Sunday, October 03, 2004

American professor Tom Plate's report in Korea Times: Smell of a Pre-war Countdown

Tom Plate is a Professor at Univesity of California, Los Angeles and Director of Asia Pacific Media Network. Below is a copy of his report, published at Korea Times online October 2004, entitled Smell of a Pre-war Countdown.

LOS ANGELES - You know what’s even more pertinent than a tension-filled American presidential debate? It’s the prospect of war between China and Taiwan. And, unlike our so-called “debates,” it’s real. What’s more, folks, the possibility of war is looming, getting less and less unlikely.

One way you know for sure that something big is up is that even Singapore is caught in the teeth of the imbroglio. Sharp-as-a-nail Singapore is to the diplomatic misstep what Balanchine was to amateur ballet.

And what an improbable imbroglio it is: For no less than George Yeo, Singapore’s internationally respected diplomat, who was recently elevated to the position of foreign minister, had the temerity to suggest to Taiwan, in a major U.N. speech, that pulling the China cat’s tail was a good way to suck Asia into a big-time regional war.

By George! He meant only to be helpful, but the remark drove nervous Taiwan absolutely ballistic, despite decades of friendship between the city-state and the wanna-be-independent-state of Taiwan. Indeed, the latter’s foreign minister responded to Yeo as if his public plaint were some kind of cheap low blow, adding insult to vitriolic injury by charging that little Singapore was just sucking up to giant China.

Well, that’s probably true; in fact, just about everyone in Asia (with the possible exception of North Korea, alas) has been sucking up to China lately. And why not? It is better positioned than any other country to become the first Asian superpower since imperial Japan. So who in his right mind _ besides the current Democratic Progressive Party government in Taiwan _ would want to pick a fight with the geopolitical heavyweight champion of Asia?

In fact, the question people are starting to ask, predictably, is whether the government of Taiwan is in its right mind. Having recently returned from a reporting trip there, I suspect it knows exactly what it is doing. Ordinarily, I am the first to admit that it’s hard to understand this bizarre cross-strait relationship. My Chinese-American friends, those who frequently visit the mainland on family or commercial business, counsel me to take all the nasty cross-strait insults with the proverbial grain of salt.

As a director of a Southern California bank that does business in Asia recently put it to me, “You have to figure that each side has taken the measure of the other, knows how much it can get away with, and is playing a highly sophisticated game at a level of diplomatic nuance well beyond our normal decoding.”

His observation reminded me of a similar one made by a high-level Taipei-based international lawyer at a World Economic Forum conference in Beijing a few years ago. He was seated at the same table as a prominent mainland industrialist, and the two of them went at it with the delicious pleasure of old friends at a college reunion. When I expressed surprise at the obvious depth of their mutual respect, my lawyer friend later explained to me that tension across the strait was more artificial than real, whipped up by politicians who are eager to take people’s minds off such concrete issues as prices, jobs, housing shortages and so on.

I have tried to keep this measured perspective in mind ever since, especially in recent months as the cross-strait temperature has risen. If, as my friend suggests, politicians on both sides are just playing their usual games, perhaps the American media’s virtual indifference to this story will in retrospect prove to be inspired news judgment.

But sometimes game-playing can go too far, and things get out of control. The mainland game is: the civil war that ended in 1949 isn’t over, because we’ve still not settled the Taiwan secession issue. The Taiwan game is: we’re a proud democracy and until that’s what the mainland becomes, all talk of unity is foolish, even immoral.

But when the premier of Taiwan suggests, as he recently did, that the island of 23 million people needs to target missiles at Shanghai, the most populous metropolis in a country of 1.3 billion, alarm bells should go off. It has the smell of a pre-war countdown.

This is where statesmanship comes in. And this is where Foreign Minister Yeo tried to come in with his U.N. comment. But as his reward, Taiwan tried to bite off his nose. Say whatever you want about Singapore _ make all the caning and chewing-gum jokes you want. But one thing you can’t say is that it’s a stupid country. And stupid is quite far from the first word that comes to mind when you think about a brain like Yeo.


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