The First Weeks of the New War

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“We’re so shocked…we’re living our own 9/11…”

A friend of mine who lives in the Saint Denise area of Paris near the Stade de France gave me this statement after I reached out to her in the aftermath of the devastating series of synchronized attacks perpetrated by members of the Islamic State on the night of Friday, November 13 in the French capital. Until the attacks on Paris, the Western world had (for better or worse, it seems) lived as relatively far removed from the events occurring in the Arab World in recent years as it had at any time since the attacks of 2001. While the future still remains uncertain as to whether this fresh wave of terrorism will leave the same kind of deep impressions of fear and insecurity on the consciousness of the West as did the attacks on the World Trade Center, as Europe and the United States begin to slide into a bombing campaign against ISIS strongholds in the Middle East and renew polarizing feuds about immigration policy, civil liberties, and national security, a vigorous and critical analysis of the foundation of the model of Western democracy and its guiding principles should start anew.

The attacks of 2001 came at a much more disorienting time for the West, when the mass of the citizenry of Europe and the United States still found themselves as yet unawares of the dangers of asymmetric warfare and the perverse ideology of Wahhabism. That a small group of radicals could infiltrate the United States and strike at the heart of its largest financial and political nervous centers seemed unfathomable; and yet, that is exactly what happened. The resulting wave of fear that enveloped the nation lent power to a young administration staffed with hawkish neoconservatives and guided by an almost messianic notion of the United States’ sacrosanct mission to spread its influence. Given credence and mandate by both Congress and public opinion, the United States and its European allies launched a massive invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks, and a subsequent invasion of Iraq in 2003 to remove Sadaam Hussein from power.

Critics of the War on Terror have singled out the resultant chaos as one of the precipitating causes of the rise of extremism groups like ISIS, who quite naturally filled in the gaping voids in political power once long-entrenched dictators fell. The de-Baathification process which occurred in Iraq, resulting in the complete removal of the country’s existing social system with no viable alternative to replace it, in hindsight seems an exercise in how not to go about nation-building. Having accomplished their goals, and with a rudimentary understanding of the society in which they operated, the governments of the NATO countries quickly grew weary of their engagements in the region, and sectarian violence which had simmered during the lead up to the war quickly erupted as soon as these countries’ forces left the region. The newly-installed governments, unequipped to deal with the violence, never fully gained control over vast swaths of the region, in which conflict once again began to fester.

The pronounced disconnect between the War on Terror and the national consciousness of many Western nations, and especially the United States, stands out as a distinct characteristic of the war itself. The rise of drone warfare in particular, which has figured dramatically during this conflict, seemed to have spelled an end to having to put boots on the ground. In spite of such “inconveniences” like increased security at airport security screenings and the encroachment of the United States government upon the privacy of its citizens in the digital sphere (itself a serious issue worthy of critical debate), residents of many Western countries had, for the most part, effectively forgotten about the violence occurring in the Middle East, especially after the withdrawing of combat troops from the region near the beginning of the Obama administration.

When the Arab Spring revolts of 2011 began to sweep through the region, the world watched with a more nervous eye as authoritarian (and often, as in the case of Egypt’s Mubarak, US-backed) leaders began to topple under the waves of popular revolt. In cases where the overthrow occurred relatively quickly, such as in the oft-cited circumstance of Tunisia, the changes brought about found welcome amongst the governments of the West, where as the harder-fought cases like Egypt, though praised for many of their democratic aspects, fell under more careful scrutiny, even if they enjoyed an indirect sort of support from popular opinion. Even in cases like Libya, where the West seemed willing to impose a no-fly zone to aid the rebels, the governments of the United States and Europe practiced reluctance in committing too much to the conflict, lest it become another quagmire in which they found themselves inadvertently trapped. For many observers of the region, the overall changes wrought by the Arab Spring, though fraught with complication, seemed generally positive, and maybe at this time the countries of the West may have breathed too deep a sigh of relief for the hope that their previous involvement in an attempted democratic transition of the region might have been vindicated.

The outbreak of the protests in Syria that attempted to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, and which eventually devolved into a gruesome civil war which continues to this day, derailed any hope that the region as a whole saw itself moving towards a sustainable peace. In hopes of expediting the process of ousting Assad, accused of heinous crimes against the people of Syria, the United States pursued a policy of arming and funding rebel groups in the region, many of whom had loose organization and unclear purpose. Backed by support from the Russians and Iranians, however, the Assad government stood firm, even turning to the use of chemical weapons to decimate the ranks of the rebel groups, considered a war crime under the treaties of the United Nations. The nation quickly fractured into a violent clash between governments forces, various factions of rebels, the northern Kurds, international forces, and, eventually, terrorist organizations which claimed thousands of lives and forced millions more to flee their permanent homes over the border into Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.

Into this void stepped the group that now calls itself ISIS, an extremism organization committed to a revival of its own sinister brand of Wahhabism Sunni Islam and presenting an alternative to both the government of Assad as well as the Western-backed rebel forces. Utilizing a heavy stream of propaganda to mobilize young people (mostly male) to fight for their cause, the group quickly grew in strength and regional control, until the fight against them began to eclipse even the original anti-government impetus behind the civil war.

While well aware of the war crimes committed by the Islamic State (which includes the raping of women and children, the use of chemical weapons on civilian populations, and the gruesome public execution of homosexuals), the world, until the Paris attacks, preferred to live under the assumption that the violence would not spill over into the rest of the world. Indeed, even the United States, once so eager to entangle itself in the situation occurring in that part of the world, seemed surprisingly willing to turn over the onus to the Russians to impose a no-fly zone over Syria earlier this year. When the attacks in Paris did occur, startling the West out of its relative sense of security, it caused a panic not directed at the spreading of the dangerous ideology that had attracted so many of its young people to join the terrorist group, but towards refugees from the region, made up mostly of families fleeing from the bloodshed.

