Global News Blog
If it were another country, Taiwan would be in hot diplomatic water.
The government in Taipei said last week it wanted to be a peacemaker in a sovereignty dispute involving a set of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. Boats from China and Japan had chased each other around the islets they both claim, setting off mass protests in China that sent Sino-Japanese relations to a new low.
Then this week, Taiwan stopped talking about peace as 12 of its coast guard vessels escorted some 50 Taiwanese fishing boats to the islets, a sort passive-aggressive reminder of its own claim to islets that are 137 miles from Taiwan. Japan controls the islands, which it calls the Senkakus, and sprayed water cannons at Taiwan’s boats to keep them away.
But instead of setting off a diplomatic crisis, no one appears to be taking Taiwan too seriously – at least not yet.
RELATED: East Asia's top 5 island disputes
As far as China is concerned Taiwan is still part of China even though a Nationalist Party set up a rival government in Taipei after losing the Chinese civil war to the Communists in the 1940s. Beijing believes it will capture Taiwan someday even though the two sides are now self-ruled. By that logic any new territory Taiwan locks in would eventually go to China anyway.
At the same time, Japan and Taiwan can hardly live without each other. The former World War II colonizer is today one of Taiwan’s top five sources of tourism. Common Taiwanese take fashion, food, and shopping cues from peers in Tokyo while a strong contingent of conservative Japanese lawmakers who dislike communist China embraces Taiwan as a friendly fellow democracy.
“Japan is probably the only country in the world that attaches strategic importance to Taiwan,” says Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow with the CSIS Freeman Chair in China Studies.
But Taiwan’s leadership neither expects to conquer the tiny islets nor broker a peace deal. President Ma Ying-jeou’s government is, instead, intent on using the issue to fulfill an often failed, 4-year-old domestic pledge: expand clout among major world nations through informal ties usually described as soft power.
China forbids its 170-plus diplomatic allies from engaging Taiwan directly. But Taiwan may hope its idea to be a regional peacemaker will stimulate scholarly debate in the United States, putting Taipei on the map of high-level academic conferences, says Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor with Tamkang University in Taiwan. “Ma has taken at least an initiative and a moral high ground,” Mr. Huang says.
Taiwan has also avoided bashing China with heated language (letting Japan handle that) over the disputed islets, though they make separate claims. That puts the two sides in the same boat as seen from Beijing. “It embraces the one-China concept in Beijing’s eyes,” Mr. Huang adds.
That edge will make China happier, and Taiwan wealthier, when the two sides bargain over trade tariffs or investment rules.
Making good on that pledge to expand clout matters now as President Ma Ying-jeou sees approval ratings of just 15 to 25 percent this year so far because of domestic issues such as rising prices and stubborn wages. Term limits would stop Mr. Ma from seeking a new term in 2016, but his Nationalist Party could inherit any approval problems he leaves behind.
RELATED: East Asia's top 5 island disputes
The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development recently released its Education at a Glance 2012 report, which examines education in OECD and G20 countries (where the data was available). Here are the five most educated countries in the world.
The key to understanding this year’s report is the 2009 - 2010 global recession: “No group or country – no matter how well-educated – is totally immune from the effects of a worldwide economic downturn,” begins the Education at a Glance 2012 report, which notes that young people have borne the largest burden. Nearly 16 percent of people between the ages of 15 and 29 in OECD countries in 2010 were neither employed nor in some kind of education or training program.
The OECD research highlights the importance of higher education, which includes vocational schooling, during an economic downturn. People with more education were found to be able to keep or change jobs more easily; unemployment rates for those with higher education remained low during the economic crisis; and the earning gap between people with higher vs. lower levels of education grew wider during the recession.
Access to higher education is not equitable for all students, however, and creating opportunities for everyone is a challenge that all countries face, notes the report. For example, young people with at least one parent who has completed a higher education degree in OECD countries have nearly double the chances of attaining higher education opportunities, the report notes.
Another barrier is that students and families have taken on an increasingly large portion of education costs in OECD countries, which the report notes can lead to situations where individuals are burdened with debt that could prevent them from pursuing further education. “These barriers may impede countries’ own goals of increasing educational attainment in their populations,” the report notes.
COUNTRIES INCLUDED IN THE STUDY:
Australia; Austria; Belgium; Canada; Chile; Czech Republic; Denmark; Estonia; Finland; France; Germany; Greece; Hungary; Iceland; Ireland; Israel; Italy; Japan; Korea; Luxembourg; Mexico; Netherlands; New Zealand; Norway; Poland; Portugal; Slovak Republic; Slovenia; Spain; Sweden; Switzerland; Turkey; United Kingdom; United States
Residents in Nourat al-Tahta and other villages under routine Syrian shellfire are complaining of unexplained symptoms may indicate artillery shells have been filled with a biological agent, but weapons experts discount the panicky assumptions.
