Monday, April 29, 2019

Twists and Turns of Taiwan Politics

This was first posted on Asia Times.

The twists and turns of Taiwan politics

Disarray is a frequently used description for Taiwan politics. The aftermath of the mid-term defeat of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the party in power, by the opposition party, Kuomintang (KMT) in just the latest case in point.

The unexpected avalanche against her ruling party just two years after her landslide victory has badly weakened Tsai Ing-wen, the sitting president. Her former number two, William Lai, was emboldened to publicly declare his candidacy to unseat Tsai in the forthcoming primary election and lead the DPP ticket for 2020.

To challenge the incumbent president of one’s own party is extraordinary and an indication of Tsai’s badly wounded position. Her response was to attempt to cancel the primary so as to give herself an automatic nomination into the general election, failing that, to delay holding the primary election in hopes of Lai running out of steam. If Lai should win, Tsai has threatened to run as a third-party candidate, thus ensuring a lose-lose outcome for the DPP.

The KMT has a dilemma of its own, namely how to pick the strongest candidate to lead the presidential ticket and maximize the party’s chance of not only to regain the presidency but also to use the coattail to capture a strong majority in the legislature.

KMT needed Han Kuo-yu to run

The party elders had been casting a covetous eye on Han Kuo-yu, the newly elected mayor of Kaohsiung. His surprising win in the heart of the DPP stronghold has thrusted him to the forefront as the most charismatic and logical candidate to lead the KMT ticket.

The KMT expectation for Han to assume the leadership has put him in an awkward position. Having just been elected as mayor, Han is expected to make good on his campaign promises for the people of Kaohsiung and can’t very well openly commit to running for president.

Even with a divided DPP, running for president won’t be a slam dunk. Han is probably also mindful of the fate of Eric Chu, who led the KMT ticket during the last presidential campaign. At the last moment, Chu was asked to replace a weak candidate at the top of the ticket in order to give the rest of the ticket a decent chance to succeed. 

At the time, Tsai was regarded as the overwhelming favorite and even though Chu as the mayor of New Taipei City was considered the strongest possible candidate to run against her, he was nevertheless regarded as a sacrificial lamb. Sure enough, the outcome was a disaster for KMT and a costly setback for Chu’s political career.

With Han not willing to declare his candidacy in a primary election, KMT would have to draft him without his consent. At this critical juncture last Wednesday, Terry Guo, CEO of Foxconn and richest man in Taiwan, made the surprising announcement that he is a candidate in the KMT presidential primary. He further pledged his unconditional support to the winning candidate if he does not win.

Guo’s pledge to win fair and square was seismic. He is on friendly terms with all the other already announced candidates as well as non-candidate Han. If he wins the primary, Guo will not cause rancor and resentment among the other candidates and offers the best chance for a united party in the general election.

Terry Guo took pressure off Han 

Han’s public reaction was one of relief. He welcomed Guo’s entry and said having two giants to shoulder the mantle of KMT leadership was much better than just one. Now he can go back and concentrate on being the mayor he promised.

Guo’s high public profile with a clean, no preexisting political baggage works to his advantage. He already enjoys high name recognition among the public as a highly successful corporate CEO.

Analysts have identified the following positive attributes to his candidacy:

(1)After four years of economic stumble under Tsai, Taiwan is in badly need of someone who can rejuvenate the economy. Guo’s life from rags to riches is testament that he has the credentials.

(2)Guo’s personal conduct and accomplishment suggest that he can be a positive role model for Taiwan’s youth befitting the leader of his country.

(3)With his success in establishing manufacturing operations on the mainland, he understands the Beijing leadership and the PRC government. He is best positioned in maintaining a peaceful, cross-strait relations.

(4)From his past commercial activities, he has a worldview and an international stature. He is said to enjoy a personal friendship with China’s Xi Jinping and is personally acquainted with Donald Trump. 

(5)Having grown his company into a multi-billion enterprise, he has demonstrated proven management ability and is well qualified to run the Taiwan government.

In stepping forward, Guo told the audience that Mazu appeared in his dream to urge him to run. Mazu is Taiwan’s most popular deity that looks after fishermen and sailors at sea.

Divine guidance aside, Guo said that peace across the straits will on top of his agenda, that Taiwan will continue need to develop home grown innovation and that Taiwan need to address the world as its market, not just dependent on mainland China.

Furthermore, Guo said Taiwan must take control of its own fate and cannot count on the US to provide its security.

