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Column One: a California City That Became Little El Salvador Feels the Pain of Separation From Its Parent

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SENSUNTEPEQUE, El Salvador — 

The people who stayed behind in this Salvadoran hill town, and those who fled to California’s San Joaquin Valley, think of each other with mixed emotions.

Love and pain. Longing and envy. Gratitude and guilt.

Separated by 3,200 miles, Sensuntepeque, in central El Salvador, and the dusty farming community of Mendota, 35 miles west of Fresno, are joined as if by an umbilical cord of financial need and emotional codependency.

Over the last three decades, Sensuntepeque, population 40,000, has sent migrants — thousands of them — to the United States. The San Joaquin Valley has become home to so many Salvadorans that the government of El Salvador opened a new consulate in Fresno this month, adding to those already in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Most Salvadoran exiles were desperate to escape endemic poverty, failing farms and the lingering torments of a long-ago civil war. But the mass outflow left many broken households in its wake.

“That they are so far away, without being able to see them, it is a nightmare, and the family is not complete,” said María Hilda Carballo, 53, whose two daughters left for the Central Valley years ago.

Maria Hilda Carballo lives in a house valued at just over $300,000, in the municipality of Victoria, El Salvador. The house was built by her brother, Julio Carballo, a resident of Mendota, Calif.
(Soudi Jimenez / Los Angeles Times)

In California’s farm belt, communities such as Mendota, population 11,500, have come to rely on the sweat and muscle of Mexican and, increasingly, Central American migrants to extract profit from the land.

“This is a mini El Salvador,” said Miguel Urías, a native of El Salvador and co-owner of Antojitos Guanacos, a restaurant and bakery chain, and one of many Mendota businesses whose names signal their Salvadoran roots. “From six years ago to now, I see that we are arriving in droves.”

In return for the low-wage labor it receives, Mendota sends thousands of dollars in remittances back to Sensuntepeque and the surrounding departamento, or state,of Cabañas.

A UCLA grad whose college career overlapped with her mother’s researched the joint journey of mothers and daughters pursuing higher education.

In 2020, despite the pandemic, El Salvador raked in almost $6 billion in remittances from the United States, an increase from 2019 of 4.8%, according to the country’s Central Reserve Bank. Cabañas in 2020 received a monthly average of $357 per household, second highest among the nation’s 14 departamentos.

“The economy, without remittances, would not move,” said Edgar Bonilla, who was mayor of Sensuntepeque from 2006 to 2021. According to Bonilla, 75% of Sensuntepeque’s population has relatives in the United States, and at least half of those receive remittances from a California town many never will visit.

Money wired from California has launched businesses, bought homes and filled them up with consumer goods.

“They send remittances to these people every day, the banks are full every day,” says Rosa Barrera, 46, who sells fruit, juices and snacks.

Rosa Barrera offers juices, fruits and snacks next to the central park of Sensuntepeque, where visitors from abroad come to reconnect with their families.
(Soudi Jimenez / Los Angeles Times)

In many ways, the relationship between these kinfolk communities is mutually beneficial and harmonious. But there are strains.

Dollars dispatched from California have turned this corner of El Salvador into a commercial hub — it now boasts 10 banks and financial cooperatives — but also made housing costs soar. Inequities are more visible than in times past.

While more homes in Sensuntepeque now sport flat-screen TVs and late-model cars in their driveways, the region’s roads remain cracked, its schools underfunded, its medical clinics lacking in supplies.

The disruptions go deeper. In the downtown area of Sensuntepeque, whose Indigenous name means “400 hills,” some houses now cost up to $300,000, while a lot of about 2,700 square feet goes for $10,000, said Paul Nimrod Salgado, a real estate agent. Those are princely sums in a nation where the yearly per capita income is $4,000.

And while remittances soar in Sensuntepeque, in Mendota residents face a housing shortage.

“It is very difficult because there are no homes available,” said Sindy Orellana, 19, a Salvadoran immigrant who is looking for a house for her family and currently pays $1,000 to rent a two-bedroom apartment.

The farmworkers and restaurant owners of Mendota take pride in being able to subsidize their far-flung relatives. But some also feel the nagging burden of expectation, of having to work long hours while trying to master a new language.