Nazir Shrayteh, a doctor from the nearby village of Dousi, says he has received an unusually large number of patients from villages under shellfire in recent months complaining of rashes and diarrhea.
“Since May we have been getting these skin problems,” he says. “I don’t know what it is, but I feel something odd is going on.”
Still, biological weapons experts say that the chances are remote that biological agents in Syrian artillery shells are the cause of the ailments. Although T-2 mycotoxins, a chemical produced by certain fungi and used as a biological weapon, are said to cause both symptoms, they are extremely toxic and potentially fatal, says Kelsey Gregg, a former biosecurity specialist with the Federation of American Scientists.
“Even at low doses, there would likely be different symptoms from an aerosol, including eye and respiratory problems,” she says.
Furthermore, the ad hoc pattern of Syrian shellfire does not suggest a determined attempt to deliver biological agents. Ms. Gregg suspects the blame lies with poor sanitary conditions due to the stressful, overcrowded and abnormal circumstances in which the local residents and Syrian refugees are living.
The Nourat al-Tahta residents' case bears some similarity to a recent incident in Afghanistan, when a group of schoolgirls showing symptoms of poisoning raised fears that the Taliban was poisoning the drinking water supplies at several schools. The World Health Organization dismissed the symptoms as more likely a form of mass hysteria – something that has happened many times in history, the Monitor reported.
Israel said it disrupted an attempted large-scale terrorist attack on its southern border today, underscoring the ongoing threat posed by militants in the Sinai peninsula, who have stepped up their attacks since Egypt's popular uprising last year.
Israel's military said it killed three militants who crossed into Israel midday near Har Harif with weapons and explosive belts. One soldier from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was killed and another wounded in the exchange of fire. The last time an Israeli soldier was killed by militants from the Sinai was August 2011, according to the IDF.
Israel has long been concerned about security in the Sinai peninsula, which it captured in the 1967 Six-Day War but ceded after making peace with Egypt in 1978.
Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's regime responded harshly to terrorist attacks in the peninsula, particularly after a 2004 attack that killed 34 in the tourist city of Taba, as The Christian Science Monitor's Dan Murphy pointed out recently. But with Mr. Mubarak's ouster last year and the formation of a new government dominated by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, Israel has voiced concern that Egyptian security in the Sinai has taken a backseat.
The deterioration in security has been bad for both sides, however. In August, 16 Egyptian border guards and soldiers were killed, which prompted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to summarily dismiss Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and other top military leaders.
Israel has been building an extensive fence along the Sinai border, which is nearing completion. The Israeli soldiers attacked today were guarding a section of this fence. It's not the first time it has been attacked; in June, two militants attacked IDF contractors involved in building the fence, eliciting a strong statement from Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak that the new Egyptian president must "swiftly" put an end to attacks from the Sinai.
While many have speculated that the Egypt-Israel peace deal could falter under Islamist rule in Cairo, the Sinai poses a challenge for both nations. If they don't find a way to work together, they both may suffer.
Thanks to a heads up from the local news last night, I got to watch President Barack Obama on the "Late Show with David Letterman." I figured if it was big enough to make the nightly news I should watch, but I didn't expect much more than staged jokes, dull conversation, and campaign messaging.
But after the initial chitchat ended – and President Obama had the audience on his side after cracking a joke about not wanting to see host David Letterman naked – I understood why the president went on air with the late night host. I also wondered whether it was something German Chancellor Angela Merkel should consider when running for re-election next year.
The setting is perfect: It's free television time on a national level and gives the incumbent a big platform for presenting both his ideas and his personality. I didn't expect Mr. Letterman to let Obama talk about the national debt for more than three minutes, let alone the gridlock in Congress for almost four, but that's what he did.
For Obama it was a way to reach voters who might not be interested enough in politics to follow election coverage closely but enjoy their late night talk shows. His choice of words might have been simple – referring to "two wars on a credit card" when talking about the national debt – but his message, peppered as it was with stories about his children and the White House garden, stuck.
Germany has already adopted the US debate culture, so why not appear on talk shows too? Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder tried that when he appeared on the popular evening game show "Wetten, dass...?" ("Wanna bet this...?) in 1999, but it didn't really catch on with other politicians. Last year Chancellor Merkel turned down an offer to appear on the show, which was hosted by the popular Thomas Gottschalk until the end of last season.