While Guo’s surprise entry has brought new energy to Taiwan’s presidential race, It’s a long way to the actual election and far from a done deal.

Assuming that Guo wins the primary and becomes the head of the KMT ticket, he will need to rally and unite the followers of contending candidates, especially persuading Han’s supporters to swing over to him. 

Taiwan’s history of twists and turns

The first time DPP came to power, Chen Shui-bian eked a thin plurality with barely 40% of the votes when the KMT self-destructed by dividing into two contending camps. Guo will have to make sure the KMT does not repeat such splintering again.

A divided voter sentiment does exist in Taiwan now. Taipei mayor, Ko Wen-ji, ostensibly an independent but considered DPP leaning, commands roughly one-quarter of popular support. A DPP ticket that includes Ko would become much more formidable opposition to the KMT. 

Taiwan also has a history of strange happenings around their election and not just divine intervention by Mazu. Chen Shui-bian was on the verge of going down to defeat in his bid for reelection, when an alleged assassination attempt on the election eve changed the voter sentiment.

Taiwan people are still scratching their heads on how an assassin bullet managed to graze Chen’s belly and turned in mid-flight to nick his running mate on her knee. Suffice it to say, the ensuing confusion allowed the DPP to squeezed out another win.

Eight years of Chen’s corrupt and ineffectual regime paved the way for eight years by Ma Ying-jeou and the KMT. Ma did a good job in rebuilding Taiwan’s economy and maintaining peaceful relations with Beijing but was a weak and ineffective political leader. He was frequently pummeled by the opposition and by factions within his own party.

The end of Ma’s administration led to a landslide victory by Tsai and the DPP in 2016. Unfortunately for Tsai, she failed to grasp that economy trumps ideology and proceeded to make hash out of the economy. Consequently, she opened the door for massive disaffection and defection from the DPP as shown by the December mid-term election. 

Guo’s announcement is the curtain raiser for a new political show in Taiwan. There will be many twists and turns yet to come in the ensuing acts before the final curtain, i.e., the actual election. It will be interesting to see how Guo will handle the inevitable mudslinging directed his way during the campaign leading to the general election in January 2020.

Taiwan is the favorite showcase to watch democracy in action for many in the American academic circles. This time around they may be in for one heck of a show.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Committee on Present Danger

This piece was first posted on Asia Times.

Trump’s China Policy is the Real Present Danger to America

A cohort of geriatric warriors in Washington has resurrected an old organization first established when Eisenhower was the US President. It was called the Committee on Present Danger.

The first CPD consisted of a blue panel of patriots formed to warn the Federal government and the American public of the threats of the Soviet Union and spreading international communism.

After most of the members were appointed to serve in the Eisenhower Administration, the CPD dissolved. Some years later, a second iteration followed by a third came along. Each with different roster of members and emphasized a different danger to national security. Technically, these were not direct descendants of the original CPD.

Committee on Present Danger: China

The latest and fourth iteration was formally introduced at a two-hour press conference held last week. The organizers didn’t just borrow the name but modified it by calling it the Committee on Present Danger: China. The obvious intent was to drill down and focused on the danger China represents to America.

A parade of speakers went to the podium to state their case on why China is such a threat to American national security. Every imaginable and unimaginable threats were described. Some were blatant exaggerations and some so outlandish as to be humorous.

Here are some samples of accusations that made this group look wacky.

“China has 3000 miles of harden tunnels to move their missiles around.” Hard to know the basis for this statement. We know that American intelligence has actually visited China’s nuclear weapon development center, but thousands of miles of harden tunnels? Perhaps the speaker heard of the tunnel near the Tiananmen Square, which have been converted into restaurants and a place to get away from summer heat. And he “extrapolated” into 3000 miles.

Another speaker said one indication of lack of personal freedom in China was that 1.4 billion of Chinese citizens have no Internet access, implying they suffered from information deprivation. Apparently, this speaker did not know that more than 800 million Chinese carried smart mobile phones and enjoy a lot better access than people in America.

Another claimed that China has been terrifyingly effective in influencing the minds of the American public such as via movies made in Hollywood with Chinese investments. He practically suggested that Americans have become brainwashed Manchurian candidates. Even the Washington Post has become a mouthpiece for Beijing, he went on to proclaim.