Like other Salvadoran immigrants, Emérita Barrera first worked in California’s tomato industry. In 2008 she started her own business, Ally’s Beauty Salon, located on 7th Street in Mendota.
(Soudi Jimenez / Los Angeles Times)

“To feel stable, you have to pay a very high price,” said Emérita Barrera, who immigrated to the United States in 1994.

::

The 12-year armed conflict between the U.S-backed, right-wing Salvadoran government and leftist guerrillas supported by Cuba claimed 75,000 lives in a country of only 4.5 million people at that time.

Remittances sent from Mendota have helped the Sensuntepeque area not only recover but attain a lifestyle unimaginable before the war.

In the hamlet of San Pedro, rising out of a scrim of cornfields and dirt streets, old mud huts give way to showy concrete block houses. A sudden blast from a truck’s loudspeaker breaks the subdued atmosphere.

A rider on horseback traverses the dusty roads of San Pedro, El Salvador.
(Soudi Jimenez / Los Angeles Times)

“We have potatoes, cabbages and carrots!” a rough male voice intones. The same vehicle is hawking chairs, mats, plastic jugs and other consumer goods.

“The inhabitants here have the best telephones and televisions,” says Miguel Amaya, 25, a Sensuntepeque resident who works as a driver, watching the street scene unfold. “Do you think these houses are going to be owned by poor people?”

Down a slope, a few paces past a Catholic church, sits a two-story, four-room home with fine wood finishes and gilded columns. Its owner is María Hilda Carballo. One of her daughters, Maria Cindy, 29, immigrated to Mendota and another, Griselda, 35, to Kerman. They’ve not been able to see their mother since they left home many years ago.

Today, the sisters labor in tomato and almond orchards to scrape together about $200 each month to send Carballo.

Sylvia Mendez well remembers being sent to a “Mexican school” in Orange County. Her parents’ landmark lawsuit challenged segregated schools in California.

“They both help me with what little they make there,” she said.

Carballo’s spacious house was paid for by her brother Julio, who also moved to Mendota. She lives with another daughter and two teenage granddaughters. Previously, she lived in a house made of mud and pieces of wood while raising corn and making cheese to survive.

In the same hamlet, across a stream and up another steep slope, María Gloria Reyes, 49, lives with her husband, five children and a grandson in the $40,000 home paid for with help from her sons, Emanuel, 27, and José, 32, who joined the exodus to Mendota in the early 2010s.

Corn tortillas are prepared every day by María Gloria Reyes for her entire family in Cabañas, El Salvador, whose support depends on two children who live in Mendota.
(Soudi Jimenez / Los Angeles Times)

“Seeing the poverty here, they decided to go there,” Reyes said as she tossed tortillas on a griddle.

In the uncertain weeks while her sons made the dangerous trek, Reyes felt despair and a pain in her chest, wondering if she’d ever see them again.

“You don’t know what can happen on the roads,” she said.

Before their new house was built, Reyes and her husband, Leandro Membreño, rented a hovel made of clay and galvanized metal sheets. These days, Membreño has the luxury of spending more time relaxing in his hammock, but everywhere are reminders of a family apart.

“When you make a meal, you remember them,” Reyes said. The brothers’ favorite dish is the memory of their mother’s chicken soup.

::

I had the dream of doing something different. Many people come risking their lives. We Salvadorans are very strong at climbing our way to get ahead.

— Emérita Barrera

Dogs bark on a dark, cold morning in Mendota. The clock says 5:30 a.m., but the parking lot of Sonora Market already has become an anthill as trucks cruise in and out disgorging farmworkers. They dash into the store and quickly emerge clutching coffee cups and sweet bread.

Farmworkers stop by Sonora Market before sunup to buy hot food, water, sodas and ice for the hard day ahead.
(Soudi Jimenez / Los Angeles Times)

It’s the daily routine in a community whose residents help stock the refrigerators and fill dining-room tables across America.

Abdul Obaid, a businessman from Yemen, said that the town’s demographic map has completely changed in the 17 years since his family established the Sonora Market and its nearby sibling, the Mendota Valley Food supermarket, both liberally stocked with popular Salvadoran fare.

