Monday, February 25, 2008

Time-out for lawmakers

Taiwan party pledges a new civility

By Jonathan Adams
International Herald Tribune, February 22, 2008

Taiwan's pro-independence party has called a "time out" on brawling in the Legislature ahead of the island's March 22 presidential vote. But observers say it is too early to tell whether the truce will hold.

The island's law-making body is notorious for its bad behavior, with shoving matches, food fights, hair pulling and even fist fights par for the course for all parties.

Last year, one female legislator lobbed a shoe at the speaker in a fit of pique; another snatched away and chewed up a bill she did not like in May 2006.

But now the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party says it will play nice in the new legislative session that opened Friday. The DPP still controls Taiwan's presidency but suffered a severe setback in legislative elections last month, and has yet to fully regroup.

"We have no intention of having any hard collision with the Kuomintang right now," said Lai I-chung, the party's deputy director of international affairs, in a phone interview on Friday, referring to the rival Nationalist Party, or KMT. "It's not worth it to launch those kind of fireworks anymore. We want a smooth election and for the Legislature to perform its duties."

If that mood holds, it would be a sign of growing maturity in Taiwan's young democracy. It could also pave the way for an end to nearly eight years of legislative gridlock.

One KMT insider, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said he thought the DPP's move was just a short-term gambit ahead of the vote next month.

"Before the election, the DPP won't start any conflicts, because it's good for the party's image and for its presidential candidate," he said, adding that the opening session Friday proceeded smoothly. Once the election is over, all bets are off, he said.

Some analysts say, however, that the truce may be more a reflection of the DPP's low morale, after its poor showing in the recent legislative elections, than a real change in approach.

"The party's like a horse without a head - there's no real leader, and no direction," said Antonio Chiang, a media commentator and former official in the DPP government. "It's not that they won't fight; it's that they don't know what to fight for. They're confused and waiting for the election."

Indeed, the pro-independence party is showing signs of strain as its presidential candidate, Frank Hsieh, trails in public opinion polls. Earlier this week President Chen Shui-bian suggested he might call an emergency "defensive referendum" if the Legislature does not put forward its own compromise referendum on joining the United Nations, according to press reports. But Hsieh does not support such a "defensive" referendum, nor does most of the DPP caucus, Chiang said.

Still, many analysts say the Legislature is likely to be a kinder, gentler one, if only because of numbers. The one that convened Friday has only 113 seats, after changes that halved it from 225.

The DPP holds only 27 seats, which means fewer troops to marshal in skirmishes against a far larger KMT caucus.

The new system also requires broader support, giving legislators an incentive to moderate their tempers. Those who act out with fists, thrown lunchboxes or shoes are now more likely to be punished at the ballot box, said the DPP's Lai. "The constraints come from the new electoral system. It discourages actions like that," he said.

Still, Lai warned that peace in the Legislature would depend on whether the KMT respects the minority view or ignores the DPP's olive branch and abuses its majority. "A lot depends on how the KMT responds," he said.

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Click for sky lantern

Taiwan Lantern Festival causes concern for environmentalists

By Jonathan Adams
International Herald Tribune, Feb. 20, 2008

PINGSI, Taiwan: On a bridge here one night this week, Candice Lee and Lynn Liu, both 22, giggled as they lit an oil-soaked wad of folded paper at the bottom of a meter-high lantern. Like a hot-air balloon, the illuminated lantern rose from their outstretched hands up into the darkness.

Written in ink on the lantern was a plea to the gods for romantic intervention: "We've been good girls - please send us men."

Every year during the Lantern Festival, thousands of people in Taiwan light such lanterns and send them skyward with prayers - a folk ritual dating back centuries that has counterparts on the mainland, as well as in Japan, Vietnam and Thailand.

In Taiwan, the festival reaches a climax here Thursday, the 15th day of the first month in the lunar calendar. Some 40,000 to 50,000 people are expected to crowd this former coal-mining community in northeastern Taiwan - the island's "sky lantern" capital - to take part in a mass celebration that will sow the night sky with thousands of incandescent lamps.

If Taiwan's environmentalists had their way, though, at least some of those people would stay home. As an incentive, Taiwan's Environmental Protection Administration this year introduced its "virtual sky lantern" Web site, where people can release a digital lantern rather than a real one.

The goal is to blunt what the EPA says is the environmental harm of the festival.

