Spared a War: Abe’s Victory and Japan’s Rearmament

I made my genuine Thanksgiving on October 27. The occasion was Mr. Abe’s crushing victory in the Japanese election; the reason was a genuine, though perhaps erroneous, sense that we had been spared a potentially ghastly war in Asia, by the rebalancing of regional power that victory brought.

Japan will now start deliberately rearming and aiding her neighbors, with the pace determined by China’s aggressiveness. If China does not abandon her current expansionist territorial policy, but rather attempts nuclear blackmail against her neighbors, at the end of the day, Japan will match that too, with her own nuclear force, checkmating China. This will bring an armed peace.

Since at least 1995 when she occupied the Philippine Mischief Reef, China has been attempting to expand her territory to include Arunachal Pradesh (“South Tibet” in Beijing’s terminology) in India and islands held by South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and others, as well as to take control of the entire South China Sea, half again bigger than the Mediterranean.

China calculated that no one would react seriously. She was emerging as the hegemon of Asia; others would recognize this fact (which may not be one) and doff their caps, no more. Certainly, the United States would continue to do nothing. The Obama administration had done effectively nothing while this attempt to transform the Indo-Pacific region was being carried out.

China is also actively seeking bases in Africa and elsewhere, with a view to controlling the key choke points in the international maritime transport network. This is Griff nach der Weltmacht, with Chinese characteristics. A continuation of such aggressive behavior will almost certainly lead to conflict, escalation, and perhaps general war.

In 2010, sparks flew at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, as Hillary Clinton delivered a strong verbal condemnation. Then, in 2014, the Philippines filed suit in The Hague, under The Law of the Sea, the authority of which China has ratified and accepted. In 2016, the International Court of Arbitration found that all of China’s actions were illegal. China, however, ignored the decision completely, continuing her expansive policy, assuming that she could divide her opponents, intimidating them above all with her immense military and nuclear capabilities.

This seemed to work. Rodrigo Duterte, an erratic man, became president of the Philippines, and he began to come to terms with China. It became bad form to mention The Hague’s decision. Having torn up the international court’s decision, China looked set to create a fait accompli by flouting the law to use military intimidation instead.

The United States began to take serious action with the new administration in office. When President Trump made his highly successful visit to Asia, he did not need to mention security, as an almost unprecedented three Carrier Strike Groups were exercising in the seas nearby, message enough.

The United States is far away, though, and not trusted by anyone to use nuclear weapons to defend them. That is why the United Kingdom and France, both allies, maintain at great expense their own independent nuclear deterrents. But Japan? She foreswore war in her Constitution. Not only that, the United States presented herself as the “cork in the bottle” that would prevent Japanese armament. The drastic changes that China started unilaterally, assuming Japan would dither, in fact focused that country’s attention.

With Abe’s victory, we may expect Japan to become normal, which is to say possess a self-sufficient military capability including, if so pressed, nuclear weapons that will deter China and freeze her current policy. A democracy, Japan can move only with the support of her people. China’s threats to her territory, as well as the firing of two North Korean ballistic missiles over the islands, contributed to Abe’s victory. Now, we can expect a carefully calibrated Japanese response that will match China at every stage.

What does Japan have now? Her self-defense force numbers at about 250,000. At present, she lacks any but defensive armaments. Even so, her advanced technological capabilities mean that she can develop herself any weapon she needs, as good or better as the American systems on which she now largely relies. Japan does not steal technologies. She already has her technologies.

The jewel in her crown is her small (19) submarine force. The Sōryū is a conventional submarine so stealthy that the highly skilled Japanese anti-submarine forces can find only 5% of them when under way. They regularly sink American carrier escorts (using lasers) in war games. More importantly, as retired Chinese General Liu Yazhou 劉亞洲, an adamant Japanophobe, has warned, in case of naval conflict today, the Japanese submarines could sink the entire Chinese East Sea fleet in four or so hours.[1] (Liu is also an outspoken advocate of democracy). As the Japanese ambassador remarked to this author, “We are a shadow nuclear power.” In other words, it might take them a week to create an arsenal.

Otherwise, Japan has a slightly obsolescent air force to which U.S. F-35s are being added. More importantly, she has a prototype sixth generation stealth fighter the X-2 “Shinshin.” Cynics say she is building this to force American prices down. That may have been correct in the past, but today she is building it so as to be self-sufficient in aircraft. I believe this will be a superb jet: remember, not until 1943 did the United States field a fighter that could down the Japanese Zero.

Japan has also been launching “Information Gathering Satellites” since 2003. The most recent, launched earlier this year, is thought to have resolving power far superior to any other nation’s. Japan has enlarged her intelligence service. Particularly in cooperation with Taiwan (below), Japan will achieve intelligence dominance in the region.

What is missing?

Japan has only very short-range missiles. Now, however, she has undertaken a program to build a maneuverable missile having sufficient range and payload to pose a severe problem to any adversary, and a 1,000 mile-range missile nicknamed the “Japanese Tomahawk” about which in fact we know very little.

The Japanese speak of these as counter-strike missiles: in other words, to be used only after being attacked. Nothing, however, prevents their pre-emptive use. Likewise, they are intended to be conventional. Nothing, however, prevents the Japanese from unscrewing a conventional warhead and replacing it with a nuclear weapon.

In other words, Japan is now on the threshold of becoming a regional great power, not capable of attacking or invading her adversaries, but of paralyzing them by means of her advanced military capabilities. This fact transforms the Asian strategic situation. No longer will China be able to intimidate without fearing retaliation. The Hague decision will be proclaimed as justification, and who can gainsay the legitimacy of that?

Japan will become an Asian alliance focus in the emerging alliance—“The Quad”—of Australia, the United States, India, and Japan—hammered out, significantly, on the sidelines of this year’s ASEAN conference in Manila, so far China’s chief target. Also, she will become a non-U.S. source of advanced weaponry.

This last point—weapons supply—is particularly significant with respect to Taiwan. United States policy has always been to keep Taiwan weak enough that China can imagine conquest, yet fulfill the letter of the Taiwan Relations Act which requires us to supply defensive armament, by selling mostly obsolete or unwanted systems at great profit to our defense contractors. In fact, the loss of Taiwan, while it would be a crime against humanity, would not affect American security.