The retaliation of many European countries and a large portion of the governors of US states in attempting to close their borders to the increasing flow of Syrian refugees represents a error in judgement on the part of the West in dealing with the crisis. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected mastermind behind the Paris attacks in addition to others perpetrated in parts of Europe, was a Belgian citizen, born in Brussels, and many of the other attackers held European passports. This knee-jerk reaction, in addition to preventing millions of innocent civilians from fleeing the fighting, will not prevent the group’s ideology from spreading into the outside world, and will give more credibility to their anti-Western sentiment and recruitment efforts amongst disenfranchised young people.

However, in pursuit of cutting off this recruitment and infiltration network, a new front has opened in this latest conflict against extremist ideology: that of private “hacker” groups bringing their skills to bear in ways that root out ISIS’s online network and prevent its propaganda from spreading further. Groups like Anonymous, famous for their high-profile releases of damaging information and the difficulty governments face in tracking down their ever-shifting digital whereabouts, have spearheaded the effort to identify social media accounts currently in use by ISIS in an effort to damage their network capabilities and take down their recruitment efforts. The French manifestation of the group declared war against Daesh (the French term for ISIS) almost immediately following the attacks in Paris and so far has successfully taken down many of their Twitter and other social media accounts.

The online hacker collectivist GhostSec, itself a smaller splinter group of Anonymous with a focused adherence to certain targets, employs additional methods in which it hacks into the group’s networks and monitors them for activity instead of crashing the site by redirecting huge streams of traffic and overloading their servers. Given the group’s disposition to work with law enforcement rather than at constant odds with them, they effectively monitor a portion of the communication going on in-group amongst members of ISIS in the deep web and therefore have the ability to turn this information over to law enforcement agencies to aid in identifying the members of ISIS.

On the other end of the spectrum, dragnets such as those currently in employment in Belgium cripple the society as citizens live in terror, whilst armed soldiers patrol the streets and conduct raids to hunt down those making threats of imminent attack against the citizenry. Whether or not these tactics end up yielding less results than the cyber-warfare methods in employment by the various groups of hacktivists united against the Islamic State remains uncertain. However, the situation in Brussels demonstrates that, in at least certain ways, ISIS has partially achieved its goal of terrorizing European countries, paralyzing the society and economy in fear of further attacks.

A far more aggressive assault on the forces of ISIS has occurred in the form of the bombing campaign now in effect on the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqa, a stronghold in the northern part of Syria and home to an estimated population of 220,000. The assault, led by France in the aftermath of the Paris bombing and supported by target location provided by US intelligence agencies, decimated much of the city, including the stadium reportedly utilized as the headquarters of the organization, but may have led to the deaths of few members of the terrorist group, according to information gathered by the activist group “Raqqa is being slaughtered silently”. ISIS has seemingly prepared in advance to relocate much of its leadership in preparation for an expect assault by coalition forces against the city.

As the world turns once again towards the Middle East in retaliation for a psychologically devastating strike against one of its most beloved and iconic cities, it must reflect deeply upon the strategy of the group which it seeks to destroy, as well as its own guiding principles in the conflict that lies ahead. As evidenced by propaganda videos showing themselves as an unbeatable wave of destruction sanctioned by a twisted understanding of their religion, ISIS seems prepared to wage a struggle that will culminate in perpetual violence: a jihad without end, that will engulf the entire world in fear that a strike could occur at any moment. Much like the aims of al-Qaeda before them, ISIS’s ideology and their use of asymmetrical warfare does not seek to accomplish the strategic aims of conventional warfare; that is to say, territorial acquisition and the establishment of a ruling power, despite their stated insistence on establishing a caliphate based upon their own understanding of Islam. Rather, they seem to seek to establish a terror in the minds of the rest of the world, creating a reality in the international order in which they and their ideology are impossible to ignore, regardless of the will of other nations to turn a blind eye to the gruesome reality that innocent people in the Middle East experience on a daily basis.

The desire behind this purposeful disconnect by the nations of the West from the reality of the situation unfolding in the Middle East is self-evident: to the peoples of the United States and Europe, the ruthlessness of the actions pursued by the Islamic State is almost unfathomable and certainly terrifying. However, ignorance of a reality does not make that reality disappear; to ignore the circumstances which brought about the rise of ISIS (circumstances in which the West played a significant, and at times shameful, role) does not make ISIS any less present or dangerous. In fact, a refusal to accept the culpability of the West in the creation of the chaos that plagues the region will only leave it vulnerable to further attack.

Additionally, ISIS represents a credible threat to the international community beyond just the nations of Europe and North America. The killing of a Chinese citizen held hostage by the group in the past week, similar to that of the two Japanese hostages executed months earlier, shows that the enmity ISIS holds against modernity extends beyond just the confines of the Western model of liberalism; it encompasses all forms of government and society that do not adhere to the fundamentalist ideology practiced by the terrorist organization. Indeed, ISIS’s has reserved some of its most atrocious acts for Muslims and residents of the Arab world, as evidenced by the catastrophic bombings in Lebanon that occurred in the same week as those in Paris, though to much less attention by the media, despite the loss of 43 lives. Such attacks, common to these countries having to bear the preponderance of the refugee crisis burden, represent the crux of ISIS’s assault on global peace and stability.

In conclusion, an effective strategy against the terror imposed upon the entire world by the rise of ISIS cannot come to fruition without a deep understanding of the group, their aims, and the region as a whole. Despite a resolute desire to do so, the world can no longer afford to relegate the problems of sectarian and extremist violence in the Middle East as a minor concern occurring on the fringes of the world, far removed from the daily reality of other countries. A closing of minds and borders, a stubborn refusal to recognize that this Wahhabist extremism does not represent the Islamic religion, and a scorched earth bombing campaign that costs civilian lives will not weaken ISIS, and may only create fertile ground in which the group might vindicate their ideology and recruit even more hearts and minds as Western bombs once again reign down upon Middle Eastern cities. To win the war, the world will have to be smarter, not merely stronger, than ISIS.

