. That stance aligns him closely with the island's average voter, who favors more commerce with China, but wants to keep a political distance. Meanwhile, the more China-friendly Ma's star has dimmed amid charges he misused funds as Taipei mayor, criticisms about his weak leadership of the opposition, and concerns that he doesn't sufficiently embrace rising Taiwanese identity -- a deeply emotional issue for many voters. "Many people think Ma can't win the election," said one KMT insider. "His outlook is different from many people -- they think they're Taiwanese, but Ma thinks he's Chinese." So far, Ma's efforts to woo the powerful legislative speaker Wang Jyn-ping as his running mate have been rebuffed -- a sign of the current skepticism of Ma, even within his own party.

If Ma's woes continue, some observers now give Hsieh's party the advantage. "It looks good for them right now," said Bruce Jacobs, an expert in Taiwan politics at Monash University in Australia. As far as cross-strait relations go, there may not be much difference between the two men. Both would bring a softer, more measured tone to the presidency. Beijing would prefer a Ma presidency, thanks to historical -- and now warming -- ties between the Chinese Communist Party and KMT. And a cross-strait political settlement is a possibility under Ma, while probably out of Hsieh's reach. But even if Hsieh takes power, analysts say Beijing could seek a fresh start -- in the same way they were quick to engage Japan's Shinzo Abe after the more outspoken Junichiro Koizumi left the scene.

That would be welcome news for investors, businesspeople and many average Taiwanese, who have been eagerly awaiting progress on a raft of issues expected to help revive the island's anemic economy. Those include a long-awaited agreement on allowing more Chinese tourists to visit Taiwan; regular cross-strait cargo and passenger flights; relaxation on limits to Taiwanese firms' China-bound investment; and allowing Taiwanese banks to do retail business in the high-potential mainland banking market. Ma is a stronger advocate of such economic opening, but analysts say Hsieh would also make progress, albeit more slowly. Sophia Cheng, head of Taiwan research at investment bank Merrill Lynch, said Hsieh's primary win, in which he trounced two hardline pro-independence candidates, was a clear vote for moderation. "The DPP already tested what the majority voter wants -- and they want economic development more than independence," said Cheng, who predicts a DPP victory by a hair next year.

Of course, given the volatile nature of cross-strait relations, nothing is a given. To be sure, Hsieh and Chen's styles are very different, and Hsieh is seen as a stronger backer of economic opening. But in substance, their stances on the island's sovereignty are the same: Both insist on Taiwan's democratic autonomy and back further constitutional revision, which Beijing sees as a "timeline for independence." Some think Hsieh's DPP might back a boycott of the Beijing Olympics next summer to win political points domestically -- a move that could sharply raise cross-strait tensions. And in China, anxieties are mounting that Chen may use the last year of his term (he will step down from office in late May 2008) to push a bold move toward full independence. "Beijing considers the next year to be a 'high-risk period'," said Jin Canrong, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing. "They have to prepare for the worst."

But if China and Taiwan can navigate those choppy waters, it looks like smoother sailing come mid-2008 -- whether it's Hsieh or Ma at the helm.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Painful progress

(click picture for video of legislative deliberations)

Taiwan's young, messy democracy may not be easy on the eyes, but it's made important strides in recent years.

By Jonathan Adams
Newsweek International, May 14-21, 2007 issue

South Korea isn't the only democratic success story in Asia these days. The competition isn't just coming from Japan; it's Taiwan, rarely recognized as an independent state, that's making some of the best progress.

Since holding its first free presidential elections in 1996, Taiwan has most often been associated with the fistfights that occasionally break out in its fractious legislature. But under the surface, the island has been quietly fortifying its political system. Recent surveys by the research group Asian Barometer rank Taiwan third, after Japan and South Korea, on support for liberal democratic values such as civilian rule and an independent judiciary. And its citizens support free speech more strongly than those of any other surveyed country.

Recent reforms virtually guarantee that the country's politics will grow even more pluralistic. In 2003, citizens were granted the power of referendum. In 2005, they were given final say via plebiscite over constitutional amendments, and the same round of reform will create single-member legislative districts rather than the current multi-member ones. That move is expected to create a more stable two-party system; the first election under the new rules is in December.