It would, however, mortally threaten Japan, whose main islands are 800 miles away, while her closest small island, Yonaguni, is less than 70 miles from the east coast of Taiwan. Japan and Taiwan are part of the same mostly submerged ocean mountain range. So we may expect Japan and Taiwan to cooperate in whatever ways are necessary to keep China at bay. If we continue to seek to please China even as we supply Taiwan with inadequate equipment, we may expect Japanese systems to fill the gap—submarines, naval vessels, state of the art aircraft. Not to mention close intelligence cooperation. Taiwan is often thought of as an American issue. Look at the map, though. It is a Japanese issue.

Finally, we must speak of diplomacy. Japan is widely distrusted, though this is perhaps a myth. Even South Korea, which was tortured brutally by Japan during the period she was a colony (1910-1945), maintains a high level of day to day security interaction with Tokyo. Japan’s diplomatic prowess is often underestimated, in part because she conceals it. But, particularly if aided by the United States and other “Quad” powers, she will show great effectiveness. “The Quad,” which China never imagined but was instrumental in creating as a counterbalance to her aggression, is more than a sufficient counterweight.

Note that China has created this situation for herself. She has no real allies: does anyone expect Russia or Pakistan to go to war on her behalf? Rather, by making such vast territorial claims from India to Japan (with the Russian Primorskii Krai, which controls the Pacific coast of Eurasia from Korea north on deck as the next), she has alienated, effectively, all her neighbors—here I include unstable Pakistan and opportunistic Russia—creating what political scientists would call a “countervailing coalition.”

Our greatest 19th century general, Winfield Scott, might have called it “an anaconda” that China has created, but in the toils of which she now finds herself. This entanglement will render impossible China’s miscalculated policies.

Note too that without China’s aid or at least acquiescence, North Korea would not be able to command the attention or elicit the fear that she does now. She is a dependent variable in this larger change, which will undermine and weaken her. South Korea is furthermore high on the list of nuclear capable states.

Actions elicit equal and opposite reactions, so Newton states. Clausewitz notes that unlike physical reactions, those in conflict, being the product of the human mind, are entirely unpredictable. When she set out on her ill-conceived expansion program, China wrote off both Japan and the United States. Now, they are at the heart of the game.

Of course, all of this could go wrong. The possibility of a war worse than any in history erupting in Asia remains with us. The developments outlined here, however, render that less and less likely, while a cold and peaceful standoff looks more realistic.

If such should turn out to be the case, we may date its onset from the Japanese election that has brought Abe to complete power. Now, our task is to create an alliance with Japan such as the late Ambassador Hisahiko Okazaki always advocated—as close as ours with the United Kingdom.

So let us celebrate a war that I believe has been averted!


[1] 流亞洲 ”日本4 小時內 ‘清空’中國東海艦隊” in當代世界 October 2015, http://mp.weixin.qq.com/s?__biz=MzA3NzY1ODg0Mg==&mid=2649667933&idx=5&sn=e8e3d08c32f890c2401ef7baf99dac58&chksm=8754b6e8b0233ffeb7a6e6f4bd865546855b51407bfc05a2fe6f95c7a7936e560888742dbf58&mpshare=1&scene=5&srcid=1016RLOGG4OLHCUBEgPeO034#rd, p. 1.

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Taiwan Loses Another Ally

In another blow to Taiwan’s ever-shrinking list of diplomatic allies comes the news that Panama has severed ties with Taiwan in favor of establishing a relationship with the People’s Republic of China. Panama’s announcement comes only months after Sao Tome and Principe cut ties with Taiwan in favor of China. With these two nations switching recognition, Taiwan has only 20 official diplomatic allies. As China continues to exert pressure on President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that holds a majority in the country’s legislature, China will attempt to poach more of Taiwan’s allies in an attempt to further isolate Taiwan from the international space.

The Office of the President released a statement addressing the switch in recognition: “We express our deep regret and disappointment at the Republic of Panama’s decision to renounce our long-standing friendship and establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.”

The End of the Diplomatic Truce

Though people unfamiliar with Taiwan are not likely to see the importance of the end of this relationship, it is important to understand how China acted during the tenure of former President Ma Ying-jeou, a member of the Kuomintang (KMT), Taiwan’s other major political party that has a more a pro-China view than the DPP. At the beginning of his presidency in 2008, Ma announced that he was pursuing a policy that he called a “diplomatic truce,” in which Taiwan and China tacitly agreed to stop poaching each other’s allies. In 2008, Ma said during the planning stages, “If the diplomatic truce turns out to be a successful strategy, it might be possible that we won’t gain any more allies, but we won’t lose any either.”

Ma’s prediction almost proved true. During his two terms in office, Taiwan only lost one ally, Gambia, in 2013. However, China did not establish official relations with Gambia until 2016, only a few months before Ma left office and Tsai took his place. The delay in establishing relations could be seen as a sign of deference for the diplomatic truce under Ma’s presidency.

Unfortunately for Taiwan, the diplomatic truce has ended with China poaching two countries— Sao Tome and Principe and Panama—from Taiwan since Tsai took office in May 2016. Panama’s move has particularly angered Taiwan. In the summer of 2016, Tsai visited the country for the opening ceremony of the newly expanded Panama Canal. Panama and Taiwan had good relations and exchanges before this announcement.

The canal is most likely the primary reason for Panama’s sudden decision since China is its “second most important customer.” China now has no incentive to stop using the canal, and it cannot dangle its high level of usage over Panama as a veiled threat. The move now also calls into question the China-backed Nicaragua Canal as Nicaragua still recognizes Taiwan, not China. The project’s viability had already been hotly debated, and perhaps Panama hopes that China will focus less on the Nicaragua Canal as a result of its decision.

Tsai released a statement criticizing China’s role in the Panama switch as well as its recent actions in trying to isolate Taiwan from the rest of the world:

Although we have lost a diplomatic ally, our refusal to engage in a diplomatic bidding war will not change. The fact that the Republic of China exists will not change. And Taiwan’s value and standing in the international community will not change.