Mr. Xi and Mr. Ma go to Singapore

     Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou ignited a media firestorm upon his surreptitious announcement that a meeting between himself and Chinese president Xi Jin-ping will occur in Singapore today Saturday November 7, effectively ending over 66 years of non-communication between the highest offices of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait and marking a victory for the Ma administration, which has unsuccessfully sought to arrange such a meeting several times in the past: most recently at the APEC summit, where they found themselves unceremoniously sidelined by the Chinese. Not surprisingly, the announcement has sent the various political factions on the island spanning a wide spectrum of ideologies scrambling to respond to the breaking of the seemingly impermeable impasse that has held place ever since the end of the Chinese Civil War, and to negotiate their own places within the now uncertain future of how the mechanisms of cross-strait relations will proceed from this point forward. At the street level, not all express satisfaction at this abrupt turnabout in events, and activists and protesters within Taiwanese civil society gathered outside of the Legislative Yuan at 3 this morning to monitor events as they unfolded and prepared to voice their concerns if necessary.

     Though coming as a vindication of sorts after his embarrassing twin failures in not passing last year’s Trade Services Agreement and his rejected bid to have Taiwan join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, this meeting between Ma and Xi comes at the end of Ma’s tenure and at a time when power will most certainly shift to the opposition DPP after the results of the presidential election next January. In the midst of a lame-duck presidency and with the KMT soon to fall from power, it stands to reason that much of this meeting’s purpose comes as only a symbolic platitude in the developing relationship between Taiwan and China; one finds it highly unlikely that any sort of concrete result will come forth from this event. The KMT, however, did partially signal their intentions with regards to this meeting in the statement that they seek to convey to the Chinese their desire to continue to build a closer relationship with the People’s Republic of China regardless of which party takes power in the upcoming elections, a statement which almost certainly signifies their realization that they will lose the presidency to the DPP.

     Indeed, the KMT has become increasingly brash about its willingness to openly declare its intention to move Taiwan more intimately within China’s sphere of influence in hopes of an eventual unification. A party which originated within China itself and vehemently insists on Taiwan continuing to carry itself under the moniker of “Republic of China”, the KMT has time and time again proven the weight it places upon the notion of continuing a “Chinese” heritage embedded in the Taiwanese social conscious, a battlefront it has increasingly pushed to the fore despite the backlash from the Taiwanese citizenry. Its initial choice of candidate for the presidency Hung Hsiu-chu, though retroactively silenced through her eventual replacement, carried this pro-Chinese banner throughout the course of her campaign, despite driving the party further into ridicule and unpopularity. Though somewhat softened his approach in an attempt to serve as a mediating, less-polarizing figure for the party, Eric Chu’s recently rolling out of his “One China” platform seems intent upon carrying on this ideology in his new role as KMT presidential candidate. These kinds of views, seemingly from the 1992 Consensus recognized almost exclusively in Taiwan by the KMT, seem to find credence amongst a certain minority portion of the population seeing the benefits of unification with China and fearful of what they view as the danger of openly declaring separation (much less independence).

     These sorts of divisions in ideology regarding the appropriate demarcation of national and ethnic identity reared their head recently in the ongoing conflicts between Ma and Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng, himself an ethnic Taiwanese (benshengren) and unaligned with the powerful Ma camp of mainlanders (waishengren) which currently holds preeminence over the internal leadership of the KMT, over the latter’s desire to seek the presidential office. This sort of ethnocentrism as the foundation of nationalism remains nothing new within the KMT. Though they seem at least self-aware enough to realize that their dominance of the public discourse will not hold out much longer into the future, the KMT has in the past few months made several attempts to enshrine their pro-China views deep within the social consciousness (most notably in their recent revisions of history textbooks to reflect a strong Chinese heritage within Taiwanese civil society, a move which sparked yet another round of protests this summer), and to ensure that their message continues to propagate within the national debate despite the growing wave of Taiwanese nationalism and its progeny: the various Third Force political parties, many of which openly push for radical independence under the name “Taiwan”.

    Like the meeting between Eric Chu and Xi earlier this year, the desired results of this high-level meeting seem not to bring forth any concrete resolution on the current status of cross-strait politics, but to signal to the leadership in Beijing that the KMT remains firmly in its camp as the preferred Taiwanese political party with which China should seek to cooperate, and that the KMT holds strong in its resolve to continue to push Taiwan further in the direction of unification despite an almost assured defeat in the upcoming elections. Tsai Ing-wen, who held a press conference immediately following the announcement of the talks, signaled her skepticism that this meeting would amount to anything more than another attempt at “black box politics” for which the KMT has found itself repeated criticized over the last few years of the Ma administration.

     A party teetering on the verge of collapse as a result of bitter infighting between its various factions and a unwavering commitment to an anachronistic ideology that finds little hold amongst those it currently governs, the KMT appears more than willing to cling to underhanded tactics in the event that the democracy to which it pays lip service fails to uplift it once again to a position of authority. Despite a growing malaise in its relationship with the Taiwanese public-at-large, the KMT retains its firm alliance with the Taiwanese business community (themselves deeply involved with the Chinese) and its access to the preponderance of wealth it inherited from decades of one-party rule. Indeed, upon the announcement of the Ma-Xi meeting, the Taiwanese stock market jumped by 50 points to a new high. Even if it has irreparably lost the positive image it managed to put forth following the scandal-plagued years of the Chen administration and the reign of the DPP, the KMT remains determined to steer the direction of cross-strait relations through shadow diplomacy and the building of party-to-party ties with the Communist Party of China.

     What then does this signal for the DPP as they ascend to power, as well as to the mass of Taiwanese who oppose a growing reliance on China economically and politically? Tsai and her administration will need to prepare for the inevitability that any attempt made during their leadership to undo the progress of the Ma administration toward eventual unification with China will find itself met with strong opposition from the KMT, who will most certainly still wield a large influence over Taiwanese politics despite their loss of governing office merely by dint of their influence in Beijing and the backing of Taiwanese business interests. If Tsai and her party want to effectively govern, and if their intention truly lies in swinging the pendulum back towards the side of Taiwanese self-determination, a coalition between the DPP and their supporters amongst minority political parties, a reliance on international allies currently opposed to the aggressive dealings of China in the international sphere, and a willingness to show pragmatism when necessary in dealing with China all need to form pillars of a strong government sure to find itself repeatedly assaulted by an increasingly desperate KMT.