Perhaps most remarkable is the way the judiciary has become a check on the other powers. Last fall, President Chen Shui-bian's wife was charged with corruption, as was a former opposition leader. Courts have also convicted Chen's son-in-law and one of his top aides. Such high-level cases were once impossible to imagine. Despite grumblings, the country's formerly rotten political class has bowed to the rule of law. The high-profile charges notwithstanding, last year Taiwan ranked 34th out of 163 countries in Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index—second only to Japan among Asia's free countries.

That's not to say the country isn't still suffering from growing pains. The government is an awkward hybrid of a presidential and parliamentary system—a problem it hopes to fix with further constitutional revisions. Gridlock is the legislature's default setting. And the island is bitterly split over its identity (is it Chinese or Taiwanese?), China policy, and how to deal with the vestiges of almost 40 years of authoritarian rule—key questions its young democracy has been unable to answer.

Case in point: the recent controversy over the government's moves to pull down—and, in one case, dismember—the remaining statues of Chiang Kai-shek, who established the Kuomintang's autocratic rule over Taiwan after fleeing the mainland in 1949.

Democratic consolidation doesn't make for as good TV as public brawling, of course. Thanks in part to the island's freewheeling media, Taiwan's legislative meltdowns still dominate the limelight. But while political life here may look chaotic, in the ways that matter it's growing more stable all the time.

Original site

That sinking feeling

For small Pacific island nations, rising sea levels look set to worsen long-standing problems

Jonathan Adams
International Herald Tribune, May 3, 2007

Dire climate change predictions may seem like science fiction in many parts of the world. But in the tiny, sea-swept Pacific nation of Tuvalu, the crisis has already arrived.

Tuvalu consists of nine low-lying atolls totaling just 26 square kilometers, or 10 square miles, and in the past few years the "king tides" that peak in February have been rising higher than ever. Waves have washed over the island's main roads; coconut trees stand partly submerged; and small patches of cropland have been rendered unusable because of encroaching saltwater.

The government and many experts already assume the worst: Sometime in the next 50 years, if rising sea-level predictions prove accurate, the entire 11,800-strong population will have to be evacuated.

The ocean could swallow Tuvalu whole, making it the first country to be wiped off the map by global warming.

But in one respect, the Tuvaluans may actually be the lucky ones - at least compared with some of their Pacific island neighbors. The New Zealand government already takes in a quota of Tuvaluans every year, many of whom have found jobs in the strawberry fields and packing plants around Auckland. And it has assured Tuvalu that it will absorb the entire population if the worst comes to pass.

That is a lifeline that many similarly threatened island nations - including Kiribati, Vanuatu, the Marshall Islands, the Cook Islands, Fiji and the Solomon Islands - do not yet have.

While their stories may not be as compelling as Tuvalu's, such nations include atolls that may also vanish. And they depend on vulnerable, low-lying coastal areas for living space, cropland and tourism. For them, even conservative estimates of rising waters look set to make life on once-idyllic islands increasingly nasty, crowded and very, very wet.

"Entire Pacific islands disappearing from inundation is indeed dramatic," said Asterio Takesy, director of the Pacific Regional Environment Program, an intergovernmental organization based in Apia, Samoa. "But a complete loss of livelihoods from decreased fisheries, damaged coral reefs, tourism affected by dengue epidemics, and agriculture destroyed because of changing rain patterns - surely these are just as worthy of our attention."

The region already faces a witches' brew of problems that environmentalists say are being worsened by climate change: coastal erosion, saltwater intrusion onto taro cropland and tourist sites, shortages of potable water, anemic economies propped up by foreign aid, disease, dependence on sugar-packed, processed food imports.

And there are health problems like obesity and diabetes exacerbated by such food imports. A recent World Health Organization survey found that the South Pacific was the world's most overweight region.

"We're not dealing with climate change on its own, because we have an expanding population and so greater stress on resources anyway," said Ashvini Fernando, regional climate change coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund South Pacific Program, based in Fiji. "Climate change makes those stresses so much greater."

Some experts warn that, ultimately, these issues will combine to power a wave of emigrants fleeing the Pacific islands. Indeed, there are already signs of flight: according to a study by the Australian government, applications for New Zealand residency from eligible Pacific island nations shot up sharply in 2005 and 2006, compared with 2003.