We are a sovereign country. This sovereignty cannot be challenged nor traded. China has continued to manipulate the “one China” principle and pressure Taiwan’s international space, threatening the rights of the Taiwanese people. But it remains undeniable that the Republic of China is a sovereign country. This is a fact China will never be able to deny.

What Next?

The question, now, for Taiwan is what will happen next. Sao Tome and Principe’s decision to switch to China did not cause much angst in Taiwan since the small island nation apparently asked for $200 million before its switch in recognition. The country was essentially demanding a handout for the continuation of relations, but the Panama case appears different and unexpected. China’s poaching of these nations is exactly what the diplomatic truce under the Ma years stopped, but with Tsai in office, China has decided to alter its course.

Now, if China is truly opening its wallet to Taiwan’s other 20 allies, can Taiwan—or any nation—blame them for accepting a switch in recognition for the prospect or promise of millions of dollars in aid and/or investment? There is not much that Taiwan can do since the Tsai administration has stated that it will not engage in this practice for the sake of stability across the Taiwan Strait. As pressure continues to mount on Taiwan and as its list of allies grows thin, Taiwan may need to rethink its strategy for keeping or finding allies in light of China’s recent actions.

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Taiwan’s Ex-Presidents: A Carousel of Legal Problems

On March 14, the former president of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, was charged with leaking classified information related to a wiretapping case. This indictment is not the first—or even second—time that a former president of the country has experienced legal troubles after leaving office.

As president, Ma released recordings of a member of the Democratic Progressive Party and Wang Jin-pyng, a member of the Kuomintang (KMT) and President of the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s legislative body), to the Premier.

Ma said that he ordered the leak because he felt that it was his duty as the head of state to release information related to potential influence peddling. The government’s prosecutor authorized the wiretapping due to suspicions that the two politicians were using Wang’s position to influence judicial officials.

If convicted, Ma could face up to three years in jail.

Ma has insisted on his innocence claiming that he handled everything appropriately as head of state. According to Ma, he was dealing with a crisis and what “he believed were political flaws and responsibilities involving cabinet members.”

When discussing the charge, Ma said, “Legislators can get away with peddling their influence, but the people who uncovered the scandal have been prosecuted. Where is the justice?”

Post-Presidency Blues

Ma’s post-presidency has been anything but pleasant. The wiretapping lawsuit is not the only one that Ma has faced (and is facing) since he left office in May 2016. The day that he left office, Ma faced 24 lawsuits because his presidential immunity ceased. Also, he was barred by the presidential office from travelling to Hong Kong for “national security concerns” though he has traveled several times to the United States since leaving office.

Unfortunately for Taiwan, Ma is not the first former president to be charged, convicted, or jailed after his tenure in office.

Former President Chen Shui-bian, a member of the DPP, was found guilty of corruption in 2009. He, along with his wife, was sentenced to life in prison, but the sentencing was later reduced to 20 years. He was found guilty of corruption and graft for accepting over US$20 million in bribes and misusing public funds. Chen claimed that the charges against him were politically motivated and a form of revenge by the KMT for his staunch pro-independence views.

The Chen case is an important precedent to explore because Ma may find himself in similar circumstances soon. Like Chen, Ma faces a government with the executive and legislative branches controlled by the other side. Members of the KMT have complained that Ma’s indictment is revenge for what the KMT did to former president Chen. His refusal to pardon Chen as a courtesy to his predecessor, among other things, provides little incentive for current President Tsai Ing-wen to be lenient and pardon him.

Further compounding this pattern of legal troubles, another Chen’s predecessor, Lee Teng-hui, was also indicted on corruption charges for embezzling US$7.8 million during his tenure in office. Lee was acquitted and won on the prosecutor’s appeal.

This pattern of every ex-president of Taiwan being charged is troubling for what many consider a vibrant and healthy democracy in Asia. Not only did Taiwan recently elect its first woman president in 2016, but it also handed the Legislative Yuan to the opposition DPP for the first time in the country’s history. Many across the world looked (and still do look) to Taiwan as a blueprint for a successful and open democracy in a region where there are not very many.

When it comes to ex-presidents, however, Taiwan is riding a carousel of judicial issues. What does it say for a country that the first three presidents who came to office through popular, democratic elections have faced prosecution? Can a democracy truly be characterized as vibrant and thriving when Lee, Chen, and Ma were not able to live life as a private citizen without being surrounded by a cloud of lawsuits?

Stop the Carousel

This bickering and targeting of ex-presidents is not healthy for the country. The lawsuit against Ma and related debates will soak up hours of air time on Taiwanese television, distracting people and the government from more important issues like cross-Strait relations, Chinese aggression in the East Asia, pension reform, modernizing the economy, and many other things.

If Ma is found guilty for leaking classified information in this particular case, it would be in President Tsai’s best interest to pardon him. She must break the cycle of political bickering and revenge and show herself to be a truly transcendent leader. By eschewing partisan politics and not sticking it to the opposition, Tsai can show her colleagues—rivals and allies alike—how to truly lead a nation.

An opportunistic leader would seize the moment to shore up his or her popular support, but a selfless leader should rise above—not bow to—the popular opinion of the day for the good of the country. If she does not work toward bridging gaps and reducing the hyper-partisan nature of Taiwanese politics, then in four, eight, or however many years it takes for the KMT to return to power, Tsai just might find herself taking a ride on the same carousel that Chen has ridden since 2009 and that Ma is just getting (un)comfortable on.

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Trump, Tsai, and the Three Communiques: Prospects for Stability in US-China-Taiwan Relations

The Shanghai Communique of 1972 and the U.S.-China Joint Communiques of 1979 and 1982 have been essential foundations of a bilateral relationship that has remained impressively stable while it has become much broader, deeper, multifaceted, and globally important than either side could have expected forty-five years ago, and as it has faced challenges created by China’s rapid rise.

The U.S. and China have had different understandings of these fundamental texts.  To China, the Communiques embody binding international commitments. For the U.S., they are two sides’ parallel statements of deeply entrenched policies.  Where China sees U.S. acceptance of China’s position that Taiwan is part of China, the U.S. insists that it merely acknowledges the existence of a view ostensibly shared on both sides of the Strait.  From the U.S. perspective, the U.S.’s Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and—less securely—President Ronald Reagan’s Six Assurances stand alongside the Three Communiques as authoritative statements of U.S. policy.  For China, the additional documents lack such stature and have been sources of U.S. failures to implement commitments in the Communiques, particularly on arms sales to Taiwan.