Every year the debris from thousands of burned-out lanterns litters the Taiwan countryside. Some even ignite fires: In 2006, according to press reports, a sky lantern set a field on fire next to Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, sending up huge clouds of smoke and forcing officials to temporarily shut a runway.

The virtual lantern campaign is just the latest front in the battle between the island's environmentalists and other activists, on one side, and adherents of traditional folk, Taoist and Buddhist practices on the other.

"Some people say sky lanterns make too much garbage and damage our environment," said Andy Hsiu, of the Taipei County travel and tourism bureau, which promotes the annual festival. "But others think it's not a big problem. They'd rather protect our tradition."

Environmental and other forms of activism gained steam in Taiwan after martial law was lifted in 1987 and the island democratized. Now, Taiwan is trying to strike a balance between activists' demands and respect for cultural traditions that date back centuries. In the process, it is exploring creative compromises like the online sky lantern site, rather than banning traditional practices outright.

Take "ghost money." Like other ethnic Chinese across Asia, Taiwan families, businesses and temples regularly burn paper "ghost" money in ancestor worship and other rituals. During major festivals like the Tomb-Sweeping Day or during Ghost Month (the seventh month of the lunar calendar), smoke from burning paper chokes Taiwan streets.

But environmentalists say the smoke is more than a nuisance; it is a pollutant and health hazard. In 2005, the Consumers' Foundation, a private group, published a study that showed that burning ghost money releases benzene and other carcinogenic chemicals. The study found benzene levels as high as 0.8 parts per million from ghost money burned in an enclosed space. Taiwan's EPA says that all benzene emissions are harmful. Factories can be fined for emitting more than 0.5 parts per million.

City environmental bureaus have taken the lead in trying to curb paper money-burning. Several cities maintain Web sites where users can "virtually" burn ghost money. For several years now Taipei and other cities have offered to collect and burn paper money for residents in environmentally friendlier mass incinerators.

These substitutes appear to be catching on. According to the EPA, ghost money collected by such services has risen from 160 metric tons in 2003 to 4,200 metric tons last year.

"These traditional practices can't be prohibited or stopped all at once," said Harvey Houng, a senior researcher in the EPA's waste management department. "But the alternatives are gradually winning converts from the public."

Even some temples are joining the environmentalist wave.

Last year, the Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist group conducted its first-ever "virtual" repentance ritual, in which digitalized images of paper money being burned were shown on a huge screen at its main monastery north of Taipei.

"A lot of Buddhist groups criticized us because it wasn't traditional," said Susan Chen, of Dharma Drum Mountain's international affairs division. "But it's very environmentally friendly."

Animal welfare advocates have a more difficult fight on their hands with the "divine pig" practice. In this tradition of Taiwan's Hakka Chinese ethnic group, pigs are fed to gigantic proportions and then slaughtered to honor ancestral spirits. In recent years, this has turned into a contest to see who can raise the most massive swine.

One winner of a recent contest in Dasi Township, Taoyuan County, weighed in at a whopping 864 kilograms, or 1,900 pounds (pictured above).

Starting in 2004, Buddhists and animal rights advocates began publicly opposing the practice. Some temples have since bowed to the pressure by offering pigs made of rice or other materials. But they are meeting stiff resistance from divine pig-raisers.

"I don't think the 'divine pig' contests will stop in the near future," said Sechin Yeong-shyang Chien, a professor of philosophy and animal ethics at Taipei's Academia Sinica who has spoken out against the practice. "But I think the protests will do some good in raising people's awareness of the issue," he said, adding: "They can realize that there are alternatives."

"People can use vegetarian pigs made from rice to show their piety or worship their gods," he said. "They don't have to put pigs through this cruel process."

Sky lanterns may be another case in which old habits die hard. Lu Cheng-chung, an official at the Pingsi local district office, pointed out there was a strong economic incentive for the practice to continue.

"A lot of people here depend on the sky lantern business to make a living," Lu said.

He and Taipei County officials defended the practice, insisting it was environmentally friendly. Some lantern-selling shops buy back downed lanterns, giving locals a financial incentive to retrieve them. And Lu said more than 100 firefighters would be standing by at the mass lantern-lighting Thursday to put out any accidental blazes.

Down the street, at the lantern shop he has run since 1989, Lin Yi-pei insisted that his lanterns were safe and nonpolluting. He said he sold 2,000 to 3,000 lanterns every festival season at 100 New Taiwan dollars, or $3.15, each. He dismissed the EPA's "virtual" lantern Web site as the work of killjoys.

"Who wants to just click on a computer?" Lin said. "It's not the same, the feeling is different."

