The Globe and Mail is doing a set of pieces on the major world flashpoints. Among them is of course the Taiwan Straits, portrayed here as made dangerous by the recklessness of the dastardly Chen Shui-bian. It’s a good thing those forces for stability, restrained and prudent, are there to keep Mad Chen© in check! On to the fun….

It’s a highly volatile mixture of ingredients: a fast-rising superpower, a rebellious island, an arms race, duelling missiles, claims of independence, and a spate of high-profile political events that could trigger a reckless reaction.

You’ve seen all this before — breathless prose, dripping with It’s gonna blow! The writer weaves his construction largely out of familiar media claims, and omits several key facts, as we’ll see. Note the opening frame — Taiwan is “rebellious.” No pretense of balance on China’s desire to annex the island is made. Taiwan is not, of course, “a rebellious island.” The whole issue is exactly what relationship Taiwan has to China, and to use “rebellious” is to take a side in the debate. Sad.

China and Taiwan have been preparing for war for years, building up their arsenals of missiles, fighter jets, naval ships and other weapons. China has close to 1,000 ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwanese targets and the number is constantly rising. Taiwan has its own missiles ready to hit China, including its recently developed Brave Wind cruise missile, capable of striking Shanghai and other Chinese targets.

For the sake of enhancing the fear-value, the author makes it seem as if there is some equivalence between a nation attempting to annex another nation, and that nation fighting for its survival. The author also writes as if the 1000 missiles pointed at Taiwan are somehow balanced by handful of missiles Taiwan points at China. The fact is that Taiwan is preparing to defend itself — it does not threaten China. The war threat is entirely from the Beijing side, and the writer should have made that clear.

The rhetoric on both sides has been ferocious. China’s military often threatens to use force to prevent Taiwanese independence. Beijing has passed legislation to authorize violence against Taiwan if necessary. Taiwan’s pro-independence President, Chen Shui-bian, has infuriated Beijing with his frequent talk of sovereignty.

As I’ve noted many times, “being infuriated” is a policy response, not a visceral reaction. Beijing uses them against pro-democracy actors in Taiwan, such as Chen Shui-bian and Lee Teng-hui, to gain leverage over international media presentations, as it has successfully done here.

Tensions have been high for years, but 2008 could be the most dangerous year of all. It is filled with potential trigger points, including two Taiwanese elections, a controversial referendum, the final days of Mr. Chen’s presidency and the Summer Olympics.

Now after that slanted opening with its juicy OMIGAWD background, we come to the meat of the presentation. The writer says that tensions have been high for years, which is no doubt why a million Taiwanese have moved to China, completely unmolested by the Beijing government. Since tensions have been high for years, perhaps the writer might have discussed their location and development in the previous administration of Lee Teng-hui, and thus illustrated the context and continuity of Taiwan-China relations. Fact is, the same articles, with the same claims, were published throughout the Lee Teng-hui era, whenever Lee “provoked” China.

The piece discusses the “explosive” situation with the elections, and then observes:

Beijing is enraged by the referendum because it implies another step toward Taiwan’s formal independence. China has recruited Washington to urge Taipei to cancel the referendum, yet Mr. Chen has vowed to push ahead with it, partly because it would help to galvanize his supporters and draw them to the ballot box.

It goes without saying: Beijing is enraged because it chooses to be enraged. Yes, the referendum’s purpose is solely to drive election outcome: everyone knows it cannot possibly succeed. Since Beijing has a veto in the UN, nothing can ever come of the referendum in real world terms. It is simply a statement by the electorate. Note that this key fact is entirely omitted in the presentation, because if the writer had included it, readers would have wondered what all the tension was about and seen right through the writer’s positions.

The anti-referendum rhetoric that Beijing asks for on the part of other nations is an attempt to manipulate the local election outcome. Washington is doing the same thing. Beijing has learned its lesson and is keeping the bombast down, and getting the Bush Administration to run interference for it.

For Beijing, the nightmare scenario is a victory by Mr. Chen’s candidate in the presidential election and a victory for Mr. Chen in the referendum. “Beijing’s reaction will be the million-dollar question,” said Chao Chien-min, an expert on cross-strait relations at National Chengchi University in Taiwan. “The Taiwanese government has been warned over and over of the dangers, yet it chooses not to respond,” he said. “They will do anything to win the election. Beijing is worried that the situation will get out of hand.”