Despite such divergences, the Communiques have underpinned a mutually acceptable framework for handling what was once the most serious problem for U.S.-China relations and remains a major area of potential discord today: Taiwan.  For the U.S., the arrangement has meant adopting a “one China policy” that eschews support for “two Chinas,” “one China, one Taiwan,” Taiwan independence, diplomatic relations or security pacts with the government in Taipei, support for Taiwan’s joining states-member-only organizations, and so on.  For China, it has meant acquiescing (although with objections) in U.S. policies and practices that support a functionally autonomous Taiwan, including robust informal relations, some level of arms sales, advocating Taiwan’s “meaningful participation” in the international system, and insistence that any resolution of the cross-Strait issue be peaceful and (since the Clinton administration) have the assent of the people of Taiwan.

Perhaps the most important practical contribution of the Communiques (and the TRA) has been to provide a fixed anchor for U.S. policy—one on which Beijing has been able to rely.  Occasionally, U.S. presidents or officials have appeared to deviate from policies rooted in the documents.  Sometimes, these moves seemed “pro-Taiwan,” as when President George W. Bush said he would do “whatever it took” to help Taiwan defend itself, or when President Bill Clinton offered what Beijing saw as excessive support for the unacceptably “pro-independence” Taiwanese leader Lee Teng-hui.  Other times, the seeming shifts were “pro-Beijing,” as when Secretary of State Colin Powell indicated Taiwan lacked sovereignty and seemed to imply support for reunification, or when President Barack Obama omitted a robust reference to Taiwan, while reaffirming respect for China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, in a joint statement during his 2009 visit to China.  When these disturbances have occurred, U.S. leaders have retreated to the “big four” texts and reassured nervous audiences in Beijing, Taipei, and elsewhere that there was no change in policy.  This has been good for stability in cross-Strait and U.S.-China relations.  The bounds the Communiques have set for both sides have helped contain even serious crises, including those surrounding China’s missile tests in the Strait in the mid-1990s and Taiwan’s referendum on entry into the United Nations in 2008.

Will this pattern persist in a new difficult period, with Tsai Ing-wen and Donald Trump in power?  Trump’s early moves have been, at best, extreme versions of the apparent departures from established policy undertaken by other administrations.  Trump appeared to move in a “pro-Taiwan” direction when he accepted Tsai’s congratulatory phone call.  Much more alarming for Beijing, Trump declared the one China policy to be negotiable, and linked its continuation to possible Chinese concessions on issues ranging from trade to the South China Sea.  Trump statements also shook Taiwan, where his suggestion that the one China policy was a “bargaining chip” in negotiations with China implied that Taiwan might be a bargaining chip too, and where candidate Trump’s less-than-reassuring statements about commitments to treaty allies such as Japan and South Korea undermined confidence in the U.S.’s thinner and less formal support for Taiwan’s security.

It is encouraging that the Trump administration has imitated its predecessors in returning to the shelter of long-established policy: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson affirmed that there were no plans to change the one China policy, and Trump promised, in a call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, that the U.S. would “honor” the one China policy.  While these are welcome moves, concerns continue.  Trump framed his pledge as granting a request from Xi, not as reconfirming unshakeable U.S. policy.  Like many of Trump’s statements, it may be fleeting, soon to be undercut by a tweet.  Disturbingly absent from Trump administration statements have been strong references to the Three Communiques and the TRA—the traditional underpinnings of stability in U.S. policy.  Recommitment to those foundational documents is especially important today, with a U.S. leader prone to extraordinary volatility, a leader in Taiwan distrusted by Beijing, and a leader in China who has said that a political solution for Taiwan cannot be passed on “from generation to generation.”

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Stopover Hysteria: Understanding Tsai’s Stopover in the United States

Photo credit: The Office of U.S. Senator Marco Rubio

On January 7, President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan will embark on a trip to the United States—not to visit President Barack Obama or President-elect Donald Trump, but to refuel her plane, rest, and conduct some meetings before moving on to Central America. This type of visit has become routine in U.S.-Taiwan relations and is nothing new or particularly special, so why is this trip so controversial?

Tsai is stopping in the U.S. en route to state visits to some of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, specifically Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. News outlets have covered this trip not because these countries are four on a list of only twenty-one states with formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan or because Sao Tome and Pincipe recently switched its recognition from Taiwan to China (a long and growing list), but because Tsai will stop in Houston and San Francisco briefly during transit. Since 1994, every president of Taiwan has landed in the United States while en route to visit diplomatic allies. These visits have ranged from a few hours to a few days—depending upon the state of U.S.-Taiwan relations.

The president of Taiwan must receive special permission from the U.S. government to land or to stay in the country for any amount of time. This rule was established to ease the minds of the Chinese who are suspicious of any interactions between the U.S. and Taiwan that hints of any kind of diplomatic recognition. Since the U.S. severed ties with Taiwan in 1979, no president of Taiwan has participated in an official state visit in the U.S.—only brief stopovers and meetings with U.S. Congressmen and other people of note.

In a post-“Trump Call” world, China is on alert for any indications of a major change in U.S. policy toward Taiwan. As a result, the Chinese foreign ministry has been unusually quite vocal about the potential of a Tsai stopover in the U.S. When asked about Tsai’s visit, Hua Chunying, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said,

The one-China policy is a consensus shared by the international community, and also a principle of how we handle Taiwan’s engagement with foreign countries. We hope that relevant countries can carefully address Taiwan-related issues. As to the Taiwan leader’s transit in the US, I believe her real intention is clear to all. We hope that the US side can follow the one-China policy and the three joint communiques, disallow the Taiwan leader’s transit in the US, refrain from sending any wrong signal to the pro-independence force in Taiwan, and take concrete steps to uphold the overall interests of China-US relations and maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.