Maybe it's because Merkel is not quite the hip politician Obama is and likes to keep her personal life private. But even though German elections are never as personality-driven as they are in the US, the candidates still need to appeal to voters, and this is an ideal way to do that.
Take former Minister of Defense Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who stepped down in 2011 after the disclosure that he had plagiarized his doctoral thesis. Even in the middle of that controversy, he remained one of the most popular politicians in Germany, partly because he knew how to spin the headlines with well-crafted appearances, showing up in an AC/DC T-shirt at a concert or getting his picture taken at tourist hub Times Square on a trip to the US.
Even if Merkel does not want to trade personal stories with Letterman like Obama did, appearing on a carefully chosen entertainment TV show and sharing just a little bit of about her personal life while going long on economic policy and government spending could be an easy way to get the message out to the average Joe – or in this case, Otto Normalverbraucher.
Rumors are that Mr. Gottschalk is planning a comeback with a show airing on public broadcaster ARD. That could be a nice match.
The first sign of just how closely the Chinese authorities were monitoring and controlling today’s anti-Japanese demonstrations here came on my cellphone.
It was an SMS from the Beijing police. Barely had I arrived in the vicinity of the Japanese embassy, the target of a fourth day of protests over a territorial dispute, than the message popped up on my screen.
“The Beijing Public Security Bureau reminds you to please express your patriotism in a rational and orderly fashion and to follow police instructions. Thank you for your cooperation,” it read.
The Chinese government was clearly anxious that Tuesday’s demonstrations, marking the anniversary of the incident that sparked Japan’s 1931 occupation of Northeastern China, should not turn violent, as had happened over the weekend.
The protesters, mostly young men, many waving red and gold Chinese flags or portraits of Mao Zedong, were doing as they were told by organizers. Obediently they formed up in small groups and awaited their turn to march past the embassy, where they slowed down just long enough to throw bottles of water at the gates.
Any hotheads in the crowd who might have wanted to do more were dissuaded by the sight of helmeted riot police standing shoulder to shoulder along the roadside, reinforcing thousands of police officers who were making sure, megaphones in hand, that everybody kept moving. Also reinforcing the police were civilian security volunteers wearing armbands, and reinforcing them were dayglo-orange-waistcoated traffic wardens.
Then the protesters marched on down the street in glorious late summer sunshine, chanting slogans such as “Japanese dogs out of China,” or “China wake up,” and even reminding themselves, in unison, to “listen to orders.”
A block down the street they turned around, marched back down the way they had come, then turned around once more and started all over again.
“I’ve been round three times already and I won’t go home until everybody else does,” said Zhang Chong, a young clothes vendor, his cheek decorated with a Chinese flag decal.
“We didn’t lose the Diaoyu islands in Mao Zedong’s time and we will not allow them to be lost by our generation,” Mr. Zhang said, explaining why he had taken to the streets.
The worst outbreak of anti-Japanese sentiment for many years was sparked last week when the Japanese government bought three of the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea known here as the Diaoyu and in Japan as the Senkaku. China claims sovereignty over the islands, which are under Japanese control and were privately owned until last week.
The Chinese government responded by fiercely denouncing the purchase, formally specifying the geographical coordinates of the waters that it claims around the islands, sending surveillance vessels to the islands and sanctioning anti-Japanese demonstrations around the country, some of which torched Japanese-owned businesses on Saturday.
Nothing like that was to be allowed on Tuesday, it was clear. As the protesters approached the Japanese embassy, a loudspeaker mounted on a police car played them a tape loop: “The Chinese government shares the people’s feelings” a woman’s voice assured them. “The government has made it clear it will not accept any territorial infringement. But once you have expressed yourself, please move on.”
Russia has just declassified news that will shake world gem markets to their core: the discovery of a vast new diamond field containing "trillions of carats," enough to supply global markets for another 3,000 years.
They decided to keep it secret, and not to exploit it, apparently because the USSR's huge diamond operations at Mirny, in Yakutia, were already producing immense profits in what was then a tightly controlled world market.
The Soviets were also producing a range of artificial diamonds for industry, into which they had invested heavily.
The veil of secrecy was finally lifted over the weekend, and Moscow permitted scientists from the nearby Novosibirsk Institute of Geology and Mineralogy to talk about it with Russian journalists.
According to the official news agency, ITAR-Tass, the diamonds at Popigai are "twice as hard" as the usual gemstones, making them ideal for industrial and scientific uses.