Here the writer cites pro-KMT analyst Chao Chien-min (we’ve run across him before) who simply regurgitates standard pro-China propaganda claims. Frank Hsieh is not “Mr. Chen’s candidate” but the candidate in his own right — it is purely a bit of Beijing propaganda to regard Chen Shui-bian as the evil genius and nemesis of Beijing. In fact, Chen’s preferred candidate is generally acknowledged to be Hsieh’s running mate, Su. Note that Chao presents Taiwan as reckless and China as restrained (”worried”). Fact is, Beijing is not “worried” but is simply using the situation to advance the interests of the KMT in Taiwan.

Further, the acutely intelligent Hsieh is widely considered conciliatory and moderate on China issues, and can hardly be described as a “nightmare.” It is also curious that the writer reproduces Chao’s quote “they will do almost anything!” without putting it in the context of China’s military threats. People who threaten to plunge the region into war to annex a neighboring territory are the ones who will “do almost anything.”

So you know what’s coming next: the familiar Beijing rhetorical prop of Mad Chen©:

Beijing’s nemesis, Mr. Chen, must step down when his term expires in 2008. But he will remain in office for two months after the presidential election. And if he is energized by victories by his pro-independence party in the presidential vote and the referendum, he could seize the opportunity to take a bigger leap toward independence, perhaps on the assumption that China will not dare to launch a war in the final months before the Beijing Olympics. (China, meanwhile, has warned that it is willing to take military action against Taiwan in 2008 even if it means sacrificing the Olympics.)

The idea that President Chen will take “a bigger leap” toward independence if the DPP is successful is entirely a bit of Beijing propaganda. A lame duck president, with no control of the legislature, in a population that prefers the short-term status quo, with a military whose officer class is largely pro-China? You’d have to be mad to imagine that. Or have a memory like the movie Memento — when Chen came to power the military told him, as they did with Lee before him, that they would not defend the country in the event of a declaration of independence. This pattern of the President of Taiwan being depicted as a provocative troublemaker did not start with Chen. Again, it is a shame that all this context is entirely missing.

“I think there is a real danger of miscalculation on both sides,” Mr. Chao said. “Both sides don’t really understand the true feelings of the other. There’s a huge gap of misunderstanding. The people of Taiwan don’t really sense the danger of the referendum because we’re so accustomed to the name Taiwan. And China, for its part, doesn’t realize that the referendum is only domestic politics with little to do with sovereignty.”

Except for the last nine words, this is misleading. China has an excellent grip on local domestic politics here — note that China is using proxies and foregoing the urge to launch missiles and make threats — and is assiduously interfering in them through pressure on the referendum, as is the US, which favors the KMT because of the Bush Administration’s obsessive focus on the Middle East, and in various other ways. All of this information is publicly available — I’ve discussed it incessantly on my blog — and it is a shame that Chao’s words are reproduced here without this context.

The writer then supplies a sturdy little fantasy about how a war could result.

Susan Shirk, a former official in the U.S. State Department, has recorded in detail how a small incident in Taiwan could quickly escalate into a global crisis. In a book published this year, Ms. Shirk outlines one of the most likely scenarios that could lead to disaster.

The crisis would begin with an accidental collision between a Taiwanese jet and a Chinese jet in the Taiwan Strait. The news is quickly flashed around the Chinese Internet, and the pressure of public opinion compels China’s leaders to respond aggressively. China’s army is mobilized and Chinese students march in the streets, demanding military action against Taiwan.

You probably already guessed that Shirk apparently has no serious Taiwan experience (the thesis is taken from her new book China: Fragile Superpower). Her expertise is China-oriented, a major problem of US observers of this relationship. It is highly unlikely that such a scenario could result in war unless China felt it was ready — as I’ve frequently noted, China will make war when it feels the time is right, and not before.