In early December 2016, another spokesman said that “the so-called transit diplomacy is only a petty trick played by the Taiwan leader, whose hidden political agenda should be clear to all.” Despite these protests, the U.S. granted Tsai approval, and she will be landing in Houston  on January 7 and departing for Honduras on January 8, and then she will land in San Francisco on January 13 and return to Taiwan on January 15. Previous presidents have stopped over in Los Angeles, New York, Austin, Miami, Honolulu, and Anchorage—with the final city being the unofficial stopover location when ties between the U.S. and Taiwan are less than stellar.

Tsai has a busy schedule for her visit to Central America: she is visiting Honduras after being invited by its president, Juan Orlando Hernandez; she will attend the inauguration of President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua; and she will visit Antigua in Guatemala to promote tourism between Taiwan and Guatemala. All of these visits and events are important for the continuation of relations between these countries and Taiwan, but the only feature of the trip extensively covered in the news is her stopover in the U.S. and China’s outrage over what had become routine.

The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) noted to Reuters the routine nature of these visits: “President Tsai’s transit through the United States is based on long-standing U.S. practice and is consistent with the unofficial nature of our relations with Taiwan.” No matter how much the media or China tries to play up the controversy of this stopover, it should not qualify as exceptionally newsworthy. China’s perception of possible changes in U.S. policy and U.S.-Taiwan relations has caused even the smallest bit of information to be blown out of proportion. Did China raise a stink when Secretary of State John Kerry met with James Soong, Taiwan’s representative to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in November 2016? How about when U.S. Ambassador Matthew J. Matthews, Deputy Assistant Secretary and U.S. Senior Official for APEC, visited Taiwan in early December 2016? No—because these visits are routine, nothing special, just like Tsai’s impending “visit.”

The one thing to look out for is who Tsai meets in San Francisco and Houston. During her visit stopover in Miami in June 2016, Tsai met with Senator Marco Rubio. Will anyone tapped to be in the Trump administration meet with her? If so, how senior of an official and from which department? The answers to these questions are important and could give a glimpse into how a Trump administration will handle the “Taiwan question” beyond the infamous phone call. The genuine issues at stake here are not a routine stopover, but the seemingly deteriorating relations between the U.S. and China, the apparent risks to cross-strait relations, and apprehensions about what the impending Trump administration will do come January 20, 2017 in regards to cross-strait relations and China policy. 

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Desperate for Attention: Hung-Xi Meeting Lacks Meaning

On November 1, 2016, Hung Hsiu-chu, chairwoman of the Kuomintang (KMT), met with Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CCP), at an annual forum between the KMT and CCP. This meeting received much fanfare in the media. The amount of attention that this photo op received may seem puzzling: Hung is not the president of Taiwan; she was such an unappealing presidential candidate that the KMT replaced her three months before the election; and the KMT does not hold the presidency or legislature making it the opposition party for the first time in Taiwan’s history. Hung kept floating the idea of promoting a “peace platform” even though she lacks any authority or mandate to negotiate or sign an agreement between Taiwan and China. In fact, it would be illegal. The Hung-Xi meeting only holds ceremonial importance, but even that characterization is a stretch. It has been incorrectly framed as another historic Ma-Xi meeting. That handshake represented years of negotiating, and having the sitting leaders of Taiwan and China finally meet marked a potential new chapter in cross-strait relations. That much hoped for chapter never materialized due to the KMT’s electoral collapse, and framing the Hung-Xi meeting in the same context does disservice to the historic nature of the meeting in Singapore last year.

2015_ma-xi_meeting_08

For Hung, it is a desperate headline grab that will further alienate the KMT from the populace, and for Xi, it is an attempt to embarrass President Tsai Ing-wen, who has called for a resumption of “talks” between Taiwan and China. While this event does occur annually between the leaders of the two parties, the timing and circumstances for a peace deal are not right: Taiwanese identity is at an all-time high, and the historic election in January 2016 shows that the public mood is against further integration with China. If Hung wanted to push the KMT further away from the public and continue to lose elections, then she made the correct move. Her views on unification do not align with the broad base of the public’s, and they are so pro-China that it is one of the reasons the KMT replaced her when she ran for president in 2015. Why does Hung think that she has any legal or political mandate to even think about such a deal?

The way in which Hung acted before and during the “Cross-Strait Peace Development Forum” rankled members of both the KMT and DPP. Before the scheduled meeting, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) publicly warned Hung not to address “politically sensitive” topics with Xi. After the meeting, DPP officials said that she let the nation down through her actions. She did not challenge Xi’s statements on “one China,” so the term “Republic of China” (Taiwan’s official name) was omitted from the record again. DPP officials also expressed worry about Hung trying to move towards a similar definition of “one China” with the CCP. New Power Party (NPP) chairman Huang Kuo-chang (a new party that formed after the Sunflower Movement) expressed his discontent with this meeting by saying that KMT was “toeing the Communist line of united front while distancing itself farther and farther away from mainstream Taiwan.” Also, before this meeting, KMT officials emphasized “one China, different interpretations,” which is former President Ma Ying-jeou’s preferred formulation.  There are even reports that Hung argued with Ma over the 1992 Consensus and what “one China, different interpretations” means. If Ma—who advocated and maintained the status quo during his time in office—had to argue with her over the party’s interpretation of the 1992 Consensus, that shows how radical of a view she has.

As long as Hung controls the KMT, she could derail any chances that the party has of retaking major offices. The best hope for the party is that she gets ousted by a moderate member of the KMT so the party can work towards making meaningful policy changes that the public will accept. Hung and the KMT cannot hedge on a Tsai stumble or Chinese pressure to bring voters back into their ranks. This election solidifies a shift in Taiwanese political ideals, and the KMT must evolve to remain a viable party option. The party must move with the people, not vice versa. If ideologues like Hung continue to chair the party, create the platform, and pull stunts like the meeting with Xi, then the KMT is a lost cause.

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[Taiwan] Is Not Made In China

Recent incidents continue to demonstrate how the People’s Republic of China is attempting to isolate Taiwan from the international community. These actions (both on the micro and macro level) bode ill for how China is going to engage with Taiwan under President Tsai Ing-Wen, whose election Beijing opposed.