Some countries' economies already depend on remittances from islanders who have gone abroad to find jobs, and climate change could swell those numbers. Meanwhile, villages have already been evacuated from low-lying areas in Vanuatu and the Carteret Islands of Papua New Guinea.

Ben Namakin, an environmentalist and native of Kiribati, says that, in his homeland, saltwater intrusion is already ruining taro patches and spoiling well water, houses are being flooded, coastlines are receding, and a causeway whose beauty he had appreciated since he was a child collapsed last October.

And, as in many such Pacific island nations, there is little higher, habitable land for people to move to.

"I really don't know where they will go," Namakin said in an e-mail interview. "They may move further inland, but the more they do that, they will end up on somebody else's land or reach the ocean on the other side, as the islands are too narrow."

The result could be a resource grab that pushes governments to the breaking point, and a clamor to relocate to developed countries on the Pacific Rim or elsewhere.

"There's going to be an increased demand for migration, as people look for economic opportunities," said Benjamin Preston, an Australian government scientist in marine and atmospheric research. "And as the impact of climate change becomes more severe, that's going to add urgency into the equation."

If there is a mass exodus, countries like Tuvalu - which have contingency plans and close relations with a developed country partner like New Zealand - will have an advantage. The Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia, for example, could benefit from closer historical ties with the United States (both are former U.S.-administered trust territories). The biggest losers will be unskilled, poor islanders who cannot easily emigrate - especially in politically turbulent states like the Solomon Islands.

Preston and others say that, aside from New Zealand, there are few signs that developed nations are taking an active approach to dealing with rising emigration from the region.

That may be in part because the predicated climate change scenarios still seem too alarmist and far away to accept. Even in Tuvalu, many islanders do not see inundation as an urgent problem, said Lono Leneuoti, a Tuvaluan tourism official.

"You don't really notice that much of a difference, except during the king tide months," he said. "It's hard to believe that 50 years from now the place is going to be under water."

Environmentalists like Namakin are focused on fight over flight, drawing up adaptation plans and continuing to urge countries like the United States and Australia to take the lead in cutting emissions.

Such action "would give us more hope for the future, instead of starting to pack and leave," he said.

The Pacific Regional Environment Program has joined other groups in the region to start a $34 million adaptation effort that includes preparing roads for flooding in the Federated States of Micronesia; improving sea walls and drainage systems in the Cook Islands; and relocating gardens, planting salt-resistant crops and reviving the fishing industry in Solomon Islands atolls.

But even Takesy, the program's director, says such efforts may be akin to "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic" unless strong measures are taken by developing countries to curb emissions.

"I do not believe that the world should sit idly by while entire countries are slowly but surely annihilated," Takesy said. "And do you really want five million angry Pacific Islanders to come knocking on your door? Have you seen our rugby players?"

Original site

Fiddling while Taipei burns

Taiwan lowers its defenses
by Jonathan Adams
Far Eastern Economic Review, April 2007

Shortly after China announced an 18% hike in military spending last month, Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense promptly protested: The rising spending, it said, was a clear sign of China's provocative military threat—not just to Taiwan, but to overall peace in the region. Then it repeated long-standing calls for approval of the purchase of arms from the United States that have been on offer by the Bush administration since 2001.

Key items on the military's shopping list include an upgrade of Taiwan's existing Patriot antimissile batteries and the purchase of even more advanced Patriots, to counter the threat of over 1,000 Chinese short-range missiles bristling across the Strait. Also coveted are Orion submarine-hunting aircraft to neutralize China's rapidly growing submarine force and a new fleet of 12 submarines to bolster Taiwan's meager force of four—two of which are the outdated Guppy-class subs. The Taiwanese air force also wants to buy more than 60 U.S.-made F-16 fighters to preserve its shaky dominance in the skies over the Strait. But Washington has made it clear it's not likely to release the fighters until Taiwan first moves on the other items on offer.