The institute's director, Nikolai Pokhilenko, told the agency that news of what's in the new field could be enough to "overturn" global diamond markets.
"The resources of superhard diamonds contained in rocks of the Popigai crypto-explosion structure are, by a factor of 10, bigger than the world's all known reserves," Mr. Pokhilenko said. "We are speaking about trillions of carats. By comparison, present-day known reserves in Yakutia are estimated at 1 billion carats."
The type of stones at Popigai are known as "impact diamonds," which theoretically result when something like a meteor plows into a graphite deposit at high velocity. The Russians say most such diamonds found in the past have been "space diamonds" of extraterrestrial origin found in meteor craters. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the type of deposit needed to create impact diamonds.]
They claim the Popigai site is unique in the world, thus making Russia the monopoly proprietor of a resource that's likely to become increasingly important in high-precision scientific and industrial processes.
"The value of impact diamonds is added by their unusual abrasive features and large grain size," Pokhilenko told Tass. "This expands significantly the scope of their industrial use and makes them more valuable for industrial purposes."
Russian scientists say the news is likely to change the shape of global diamond markets, although the main customers for the super-hard gems will probably be big corporations and scientific institutes.
China sent six surveillance ships into waters near disputed islands in the East China Sea on Friday, but quickly withdrew them in a sign that Beijing does not want tensions with Japan to rise too sharply.
The civilian vessels were engaged in “the normal performance of their duty,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters. The ships withdrew soon after being ordered to leave the area by Japanese coast guards, Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported.
The sovereignty dispute has flared up again since Tuesday, when the Japanese government purchased three of the five contested islands from the Japanese family that had owned them. The uninhabited islands are known as the Diaoyu in China and as the Senkaku in Japan.
Beijing clearly had to react, if only because popular sentiment is running high on the issue in China; protestors have staged demonstrations in a number of cities, Japanese citizens have been assaulted on the streets of Shanghai, tempers are flaring in Internet posts and nationalism is rampant.
Aside from that, the islands could also be valuable; ownership of them gives rights over rich fishing grounds and a claim to potentially huge oil reserves under the nearby seabed.
Senior Chinese officials have limited themselves, however, to strong words and saber rattling. Today’s edition of the “People’s Daily,” the ruling Communist party’s official organ, carried a full page article detailing China’s recent military modernization program, for example.
On Thursday, in a thinly veiled hint at retaliatory economic steps, Chinese Vice Minister of Commerce Jiang Zengwei told a news briefing that "with Japan's so-called purchase of the islands, it will be hard to avoid negative consequences for Sino-Japanese economic and trade ties."
Behind the bluster, though, it might well be that Beijing has decided privately to accept the Japanese government’s explanation that it bought the islands to prevent further trouble.
Shintaro Ishihara, the stridently nationalist governor of Tokyo, had announced his own plan for the Tokyo municipality to buy the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. Had he done so he could have caused untold mischief, provoking the Chinese at will by starting to build, or even to settle people.
Still, the sight of a Japanese citizen selling the islands to the Japanese government, regardless of China’s insistence that they are not anybody else’s to sell, has been painful here.
The authorities have salved their national pride with gestures. Last Tuesday, China began issuing weather forecasts for the islands and their surrounding waters, after publishing baseline coordinates setting out the Chinese view of which bits of rock and water belong to Beijing.
Eventually, tensions will doubtless fade, China and Japan will quietly acknowledge that they can never resolve the issue of sovereignty, and both sides will end up doing some sort of resource-sharing deal, just as they have elsewhere in the East China Sea. But that might take a while.
Dmitri Medvedev, Russia's prime minister and former president, has departed from the official script – as he sometimes dramatically does – to call for the release of three Pussy Riot women who were sentenced last month to two years in a penal colony for committing sacrilege in Moscow's premier Orthodox cathedral.
The women have been in prison since March, and their appeal hearing is set to begin in two weeks. Mr. Medvedev called for the women to be given suspended sentences.
"This well-known group of girls have been in prison quite a long time already, and that is a very serious punishment for everything they did, regardless of the sentence…. Prolonging their prison confinement seems unproductive in this case," he added.
Medvedev's comments came just a few days after President Vladimir Putin compared Pussy Riot performances with "witches' sabbaths" and mused over how obscene their name sounds in English in an interview with the Kremlin-run RT network. Otherwise, Mr. Putin insisted he had nothing to do with the case.