Back at the bridge, Candice Lee had her own verdict on the Web site option.

"Boring," she said.

"Very boring," added her friend Lynn Liu.

As their lantern shrank to a distant ember above their heads, they said they would be unlikely to try a virtual substitute.

They will certainly come back again to send up another lantern, Lee said, "if we don't find boyfriends by this time next year."

Original site

Taiwan: the next Kosovo?

Lesson from Kosovo: recognition is the key

by Jonathan Adams
FEER Forum, Feb. 20, 2008

Kosovo’s declaration of independence has opened up a new front in the long-running diplomatic battle between China and Taiwan. It also underscores how Taiwan’s key problem is one of recognition, not whether it should formalize its de facto independence.

China opposes Kosovo’s independence, fearing it could set a dangerous precedent for separatist movements world-wide, but especially in Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan. That left Taiwan an opening to cozy up to a possible new diplomatic ally. On Wednesday, Taipei announced it had formally recognized the new European state. China’s Foreign Ministry quickly responded with predictable pique: “It is known to all that as a part of China, Taiwan has no right or eligibility to give the so-called ‘recognition’ (to Kosovo).”

So goes the latest cross-strait war of words. For decades Taiwan and China have engaged in a global diplomatic game of “go” to woo allies to their side with generous aid. Taiwan has only 23 left, mostly obscure, poor countries—down from 30 allies in 2000. Now, outspent by China, Taipei hopes to pick up a new ally in the heart of Europe. And with China refusing to recognize Kosovo, this time it can’t fight back.

But Antonio Chiang, a former member of Taiwan’s National Security Council, told me that Taiwan may not be willing to shell out big bucks to win Kosovo’s heart. That’s because last time it played that game in Eastern Europe it got burned. After Macedonia became independent in 1991 in the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, Taiwan wooed it steadily with aid. The campaign appeared to pay off in 1999, when Macedonia recognized Taiwan—only to backfire two years later when a new government ditched Taiwan and switched ties back to Beijing.

“That was a lesson for us,” said Mr. Chiang. “At that time, we were encouraged by the Americans to give aid [to Macedonia], because it was a stepping stone for us into the EU market. European banks were also involved, and it seemed reasonable. But then it failed badly.”

Still, Kosovo’s move has set a long-term precedent for Taiwan. The pro-independence party’s vice presidential candidate said on Monday the island hopes to one day follow Kosovo’s example.

Actually, Kosovo and Taiwan’s situation is already comparable. Both style themselves as sovereign and independent states. Taiwan may have stopped short of a Kosovo-style formal declaration ratified by its legislature. But it is already formally independent of the People’s Republic of China in the sense that the island governs itself under a separate Republic of China constitution that’s the foundation for a 97-year-old government structure. As the island’s pro-independence party has said time and again, there is no need to declare independence, because Taiwan is already independent.

The key difference between the two “renegade” states is recognition. In Kosovo’s case the world is more evenly divided over recognizing the self-declared state, with the U.S. and some major European powers supporting it and Russia, China and others opposed. But Taiwan lacks recognition from any major powers. Taiwan’s isolation is borne of that lack of global political support—not from a failure to formalize its independence. In fact, a formal Taiwanese declaration of independence would be unlikely to win it more recognition, though it could well spark a war with China.

The confusion is compounded by the way Taiwanese themselves talk about independence. Actually, what most Taiwanese mean by independence is the creation of a new “Republic of Taiwan,” complete with a new constitution, that would replace the current system imported from mainland China in the late 1940s. This is a dream long cherished by anti-Kuomintang democracy activists—but one that has very little public support.

If the self-governed island can’t win recognition under its current formal name, there’s no reason to think a “Republic of Taiwan” would have any more success.

Mr. Adams is a free-lance journalist based in Taipei.

Friday, February 15, 2008

China labor gets less cheap

New labor regulations designed to protect China's workers are already having an impact, according to an American-based watchdog.

By Jonathan Adams
Newsweek Web Exclusive, Feb 14, 2008

Its Communist ideals aside, China hasn't exactly been known as a bastion of workers' rights. But the country's new labor regulations—which took effect Jan.1—are designed to better protect workers' rights, including signed, written contracts for all employees. The new mandates have also hiked labor costs. Taiwan, for example, is rife with anecdotes of smaller Taiwanese manufacturers who have seen margins squeezed to the limit because production costs on the mainland are now higher.

