The Republic of China

I know! I know! You’ve all been waiting around for my much anticipated entry on my escapades in Taipei. Well, actually, given the extraordinarily high readership of this blog, its actually probably just me, that’s been waiting for me to write this. Taipei is an amazing city–everything from its night markets to temples to monuments to technological feats make it a city worth exploring on both a historic and cultural level. Having seen little else in Asia, its difficult to compare Taipei, and Taiwan itself to other countries in the region, but what I’ll attempt to do here is speculate just a bit on what I think makes Taiwan, and its capital at Taipei, unique in the region. One of the primary questions I had upon visiting Taiwan was if Taiwan would be China as it would have been, had the KMT, or perhaps democracy in general, been the victor of the Chinese Civil War. I generally got the impression that to some extent this is true, though it’s a highly difficult question to answer given the numerous areas where Chinese and Taiwanese history, politics, economics, and culture began to diverge. For example, there is a high degree of Japanese influence in Taiwan, given the years the island was under Japanese rule in the late 19th, early 20th centuries. In addition, one has to remember that Taiwan only became of interest to China’s former imperial dynasties perhaps as little as 200-300 years ago. Taiwan has not been an integral part of China, as China now claims, until relatively recently in the history of the region. Still, one can gather the impression in Taipei, that yes, in terms of political culture, Taiwan is as mainland China might have been had the Communist Party not come to power there.

One can gather this impression from a variety of sources. In speaking to many of the local residents of Taipei, I found there is a high degree of recognition about what separates Taiwan from mainland China. The Taiwanese (as I’ll refer to them from this point) are highly aware of how their political and economic freedoms differ from the mainland. Walking in downtown Taipei one can clearly see a number of Lutheran Christian Churches dominating the skyline. And these aren’t run-down religious establishments by any stretch. On the contrary, they are very modern, and have clearly benefited from Taiwan’s technological prowess. Besides religious freedom, censorship of the internet is another area that separates Taiwan from mainland China. The Taiwanese seem to be very aware of the enormous gap between the state of the internet communication technology that exists in Taiwan and the ‘Great Firewall’ being developed across the Strait. One can easily tell that there are no apparent barriers to the freedom of information, in terms of the use of communication technologies by anyone that wants to harness them. I heard a number of the people I was working with (Americans) remark that China was 10-15 years behind Taiwan in terms of the freedoms it allows its citizenry in terms of information communication technologies. Generally, this seems to be true. China spends enormous resources directed toward controlling and censoring its citizens abilities to use these tools, whereas Taiwan focuses on strictly the innovation and further technological evolution of these tools and their continued permeation into all aspects of society. Of course, I’m just speaking about my impressions of this in Taipei, as I have no doubt that the rest of Taiwan would offer a different impression, especially on the degree of permeation of these technologies to other parts of the country.

The other main cultural issue I came across, was how exactly Taiwanese people identify themselves–as Taiwanese or Chinese? The subject of identity is always worth devoting a few lines to. One lady I asked about this, phrased it remarkably well–saying specifically, ‘When I first came to Taiwan many years ago, I considered myself to be Chinese, but now, as I have been living here for many years, I consider myself to be Taiwanese.’ The issue of identity in Taiwan is perhaps critically central to the country’s future, both politically and culturally. When a foreigner such as myself encounters some of Taiwan’s main cultural monuments–the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial, National Palace Museum, Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial, to name a few–all of these monuments are inherently representative of a shared Chinese cultural and historical ancestry. It’s almost like you have a significant part of the population that is descended from the ethnic Chinese that fled to Taiwan during and after the Civil War, in addition to a native population, that say “we are Taiwanese”–yet their historical and cultural assets are undoubtedly Chinese in their origin. This seems to be a difficult identity conundrum to resolve, though I must admit I know little about it beyond what I write here, but I have little doubt that it can be no more complicated than the issue of identity in Lebanon, or many other places for that matter. Which means that it is undoubtedly complicated beyond all measure.

