Friday, September 21, 2007

Thinly Veiled Threats

Some great commentary from journalist Ian Williams has been up on the Guardian's website since Monday. Apparently Mr. Williams got a little phone call from Beijing's Bureau of Public Diplomacy - Mobster Division:

Bullying and diplomacy
Ian Williams
September 17, 2007 8:30 PM

Last week I got a personal taste of Beijing's diplomacy. Their mission to the United Nations called me up and warned at the beginning and end of a 20 minute impromptu telephone debate that if I appeared on a panel with Taiwan's "so-called" President Chen Shui-bian they would "take it very seriously."

Around the world, most governments seem to quail in the face of such implied threats. In contrast, seeing no sign of Chinese gunboats in the East River, and reckoning that the worst that could happen was my missing the 2008 Olympics, the bluster reinforced my determination.On Friday I appeared not only with President Chen on a video link but with John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the UN, in person, and on Saturday on a platform with the Taiwanese sea-goddess Matsu, flown over on her own seat to New York.

I was thinking that if Bolton and I could agree on any issue, Matsu may have been working hard on the miracle front. She will have to work even harder to get Beijing in a reasonable mode.
China's diplomat told me that Chen was a trouble-maker, and took even more umbrage when I pointed out that in fact it was the mainland that was pointing almost a thousand missiles at Taiwan, and not the other way round. "We will consider that you support Taiwanese independence," she accused ominously. Actually, I pointed out that I was neutral on that question, which was up to the Taiwanese to decide, but that I did strongly support their right to decide, just as I had vociferously supported the right to self determination of the Timorese, the Sahrawis of the Western Sahara, Palestinians and Kosovans.

"That is in violation of international law," she snapped. Well, no, I pointed out. Self-determination for former colonial territories was a basic principle of the United Nations, and indeed Mao told Edgar Snow, as reported in Red Star Over China, that Formosa - as Taiwan was then known - would be able to choose its own destiny when Japan was defeated.
The PRC is more used to an attitude of "whatever you say, comrade," than being argued with, and it all just seemed to make her angrier. However, as often, the discussion made me think. Possibly the worst way to dissuade people who are determined to secede is to try to bully them. I pointed out that if forty years ago Spain had made nice with the Gibraltarians, then by now the people on the Rock would be petitioning to join Spain and buy all those giveaway fincas along the coast.

If the British had given Ireland dominion status before the first world war, Mrs Windsor would likely be making annual visits to open the Irish parliament. In contrast , much later in the century, London had conceded bilingualism, and Welsh radio and TV and in the end almost had to force the Welsh to accept devolution.

The negative examples, from Timor to Kosovo are quite clear. Battering people into loyalty is a highly ineffective strategy.

So why should anyone worry about a small faraway island of which we know little? Well of course, there is the little matter that Taiwan is a democracy, whose people want to choose their own fate, but experience teaches us that defending democracy usually only works politically in conjunction with less altruistic motives.

Well, there is one serious matter of self-interest for much of the globe. Of course it is a bit much to expect a joined-up foreign policy from the Bush administration but even so I was shocked to discover that Washington, kowtowing to Beijing, has almost no official contacts with Taiwan - even though the US is committed to defending the island against Chinese attacks. They restricted President Chen to a 15 minute stopover in Alaska on his last trip back from central America. They do not allow him to visit Washington. That is seriously worrying. US should keep its word to Taiwan. But the signals it is currently sending to China, of acquiescence to its policies towards the island, are reminiscent of those Margaret Thatcher sent to Galtieri of Argentina over the Falklands. But any conflict resulting would be far, far bigger than a side show in semi-arctic islands full of sheep and penguins.

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