Any Hope for the KMT?

     Languishing under dismal popularity levels and internal divisions that threaten to tear the party asunder, the KMT seems poised to shoot itself in the foot as the party gears grind to a halt over their choice of candidate for the 2016 Taiwanese presidential election. Factional leaders clearly rue the decision of the party to place Deputy Legislative Speaker Hung Hsiu-chu at the forefront of the electoral machine, and in light of her campaign’s inability to clear itself out of the doldrums of low voter popularity, held an extemporal forum this past week to ruminate on the possibility of replacing her with New Taipei City mayor Eric Chu mere months ahead of the election.

     This sort of public infighting amongst sections of the party demonstrates the depths of the desperation the KMT feels in response to its diminishing credibility among the Taiwanese polity, who are more boldly voicing their objections to the status quo that the entrenched KMT has so bitterly defended over the last few decades of democratization. The shift in the preferences of the population-at-large seem to reflect the start of a longterm trend in identity politics that will increasingly marginalize the once unrivaled KMT, a organization that seems intent upon staying its course rather than adapting to the tectonics that accompany the increasing influence the notion of a “Taiwanese” identity has had upon the population, especially those who have grown up in the period following the lifting of martial law. While electoral politics, particularly those of young, vulnerable democracies, have a notorious pendulum-like swing to them, the rising tempo of popular protest movements in Taiwan spell out a future in which a larger range of political voices will jockey for positions of decision-making.

     Hung, for her part, doesn’t appear to want to go down without a fight, and issued a statement in response to the growing cadence of voices calling for her to relinquish the candidacy in favor of someone who would have a greater chance of overtaking Tsai Ying-wen. Stating her commitment to the future aspirations of the younger generation, she decried the move within the party to cast her aside and vowed to press forward with her campaign, which seems at this moment to have no serious chance to overcome the juggernaut that the Tsai campaign has put together as it rides the wave of voter opinion straight to the ballot box. One ponders whether the KMT has given any serious thought to its sustainability, or if it will remain content to fight over the scraps of an increasingly irrelevant status quo even as the floor falls out from under it.

     Should the attempt to replace Hung with Chu eventually reach fruition, the move would undoubtably give rise to even greater controversy and bring into question the already seriously flawed logic of the KMT. The legality of ramrodding a candidate into the election so late in the game, after the filing deadline has already long since passed, remains dubious even to legal scholars, and would further the already popular idea that the KMT has a flagrant disregard for existing laws, deeming it appropriate to bend them whenever it suits the needs of the party. Additionally, seeing as Chu remains in the midst of his recently laboriously secured tenure as mayor of New Taipei City, a move to abandon his post and throw himself into the ring would call into question the KMT’s commitment to governance rather than politics, a claim that they retain only a tenuous grasp on at the moment.

     The decay of a party this massive, which has historically controlled such a vast preponderance of wealth and power in Taiwan, cannot be taken lightly, and should these predictions become reality and the KMT begin to disintegrate, a huge void in the political discourse will inevitably open up, leading to the question of who will step up to the plate as the opposition. Clearly, career politician James Soong and his People First Party will remain only a passing distraction yet again this election cycle. The rise of a Third Force movement could eventually fill the gap, but the malaise of trying to unite so many minority parties encompassing vastly different political ideologies, coupled with the accusations that these parties serve only to siphon off votes from the more prominent DPP, places this possibility rather far in the future.

     Let’s not schedule the funeral of the KMT just yet, though; a party with such entrenched interests and a vast amount of wealth held over from a long period of one-party rule will certainly not go down without a fight. If this factional fighting clears the path for Wang Jin-pyng or another powerful party leader to claim the helm of the party, a regeneration and unification under a new banner would not necessarily fall into the realm of fiction. However, in such a state of disarray as they find themselves now, the KMT will have to take quick measures to find this sort of unified message in order to have any serious chance at remaining relevant amidst the churning of a fundamental shift in voter preference.

Tsai Ying Wen’s China Problem

In the many years of tradition that constitute the governing of the civilizational concept that is China, Chinese leaders, endowed with a history that they have always claimed stretches at least five thousand years into the past, have leaned toward action that takes into account the long view of history in pursuit of their goals. In contrast to other, younger political entities that tend to rush forward with vigor and abandon in pursuit of their immediate objectives, the Chinese have traditionally opted to strengthen their position gradually and consolidate their power in increments, biding their time until the best course of action has been circumscribed. In pursuit of a strengthening of its position as the more responsible representation of the entity that formally calls itself “the Republic of China”, more colloquially know as Taiwan, the ruling KMT party arranged a much-discussed meeting between its head, Chairman Eric Chu, and the president of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping in Beijing last Monday to discuss topics of mutual interests to the two parties that both claim to represent the same nation. Though the two sides have remained in contact through informal channels since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 and the subsequent exile of the KMT to the island of Taiwan, such a high level meeting has not occurred for several decades, and has renewed discussion on the future of the political status of Taiwan, particularly in light of the upcoming 2016 Taiwanese general elections.