Especially when you look at how the histories of Chinese/Taiwanese historical figures are presented. Chiang Kai-shek and Sun Yat-sen are figures of monumental importance in Chinese history, yet they are enshrined in memorials in Taiwan that celebrate their role specifically as it relates to the Republic of China–that being present-day Taiwan. It’s almost as if history just stopped in 1949. It would be too easy to consider for even a moment that these two movers and shapers of Chinese history failed in their attempt to establish the Republic of China–because they did–and all of the things they fought for, with the sole exception of unity on the mainland, became reality in Taiwan. It makes me wonder how both of these individuals are remembered and reflected upon in mainland China. Something tells me there’s little mention of them, beyond the negative, in Chinese textbooks and history books.

Unfinished/To be continued…

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Nuclear Watch

Iran grants improved access to IAEA inspectors � niacINsight

Could this be the overture the Obama administration has been waiting for? Who in the Iranian government was behind this decision? Was it a decision that could only come from the top – from Khamenei? Or was this an Ahmadi decision? The timing is just right, given that September was the Obama administration’s supposed deadline for an Iranian response to its overture to construct a new dialogue between the U.S. and Iran. So what’s next? And how does this factor into the political situation of the nascent opposition movement?

Af/Pak: War of Need or Necessity?

Op-Ed Contributor – In Afghanistan, the Choice Is Ours – NYTimes.com

“Moreover, there are alternatives to current American policy. One would reduce our troops’ ground-combat operations and emphasize drone attacks on terrorists, the training of Afghan police officers and soldiers, development aid and diplomacy to fracture the Taliban.”

It think this is the eventual strategy Obama wishes to aim for. We need to get to the point where our counterinsurgency efforts, and military offensives in provinces like the Helmand are successful and effective to the point that the Taliban cannot mount offensives to the extent that they can reestablish control over those areas. We’re essentially buying time now for the Afghan government to establish control of these areas and stabilize itself and develop a security force capable of achieving this task. This will obviously take some time, but ideally we want to reach a situation that only requires minimal commitment of American forces, and utilizes a strategy not entirely unlike that of our role in Pakistan, where drone strikes and military aid to the strong Pakistani army has led recently to more successful efforts to eliminate Taliban targets.

“A more radical alternative would withdraw all United States military forces from Afghanistan and center on regional and global counterterrorism efforts and homeland security initiatives to protect ourselves from threats that might emanate from Afghanistan. Under this option, our policy toward Afghanistan would resemble the approach toward Somalia and other countries where governments are unable or unwilling to take on terrorists and the United States eschews military intervention”

There’s no reason we can’t undertake this strategy in tandem with reducing our military footprint and operations in Afghanistan. Such a policy would not immediately resemble that of the U.S. attitude toward Somalia – though that is not to say that the situation in Afghanistan is far off from resembling that of Somalia.

“Afghanistan is thus a war of choice — Mr. Obama’s war of choice. In this way, Afghanistan is analogous to Vietnam, Bosnia, Kosovo and today’s Iraq. Wars of choice are not inherently good or bad. It depends on whether military involvement would probably accomplish more than it would cost and whether employing force is more promising than the alternatives.”

“The risk of ending our military effort in Afghanistan is that Kabul could be overrun and the government might fall. The risk of the current approach (or even one that involves dispatching another 10,000 or 20,000 American soldiers, as the president appears likely to do) is that it might produce the same result in the end, but at a higher human, military and economic cost.”

This is true. Britain is undoubtedly starting to realize this, with British public support for the war declining at a dramatic rate.

Empire Watch

Op-Ed Contributor – The Default Power – NYTimes.com:

“Another aspect of national power is a warrior culture. The United States still has one, as does Britain. But Europe — although it bests or equals the United States in terms of population, economic size, and military might — no longer has the mindset that once made it the master of the world.”