American cities bombed out

China has been so effective in moving jobs away that every American manufacturing city has been bombed out just like Germany was after WWII. As a result, the speaker went on, more Americans have died (he didn’t say how) than the total killed in Vietnam and WWII! (exclamation point is mine).

A retired general got so carried away when it was his turn to talk that he claimed China attempt to interfere with the US 1996 elections. He offered no elaboration or substantiation. Maybe he had Russia on this mind?

Despite all that, the convener of the conference emphasized that CPDC was nonpartisan and the reconstituted organization was for the purpose of informing the American public of the dangers China represent.

Steve Bannon was credited as one of the movers behind the new version of CPD. Curiously, he did not appear at the podium to speak. Perhaps he didn’t want to be seen with this motley collection.

However, Bannon’s handprint was evident as many speakers praised Donald Trump and his hardnosed approach to China, protestation of nonpartisanship notwithstanding. 

Rather than fade away, this band of old soldiers appears to be spoiling for one last glorious global war or perhaps just lining up to be appointees for the next round of vacancies in the Trump Administration.

Trump’s wrong-headed China policy

Alas for them, Trump is already executing a disastrous policy on China and needs no help. For instance, a retired general that spoke at the press conference claimed that China has penetrated every conceivable American institution that mattered, meaning every university, every high-tech company and even US intelligent agencies and embassies.

Trump’s remedy has been to deny or delay reentry for Chinese graduate students that went back to China for the summer break. This tactic certainly halted any imagined threats of penetration. But it also interrupted research projects at the universities and stopped any advances that would reinforce American leadership in science and technology.

Trump has pointed to the large trade deficit with China as an indicator of unfair trade practices and vowed to punish China with tariffs on imports from China. He repeatedly asserted that the tariffs would be good for America and narrow the trade gap.

Instead the US trade deficit, based on figures for the last year, was higher than ever with the world and specifically with China. Obviously, he doesn’t understand how global trade is supposed to work.

US trade negotiator Lighthizer has been most vociferous accusing China of wanton intellectual property theft. If China had only depended on stealing and copying, how does one explain advanced 5G telecommunication technology from Huawei? 

Huawei has been offering 5G around the world with capabilities far more advanced than their nearest competitors. Despite Washington’s vigorous efforts to suppress and stymie Huawei, the company’s worldwide sales broke through $100 billion for the first time.

Trump has put US allies in a quandary. Do they accede to American pressure and give Huawei a pass or do they jump in and install the latest enabling technology? 5G means leaps in mobile computing, Internet of things, autonomous driving, and remote medical diagnosis, to name a few. Can any modern economy afford to pass 5G just to appease Uncle Sam?

Pompeo’s conflicted contradiction

Same conflicted contradiction holds for China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Secretary Pompeo goes around the world warning of China’s bogus deals and “predatory” financing. With nothing to offer as an alternative, other countries find Pompeo’s words hollow and hard to swallow.

China’s President Xi Jinping went to Europe last week and Washington pushed hard and urged the EU to stand with the US and resist China’s blandishments.

Italy became the first to value China’s investments over Pompeo’s empty rhetoric. Thus, Italy became the first of G7 countries to sign on and partner with China as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Paris was next stop for Xi, where President Macron vowed that France would stand with all the members of EU in solidarity to China. Then an order for 300 Airbuses dazzled Macron. France did not sign the Belt and Road Initiative but did agree to $45 billion worth of deals with China and promised close multilateral collaboration.

The reality is that China has been going around the world offering to finance and help build infrastructure projects with the third world countries in Africa and Latin America. With developed economies, China offered to collaborate on investments and trade. China’s emphasis is more friendly relations, not military bases.

China works within a multi-polar world and building a coalition of nations with shared economic interests. Unlike with the US, no one nation has dominance over another.

China has consistently worked within the confines of the United Nations and not in spite of the UN. And China has shown no inclination to displace the US as the world hegemon except in overworked imagination of CGDC.

Truth of the matter is that Trump’s America First policy, unilateral withdrawal from the Paris Accord, reduced spending on international diplomacy and many other self-inflicted body cuts have earned general disrespect and eroded America’s stature as the world’s leader.

The real present danger to America is the failure of their leaders to recognize that the world is no longer a unipolar one with the US sitting on the apex. To insist that the US must win, and China must lose is unrealistic. China would not accept such an outcome and American persistence will surely lead to tragic lose-lose outcomes.

Clearly, it’s in the US national interest to work with China and find win-win accommodations.