“The Salvadoran population has quadrupled in a decade, and it is because people go where they feel at home,” Obaid added.

Originally developed in 1891 as a storage site for the Southern Pacific Railroad, Mendota was incorporated in 1942 and its prosperity hinges on the production of almonds, pistachios, melons, tomatoes and corn. In 2019 the county’s farmworkers yielded $1.5 billion in almonds, $962 million in grapes and $660 million in pistachios.

When María Hilda Carballo’s brother, Julio Carballo, left El Salvador in 1994, he was 14 years old. Knowing that he could get work in Mendota harvesting melons and asparagus, he decided to go live with an uncle there.

It’s exhausting work, said Carballo, 42. “You have to go to work very early,” he said, “the cold is very heavy.”

Julio Carballo arrived in Mendota in 1994. After five years picking melons and asparagus, he became a truck driver and now owns a fleet of 25 trucks.
(Soudi Jimenez / Los Angeles Times)

He spent about five years in the fields before he got a business license and became a truck driver. In 2004 he took out a loan of $40,000 to buy his own vehicle and started his company, JCC Transport Inc. Today he owns 25 trucks and is in charge of more than 40 employees.

Now that his entrepreneurial drive has paid off, and his immigration status is covered by the federal Temporary Protected Status program, he said, “I can retire tomorrow.”

Luis Fernando Macías, professor of migration studies at Fresno State, said that the work formerly done by Mexicans in Mendota is now mostly performed by Salvadorans. In the early years of Salvadoran migration, that sometimes gave rise to tensions.

“When I came, it was a bit complicated. The Mexican people looked down on you. There was always discrimination when you went to work,” said Tulio Vargas, 52, a Sensuntepeque native who arrived in Mendota in 1980.

Waves of Salvadoran immigrants have enlivened Mendota’s taste buds, serving pupusas, torrejas, mataniños bread and garrobo soup, named for its main ingredient, an endangered black spiny-tailed iguana.

“Now, it is a community only of Sensuntepeque, purely the department of Cabañas,” said Carmen Chévez, 69, who left El Salvador in the 1990s.

A Mexican boy was born with one leg 11 inches shorter than the other. A remarkable surgery and steadfast friend helped him to walk on his own.

Emérita Barrera arrived in Mendota thanks to a permanent residence request made by her husband. Though she’d studied cosmetology, she, too, started out in her adopted country working in the tomato fields.

After 10 years, she took a hiatus to obtain her GED, became a naturalized citizen, took classes at a Fresno beauty school along with some business administration courses, and eventually opened her own salon.

“I had the dream of doing something different,” she said. “Many people come risking their lives. We Salvadorans are very strong at climbing our way to get ahead.”

The trauma of leaving behind her parents and six siblings still haunts her. Her parents died in 2013, while Barrera was outside her native country. She last visited El Salvador in 2018.

Despite carving out better lives economically, Mendota’s Salvadorans face enormous challenges.

According to the Census Bureau, 40.9% of Mendota’s population lives in poverty. In 2019 the average income per household was $31,237. An estimated 40% to 60% of the population is undocumented.

In the 2015-2019 period, the high school graduation rate was 30.8%, and only 1.5% of Mendota’s population obtained a bachelor’s or other college graduate degree.

These statistics do not reflect the story of Jessenia Núñez, who will soon be able to display her law degree.

The daughter of migrant farmworkers from Sensuntepeque, Núñez was born in 1992 in Riverside County. When she was in second grade, her family settled in Mendota and pushed her to go to college — first UC San Diego, where she earned a political science degree, then UC Berkeley School of Law.

“I owe a lot to Mendota, to my parents, to my entire family who have always supported me,” she said. “I watched my parents struggle. They taught me to persevere.”

::

Across the miles, the California farm town and the Salvadoran hill town still dream of each other. Tulio Vargas, still remembers the day he left Sensuntepeque, as an 8-year-old with his mother and two brothers.

“We went out at dawn,” he recalled. “We didn’t want to tell anyone.”