Taiwan has purchased some of these other items already, most notably four destroyers, which went into service in 2005 and last year. And, just recently, it unveiled an upgrade to its homemade fighter jet. To help fund further acquisitions, Taipei has requested a much-larger 2007 defense budget of NT$320 billion ($9.6 billion)—2.85% of GDP—and hopes to boost that further, to 3% of GDP, in 2008. But the opposition continues to block the completion of the purchase—along with the government's entire 2007 budget—amid fierce political wrangling in the legislature.

No wonder some experts think the island's politicians are fiddling while Taipei burns. "[The situation] is quite urgent because there's a tip-over of the military balance in the Strait to China's side," says Andrew Yang, a security expert at the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies. "Consolidating Taiwan's defense is indispensable, because without a strong defense, Taiwan will be in no position to negotiate with Beijing." On a range of measures, analysts say China is developing a decisive edge, while Taiwan remains mired in partisan bickering over how best to respond. And in areas where Taiwan still competes—such as air power—China is catching up fast. That leaves Taiwan increasingly dependent on the U.S. as its only de facto military ally and sole weapons supplier.

But China has been focusing its military spending precisely on an "antiaccess" strategy aimed at keeping the U.S. out of a fight: Russian-built submarines and potent Sunburn antiship missiles to take out or hinder U.S. aircraft carrier groups that might come to Taiwan's defense, and antisatellite capabilities to eliminate the American military's eyes and ears in a conflict.

Meanwhile, urgent U.S. voices have been warning that the American commitment to help protect Taiwan is not absolute, and is premised on Taiwan actively taking responsibility for its own defense. The artfully worded Taiwan Relations Act legally binds the U.S. government to offer arms to help Taiwan's defense, but leaves unclear exactly how the U.S. would respond if the cold war in the Strait became hot. "We have been very patient," said Stephen Young, the top U.S. representative in Taiwan, at a dinner last month. "Let me now be straightforward... . The time has come for all political parties [in Taiwan] to realize that security is too important to be treated in this fashion."

To be sure, Taiwan has not been standing completely still. In 2002 it redefined its overall strategy as one of "active defense." Resources have been shifting away from the army and to the air force and navy, with the point of moving a potential battle off the island and into the air and seas of the Taiwan Strait. Military command has been streamlined, with a focus on improving communication and coordination between battle units. The aim is to maintain Taiwan's edge as a nimble, high-tech David to the People's Liberation Army (PLA)'s lumbering Goliath.

Early warning radar, signals intelligence and satellite capabilities have all been enhanced—as have anti-cyber-warfare units designed to thwart increasingly sophisticated hacker attacks suspected to originate from PLA installations in Fujian province. In recent years, cyber-warfare and special operations were incorporated into Taiwan's annual military exercises in anticipation of China's battle plan for a lightning-quick offensive designed to paralyze and seize the island.

Still, that's a far cry from all that Taipei should be doing, experts say. There's a long list of laments: Basic munitions are under-stocked, training isn't sufficiently rigorous, morale is low, conscript turnover is high, military service isn't taken seriously enough, top military posts have been reshuffled too often and promotions have become too politicized, hurting the island's attempt to professionalize its forces.

Broadly speaking, military spending is seen as simply inadequate to the China challenge. In the past few decades, the island has seen a massive spending shift from guns to butter, even as China's arms buildup has accelerated. Defense spending accounted for almost half of government outlays in the 1950s; that declined to about 25% by 1995; and around 16% between 2001 and 2004. The 2006 military budget was nominally 2.2 percentage points lower than it was 10 years earlier, and far lower in real terms. "In Taipei, domestic politics dominate. Strategic thought is lacking," writes Shirley Kan, a cross-Strait security expert at the Congressional Research Service in Washington, D.C., in a recent essay. "There is no sense of urgency when it comes to Taiwan's self-defense."

Meanwhile, the government has passed generous social benefits such as national health-care and pension plans. That has stretched coffers to the limit: The government originally put the big-ticket U.S. weapons purchases in a "special budget," isolating them in part to dodge a legal ceiling on public debt. Such maneuvers have given the opposition easy ammunition for calling the government fiscally irresponsible—a potent charge, as real incomes continue to stagnate for all but the wealthiest few.