With so much space devoted to the piece, so much more could have been said. Japan, for example, is not even mentioned, yet the emerging security relationship between Japan and Taiwan could be a major deterrant/determinant of war. As Steve Yates pointed out in his presentation, some Japanese observers consider Taiwan to be a testing ground for the kinds of tactics used against Japan later. Sadly, the author chose to forego any complex, nuanced discussion of the issues, to produce a shallow scare piece. Aargh…!

(hat tip to Marc A. in Taipei for the pointer to the article)


The writer of the article, Geoffrey York, has asked me to post his response to a similar email. Here it is. I’ve snipped my comments to save space:


Response: nothing in my article said that Taiwan is a part of China. I referred to it as an “island”, not a “province of China.” It is accurate to call it “rebellious” because it is rebelling against the majority of the world community, including China and the United Nations and most of its members, who refuse to recognize Taiwan’s claim to sovereignty. The Globe and Mail does not take a stance on the question of whether Taiwan is sovereign or not. Nothing in the article stated that Taiwan is a part of China. Can you actually deny that Taiwan is fighting against the majority of the countries in the world, which officially regard Taiwan as a province of China? Any island that fights against the official views of a majority of the members of the United Nations can surely be accurately described as rebellious.

[preparing for war]

Response: I never said that Taiwan is not preparing to defend itself. I never said that Taiwan is preparing to attack China. I merely noted that both sides have armed themselves with the ability to launch attacks on the other. You somehow imagined that I was accusing Taiwan of planning to launch a war — a statement that I never made.

[infuriated is policy]

Response: Are you actually saying that China is not angry by some of Taiwan’s actions, and that there are no tensions between the two countries? If so, perhaps you have some ability to read the minds of China’s leaders?

[2008 is year of tension]

Response: I never said that tensions (and the risk of war) have never existed before. Just because war did not happen eight years ago is certainly no guarantee that it cannot happen in the future.

[explosive combination of events]

Response: But the referendum is new, of course.

[nightmare scenario, Chao comments]

Response: I never wrote that Hsieh is a “nightmare” — again you are twisting my article to fit your own views. I actually wrote that the nightmare scenario for Beijing is a whole series of events happening together: a victory by Hsieh, a victory by Chen on the referendum, and Chen using those two victories to push the envelope further on independence. As for Hsieh, he is certainly the candidate of Chen’s party, which is the point of my article. Moreover, you are contradicting yourself by claiming that Chen and Hsieh have totally different views, and then suggesting that Chen’s views are similar to “the vast majority” of Taiwanese. Which is it? First you say that Chen’s views are those of the majority, and then you portray him as an ally of Su. Finally, you twisted the quote about “they will do almost anything” and deliberately took it out of context. The quote refers to Chen doing “almost anything” to win an election, not to start a war. Then you talk about China doing “almost anything” when China had nothing to do with the quote.

[chen will make leap toward independence]

Response: Your comment is a partisan defence of Chen. That’s fine, but admit you are partisan. You’re also attempting to guarantee his future behaviour, as if you can guarantee that he will never do anything reckless. But many people — including the United States government — are not nearly as confident as you. It’s entirely fair for my article to report those fears. Finally, my article does not attempt to say that Chen is more of a troublemaker than China. You imagined that my article said that, but there’s nothing in my article to justify this view of yours.

[china and taiwan don't understand each other]

Response: you claim that China and Taiwan have perfect information about each other, that there is no danger of conflict, and that there is nothing dangerous in the referendum. This is clearly your personal viewpoint, but you don’t provide any evidence to support it. You’re entitled to express your personal views, but don’t expect everyone else in the world to repeat it blindly in their articles.

[susan shirk's scenario]

Response: Susan Shirk is a serious and well-respected scholar. If you look at her book, it is a careful and serious analysis. If you want to reject her argument, you have to provide some evidence — you can’t simply accuse her of “trying to sell books.” Certainly you don’t defeat her argument by mentioning other flashpoints in the region — that’s beside the point.

[summary criticisms]

Response: As I’ve explained above, nothing in the article was “breathless” or “wrong-headed.” Clearly you have very strong personal opinions on these issues, but you don’t seem tolerant of anyone who doesn’t share your personal views.

UPDATE: York is the Globe and Mail’s Beijing Bureau Chief.