Reports from a Shanghai bookstore show the nonsensical lengths that some people in China will go to “exclude” Taiwan. Bookstores are ripping “Taiwan” out of the Merriam-Webster dictionary before customers have the opportunity to purchase it. Other shops simply black out Taiwan-related entries. This “correction” removes any hint of recognition of a “Republic of China” or “Taiwan,” at the expense of other words beginning with the letter “T.” It is a crude method of censorship that boggles the mind—if Merriam-Webster produces dictionaries with apparently offending entries, why does the Chinese government allow them to be sold? It already bans Western social media websites and movies that promote “Western values.” Why risk the embarrassing news story? Ridiculous does not come close to describing these actions.

The dictionary incident follows another high profile kerfuffle over a popular Chinese television show—a game show where foreign students compete based on their Mandarin abilities—which omitted Taiwan from a map of China. Since China views Taiwan as a part of it, this omission sparked outrage online. Hunan Television, the channel on which the offending show aired, released a statement: “We feel a deep sense of dereliction of duty at the ‘problem map’ incident and feel deeply pained.” The station even clarified that all employees believe that Taiwan is not independent but part of China. The harsh reaction from these netizens shows how sensitive of a topic Taiwanese identity is on the Mainland. The choice of wordage in Hunan Television’s statement escalates the severity of the issue: being “deeply pained” and admitting a “dereliction of duty” are words one would not expect to find over such an omission. Taiwan’s existence as a de facto independent entity angers Chinese citizens who are fervently nationalist, and incidents like the “problem map” only remind the global community how seriously the “Taiwan Question” is treated on the Mainland.

While the two above examples show controversies stemming from Chinese citizens and businesses, another fresh controversy demonstrates that bookstores and netizens appear to take their cues from authorities in the Chinese Community Party (CCP). In September 2016, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which is a part of the United Nations, rejected Taiwan’s request to participate in its 39th Assembly in Montreal. At this assembly, nations discuss aviation policy, and despite Taiwan’s central location within East Asia, ICAO still decided not to accept its request. According to Airports Council International, “More than 1.53 million aircraft carrying 58 million passengers passed through the Taipei Flight Information Region last year. In addition, Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport was ranked 11th and sixth busiest airport in the world in terms of passenger and cargo volumes, respectively.” This high level of air traffic alone should qualify it for a seat at these assemblies. Taiwan had participated in the 38th assembly in 2013 with the hope of continued participation. In 2013, China “asked for Taiwan to be invited.” This year, due to harsh Chinese backlash from Taiwan electing Tsai as president, China pressed ICAO not to allow Taiwan to join the assembly, and ICAO’s spokesperson said that it was “follow[ing] the United Nations’ ‘One China’ policy.” Countries from all across the globe have expressed their support for Taiwan’s participation in ICAO meetings and discontent with ICAO backing down due to Chinese pressure. Stickers saying “The sky is not made in China” have appeared at ICAO headquarters in Montreal in response to Taiwan’s exclusion. China hopes that by further excluding Taiwan from participation in international organizations it can force President Tsai to publicly adhere to the 1992 Consensus. However, such stories create sympathy for Taiwan and its people, and they also further perpetuate the perception of Chinese aggression in the region. China’s own actions paint it in a bad light and generate international support for Taiwan.

In early October 2016, Pew reported (ironically) that 77% of Chinese people think that “their way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence, and such sentiment is up 13 percentage points since 2002.” Considering these events, China and Chinese citizens are the ones negatively influencing the world around them, squeezing and alienating Taiwan and forcing China’s will on international organizations.

No matter what China does—short of war or extreme coercion—Taiwan will still be there as a (de facto) independent entity.

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Taiwan’s Summer of Dire Straits

The summer of 2016 has proven to be a brutal one for the people, president, and pocketbooks of Taiwan. The Taiwanese began the summer months with a newfound sense of hope and rejuvenation after the successful peaceful transfer of power from the outgoing Kuomintang (KMT) to the incoming Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in both the executive and legislative branches of government. These feelings did not last for long. Ravaged by two deadly typhoons—Nepartak and Meranti—the island nation faces millions of dollars in damages to its houses, roadways, and various agricultural sectors. In July, Nepartak caused NT$1.07 billion (over US$30 million) in damages to agriculture, and in September, Meranti caused over NT$850 million (about US$27 million). The southeastern counties, where these storms first made landfall, particularly Taitung County, were hit the hardest. Hundreds of thousands of homes faced power outages and water stoppages from damage caused by the sheer power of these two storms. A world-renowned coral site, known as the “Big Mushroom,” finally toppled after the constant impact of these strong storms in the Pacific Ocean. This formation, over 1,000 years old and the biggest of its kind, is no more. One of the few rays of hope from these two typhoons came from China’s Taiwan Affairs Office—the special government office that deals with cross-strait matters between China and Taiwan—when it offered condolences to victims and wished them well. This released statement was one of the few positive cross-strait interactions to occur since China suspended official communication with Taiwan in late May 2016 when Tsai Ing-wen assumed office.[1] These storms will undoubtedly affect the already struggling tourism industry across the country.

nepartak-source-nasa

Typhoon Nepartak over Taiwan (Source: NASA)

Unfortunately, this particularly destructive summer of typhoons has not led to an increase in cooperation across the strait. Well wishes are about all Taiwan can hope for in the current state of cross-strait relations. Since Tsai’s election in January 2016 and subsequent inauguration in May 2016, cross-strait relations have soured, but relations between China and Taiwan began souring well before her time in office (i.e., Sunflower Movement, etc.). Various deportation “scandals” of Taiwanese nationals and declining numbers of Mainland tourists have put a very public face to the growing discord between China and Taiwan.