The opposition has also made an argument that resonates with the business-savvy, pragmatic public: The U.S. is giving the island a raw deal, offering them overpriced weapons they don't need and can't afford—all to benefit arms dealers who don't have Taiwan's welfare at heart. The opposition is thus harking back to a far-reaching scandal involving alleged kickbacks in the purchase of French frigates in the early 1990s—still a sore memory for many Taiwanese.

Beyond the public's cynicism about large arms deals, there's also a more fundamental debate on how to view China, and how best to shore up the island's security. When Taiwanese peer across the Strait, some see an estranged brother, while others see an implacable enemy. The former tend to vote for the Kuomintang led opposition, which itself has roots in the mainland. They emphasize China's economic opportunity as well as its military threat, and argue that the best way to deal with Beijing is with wisdom, not weapons. Even the hundreds of short-range missiles aimed squarely at the island don't look as threatening from this perspective: The weapons are only there to deter a push by independence hardliners who want to permanently break from China. In substance, that break would consist of the scrapping of the current "Republic of China" cherished by the KMT and its allies, and the establishment in some form of a new "Republic of Taiwan."

"If Taiwan wants independence, China is a threat, but if you give up independence, it's not. In fact, China is an asset, especially for Taiwan's future economic relations," says Chang Ya-chung, a professor at National Taiwan University and former chairman of an alliance that has opposed the big-ticket U.S. arms purchase. "And if Taiwan wants to go independent, how many weapons are enough?"

For pro-independence hardliners, though, trying to engage a hostile China is dangerously naïve. Having finally thrown off the yoke of the KMT's authoritarian rule, they're determined to prevent takeover by another undemocratic regime from the mainland. And they're indignant about the idea of allowing the PLA to have an effective veto over the island's democratic choices. Some not only want a robust defense; they even have hopes of building up an indigenous offensive deterrent against China to reduce the island's military dependence on the U.S., which frowns on their ambitions for all-out independence.

While a missile deterrent might boost morale on the island, some observers say it would heighten tension with China while doing little to alter Beijing's calculations. "If Beijing decides to use force against Taiwan, it will have to be willing to accept the prospect of war with the U.S., loss of access to the U.S. market, possible conflict with Japan, global condemnation and likely economic sanctions," writes Michael McDevitt, a retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral at the Center for Naval Analyses in Alexandria, Virginia. "If China's leaders are not 'deterred' from using force by these potential consequences, it does not seem plausible that the prospect of a few Taiwanese cruise missiles landing in downtown Shanghai would make them change their minds."

In between the antiarms and "take the fight to China" crowds are moderate voices that tend to get drowned out. U.S. officials publicly insist they are not encouraging Taiwan to enter an unwinnable arms race with China, but merely want it to be able to enter any future talks with China from a position of strength.

That view is shared by Taiwanese and U.S. defense analysts, who say the island's own capabilities are becoming even more critical as China develops high-tech means to complicate any U.S. response to a cross-Strait conflict. "If China's military is able to execute its antiaccess strategy, then it will become more difficult for the U.S. to come to Taiwan's aid, and Taiwan will have to rely on itself," says Arthur Ding, a cross-Strait security expert at National Chengchi University in Taipei. "Arms sales will become more significant for Taiwan's military strategy, not just politically significant."

Given those trends, Taiwan's dithering on defense appears especially ill-timed. Still, there's some hope for relief. Legislative reforms enacted in 2005 are expected to gradually create a more stable two-party system, and reduce the outsized influence of fringe, personality-driven parties. An example: One small, hard-line pro-unification party has successfully blocked discussion of the U.S. arms purchases in committee for more than two years, preventing a floor debate on Taiwan's basic defense strategy. It is hoped that such examples of disproportionate politics will be eliminated through reform.

But there's plenty of blame to go around, and observers of all stripes have honest differences on whether the big-ticket items on the military wish list really serve Taiwan's security goals. Asked who was most to blame for the current impasse, security expert and former Taiwan defense official Lin Chong-pin said: "Perhaps it's our still-maturing democracy. We lack a political culture where people can agree to disagree, and where rational discussions can take place."

That's part of the growing pains faced by any young democracy. But if Taiwan intends to meet the challenge of China's rapid military buildup and protect its autonomy and hard-won democratic gains, it had better find a way to grow up fast.