“The United States is the default power because there is nobody else with the requisite power and purpose. The default power does what others cannot or will not do. It underwrites Europe’s security against a resurgent Russia. It chastises whoever reaches for mastery over the Middle East. Only the default power has the power to harness a coalition against Iran. It guarantees the survival of Israel, but at the same time, the Palestinians and the Saudis look to the United States for leverage against Jerusalem. Is it possible to imagine China, Europe or Russia as a more persuasive mediator? No, because only the United States can insure both the Arabs and the Israelis against the consequences of misplaced credulity.”

“Gainsayers will still dramatize China’s growth rates as a harbinger of a grand power shift. But as the 21st century unfolds, the United States will be younger and more dynamic than its competitors.”

Excellent op-ed… but just because there may be no other state with the ‘requisite power and purpose’ to take up the mantle of the U.S. as a default power, does not mean that the United States does not face decline on some level. I’m not suggesting that the U.S. is in immediate decline, but clearly the path we have chosen over the past eight years has led to the manifestation of conditions that will place limits on that power, and our ability to sustain ourselves as a default power. Just look at growing Chinese and Russian influence in our own backyard… South America – the Monroe Doctrine is no longer applicable there. The Bush administration waged two wars in the Middle East at the expense of devoting any sort of significant attention to Latin America. See the latest Economist for an article on this. All I’m saying is that our options are now far more limited as far as courses of action we may pick as the default power. The undermining of the Iranian regime’s credibility and legitimacy over the election there is certainly no small success for U.S. ambitions, but it doesn’t do much to change the situation we’ve become embroiled in in the Middle East.

Prostitution: The Business of Sex in Lebanon

gilbert-lebanon-prostitution.pdf (application/pdf Object)

Interesting article on Lebanon’s sex industry linked from Qifa Nabki…

“If you don’t control everything,
you will lose money. When
dealing with women you have to
control them. If you let them do
what they want, you will end up
with nothing.”

“Betraying some of the national
stereotypes super nightclub owners
associate with their employees,
Charbel adds that Eastern European
women “love sex. They were born
with a hunger for sex.”
“The first reason they come to
Lebanon is for the money, the second
reason for the sex. They enjoy
it,” he said, adding that he has sex
regularly with several women from
super nightclubs.”

6 Hours in Japan

Day late flying out to Taiwan as a result of completely bewildering ineptitude on the part of Northwest. Due to a leak in the fueling line they switched us over to a new 747 where we waited for 5 hours before being told that the flight had been delayed for the following morning. Got put up at the Four Points Sheraton… quite nice, except that upon arrival at the hotel the power was off. Had to navigate to room with dual iPhone/Storm screen light. Came back on after 10 minutes. Gaffe by Northwest more than made up by the amenities of flying business class on the upper-deck of this Boeing 747. After two mimosas, a hot towel, we’re now on to hot nuts (literally). Very much looking forward to finally getting to Taiwan, though, would have much preferred to have stayed a night in Tokyo over Detroit, but it seems highly fitting to be exiting the continental United States en route for Asia while listening to Shigeru Umebayashi masterful score for The Curse of the Golden Flower. Japanese beer ‘Asahi’ tastes wonderfully light in comparison to the relatively tasteless offerings of Miller in the Delta Skymiles lounge. Met an interesting Taiwanese couple yesterday during the delay over sushi at a Japanese restaurant in the Detroit airport. Husband had escaped China with parents in 1948 to flee to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War. Fascinating what that experience must have been like as Mao and the Communists pushed the beleaguered forces of Chiang Kai-shek out of mainland China. Positively thrilled to be exposed to Asian history. Every time I try to turn the channel on the tele there’s a damn announcement broadcast in Japanese.

Finished reading Jason Goodwin’s The Janissary Tree… fantastic read. Must make note to investigate possible historical similarities between Janissaries and Iranian Republican Guard – integration into facets/functions of society/control of state apparatus.