As Brian Hioe argues in his article “Looking Back on the Chu-Xi Debacle”, the substance of the meeting came to very little that had not already been stated by the each nation at some point in the past: namely, an upholding of the so called “1992 Consensus” and a commitment to greater cooperation in economic and regional affairs. Rather, the meeting seems to boil down to a well-orchestrated piece of political theater, one that serves to legitimize the actions of both sides. China for its part, and in particular Xi Jinping, once again showed their mastery of statecraft that assuages the fears of a hostile takeover of Taiwan in the near future and keeps the international community from panic, all the while never stepping down an inch from its stated intention of eventual political and territorial integration of Taiwan into the PRC. Xi seems to follow closely in the footsteps of his predecessors who, though never conceding to the idea of an independent Taiwan, carefully avoided stoking the flames of conflict to the point of action.Though Xi has taken it upon himself to state that he believes that a resolution to the question of the political status of Taiwan will come to fruition by the end of his term, in action the PRC President seems much more intent upon affairs within his own country, consolidating his power within the party by purging corrupt officials and launching his initiative to bring about the fulfillment of a “Chinese Dream”, an as yet vague vision of the future of Chinese society.

This game of aggressive rhetoric subsequently followed by a subsequent denouement of tension dates back as far as even the Mao era, when the Chairman casually mentioned to Henry Kissinger that China was willing to wait a hundred years to resolve the Taiwan question, content to gradually grow in strength and influence until a more ripe time. Indeed, even the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, the most white-knuckle event in cross-strait relations for the past decade, seems mostly to have been a display of calculated political power rather than a true existential threat to Taiwan. The Chinese game of circumscription seems well in play at this point in its foreign policy, for, despite its symbolic place as the ultimate goal of Chinese territorial expansion, the bulk of China’s recent land disputes have centered around the South China Sea, the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands, and the ambiguous “nine-dashed line”. It seems that, at the present moment, the Chinese plan to continue to strengthen their anti-access/area-denial capabilities in the region while deepening their economic and cultural integration with Taiwan in pursuit of eventual unification. Of course, any party with a major stake in the Asia Pacific region who would completely rule out the possibility of Chinese military action in pursuit of a resolution to the Taiwan question does so injudiciously and at its own peril, but, for at least the present, China seems intent upon exploring more palatable options in pursuit of its long sought after goal of unification.

For its part, the KMT, having received a solid defeat at the polls in the 2014 midterm elections, gains credibility for its willingness to seek cooperation with China in economic and political matters in lieu of conflict over identity politics. The low levels of support for the current KMT administration on Taiwan has led to the need for renewal within the party ranks and the presentation of a unified message that will appeal to alienated voters. President Ma Ying-jeou, current Taiwanese head of state and a member of the KMT, resigned his chairmanship of the party late last year as a gesture of responsibility for his party’s sounding defeat, and in the intervening months the party has taken steps to distance itself from him. Chu, a popular figure who has managed to hold onto the mayorship of Taiwan’s most populous city even as his party suffered major losses, presents for the KMT an opportunity to reorganize and rehabilitate their damaged image. From this perspective, the KMT seems intent upon proving to voters that they can successfully navigate the quagmire of cross-strait relations in a way that both benefits Taiwanese society while preventing Taiwan from being subsumed by China on China’s terms.

For Taiwan, having a relationship with China that both brings them substantial benefit while at the same time avoiding a denigration of their self-determination involves walking a precarious tight rope between the practicalities of international relations and the polarizing nature of Taiwanese domestic politics. The failed bid to join the Chinese led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the ruling party’s most recent attempt to extract a tangible benefit from the relationship between the two parties, proves how complicated this sort of maneuvering can be within the tenuous environment of cross strait politics. Though conceivably beneficial to the Taiwanese economy in terms of positioning themselves downstream of the flow of expanding Chinese wealth, the resulting failure to join the bank as a founding member hurt the island nation’s perception as an active participant in regional affairs and embarrassed the administration internationally. Even more humiliating for the KMT lies the fact that the rejection came even after the government acquiesced to the Chinese demand that Taiwan file their application for membership through the Chinese Taiwan Affairs Office rather than through their central bank, the requirement for every other state seeking to join the bank as a founding member. Additionally, this mishandling of Taiwan on the regional and international stage sent blowback reeling through the domestic political environment, with several spontaneous anti-government protests breaking out around Taipei in the wake of the AIIB debacle.

The importance of identity politics cannot be overemphasized within the context of the Taiwanese political environment, and a careful choice of language when describing the exact nature of the Taiwanese identity has swayed many an election. In March of 2014, the KMT leveraged their control of the legislature to pass with minimal debate or review a trade service agreement with China that would greatly expand the number of industries open to cross-strait trade. As a result, an angry crowd of Taiwanese, mostly led by students, forcibly broke into the legislature and occupied the chamber for nearly an entire month, effectively shutting down the Taiwanese parliamentary system before in what has become popularized in the Taiwanese political scene as the Sunflower Movement. Though in part a protest over the KMT’s handling of the passage of the bill in not sufficiently allowing the opposition and members of the general public to review and debate its point, this movement’s greater intent became a display of anti-China sentiment and an affirmation that the younger generation of Taiwan supports a distinct Taiwanese identity disconnected from that of China, unlike many of their parents and grandparents’ generations who, despite being born and raised on the island, still identify themselves as at least partially Chinese by cultural heritage.

In the midst of this recent surge of a vocal Taiwanese identity looms the 2016 general election, in which the opposition DPP party, building upon its momentous gains at the local and legislative level, stands to sweep the national election and install Tsai Ying-wen as the next Taiwanese president. Tsai, who ran and lost against Ma Ying-jeou in the 2012 elections, has been building a broad array of support among the electorate and seemingly faces little opposition in her path to the presidency. Her most challenging opponent, Chairman Chu, has already stated his intention to not seek the presidency in the upcoming elections and, should general political trends continue in their current direction, it seems almost certain that Ms. Tsai will have little trouble leading her party to yet another victory in the following year.