The Salvadoran military government and its ruthless state security apparatus were disappearing and killing anyone they suspected of sympathizing with the rebellion. Vargas said security forces were involved in killing his father and a fellow businessman. Fearing reprisals, the family fled.

Column One

A showcase for compelling storytelling from the Los Angeles Times.

“We practically left the house abandoned,” he said.

The family initially settled in Belize, but two years later, at age 10, Vargas and a friend moved on to Mendota. Over the decades, he rose to become a farm administrator and, like so many others, sent remittances to his homeland.

Back in the Los Remedios neighborhood of Sensuntepeque, an uncle has managed to hold on to the house where Vargas and his family once lived. Vargas now visits his hometown once or twice every year, though Mendota is home too.

“The truth,” he said, “is that El Salvador is one’s land, whatever it may be.”

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Source Here: latimes.com

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The Senate Has a Climate Deal. Now Comes the Hard Part

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After decades of inaction on the climate crisis, the federal government is on the verge of enacting a sweeping plan to slash planet-warming pollution, with Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema agreeing late Thursday to support the bill.

Now comes the hard part — or at least, the next hard part.

Phasing out coal, oil and natural gas — the fossil fuels largely responsible for the climate crisis — will require building huge amounts of clean energy infrastructure, including solar farms, wind turbines, lithium-ion batteries and electric power lines. The Senate bill sets aside nearly $370 billion to support those technologies and others that could help reduce carbon emissions.

But finding good spots to put all those renewable energy projects — and contending with opposition from nearby landowners, Native American tribes and even environmental activists — could be just as challenging as getting a bill through Congress.

Across the country, local opposition has slowed or blocked many renewable energy facilities. And land-use conflicts are likely to intensify. Princeton University researchers estimate that zeroing out U.S. carbon emissions by 2050 could require installing solar panels and wind turbines across more than 225,000 square miles, an area much bigger than California.

“There’s this misperception that there’s plenty of land,” said Eric O’Shaughnessy, a renewable energy researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “That is true, but [solar and wind farms] have to go in specific places.”

The Senate deal, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, should accelerate America’s renewable energy buildout. It was the product of months of negotiations between Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), and it needs support from all 50 Senate Democrats to overcome unified Republican opposition.

Sinema, the final holdout, now says she’ll “move forward” with the bill once it overcomes a final procedural hurdle.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) outside the Capitol in May.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

The bill would extend and expand tax credits for companies to build and buy climate-friendly technologies, from solar and wind power to energy storage and carbon capture. Other provisions include $4,000 tax credits for buying used electric cars and rebates for homes that replace gas boilers with electric heat pumps. The bill would establish a “green bank” with a $27-billion budget, force oil and gas companies to pay fees as high as $1,500 a ton on methane leaks and pay farmers to change their practices.

Senate Democrats say it would help cut U.S. carbon emissions 40% below 2005 levels by 2030, assuming it passes the Senate and House and is signed by President Biden. Independent analyses support that claim. Rhodium Group estimates emissions would fall 31% to 44%, compared to 24% to 35% under current policy. The research firm Energy Innovation offered a similar projection.

Those would be big cuts — but not enough to meet U.S. climate targets. President Biden pledged to slash emissions at least 50% by 2030. Steeper reductions will be needed over the following decades to achieve the goals of the Paris climate agreement.

That won’t be easy. And if policymakers fail to grapple with local opposition to solar and wind power, it might not be possible.

Two recent studies help explain the sources of that opposition — and what might be done to alleviate local concerns.

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The first study, from researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explored 53 renewable energy projects that were delayed or blocked over more than a decade. It found the most common sources of opposition were concerns about environmental impacts and land use.

California and neighboring states have seen both types of conflicts.

Some conservation groups have tried to block solar and wind farms in the Mojave Desert, citing potential harm to animals and plants such as desert tortoises, golden eagles and Joshua trees. Just this month, Ormat Technologies Inc. paused construction of a geothermal project in Nevada while federal wildlife officials study whether it would harm the endangered Dixie Valley toad.