Japan has been very interesting so far. You’d be surprised how much you can learn about a culture from its airport. Arrived at the Delta Skymiles lounge in Tokyo where I took a shower in an extraordinarily ornate bathroom tiled with granite. While alcohol and liquor are free just like the U.S.-side lounges, tea literally flows like water here. It’s iced, it’s hot, its green, and its damn good. Walked around the airport – model of efficiency. Immediately when I stepped off the plane where I had to go through security to ‘enter into Japan’ I was fascinated by even just the Japanese man checking the boarding passes at the security checkpoint. Almost bowing to each person and saying “zank you” while holding out the passport and ticket with two hands, almost as if it were a gesture of some offering. I nearly became so excited that I wanted to pull the man aside and start interviewing him about Japanese customs and traditions. Delta should really hire a Japanese historian just to give lectures in their lounges. I was amazed when we were flying over the Japanese countryside just how green and verdant it is. You can really see evidence of years of stringent environmental protection policy in action. Deforestation is almost nonexistent. It’s fantastic – and to think that the entire country is like that – I’ve barely seen a fraction of its astounding beauty. If anything this trip is definitely not going to be enough in terms of historical/cultural exposure – I’ve barely scratched the surface of the mochi ball. Speaking of which, I tasted some delicious green tea caramels in one of the airport shops.

Informed Comment: Iran: Beware Neocons Bearing Boycotts

Informed Comment: Iran: Beware Neocons Bearing Boycotts

“Of course Bush did not need any pretty promises to impel him to launch desperate adventures. As the Arab Times reported, a bewildered French President Jacques Chirac told a journalist in a book published this spring that Bush had tried to enlist him in the Iraq invasion one last time in February, 2003, by emphasizing that the threat of Gog and Magog had gathered in the Middle East against the West and only overthrowing Saddam would forestall a catastrophe of biblical proportions. (See also Clive Hamilton, and James Haught, and Jacques Sterchi.

Chirac called a Swiss theologian to have him explain what this Gog and Magog was whereof Bush spoke. Chirac complained that the problem with people in the Bush administration was that none of them knew anything about the really existing Arabs. Chirac reads Arabic, and he used to ask the Bush people he dealt with to name one Arab poet. None could. France has been directly involved in the Arab world since Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, so French political leaders could only lament the earnest evangelical nonsense spewed by crazies who had taken over Washington.”

Wow.

Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires

Commonweal – A review of religion, politics and culture: The War We Can’t Win – Afghanistan & the Limits of American Power
-Andrew J. Bacevich

What is it about Afghanistan, possessing next to nothing that the United States requires, that justifies such lavish attention? In Washington, this question goes not only unanswered but unasked. Among Democrats and Republicans alike, with few exceptions, Afghanistan’s importance is simply assumed—much the way fifty years ago otherwise intelligent people simply assumed that the United States had a vital interest in ensuring the survival of South Vietnam. As then, so today, the assumption does not stand up to even casual scrutiny.”

“Fixing Afghanistan is not only unnecessary, it’s also likely to prove impossible. Not for nothing has the place acquired the nickname Graveyard of Empires. Of course, Americans, insistent that the dominion over which they preside does not meet the definition of empire, evince little interest in how Brits, Russians, or other foreigners have fared in attempting to impose their will on the Afghans. As General David McKiernan, until just recently the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, put it, “There’s always an inclination to relate what we’re doing with previous nations,” adding, “I think that’s a very unhealthy comparison.” McKiernan was expressing a view common among the ranks of the political and military elite: We’re Americans. We’re different. Therefore, the experience of others does not apply.”