Auret van Heerden, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Fair Labor Association, recently visited China for a first-hand look at the law's impact. NEWSWEEK's Jonathan Adams spoke with him about how the rules are already empowering Chinese workers and why he says China is not the world's worst labor rights offender. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How big an impact did foreign labor rights groups such as yours have in pressuring China to pass this labor law?

Auret van Heerden: Frankly, very little. I think obviously the Chinese government does pay attention to what the world thinks and says about labor conditions in China. But personally I feel that the motivation for this was almost entirely internal. [The government] saw very obvious signs of discontent and unrest. For example, mines and construction sites have been getting a lot of attention for several years now. They realized the sources of the discontent: the cleavage between urban and rural, employed and unemployed, the domestic versus the export sector. Also the problems where workers were clearly being abused. All of this represented a source of social instability, and I think they just decided they couldn't afford it. So they decided to get at one root cause: the lack of contracts.

Firms are complaining that their labor costs have risen as much as 40 percent.

I don't think it's that dramatic. That's quite an exaggerated number that lumps together several things. Wage rates are also going up because labor markets are tight; that's been happening for the last couple of years. Sure, you're going to have to register a lot of workers now, pay the minimum wage, give benefits. But this will lead to a much more stable and productive workplace. Before, in some places we've seen 100 percent labor turnover per year. We've never captured the costs that entails in training. Firms have been bleeding ridiculous amounts of money because they've had such an unstable workforce.

What's the reaction from firms you've talked to there?

I'm definitely hearing a lot of complaints about the way in which costs are going up. The government is placing a high burden of social costs on [firms], and they would like the government to bear more of the social security costs. The cost pressures are tremendous. There's no doubt about it. I just don't think the law alone is leading to a 40 percent jump. It's a series of pressures. For the low-cost assembly business, some of them will have to move [out of China], definitely. But I don't think the Chinese government is that concerned. They want to promote high value-added production, and they don't think China's economic future lies in low-cost assembly. They want to see businesses move up the value chain.

China has numerous laws on the books that aren't enforced. How much of a real improvement in labor standards do you expect?

Right. Implementation and enforcement are traditionally the weakest points of labor law in China. But I've never seen a law attract so much public attention. At the factory level people are talking about it everywhere. One of the things about the law is it doesn't rely on outside labor enforcement. Once you've got a written contract, there are all sorts of avenues open to a worker: the labor department, labor tribunals, or through other grievance mechanisms. So what you're seeing here is a change of approach where the government is saying, "We'll create a proper contract between workers and employers and give workers the means of enforcing their own contracts."

The effect has been immediate. There have already been strikes about it; there have been employers who have panicked about the commitment the law would require, so they've tried to lay off or outsource workers. The workers struck, saying, "No, we're not going to accept that." There have been a couple of high-profile cases of strikes against dismissal involving Hong Kong-listed companies.

Take the richest woman in China [Zhang Yin, CEO of Nine Dragons Paper], who owns a huge paper company. She tried to outsource guards and security cleaning services, and didn't want to give contracts. The workers struck. It's been an emblematic case: if one of the richest and most powerful businesswomen in China couldn't sidestep the law, it's a good indication of the signal the government wants to send.

Given the changes in China, are you now turning more attention to labor standards elsewhere, like in Vietnam?

We've always looked at all countries equally. If you analyze our audit results, we find a worldwide average of 17 or 18 violations per factory. These are from unannounced independent audits, which give a good picture of what's going on in a factory. In South Asia there's an average of 37 violations per factory. The most problematic countries are India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. China is actually slightly below the international average—about 15 or 16 [violations per factory].

How optimistic are you that those numbers will go down in China?

I am optimistic in the sense that I think that there's much more consciousness of this law than others. My concern, at a very practical level, is that factories need to procure management systems to allow them to operate in accordance with this law. There aren't a lot of places to get those systems. It will take some time for companies to adapt.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

End of dollar diplomacy?

Both of Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian's possible successors are looking for a truce in the diplomatic war with China

By Jonathan Adams
Newsweek, February 18, 2008

For decades, Taiwan kept ahead of rival China through dollar diplomacy, luring allies with cash and aid. Then China's economy roared, and it started winning the global contest to buy friends.

Malawi, the latest target, switched allegiance to Beijing last month, and has given Taiwan until the end of this week to withdraw all embassy staff. Left with only 23 official allies, down from 30 in 2000, Taiwan accused Beijing of "buying" Malawi with $6 billion; China's Foreign Ministry rejected the charge. More important, the losses have Taiwan reconsidering what Antonio Chiang, a former official in Taiwan's National Security Council, calls "a stupid war."