It is in this context that the KMT must now seek to play out their strategy in the long term, as they certainly realize that they stand little chance of fielding a candidate that can best Tsai and assure their party’s continued dominance. With Chu out of the running, the party will most likely nominated a placeholder candidate and will seek to shore up their power in other ways, riding out what they believe will prove a tumultuous DPP administration over the next four years. They may, however, find themselves vindicated, at least in part, by this strategy, as a return to DPP control of the government will most certainly bring about a much more unstable relationship with China, and a subsequently more unstable position for Taiwan in the region. Relations between China and Taiwan fell to a low point during the eight year administration of Chen Shui-bian, previous DPP president of Taiwan during the early 2000’s, with cross-strait tensions only being cooled by the election of Ma Ying-jeou in 2008 and the dramatic opening of economic and travel ties to China during his tenure. The KMT seems intent to bet upon the idea that China’s resistance to cooperating with Ms. Tsai, whose party incorporates within itself a substantial element of pro-Taiwanese independence supporters, will bring about the kind of hardship that will once again make the DPP unpalatable to Taiwanese voters. In pursuit of this goal, the KMT seems in the midst of preparation to take upon itself the unorthodox role of representing the nation internationally despite holding the position of the opposition party over the next four years. The meeting between Chu and Xi this past week seems in part to affirm to Beijing that the KMT is willing to with the CCP heading into the future, regardless of the fact that they face the prospect of yet another brutal defeat at the polls next year. In addition, the CCP also seems to seek to reaffirm its own ties to the KMT and acknowledge that it is the preferred entity through whom it wishes to have contact with Taiwan.

In the midst of this grandiose game of political theater stands the figure of Tsai Ying-wen, upon whose shoulders (assuming the success of her bid for the presidency) stands the mandate of leading the Taiwanese nation through what assuredly will present itself as one of the most difficulty-fraught periods in its modern history. Though the Taiwanese economy managed to leverage its stellar position in the semiconductor industry to pump out spectacular levels of economic growth during its period of democratization throughout the 1990’s (during which it was dubbed on of the “Four Tigers” of Asia), the economic landscape of the Asia Pacific region has undergone drastic change over the last 25 years, and low wages and falling rates of investment have tightened the Taiwanese economy and complicated even more its relationship with China, the economic behemoth of this part of the world. If Ms. Tsai holds fast to her party’s anti-China rhetoric and seeks to halt or even reverse the momentum of the previous administration in seeking deepening trade and investment ties with China, she most assuredly will create a situation in which her government will have to present a new model of economic growth or risk Taiwan being such out of the world economy, a position it simply cannot afford given its already precarious political status. Additionally, she will from day one have to deal with a powerful and entrenched KMT who, despite having suffered a defeat at the hands of the general population, will most certainly attempt to use their close connections to both Beijing and Taiwanese business interests to hamstring her administration before it even leaves the ground.

Tsai must therefore also learn how to take the long view of history and build around her a coalition that will work towards practical solutions to the immediate dilemmas facing Taiwan rather than take purely ideologically-motivated action in pursuit of short term gratification. By continuing to develop economic ties with China while strengthening such governmental oversight entities as can monitor the nature of these activities, a Tsai presidency could continue to benefit from the Chinese economic powerhouse while preserving Taiwan’s self-determination. Additionally, and particularly in the wake of the AIIB debacle, the Tsai government needs to strengthen its standing internationally by reaffirming its commitments with major trade partners and attracting foreign investment in its critical sectors, particularly in the field of technology, in which it already has a competitive advantage. Above all, Tsai must not allow herself to become another Chen Shui-bian and must realize that, despite the at times polarizing nature of Taiwanese domestic politics, the reality of the geopolitical situation in the Asia Pacific seems to ensure that, as China will continue to play a major role in almost every aspect of regional politics and that the CCP is unlikely to collapse in the foreseeable future, dealings with China will remain necessary for the continued survival of Taiwan.

Tsai has often faced pressure from both elements within her country as well as Taiwan’s international benefactors to define her policy toward China in practical terms upon which she can delivers results. Until this point, she has been mostly unwilling to do so, no doubt motivated by concerns about her electability should she commit to any one position concerning the cross strait relationship. She will, however, have no choice but to define her position at some early stage should she ascend to the presidency, and if she does indeed seek to reject the “1992 Consensus” (which the DPP did not agree to and has never acknowledged), her and her party will have to put forth some sort of alternative model while, at the same time, contending with both a hostile Beijing and a KMT bent upon undermining her legitimacy. If the DPP seeks to bring Taiwan through the upcoming period of economic and political uncertainty in a way that strengthens the island nation’s position in the region, it will have to eschew a narrow-minded policy of combative rhetoric coupled with policy inaction and display strong, decisive leadership.

