At 8:45 a.m. EDT on September 11, 2001 a hijacked American Airlines passenger jet crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York, setting it afire. A few minutes later a second hijacked airliner crashed into the south tower and exploded. Almost an hour later a third airliner crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, DC. Estimates put the number of casualties at more than 10,000.
This disaster, the worst in American history, plunged the entire world into panic. Whatever the US response may turn out to be, it is sure to affect the world's geopolitical landscape for a long time to come. What challenges will Taiwan face, given that its defense structure, foreign relations, politics, and economy are heavily dependent upon the United States?
Many commentators have compared this attack on the American mainland to Pearl Harbor. But unlike the Japanese in 1941, today's enemy-terrorism-is unpredictable and elusive. Most American intelligence reports point to one mastermind behind the attack: Osama bin Laden, head of the Al Qaeda Islamic terrorist group, thought to be hiding out in Afghanistan.
Since the attacks, people around the world have expressed their deep sympathy with America in its hour of tragedy. World public opinion also stands solidly behind America's rescue efforts and determination to fight terrorism. There is, however, widespread concern that the wave of patriotism currently sweeping America could degenerate into a "Clash of Civilizations." The attention of the world is focused on what action the United States will take in response to the attacks. It seems increasingly likely that the US will ultimately resort to war.
On September 19, the US Defense Department dispatched more than 100 combat aircraft to the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Awaiting orders, these aircraft are the first major military deployment after George W. Bush's "declaration of war on terrorism."
On September 20, the Afghan Grand Council of Clerics passed a resolution calling on the US not to retaliate with a military strike against Afghanistan. The resolution also urged the ruling Taliban to persuade Osama bin Laden to leave Afghanistan voluntarily. But should the US attack Afghanistan, the Muslim clerics will declare a jihad, or holy war, against America.
War may break out at any moment. Foreign news reports state that the US government is making final plans on the nature and timing of its counterattack.
In faraway Taiwan people witnessed the attack on the heart of America with shock beyond description. Added to its traditional concern about the military threat from communist China and the cyclical fluctuations of the world economy, Taiwan cannot now ignore the question of how this challenge to the world's only superpower will affect relations between the US, China, and Taiwan. Is there anything positive Taiwan can salvage out of this tragedy?
Yu Mei-mei, the deputy director of the DPP's Department of Chinese Affairs, points out that September 11 provided China with an opportunity to change its image and redirect America's strategic orientation. In this scenario, Taiwan's position within the Sino-American relationship has been considerably weakened. But as Sino-American relations become more stable and China joins the WTO, doing business in Northeast Asia will become an increasingly attractive proposition. Taiwan may well form an alliance with multinational corporations to capitalize on this opportunity.
The veteran China watcher Willy Wo-Lap Lam, who now works for CNN, considers the blow dealt against America by terrorists to be a turning point in Sino-American relations. Now that the American psyche is obsessed with the terrorist threat posed by Muslim fundamentalism, partisans of a "China Threat" school have lost credibility. More significant from Washington's perspective is the fact that the Chinese response to the terrorist attacks has been unexpectedly supportive of the United States.
Two days after the attack Chinese president Jiang Zemin declared his government willing to cooperate with the United States and the international community to crack down on terrorism. The Chinese foreign ministry went even further, explaining that international cooperation to fight terrorism could be channeled through the United Nations, the Security Council, and even regional bodies such as the Shanghai Six (a regional security organization comprised of China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan).
With war clouds hanging over the international horizon, President Chen Shui-bian has written to the US government and the victims of the terror attacks expressing the Taiwanese people's deep sorrow and sympathy. He has also twice convened high-level meetings of the National Security Bureau to discuss how Taiwan ought to respond to the crisis. President Chen has also instructed Taiwan's financial and economic community that regardless of whether the US fights a quick or a protracted war, Taiwan must respond with flexibility by stabilizing the equity and currency markets and guaranteeing the supply of crude oil, agricultural raw materials, and staple commodities.
How has September 11 affected Taiwanese industry, which already found itself in a slump before the tragedy? According to estimates by the Industrial Technology Research Institute, the cataclysm in America has dashed hopes for the traditional pre-Christmas pickup of the computer equipment market. Business confidence has taken a bad hit and economic recovery is expected to be delayed even further.
September 11 has also severely hurt Taiwan's semiconductor industry. Outstanding orders for the third and fourth quarters have been cancelled. But American domestic demand for information and communication systems may provide some relief and generate purchase orders. Should the US and its Western allies decide to increase their investments in computer systems in the interests of national security, this would certainly provide a boost to the computer and semiconductor industries. But even an upswing in these particular sectors will not offset a general recession and its negative impact on consumer confidence.
In the face of this historic tragedy, it behooves us, as citizens of the world, to ask ourselves how a suicidal attack like the one that destroyed the World Trade Center is possible in the 21st century. A China Times editorialist put it well: "The tragedy of September 11 has shown us that henceforth conflict and competition will take place in a context of exceedingly rapid change. The world we have come to know is extremely fragile. Perhaps the only way to understand this world of ours and the reasons behind this tragedy is to show a concern for humanity and to seek to understand our own place in this changing world."
The World Trade Center's Twin Towers in New York came crashing down after being struck by two airliners hijacked by terrorists. (courtesy of Associated Press)