This signals a warming trend on one of the world's most dangerous fronts. On March 22 Taiwan will choose a successor to independence-minded President Chen Shui-bian. Both candidates plan to curtail dollar diplomacy and tone down Chen's brash approach to Beijing, which still claims Taiwan as a renegade province. The Kuomintang's Ma Ying-jeou, the front runner, would ease restrictions on investment and travel between Taiwan and the mainland—restrictions that cramp Taiwan's economy. So would his rival Frank Hsieh, though more cautiously. Either one looks likely to be much less provocative than Chen.

Dollar diplomacy dates to the cold war, when both sides claimed to be the legitimate government of all of China. It has evolved into a feud that's more "Monty Python" than 007, with battles over the allegiance of obscure states like Nauru. Both sides accuse the other of buying recognition, but deny it themselves. So the multibillion-dollar battles rage on in the shadows, distorting global aid flows. By design or not, some of this politicized aid ends up lining the pockets of crooked politicians.

Under Chen, government officials debated dollar diplomacy's usefulness. Now, the KMT wants to abandon it as part of a plan to replace cross-strait confrontation with d├ętente. "Checkbook diplomacy is an old game," says Su Chi, Ma's top foreign-policy adviser. "It's time for Taiwan and the mainland to sit down and talk." Hsieh believes Ma is too optimistic about negotiating with Beijing, but he would also tone down Chen's rhetoric on independence, says Hsieh adviser Hsiao Bi-khim: "If President Chen is a boxer, Hsieh is more of a tai chi fighter -- challenges will come, but he'll divert the force and fight back when he has an opportunity."

For the U.S., either successor would be a welcome change. Washington fears being drawn into a cross-strait war and sees Chen as picking needless fights with Beijing. From that perspective, the sooner a cooler head takes over, the better.

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Friday, February 8, 2008

Mammals of mass destruction

Without humans, black rats might still be an obscure species endemic to forests in Asia. Now scientists are trying to understand the global pests we're responsible for creating.

By Jonathan Adams
Newsweek Web Exclusive, Feb. 7, 2008

The Chinese Year of the Rat began Thursday, and the folks at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals want us to treat the critters better.

In a news release the rat-huggers claim that the vermin have gotten a bad rap. Black rats may have carried the plague that wiped out a third of Europe's population in the 14th century, and they have been a health hazard and overall nuisance as long as humans have walked the earth, but PETA insists that rattus rattus, as the species is known, has many redeeming qualities. They like to wrestle. They respond when called by name. They even make "chirping sounds that are strikingly similar to human laughter."

An international team of scientists has now found another bright side to the black rat. A new study is shedding light on how rat-borne diseases such as plague and typhus spread, potentially helping identify ways of heading off human illness. And the study of rats is providing intriguing clues about patterns of human migration from East and Southeast Asia. Rats are believed to have hitched rides on the ships of early colonizers and traders. Where humans went, rats scampered after.

The eight-year study, the first of its kind for black rats, has identified six distinct lineages—doubling the number previously known—and traces their migration. It turns out that disease-ridden black rats were one of Asia's early exports, riding an early wave of globalization to conquer new markets in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. The plague-bearing lineage fanned out from southern India to the Middle East, and from there to Europe and Africa. Another major lineage hopped from its homeland in Southeast Asia and the southern Chinese hills to Java, and via Taiwan to Japan and the Philippines.

Indeed, if dog is man's best friend, man must be rat's. Originally adapted to forest habitats in Southeast Asia tens of thousands of years ago, when they were relatively rare, black rats began to boom in numbers when humans discovered agriculture. Rats feasted on spilled grain and, later, urban refuse. Rat populations always thrived after environmental disturbances like landslides or treefalls, says Ken Aplin of Australia's national science agency, the lead author of the study. Human encroachment was a disturbance on a grand scale, and the rats exploited it.

The global spread of rats followed patterns of human trade and colonization, first within Asia and then to the world. The new study is painting a clearer picture of when and where that migration occurred, says Aplin. For example, it suggests that merchants or colonizers likely came to Madagascar from the Middle East and India 1,000 to 2,000 years ago, rather than a few hundred years ago, as previously thought. And each of their rat-infested vessels carried a bonus cargo of diseases that are harmless to their rat hosts but can be deadly to humans.