Cross-strait relations have almost entirely reset since May—China continues to assert itself both regionally and globally, and Tsai and the DPP-controlled Legislative Yuan (立法院) must be vigilant in trying to create more opportunities for Taiwan in the international sphere. Over the past several months, several countries have deported Taiwanese nationals suspected of various forms of fraud to China causing uproar. In April, Kenya sent 45 Taiwanese nationals to China, and in August, it deported another five individuals. These deportations sparked outrage because the people and government of Taiwan viewed it as a slight to their nation and as another instance for China to assert its power over them. While some have argued that this deportation process is normal operating procedure—Kenya sent them back to the city that they departed from—Taiwan’s government lodged complaints saying that these deportation were nothing more than “extrajudicial abduction.” China argued that these people flew out of China and targeted Chinese citizens with these scams and that as citizens of Taiwan (which China views as a rogue province), they were under the jurisdiction of China. This issue did not just involve Kenya—Armenia recently deported over 70 individuals to China, Cambodia deported another 13, and Malaysia sent 32 suspects. After the latest round of deportations from Armenia, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said in a statement, “We have repeatedly demanded the Chinese side not to deport our people to mainland China. The Chinese side’s action again disregarded our call … and further hurt the feelings of Taiwanese people.” Making these deportations such a large, international issue between China, Taiwan, and several other countries demonstrates Taiwan’s lack of options when pitted against China—not so strongly worded statements of condemnation. These countries chose to avoid challenging China instead of pleasing Taiwan.

China’s self-assertion also involves pinching local Taiwanese citizens’ pocketbooks by preventing Mainlanders from travelling to the island. The normal deluge of Mainland tourists to Taiwan has slowed to a trickle over the summer in response to Tsai’s election and her refusal to meet Beijing’s demand of accepting the 1992 Consensus. Though Tsai has moved towards the center recently in this regard, Beijing’s “red line” is its acceptance for the continuation of cross-strait relations. In 2015, between May and July, over 1 million Mainlanders came to Taiwan; this year, during that same time period, under 900,000 made the trip—the lowest since 2013—for a difference of nearly 150,000 tourists.[2] While that number does not seem too significant at face value, there are now that many fewer people renting rooms, using tour buses, taking taxis, frequenting museums and restaurants, and buying souvenirs. Places once full of tourists are now empty thanks to this 30% decrease in Mainland visitors. Workers rallied in Taipei to protest their current situation, and the government has set up a NT$ 960 million fund to help ease the burden. It has gotten so bad that counties not run by the DPP have sent delegations to China in order to encourage tourism to specific cities and counties that have a more friendly view of China. These leaders hope to increase tourism again and create new markets to increase economic interactions.

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Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen (Source: Office of the President, Republic of China, Taiwan)

Tsai completed her first 100 days as president in August. They mainly have been characterized by a stalemate in cross-strait relations over how she has handled the 1992 Consensus. Her political capital after winning this historic election is slowly running out. Since her inauguration, Tsai’s approval rating has plummeted by 25% from 70% (in May) to 56% (in July) to 45.5% (in August). Another poll has her approval rating as low as 40.8%. She has now witnessed firsthand that running for president and being the president are two very different things and that the opinion of the electorate is fleeting—as her predecessor learned before her. As the months continue to pass by, Tsai may find herself backed into a corner that she put herself in and no viable path to move forward.  Moving into autumn, she has the unenviable task of leading Taiwan through a typhoon recovery effort, a tourism shortage, an always-encroaching China as well as working towards rejuvenating Taiwan’s economy.

NOTES

[1]  Javier C. Hernández, “China Suspends Diplomatic Contact With Taiwan,” New York Times, June 25, 2016, accessed September 20, 2016; and Shannon Tiezzi, “Did China Just Kill Cross-Strait Relations?,” The Diplomat, June 26, 2016, accessed September 20, 2016.

[2] Tourism Bureau, “Visitor Statistics,” M.O.T.C. Republic of China (Taiwan), accessed September 21, 2016.

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Influencing China

Since President Nixon’s historic meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong in 1972, the U.S. – China relationship has developed into a dynamic and challenging strategic relationship that should not be taken for granted.

China on world map

The bilateral relationship was established primarily because both the U.S. and China were concerned about Soviet expansionism.  China witnessed this during the 1960s, concerned that the Soviet Union would use nuclear weapons against a defiant China.  The U.S. was concerned with Soviet inroads in Latin America and threats to our NATO allies.  This convergence of interests, to counter the Soviet Union, brought President Nixon to Beijing to meet with Chairman Mao.  Eventually, in 1979, normal diplomatic relations were established.

Chairman Deng Xiaoping, after being purged twice and surviving the Gang of Four, quickly moved China closer to the U.S.  His priorities were clear:  Improving a sick economy and countering the Soviets.  Deng did both.  He discarded Marxism and introduced capitalism to an economically sick China.  He encouraged U.S. investment and exhorted Chinese students to get an education in the U.S., so as to help jump start the economy. At the same time, Deng worked with President Carter to ensure that both countries shared information on the Soviet Union and cooperated in defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan.  Eventually the Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan and after their withdrawal in 1987, President Gorbachev visited Beijing in June 1989, in an effort to solicit a loan from China.  How ironic.

Cooperating against the Soviet Union was in the interest of both China and the U.S., as was a close economic relationship. Thus bilateral relations thrived when it was mutually beneficial.

The 1989 Tian An Men incident was a clear statement from Chairman Deng that civic disobedience would not be tolerated.  The crack down on the students and others at Tian An Men on June 4, 1989 was reaffirmation from the leadership that the Communist Party would not tolerate civil unrest; that the Party was in charge and controlled the gun.  While Marxism was dead, Leninism and Party control would retain power.  U.S. condemnation of Beijing for its handling of this incident put a chill in the bilateral relationship.

The 1990’s, with Chairman Jiang Zemin in charge, was a period of economic cooperation, with Prime Minister Ju Rongji working hard to enhance U.S.- China economic cooperation.  The U.S. worked equally hard to get China into the World Trade Organization and to grant China Most Favored Nation economic status.  Politically, however, the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis was a clear message from the U.S. to China that the U.S., in line with the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, would come to the defense of Taiwan if China attempted to use military force to invade or intimidate Taiwan.  The introduction of two aircraft carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Strait in 1996 was a stark message to China that the U.S. would not abandon Taiwan.  It also impressed upon the Chinese leadership that China’s military was no match for the U.S.

The beginning of the 21st century witnessed U.S. – China collaboration, on issues dealing with international terrorism, proliferation, piracy on the seas and North Korea, for which China took the lead in hosting Six Party nuclear negotiations with North Korea, starting in August 2003.  It was during this period that the Strategic Dialogue with China was established, headed by the Deputy Secretary of State and China’s Deputy Foreign Minister.  These geopolitical issues were of interest to China and the U.S., thus cooperation was good.  It was also during this period that China started to put more emphasis on building its military capabilities.