On Tuesday Russian state TV aired a "documentary" film entitled "Provocateurs. Part 2" which claimed the brief "punk prayer" performed by Pussy Riot in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior last February was part of an international conspiracy financed by renegade Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who currently lives in London.
Some experts say Medvedev, who has not shone in his new role as prime minister, may be trying to refurbish his liberal credentials amid Russia's fast polarizing political landscape in hopes that he may have a political future if Putin should be forced to leave the Kremlin early.
"Medvedev can't change anything for Pussy Riot, but he's taking care to position himself as a liberal," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow.
"After all, he's a former president, head of the United Russia party, and if Putin were to go away he could step up. He's taking care with his biography, to show that he can take a stand."
During his four year presidency Medvedev frequently expressed liberal positions, while taking care not to offend Putin. For example, he urged Russian law enforcement to reopen the cases of Anna Politkovskaya and other journalists who had been murdered in the line of work and he took the side of his human rights advisers in the controversial case of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky by admitting that some official crimes had taken place leading to his still unsolved prison death.
Last month the two openly quarreled over which of them took the critical decisions after Georgia attacked the Russian protectorate of South Ossetia in August 2008, triggering a brief war that was won by Russia.
But most experts believe Medvedev is just trying to continue the "good cop, bad cop" routine he practiced with Putin during the four years of "tandem" leadership in which Medvedev was nominally president.
Most experts seem to agree that, despite talking a liberal game, Medvedev changed nothing of significance during his four years in the Kremlin and never once challenged Putin in any significant way.
"The tandem is destroyed now, and Medvedev is trying to find his new place in Putin's hierarchy of power," says Andrei Kolesnikov, opinion editor at the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
"He wants to play a role, but as prime minister he is showing himself to be completely helpless. As when he was president, he appears incapable of taking any key decision without a nod from Putin," he says.
"As for his views on Pussy Riot, it's too little, too late. No one can imagine that the Moscow appeals court will take Medvedev's view into account. It's just a statement entirely without consequences."
IN PICTURES: Russians vs. Putin
Tuesday's deadly attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that ended with the death of US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens has drawn widespread attention to an anti-Islam film that enraged rioters on the scene. As the Monitor's Dan Murphy notes, the situation is reminiscent of the riots over the Muhammad cartoons published in 2005 by Denmark's Jyllands-Posten newspaper. He writes:
In some ways, it was the beginning of an era of manufactured outrage, with a group of fringe hate-mongers in the West developing a symbiotic relationship with radical clerics across the East. The Westerners deliberately cause offense by describing Islam as a fundamentally violent religion, and all too often mobs in Muslim-majority states oblige by engaging in violence.
He correctly notes that the film's authors "cannot be blamed for the violence … that blame goes to the perpetrators." Still, some may argue that the best way to end this vicious cycle of hateful message-and-response is to stifle the message. But – putting aside the question of whether this is the best course of action – is it even a legal option? Can the US government act to stop the circulation of offensive material like this? Can someone else?
The answer in the American system of government is simple: no. Any attempt by the federal government or a US state government to silence speakers like the filmmakers – regardless of how repellant their message might be – would be a restraint on their freedom of speech and a violation of the First Amendment. Even were the government to pass a law against hate speech, the First Amendment would still trump such a law and render it unconstitutional.
But while the Bill of Rights prohibits the countenance of a hate speech law in the US, the situation is quite different in Europe. While free speech is indeed protected in Europe both by the European Union and national governments, generally speaking those protections do not extend to hate speech. Many European nations, including France, Germany, and Britain, forbid expressions of hatred against a person or group of people based on their race, religion, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, and the like. As such, much of Europe would be able to crack down on messages like the film at issue now, based on its clear anti-Muslim agenda.
There is another set of entities that could act to stymie circulation of these hate messages, and indeed are well placed to do so: the websites hosting the offensive content. The First Amendment and other free speech protections generally apply only to state actors, and have no effect on private actors like Google, for example, which owns YouTube, where clips of the offending film have been posted. Should Google or other Web hosts be so inclined, they are free to decide which content they publish and which they remove without fear of running afoul of free speech protections.
Still, web hosts are under no obligation to police their users' content, and indeed, were they to do so it could impair the ability of individuals to express themselves. Again, take YouTube: The company is the largest streaming-video host in the world. If YouTube began aggressively censoring content according to what its board or management thought was morally right, those users with different views would be left without an outlet to publish their content. And while that may be acceptable to the general public in cases of hate speech, it might not be quite so acceptable if YouTube decided that speech on a topic with larger support – say, gay marriage – ought to be censored.