In parts of the developing world, such as rural Bangladesh and Laos, black rats are more than a nuisance; they amount to a security threat, says Aplin. (He should know: since 2000 he has personally schlepped suitcases full of rat carcasses from vermin hot spots throughout Asia back Down Under for study, which made for some interesting moments at customs.)

In poor rural areas, says Aplin, rats chronically destroy up to 20 percent of food crops in the field and another 20 percent of stored grain and other foodstuffs. They also gnaw through property; cause spontaneous abortion, low fertility and sickness in cattle and pigs; and make people too sick to work in the fields. "Rats probably consume, contaminate or destroy five or 10 percent of everything humans produce worldwide," says Aplin. "It's quite amazing how successful they've been at becoming parasites on human culture."

The study, Aplin says, will help boost preparedness against rat-borne disease by enabling doctors to quickly determine which type of black rat was the likely culprit behind an outbreak. "Prompt diagnosis is often the key to effective treatment," he says. And if large-scale rat eradication ever becomes feasible, the study will help rat-zappers target specific vermin.

Despite the destruction they cause, black rats aren't uniformly reviled in Asia. Some Hindus revere them as messengers of the elephant god Ganesh; one temple in Rajasthan reportedly lets thousands of pampered, priest-fed rats run amok. And they're considered a tasty treat by some in Vietnam (where they're served up roasted and spiced at wedding banquets), southern China, and elsewhere. Restaurants in the rural south of Taiwan still prepare specialties like "three cups" rat with basil and chili peppers—a vestige of a poorer time when many islanders couldn't afford chicken or beef.

That's probably not the kind of rat appreciation PETA officials had in mind.

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Monday, February 4, 2008

Spratlys stunt landing

Mr. Chen's Spratly crash landing
Jonathan Adams, FEER Forum, February 4, 2008

A hallmark of Chen Shui-bian’s presidency has been straining relations with China and the U.S. to the limit. Now, to the list of countries he’s deeply annoyed, add Vietnam and the Philippines.

Ah-bian, as Mr. Chen styles himself, touched down in a military aircraft Saturday on Taiping Island—one of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. His trip was made possible by Taiwan’s recent completion of an airstrip on the rocky outcrop it’s claimed since 1946.

Mr. Chen said he was merely there to inaugurate the airstrip, visit Taiwanese troops as he traditionally does ahead of Chinese New Year, and tout an initiative on conflict resolution and environmental protection for the islands. “He said the airstrip is only for the purpose of humanitarian assistance,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Phoebe Yeh told me Sunday. “We don’t want to be provocative.”

Maybe. But one clear result of the trip was to provoke—unnecessarily—Taiwan’s neighbors. In addition to Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, China, Brunei and Malaysia also claim all or part of the Spratlys, a rocky, guano-covered archipelago in an area thought to be rich in oil and natural gas.

Vietnam and the Philippines were the most peeved—both lodged official complaints last week ahead of the expected visit, said Ms. Yeh. Vietnam has strongly protested the building of the airstrip from the get-go in mid-2006. It views any Taiwanese activity on the island as a violation of its sovereignty. Vietnam also happens to be an increasingly important destination for Taiwanese investment—indeed, it’s touted by Mr. Chen’s own government as an alternate production platform to China. Not the best country, then, to needlessly irritate.

Meanwhile, the trip ticked off Taiwan’s democratic neighbor to the south, with whom it also has close economic ties. In a statement, Philippines Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo called Mr. Chen’s ceremony to inaugurate the new airstrip “lamentable,” adding: “It is unfortunate that Taiwan is resorting to what may be considered as irresponsible political posturing that could be of no possible advantage to the peace-loving Taiwanese people.”

Mr. Romulo’s right, at least on that last point—the Taiwanese people gained little from the stunt. Except President Chen himself, that is. Cynics in Taiwan said the trip was intended to win support for Mr. Chen’s party’s candidate in presidential elections next month.

More likely, it was a move by President Chen to assert both his own authority and to expand, if ever so slightly, Taiwan’s international space. Mr. Chen’s party suffered a crippling blow in recent legislative elections and he’s due to step down in May; he’s keen to show Taiwanese he’s not out of the picture just yet.

Indeed, the Spratlys trip was typical of President Chen’s smashmouth diplomatic style. It brought brief attention to Taiwan and its claim to independent sovereignty, at a cost to the goodwill it enjoys in the region and internationally. Mr. Chen’s successor would do well to calculate whether such stunts really serve Taiwan’s long-term interests.

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