Taiwan and the AIIB

The Ma administration’s gambit to have Taiwan join the ranks of several other developed economies who will be applying to join the nascent Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) seems, for the present moment, to have failed, to the applause of a section of the Taiwanese electorate. Though quizzical when compared with the dismal performance of the Kuomintang (KMT) party in the midterm elections last November, the controversial decision, when viewed through the increasing circumscribed international position in which Taiwan finds itself, begins to make a great deal more sense, as do the actions of President Ma himself. Though met with a small and quickly silenced spat of protests, the Ma administration clearly believed that its closed-door process that culminated in the application to become a founding member of the bank would be justified by the economic benefit it would have brought to the island nation.
Perhaps Ma is becoming increasingly afraid that Taiwan will be left out in the cold as its Asian neighbors continue to develop at stable paces, and thus decided to risk the ire of his people to once again position his country in close orbit with China’s economic giant. For, despite some serious concerns lately about the slowing growth rate of the Chinese economy and the risk of a financial collapse on the horizon, the Chinese continue to run up huge surpluses and expand their trade regime to every more remote parts of the the world, and with the AIIB seem to now be challenging the established Bretton Woods international financial order in an attempt to translate their wealth into influence.
This creates quite a dilemma for the Taiwanese government, who heavily depend on the Chinese for trade and investment in both directions. Taiwan has, in recent decades and particularly since the Ma administration’s ascent in 2008, been carefully treading a fine line between skimming the cream off the massive event that is China’s foray into the global economy and maintaining a degree of political self-determination through a close friendship with the United States. As the imperatives of its tightening domestic economy and its falling birthrates become ever more pressing, however, Taiwan has veered closer and closer toward reliance on China to keep its once booming economy afloat.
Like a rocket passing a black hole, however, Taiwan runs the risk of getting sucked into a situation from which it cannot hope to escape, namely China leveraging its economic influence on the Taiwanese economy in order to stage a political takeover that will eventually end in Taiwan’s territorial unification into the People’s Republic of China. It is precisely these prospects which have been rocking the sea of Taiwanese domestic politics. Last year’s controversial Trade Service Agreement with China, which was similarly passed with very little legislative oversight through closed-door consultation, ended in the occupation of the Taiwanese legislature for nearly an entire month and the solid defeat of the ruling party in the subsequent national elections. As Ma’s party takes further steps to deepen Taiwanese reliance on Chinese trade, it is precisely this sort of knee jerk reaction from the Taiwanese population which he is again risking.
Though the attempt to join the AIIB was indubitably a wise move from a purely economic perspective (indeed, there are those who would argue that not joining risks economic suicide), it is hard to see a way in which a continuation of this sort of policy will lead to a continuation of the current status quo, in which Taiwan, though not formally independent, retains a high degree of autonomy with little direction interference from the Chinese. Indeed, one of the most controversial aspects of the Ma administration’s decision was their willingness to file their application through China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), rather than through its central bank in the fashion required of other nations. China has insisted on Taiwan using the name “Chinese Taipei” whenever it participates in any sort of international organization, a name that President Ma’s opponents in the Democratic Progressive Party insists is demeaning to the nation.
In the aftermath of the rejection to become a founding member of the AIIB, the DPP’s assessment may not be that far off the mark. Despite its attempts in what might be called an appeasement of the PRC’s “One China Policy”, the Ma administration’s application was deemed by the TAO to not have been filed under the appropriate name. This is a serious slight to Taiwan, as it will now be unable to join the institution as a founding member and therefore be unable to participate in the writing of its charter, a process that most definitely will define its role in participating in the bank and therefore circumscribe its political position vis-a-vis other nations in the Asia Pacific. The bank is poised to become a pillar of the Asia Pacific economic region, with speculation that its unstated intention may be to rival the influence of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the Asian Development Bank, and Taiwan finds itself in a position of supplication just to have a share of the pie.
It is exactly this outcome which both young, politically active Taiwanese and the DPP were hoping to avoid. The opposition party will most certainly leverage this against the KMT in the upcoming presidential elections in 2016, in which they hope to build on their midterm success to claim the presidency and pursue a different policy with respect to China than the policies the current president has taken. However, despite the early protests of the United States over the development of the AIIB (protests claimed to be on the basis of a lack of proper oversight and regulation), the reality of the Asia Pacific economic situation seems poised to change as China translates much of the wealth it has been accumulating into financial and political power. Despite their obvious reluctance to turn over political power to a country which stated intentions to dismantle their current system of governance and territorial absorb them, the DPP, should they emerge victorious from the 2016 elections, may find their hands tied by situation.

East Asia’s ISIS problem

The ransom of the two Japanese hostages ISIS currently hold in custody in response to Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s pledge of humanitarian aid to countries affected by the ongoing conflict in the Syria-Iraq region magnifies the escalating problem of radical Islamic fundamentalism, but more than that, it identifies the shared stake that modern nations have in stemming the tide of this dangerous philosophy.

Since the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as a major force in global politics, the rhetoric launched by the various incarnations of the philosophy has been decidedly anti-Western in nature, with the United States and Israel as the primary targets and Europe as the secondary. The assumption has been that the liberal, progressive societies of the Western world placed themselves at fundamental odds with that of Sharia law in their toleration of unfettered expression and their willingness to grant large amounts of personal freedoms to their citizens, particularly in the case of women. This paradigm found geopolitical expression in the increasing entanglement that the Western world has accrued over the course of the past several decades, most notably with the formation and patronage for more than half a century of the state of Israel  and the military incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan by the United States over the past three decades.

However, this paradigm which pits Western liberalism against extreme Islamic fundamentalism on the basis of incompatible values and world view seems stretched to explain the increasing hostility between the Islamic world and what are considered the countries of East Asia. Indeed, China for much of its modern history since the founding of the People’s Republic of China had considered itself as a member of the band of countries at odds with Western values and had firmly set itself upon a course of development which resisted Western social influence whilst relying upon advanced technology and industrial practices to pursue a course of modernity which would put it on equal footing with the West while still retaining its system of socialism with Chinese characteristics. Though this legacy has been met with mixed results, indubitably China has indeed succeeded in resisting a Western-style democratic society in which individuals are given the right to challenge the authority of the reigning ideology and freely express themselves without fear of reprisal or censorship.

In addition, despite their more characteristic tolerance of individual expression and ideological diversity, the other major societies of East Asia (Japan, Korea, and Taiwan) remain quite conservative and traditional, at least in comparison to the West. At the very least, none of these powers has shown the same propensity toward geopolitical hegemony as have the Western powers, preferring instead to build economic spheres of influence while remaining outside the realm of international security (though in the case of Japan, this might be a result of the limitations saddled upon it by the international system rather than of its own free volition). The current crisis thrust upon the Japanese by ISIS comes rather as a result of its pledge of humanitarian aid rather than its intent to involve itself in the factional strife plaguing the Middle East.

China, on the other hand, finds itself increasingly at odds with the proponents of Islamic fundamentalism as it begins to occupy a space once thought of as the purview of the Western colonial powers. China has encountered increasing difficulty in maintaining its rule in the western Xinjiang province, a steppe region populated by the Uighurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic group completely separate from the majority Han ethnicity and making up a very small percentage of the total population in China. Beijing has increasingly come to fear terrorist attacks in the region, such as the bus station bombing late last year that killed several citizens and disrupted the tour of the area by high-level Chinese officials. In addition, China seems intent upon establishing a new economic regime in Africa, and while most of its activity is taking place in the sub-Saharan region rather than the more Muslim-dominated areas of North Africa and the Maghreb, groups such as ISIS will surely note the shift in the country’s once isolationist foreign policy to one more resembling that of the Western world at the height of its economic power.

