Who Called Whom?

One of the more interesting aspects of the now infamous Taiwan-Trump phone conversation of Friday, is that nobody admits to initiating the call.

When criticism of the call broke out Friday, Trump quickly claimed that Taiwan called him:

Trump offered no apologies, nor did his transition team make any comments. Instead, he defended the discussion amid reams of criticism for having broken U.S. protocol by saying Tsai initiated it.

“The President of taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!” Trump tweeted.

However, Taiwanese officials say otherwise.

Except, a spokesman for the Taiwan government quickly contradicted the U.S. president-elect, saying the call had been arranged in advance: “Of course both sides agreed ahead of time before making contact.”

See also:

If he meant to imply that the incoming call was a surprise, then he either was lying or had been misled; Taiwan’s press had already published news of a “scheduled” call hours earlier. The Taipei Times reported, “Trump reportedly agreed to the call, which was arranged by his Taiwan-friendly campaign staff after his aides briefed him on issues regarding Taiwan and the situation in the Taiwan Strait, sources said.”

Josh Marshall:

Today we learn that the guy who arranged for Trump’s call with the President of Taiwan was none other than Stephen Yates. He’s currently in Taipei and working for the Trump transition team. Yates has a post at The Heritage Foundation while also running his own international consultancy – a typical arrangement for high level foreign policy hands of both parties when their party is out of power.

[Late Update: After I wrote this post but I think before I pushed the ‘publish button’, Yates has now denied reports that he arranged the call, while saying he thinks he was a great idea. I would suggest keeping an open mind about whether the original reports or the denial are more credible. If it wasn’t this Yates, it was likely another.]

For starters this leaves little doubt that this call was intentional – at least in the sense that Trump’s advisors put it together with a full understanding of the diplomatic implications. Just how much Trump understood this or understood the full ramifications of taking this call isn’t entirely clear. The fact that Trump’s twitter freak out pushed the point that the Taiwanese President had called him, not vice versa, suggests an element of defensiveness and incomplete understanding of the situation.

In other words, it’s possible Trump is being manipulated by advisors with their own agenda. Of course, it’s also possible that most of the people advising Trump are dumb as a box of rocks, also.

Back to Evan Osnos at The New Yorker:

In the hours that followed, it became clear that Trump may have been manipulated into doing something he doesn’t understand. Michael Crowley, of Politico, noted that the former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, who favors a tilt away from Beijing, visited Trump Tower on Friday for undisclosed reasons. Bolton has argued for “playing the Taiwan card” to pressure Beijing. In a January op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, he wrote,

The new U.S. administration could start with receiving Taiwanese diplomats officially at the State Department; upgrading the status of U.S. representation in Taipei from a private “institute” to an official diplomatic mission; inviting Taiwan’s president to travel officially to America; allowing the most senior U.S. officials to visit Taiwan to transact government business; and ultimately restoring full diplomatic recognition.

Further complicating matters, according to the blog Shanghaiist, Trump and his family are currently trying to win a lucrative contract with a Taiwanese city: “A representative from the Trump Organization paid a visit to Taoyuan in September, expressing interest in the city’s Aerotropolis, a large-scale urban development project aimed at capitalizing on Taoyuan’s status as a transport hub for East Asia, Taiwan News reports.” Did Trump break nearly four decades of diplomatic practice to sweeten his family’s business prospects with Taiwan? His supporters, of course, say no. But the President-elect has taken no steps that would defuse that perception.

It’s going to be a long four years, folks. News analysts are saying that China appears to be taking a low-key approach, possibly concluding that Trump must be an idiot. But apparently they had been willing to give him lots of benefits of lots of doubts, thinking he was someone they could work with, and now he’s blown that impression out of the water.

“This is a wake-up call for Beijing — we should buckle up for a pretty rocky six months or year in the China-U.S. relationship,” Wang Dong, an associate professor at the School of International Studies at Peking University, said Saturday. “There was a sort of delusion based on overly optimistic ideas about Trump. That should stop.”

If they’re going to cause an international incident, though, I’d rather they do it now while President Obama is still running things. Perhaps even Trump can learn that actions have consequences. Otherwise it’s going to be one blunder after another until somebody finally has had enough.

Ukraine: Baggers and War

Consensus is settling on the belief that Malaysia Airlines 17 was brought down by Russian-backed Ukranian insurgents who believed it to be a Ukrainian military cargo jet. This audio tape is the chief evidence:

After more thorough investigation we may yet learn that something or someone else was responsible for the 298 deaths. However, the Guardian is reporting that the insurgents are destroying evidence.