Currently, the U.S. – China economic relationship is extensive, with significant U.S. investment in China and significant bilateral trade.  There is considerable bilateral tension with issues dealing with the South and East China seas.  China’s declaration of the nine dash line and its claimed sovereignty over this expansive area has resulted in international condemnation and a U.S. commitment to ensure these sea lanes remain open.  Friction of reported Chinese Cyber intrusions into U.S. public and private entities recently resulted in a bilateral Cyber Agreement, signed by Presidents Obama and Xi that neither country will use cyber to steal the intellectual property and trade secrets of the other country.

The Xi Jinping administration in Beijing is ensuring that the Communist Party not only controls the gun, but remains dominant in all aspects of China’s peaceful rise.  That means the middle class will grow and economic progress will continue to be key priorities.  It also means that the security services will continue to play a dominant role in all aspects of Chinese society, to ensure stability.  The lessons of the  160 years of humiliation, from the Opium War of 1841 to liberation in 1949, followed by internal upheaval with the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution,  which resonate with the people, is that when China is weak, militarily and from within, foreign entities will exploit a weak and vulnerable  China.  The late Ming period, when corruption and decadence made imperial China vulnerable to subjugation by the warrior Manchus and the imposition of the Qing Dynasty in 1647, is contemporary history for which all Chinese students are familiar.  Thus Nationalism speaks to the pride with which many Chinese view China’s economic rise and its assertive military.

These historical realities speak to Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, which prosecuted over 16 senior government officials and over 1,500 less senior officials.  Appointing a noted senior Chinese official, Wang Qishan, to head this campaign was testament to Xi’s commitment to make this a successful campaign.    Indeed, this campaign resonates with the people.  Xi Jinping’s assertive policies in the South China Sea also resonates with the people, given their historical humiliation by foreign entities and by its weak military and inability to repel foreign invaders.

Although I believe the South and East china seas probably are negotiable, what is not negotiable are China’s core interests – Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.  Any leader in China who negotiates these issues would be replaced.

China’s leaders will continue to modernize its military, while devoting significant resources on domestic security.  According to recent pronouncements from Beijing, foreign non-governmental agencies will be monitored to ensure these entities do not interfere in China’s domestic affairs. 

Past dealings with China tells us clearly that the government will cooperate with the U.S. and others if it’s in China’s interest.  Lecturing China doesn’t work. 

This piece is based upon a presentation before FPRI’s Competitive Soft Power and Engagement Seminar held in Washington, DC, on May 4, 2016.

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Digging In: Land Reclamation and Defenses in the South China Sea

The U.S. Department of Defense’s latest assessment of the Chinese military provided new detail on China’s land reclamation efforts on several of the islets that it occupies in the South China Sea.  These include Fiery Cross Reef, Gaven Reef, Johnson South Reef, Mischief Reef, and Subi Reef in the Spratly archipelago.  By December 2014, the report estimated that China had reclaimed as much as 500 acres of new land, creating full-fledged islands where only coral reefs or sand spits existed before.  Since then, China has only accelerated its efforts, expanding the total land area that it has reclaimed to 2,000 acres and building military facilities, ports, and at least one airstrip on the islands.[1]

China is not alone in reclaiming land in the Spratly Islands.  Though dwarfed by the massive scale of China’s efforts, Vietnam’s land reclamation work has recovered a total of 21 acres of land on West London Reef and Sand Cay.  Satellite imagery shows that not only are the two islands larger, but that Vietnam has constructed defensive positions and gun emplacements on them.[2]

Meanwhile, Taiwan is carrying out a more modestly-paced land reclamation effort on Itu Aba Island—the largest natural island in the Spratly archipelago—reclaiming roughly five acres of land.  By the end of this year, Taiwan plans to complete a large wharf that can accommodate its frigates and coast guard cutters.  Eventually, it hopes to extend the island’s runway and deploy P-3C maritime patrol aircraft there.[3]

Hence, China regards criticism from Southeast Asian countries over its island-building activities as a case of the pot calling the kettle black.  China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently shot back at its most vocal critic, the Philippines, which it claims “has conducted large-scale construction of military and civil facilities, including airports, ports and barracks on [Philippine-occupied] islands for many years.”  As a result, China called upon the Philippines to end its “malicious hyping and provocation.”[4]

Accusations aside, bigger islands that are bristling with weapons will not settle the disputes in the South China Sea.  No doubt military installations on the islands can be useful.  They can improve the ability of claimants to monitor and rapidly respond to incidents in the area.  And ultimately, they serve as a tripwire against hostile action.  But further fortifying the islands makes them only marginally more secure.  However strong an island’s defenses are, they are inherently vulnerable.

If push comes to shove, an island’s defenses can exact a toll on an attacker, especially if they are armed with anti-ship or anti-air missiles.  But eventually they will be lost without control of the sea and air around them.  A determined attacker that dominates both can always overcome an island’s defenses, no matter how skillful their defenders are.  Only superior naval and air power can ensure the safety of island outposts.  On that score, China has its rivals beat at the moment.

There once was a time when claimants in the South China Sea vied to demonstrate how their occupied islets met certain criteria to be considered islands under international law.  That way they could claim the rights to exclusive economic zones around their specks of land.  Today, a growing list of claimants, chief among them China, would rather build artificial islands than quibble over the finer points of international law.  There is an out-and-out scramble to establish de facto zones of control and land reclamation is part of that.

[1] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, May 2015), p. 72; James Hardy, Sean O’Connor, and Michael Cohen, “China’s first runway in Spratlys under construction,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Apr. 16, 2015.

[2] Gordon Lubold and Adam Entous, “U.S. Says Beijing Is Building Up South China Sea Islands,” Wall Street Journal, May, 9, 2015.

[3] Gavin Phipps and James Hardy, “Taiwan to deploy P-3Cs to Spratlys,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Apr. 21, 2015.

[4] Ben Blanchard and Manuel Mogato, “China says Philippines violating South China Sea code,” Reuters, May 5, 2015.

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