Then there’s San Bernardino County — California’s largest by land area. Three years ago, it banned solar and wind farms on more than 1 million acres, spurred by locals who worried the sprawling projects would industrialize their rural communities.

A solar farm in California’s Kern County.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Some clean energy advocates consider that type of opposition NIMBYism at best and thinly veiled climate denial at worst.

But Lawrence Susskind, an urban planning professor and the MIT study’s lead author, said local concerns of all kinds need to be taken seriously. His research has convinced him that speeding up the clean energy transition will be possible only if developers slow down and make a good-faith effort to gather input from communities before dumping solar and wind farms on them.

Too often, Susskind said, companies exclude local residents until the last minute, then try to steamroll opposition — to their own detriment. His study cited 20 projects that were ultimately blocked, some by lawsuits or other forms of public resistance.

“If you want to build something, you go slow to go fast,” he said. “You have a conversation, not a confrontation.”

That was the thinking behind the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, an ambitious government effort to map which parts of the California desert are suitable for solar and wind farms and which parts should be protected. The plan took eight years to complete and covered more than 10 million acres — and barely survived a Trump administration attempt to scrap it.

Renewable energy companies criticized the maps as too restrictive. But they didn’t take their complaints to court, and so far the desert plan seems to be standing the test of time. The Biden administration recently approved its third clean energy facility under the plan — a 500-megawatt solar plant, with 200 megawatts of battery storage, off Interstate 10 in Riverside County.

An 11th-hour Trump administration proposal foreshadows a tough balancing act for Biden on public lands.

Stanford University researchers hope to facilitate similar compromises for the rest of the country.

Stanford’s Dan Reicher told The Times he’s convened more than 20 groups and companies — representing the solar industry, environmental advocates, Native American tribes, the agriculture industry and local governments — in an “uncommon dialogue” to discuss land-use conflicts involving large solar farms. It’s modeled after a similar dialogue that Reicher convened for the hydropower industry and conservation groups, which led to an unprecedent agreement between those long-warring factions.

Reicher hopes the solar discussions will lead to companies to make smarter decisions about where to build projects — and do a better job communicating with local residents and conservationists when they think they’ve found good locations.

“Done well, siting is a highly technical process that also lends itself to significant input,” Reicher said.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s Pine Tree Wind and Solar Farm in the Tehachapi Mountains of Kern County.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

O’Shaughnessy agrees on the need for public engagement up front.

The Lawrence Berkeley researcher was lead author of the second recent study, which found that solar and wind farms typically get built in rural areas with low incomes — and those projects can be either a benefit or a burden to those communities, depending on local factors. Construction jobs and tax revenues can be a boon, while loss of agricultural land can be a big loss.

Renewable energy facilities can also destroy land held sacred by Native American tribes or disrupt treasured views.

The visual impacts of renewable energy could be one of the biggest roadblocks to fighting climate change.

The potential harms from solar and wind energy pale in comparison to the dangers of oil and gas drilling and other fossil fuel projects, which unlike renewable energy can expose nearby residents to cancer-linked chemicals and other toxins. The low-income communities of color that have born the brunt of fossil fuel pollution are also especially vulnerable to climate change consequences.

But taking steps to make sure solar and wind farms in vulnerable communities don’t worsen ongoing injustices is important, O’Shaughnessy said. And it’s a priority for the Biden administration, which has set a goal of delivering 40% of the benefits of federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged neighborhoods — an initiative known as Justice40.

“There will be projects that move forward despite some degree of local opposition. That’s inevitable,” O’Shaughnessy said. “It comes back to making sure there are participation processes in place to do this as fairly and equitably as possible.”

They key question is whether enough clean energy can still be built fast enough to avert climate catastrophe.

Susskind, the MIT researcher, thinks it’s doable. He said renewable energy companies should be willing to redesign their projects to avoid sensitive lands and to offer financial compensation to people or businesses who feel they’re still being harmed.

“More stuff would get built faster,” he said.

The Solar Energy Industries Assn., an influential national trade group, agrees with that assessment.

Ben Norris, the group’s director of environmental policy, said in an interview that engaging with communities early — and giving them a real opportunity to be heard — is “the hallmark of good project development.” He said it’s an area where the solar industry is working to improve, in part through the Stanford initiative — and the Senate deal makes it more important than ever.