About the insurgents: David Remnnick describes one separatist leader at the New Yorker:

A wildly messianic nationalist who cultivates an air of lumpy intrigue, [Igor] Strelkov has found his way to the battlefields of Chechnya, Serbia, and Transnistria. He is now helping to run the separatist operation in Donetsk. Like the radical nationalists and neo-imperialists in Moscow, who have easy access to the airwaves these days, Strelkov has a singular point of disagreement with Putin: the Russian President hasn’t gone nearly far enough; he has failed to invade and annex “Novorossiya,” the separatist term for eastern Ukraine. Pavlovsky said that people like Strelkov and his Moscow allies are as delusional as they are dangerous, somehow believing that they are taking part in grand historical dramas, like the Battle of Borodino, in 1812, or “the novels of Tolkien.”

“Strelkov is well known for leading historical reënactments of Russian military battles, like you have in the States with the Civil War reënactors,” Pavlovsky said. “It used to be a fantasy world for people like him, but now they have a realm for their imaginations.”

In other words, they’re the Russian equivalent of the Cliven Bundy militia, armed with surface-to-air missiles. Josh Marshall wrote,

So that’s who you’re dealing with: some mix of civil war reenactor or Tea Partier decked out in revolutionary garb, with a mix of reckless aggression and comical incompetence. Here we have them break into nursing homes to photographs senator’s comatose wives; there Putin gives them heavy armaments designed for full scale land war in Europe.

I feel compelled to add that not all Civil War reenactors are that delusional. But you get the idea. See also Dylan Scott, This Is The Feared Russia-Born Separatist Who Allegedly Boasted Of Downing An Airplane.

There are a number of articles out today about why Putin is doing this. In brief, beside the fact that his ego is bigger than Russia, he’s also got ideas about nationalism that should have been left behind in the 19th century. His games in Ukraine also appear to have boosted his approval ratings among Russians.

And of course, on the GOP/Bagger American Right, the plane crashed because Obama.

Swat Valley Blues

I haven’t been following events in Pakistan all that closely, but I take it that the Taliban has been allowed to take over the Swat Valley as part of an agreement with the government of Pakistan. No one seems even to be pretending this is going to settle anything.

By all accounts the Swat Valley is a lovely place, popular with tourists. Centuries ago it was the site of a thriving Buddhist civilization. It was said that at its peak of Buddhist influence, the Swat Valley was filled with fourteen hundred stupas and monasteries. Until very recently, museums of Buddhist art and the ruins of temples were drawing many tourists from places further east, such as Japan. There’s no news I can find about what’s happening to the relics of Buddhism remaining in the Swat Valley, and I assume they are being destroyed.

I wrote an article on the history of Buddhism in Pakistan and Afghanistan for the other website that some of you might find interesting. In a nutshell, Buddhism reached Pakistan-Afghanistan — an area once called “Gandhara” — during the reign of the Emperor Ashoka (ca. 304–232 BCE) and thrived there for well over a thousand years, until some time after the 12th century CE.

Among several things I learned while I was researching the article is that the artists of Gandhara were the first to depict the Buddha in human form. Most of the conventions common in depictions of the historical Buddha to this day were invented in Gandhara and then spread to east Asia. Early Gandharan art was in the style of Greek and Roman art and is especially beautiful.

The other thing I learned is that Buddhism and Islam peacefully co-existed in the Middle East for several centuries. Islam reached Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 7th century, and some Buddhist monasteries were still operating as late as the 12th century, although for how much longer after that no one knows. For the most part the Muslim rulers of the area left the Buddhists and their art and monasteries respectfully alone. Buddhism was not forcibly driven out of the Middle East, but seems to have just withered away.

Beside the lost Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan, there were no end of smaller stone Buddhas, cave paintings and other artifacts in the Middle East that survived mostly intact all these centuries — until the Taliban. The real concern is for the living people subjected to Taliban atrocities, of course, but I thought someone should say something about the art.

Happy Happiness in Happyland

One of the more surreal parts of working on the Buddhism site is cruising around looking for Buddhist news. Xinhua, the Chinese government news agency, is always a great source for stories about the wonderful things the government of China is doing for various Buddhist temples and monasteries.

Today I ran into a happy story about repair and restoration work planned for Labrang Monastery, an important monastery in Gansu Province. On the other blog I wrote a roundup of news stories about Labrang Monastery over the past year. Highlights: Arrests, beatings, torture, strip searches, “disappeared” monks.

Somehow, Xinhua left those details out of its happy story. However, Xinhua did link to a charming photo gallery showing happy Tibetans enjoying peace, prosperity and democratic reform under Chinese rule.

The “happy” stories must mostly be for Chinese, who want to believe them. I understand China does a remarkable job of preventing non-Chinese news sources from penetrating the Great Firewall of China. But I find a remarkable number of westerners who believe them also.

The stories of happy happiness remind me of the stories the Right always wanted to come out of Iraq. The Bush Administration should have hired Xinhua to manage Iraq news for them.

Banned in China

This is not easy to watch. Right after the Tibetan Governmet in Exile released this video, the government of China effectively blocked YouTube in China.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International has released a report documenting numerous human rights violations by U.S. immigration officials. Read about it at the other blog.