I think this is definitely right on key… there’s this sense, even with Obama’s supposed new direction in the war… with a priority placed on protecting civilian lives as much as having a “civilian” strategy to accompany the military one, that in essence we’re doing something completely different from what the Brits and Soviets did. I think this is a false notion, one that perhaps emanates from the very type of empire we have – one whose center of power is isolated by two vast oceans from its satellites and bases overseas. We can theorize and hypothesize as much as we want in Washington… but our actions and behavior in Afghanistan are seen not only by regional actors, in addition to the Afghan people themselves, as the same sort of thing the Brits and Soviets attempted and failed to to.

“no road to peace in Jerusalem discovered in downtown Baghdad—to describe Iraq as a success, and as a model for application elsewhere, is nothing short of obscene. The great unacknowledged lesson of Iraq is the one that the writer Norman Mailer identified decades ago: “Fighting a war to fix something works about as good as going to a whorehouse to get rid of a clap.

“For those who, despite all this, still hanker to have a go at nation building, why start with Afghanistan? Why not first fix, say, Mexico? In terms of its importance to the United States, our southern neighbor—a major supplier of oil and drugs among other commodities deemed vital to the American way of life—outranks Afghanistan by several orders of magnitude.”

This is probably true given that gang violence in Mexico has spread all the way up into Canada. An equal, if not more pressing concern to national security….

“If one believes that moral considerations rather than self-interest should inform foreign policy, Mexico still qualifies for priority attention. Consider the theft of California. Or consider more recently how the American appetite for illicit drugs and our liberal gun laws have corroded Mexican institutions and produced an epidemic of violence afflicting ordinary Mexicans. We owe these people, big-time.”

“In the immediate wake of 9/11, all the talk—much of it emanating from neoconservative quarters—was about achieving a “decisive victory” over terror. The reality is that we can’t eliminate every last armed militant harboring a grudge against the West. Nor do we need to. As long as we maintain adequate defenses, Al Qaeda operatives, hunkered down in their caves, pose no more than a modest threat. As for the Taliban, unless they manage to establish enclaves in places like New Jersey or Miami, the danger they pose to the United States falls several notches below the threat posed by Cuba, which is no threat at all.”

“In short, time is on our side, not on the side of those who proclaim their intention of turning back the clock to the fifteenth century. The ethos of consumption and individual autonomy, privileging the here and now over the eternal, will conquer the Muslim world as surely as it is conquering East Asia and as surely as it has already conquered what was once known as Christendom. It’s the wreckage left in the wake of that conquest that demands our attention. If the United States today has a saving mission, it is to save itself. Speaking in the midst of another unnecessary war back in 1967, Martin Luther King got it exactly right: “Come home, America.” The prophet of that era urged his countrymen to take on “the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.”

I don’t think we can exactly just up and leave, as that would almost certainly continue the cyclical nature of what happened after we bailed on Afghanistan after the Soviets left, but we can dramatically scale down or commitment and rhetoric for that matter. It’s difficult because while the author here notes that we seem to have no trouble with Pakistan as far as providing a home for the Taliban/Qeada… this overlooks two critical things. The first of which is that Pakistan has a somewhat effective and functioning central government, and an Army that wields most of the power, and is fully capable of doing whatever it likes. Afghanistan has none of these things – no fighting force, no functioning central government etc. Leaving Afghanistan would arguably enable it to return to the state it was in prior to the invasion in 2001, regardless of whether or not the Taliban were able to reclaim power – a highly unlikely scenario… but nonetheless, our credibility would suffer just as much if we left. As much as I want to say, ‘lets just partition it – half to Pakistan and half to Iran’, or give the war to someone else like Iran… we have a commitment there which began with the invasion in 2001, a commitment to the people of Afghanistan, which we must see through. We don’t have to get everything perfect, but merely ensuring that the Afghan people have the ability to make their own future will be enough in ensuring the creation of a stable state, an internal security apparatus, and ensuring that we complete the ‘mission’ of denying the country safe haven for the Taliban/Qaeda. It’ll take some real ingenuity to shift the focus of our intervention there from mostly a military one to one that is focused on giving people tools to govern themselves.