All of these changes are not only indicative of a new East Asia where countries such as China, once content to focus on its own self-strengthening and rise from poverty, have now become normative standard-setting participants in the international system, but are also a major indicator of the core ideology of radical Islamic fundamentalist. Modernity itself, rather than simply Western liberal modernity, seems to be the major enemy of radical Islam, and its current incarnation in the rising geopolitical powers of East Asia (having now become predominately irreligious, materialistic societies themselves) will surely attract a similar ire in the eyes of groups intent upon resisting modern cultural currents and imposing a violent interpretation of the Muslim faith upon their people.

This needs to signal the much anticipated change in East Asian (particularly Chinese) thinking when it comes to the problem of extreme Islamic fundamentalism. For too long this has been thought of primarily as a Western problem, brought about by the West upon itself by its desire to impose its owns values upon the Middle East, and thereby radicalizing fringe elements of the Muslim population there to engage in violent jihad. Now, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that this is a problem which will continue to plague the modern world no matter who happens to be the iteration of modernity at the time, a problem that cannot be solved without all nations acknowledging they have a stake in its resolution.

The Promise to Taiwan

The Foreign Affairs Committee of the United States Congress held a hearing on March 18 on the subject of US-Taiwan relations on the 35th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act, a hearing they chose to title “The Promise of the Taiwan Relations Act”. It may have just been semantics, but the use of the word “promise” in the course of the discussion seemed to reflect less of a sense of the opportunities created because of the legislation than a literal promise made between the United States and the Republic of China. Wading through the purposeful obscurity that so characterizes the relationship between America and Taiwan, it is hard to arrive at an answer to a very important question: what exactly is the promise that the United States of America has made to Taiwan?

When I was at the protests at the Legislative Yuan in Taipei the week they began, I witnessed a man speaking about the resilience of the Taiwanese throughout their history in the face of constant takeover by imperial and colonial powers. He likened the current struggle against the Cross-Strait Trade Service Agreement to this history of resistance, but he made a comment that piqued my interest. He told the crowd that concerning the growing threat of a Chinese takeover that China was too big, and that the Americans could not save Taiwan now, it was Taiwan that would have to put up the resistance itself.

Was this true, I wondered? Had the much-talked-about growth of China reach a critical mass, to the point where the Americans would decide that, in the face of an attempted takeover, Taiwan was simply not worth fighting Beijing over? The relationship between America and Taiwan is not simply a curiosity, it is a relationship that has proven to be absolutely critical to the develop of Taiwan into what it is today. It is a relationship that both sides of the debate over the Trade Service Agreement have acknowledge to be vital to the success of their vision of the future in Taiwan. Early in the Sunflower Movement, student protests sent a letter to the White House urging President Obama to support their occupation, and on the same day that President Ma of Taiwan held a video conference with a major American think tank on the US-Taiwan relationship, the leaders of the student protest held a conference with students at the George Washington University vindicating their point of view (the English version of which can be viewed here).

The relationship between the United States of America and the Republic of China is a unique one. One has simply to spend a few months in Taipei to see how much of an influence American fashion, language, and entertainment has on the culture and self-identification of Taiwanese people of all ages. On the American side, there is constant discussion of a sense of “shared values” with Taiwan, a nation that has moved from being merely a strategic partner in the containment of communism to a nation that shares the values of multi-party democracy and free market capitalism with the United States.

However, the relationship is also at times an ambiguous and uncertain one, especially since the de-recognition of the sovereign status of Taiwan in favor of the People’s Republic of China in 1979 by the Carter administration. Since that time, all decisions made by the United States with regard to Taiwan have always been made with Beijing in mind, something that causes quite a bit of anxiety amongst the Taiwanese. Though the United States did sail an aircraft carrier group through the Taiwan Strait in 1992 in response to the launching of missiles off the coast of China in the direction of the island, conditions twenty-two years ago are much different than they are today, and China occupies a much more potent place in the international system.

The Americans tend to tread a very thin line when it comes to the issue of Taiwan, a position that may not always be viable even in the near future. They continue to sell billions of dollars of weaponry to the Republic of China, but the decision to scrap upgrades to Taiwan’s aging F-16 fighters and its subsequent reinstatement amidst China’s 12.2 percent defense budget increase shows how tenuous the relationship can be in times of contention. The United States claims that it relationship with Beijing is fundamentally based on the assumption that there will be no forced solution to the Taiwan question, but allows Taiwan to be further diplomatically isolated by China’s growing diplomatic influence. The fact that Taiwan has become so dependent on Chinese trade that it needs to pass these very controversial cross-strait trade agreements is due to the fact that Taiwan is not allowed to join major trade organizations like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the Americans formally support but have not advocated.

All of these tepid signs of support as Taiwan becomes more and more dependent upon China economically are worrisome to advocates of Taiwanese self-determination on both sides of the Pacific. The promise that the United States made to Taiwan in the Taiwan Relations Act seems to undergo constant reinterpretation through the lens of America’s support of China’s “One China Policy”. If indeed the Americans are such staunch supporters of democracy and human rights in East Asia, perhaps it is time to make more concrete assurances to Taiwan, and for Taiwan in turn to assure the United States that it will be a responsible partner in the region.

While I commend the comments I heard at the Sunflower movement protests about the indomitable spirit of the Taiwanese, spirit is not an effective missile deterrent, nor does it stop Chinese acquisition of Taiwanese businesses. Ideally, Taiwan would be able to share an equally burden (if not the full load) of the defense of its self-determination, but realistically Taiwan will never be able to defend itself against China. It is inevitable that Taiwan’s defense will always have to be subsidized by its friends who are stronger diplomatically, economically, and militarily. It is important for both America and Taiwan to remember, however, that theirs is not a relationship built simply on strategic necessity; both sides share a fundamentally compatible world view, and despite their cultural differences, they are allies in containing the growing power of China in the Asia Pacific region.