Bush and China

The Peking Duck:

In my entire stint in Asia, starting in 2001, I have never once heard a positive mention of Bush by any Chinese person, either in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan or the PRC. Not among teachers, mid-level government officials, co-workers, friends, business people or taxi drivers. Despite the bombing of the Belgrade embassy, I still hear Chinese people praise Clinton. I’m not sure why, but most seem to adore him. The mention of Bush’s name tends to prompt a reflexive reaction of scorn and disappointment. If people were glad he went to the Olympics, they didn’t make a big deal out if it, the way they did over Spielberg’s backing out. And I’m not sure how the reporter measured Obama’s “unpopularity” in China during the primaries. I’m not going to say Chinese people I knew were raving about Obama, and he probably was less popular than Clinton, but I never heard anything indicating he was unpopular. (The only memorable remark I heard about Obama that wasn’t gushing with praise came from a Chinese teacher who, the day after the election, asked me, “How is it possible that white people voted for a black man?”)

Poor Dubya. China doesn’t love him after all.


James Fallows explains why David Brooks is an idiot so I don’t have to. Links are such a time-saver.

In a nutshell, Brooks’s column today is all about China’s “collectivist” mindset versus the West’s “individualistic” mindset. Fallows, who has been living in and reporting from China in recent years, explains why Brooks’s column is over-simplified hooey.

Certainly, Chinese culture has emphasized social harmony at least since Confucius (551-479 BCE). But that doesn’t mean that Asians are non-thinking automatons.

Brooks writes, for example,

If you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing. If you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swim.

Brooks builds on this to explain why Asians don’t value rights and privacy as much as we Westerners do — Westerners focus on the individual fish, see. But fixating on the biggest fish is not necessarily a sign of individuality, IMO. It more likely indicates that the observer identifies with or admires dominance.

Awhile back I complained that right-wingers don’t see the interconnectedness of things. One of the differences between progressives and non-progressives is that the progressives perceive how the lives and personal fortunes of individual citizens interconnect, and how events and issues connect to and impact other events and issues. Righties, on the other hand, have rigidly linear thought processes and cannot see beyond their own personal interests. Does that make them more “individualistic”? or just more “selfish”? And “narrow minded”?

Years ago I stumbled into a virtual nest of Objectivists. These are Ayn Rand culties who have made a religion of individuality. The peculiar thing about them is that none was a particularly original thinker. They all tended to quote the same passages of The Fountainhead to make the same points and show how “individual” they were.

One guy in particular, who kept going on and on about how he didn’t need anyone else, finally got to me. Do you realize, I said, that your entire environment is a web of interconnection with other people? The roof over your head, the chair you’re sitting in, the utilities you use, the food you eat, your bleeping Internet connection are all the creations of other people.

He snapped back, I paid for these things. Of course. An economy is a facilitator of interconnection.

Righties drop by here from time to time and accuse us liberals of being “statists” and “collectivists.” Righties make a big show of loving liberty even while they support giving the Bush Administration unlimited power to violate individual rights and bully anyone who dares disagree with them. So much for “individualism.” As with the Objectivists, they like to fancy themselves rugged individuals when most of the time they are just tools, believing what they think they are supposed to believe.

I’m Buddhist enough to understand individuality as an illusion. We’re all more part of each other than we realize.

The three major philosophy-religions of China — Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism — all in different ways emphasize interconnection. Zen Buddhism — Zen Buddhism originated in China, as Ch’an Buddhism — was heavily influenced by an Indian philosophy called Madhyamika, which argues that nothing has intrinsic identity, and phenomena take identity only from other phenomena. There is neither reality nor not-reality; only relativity.

Another Chinese school of of Buddhism called Huayan came up with the metaphor of Indra’s Net. The net extends in all directions without end, and in each “eye” of the net is a multifaceted jewel. Each jewel, although existing separately, also reflects every other jewel in the net. And the jewels in the reflection reflect all other jewels in the reflection, to infinity. This represents how beings and phenomena exist. Simultaneously, we are individuals and not-individuals.

Yes, China has a totalitarian government. The form of that government is based on an economic and political philosophy originally dreamed up by Europeans, as I recall.

Robert Louis Chianese writes
in the Los Angeles Times,

Without a tradition of individualism and personal rights, Chinese society represents the perfect counterbalance to our own rights-emphatic culture. If we find fault with the suppression of the individual in China, we also might fail to see the disadvantages in the West of devaluing social harmony. We in the U.S. seem to be going off in 330 million directions at once. Contrariwise, our current administration wishes to overrule the Bill of Rights in the name of security, our debased form of “harmony.”

I would say that without a tradition of social harmony, we often cannot reach consensus without devolving into schoolyard taunts and bullying. Or, that great favorite of dictators — fear.

I’ve come to appreciate more and more that “social harmony” and “individualism” are not opposites. When kept in balance, they enhance each other. When only one is valued, too often you have neither.