“This is such a historic opportunity that we’re on the cusp of that we need to get it right,” Norris said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) discusses the Inflation Reduction Act at a news conference.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Not everything in the Senate bill has been embraced by climate activists.

To win Manchin’s support, Schumer included provisions that require continued oil and gas leasing on public lands and offshore, which activists have been fighting to shut down for years. Democratic leaders also agreed to support legislation designed to speed up permitting for all kinds of energy projects — including climate-disrupting natural gas pipelines and gas export terminals.

Sempra Energy is seeking federal approval for a new proposal to ship fossil fuel overseas.

As far as Energy Innovation is concerned, the bill’s benefits far outweigh its harms. The research firm estimates that for every ton of carbon pollution caused by the fossil fuel leasing mandates, 24 tons of carbon would be avoided by other provisions.

Michael Gerrard, founder of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, also thinks the tradeoffs are worthwhile. The best way to cut down on oil and gas production, he said, is to reduce demand for the fuels — and the Senate bill does that.

The separate permitting bill could also be helpful, Gerrard said, because it could streamline approval of clean energy projects.

“Local opposition has emerged as one of the major inhibitors of [solar and wind farms],” Gerrard said. “Trying to clear away those obstacles is extremely important, even if it is at the price of making it somewhat harder to fight new fossil projects.”

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Gerrard pointed to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 as a possible model for speeding solar and wind development. The law prevented local governments from banning cell towers and required them to approve or reject towers within a few months.

It also prohibited local governments from rejecting cell towers because they emit electromagnetic fields, or EMFs — a type of radiation that has spurred fears of cancer and other health problems, despite a lack of strong evidence to support those fears. Gerrard thinks similar rules could be helpful for solar and wind projects dogged by misinformation over alleged health effects.

“Whether it’s wind farms or vaccines or elections, people don’t always listen to evidence,” he said.

“Going to communities early and trying to engage them — it’s helpful,” he added. “But it’s not a guaranteed silver bullet.”

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Original Source: latimes.com

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Possible Pelosi Visit Elicits Shrugs in Taiwan, Long the Focal Point of Geopolitical Standoff

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TAIPEI, Taiwan — 

On the top of Iris Hsueh’s list of concerns living in Taipei are COVID-19 restrictions, electricity prices and, if she’s being honest, the latest news on Taiwanese pop stars. Nowhere on that list is the proposed visit of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and the potential Chinese backlash.

“Whether she comes or not won’t really change” anything, the 37-year-old saleswoman speculated. “I think China will think it’s a provocation, but I also don’t think they will escalate any actual military behavior because of this.”

Asked how her circle of friends feels about the standoff, which has prompted the deployment of a U.S. aircraft carrier group to the Taiwan Strait and China to conduct live fire military drills Saturday, Hsueh said matter-of-factly, “I don’t think they really care.”

As tensions flare between the two superpowers — risking the worst crisis in the region in a quarter of a century — people in Taiwan appear by and large to be responding with a collective shrug, occupying their attention with things like the summer heat wave and local elections rather than the specter of war.

Such is life on the self-governed island of 23 million that has long served as the focal point of an explosive geopolitical standoff. The threat of Chinese military action has loomed for so long that few seem to raise an eyebrow when Beijing lashes out, as Chinese leader Xi Jinping did Thursday in warning President Biden on a call that “those who play with fire will perish by it.”

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi departed for Asia on Friday.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

While the invasion of Ukraine has heightened concerns around the globe about a possible Chinese assault, many in Taiwan still view Beijing’s bellicose threats as largely bluster.

“The Chinese Communist Party is playing the same old tricks,” said Yisuo Tzeng, a research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taipei. “They’re making a fuss about nothing.”

Pelosi, a frequent critic of China’s human rights abuses, left for Asia on Friday. Her itinerary includes U.S. ally countries Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore. As of Saturday morning, no plans were revealed about stopping in Taiwan. Biden said the Pentagon advised against her visit.

The rancor over the trip underscores how badly the U.S.-China relationship has soured in recent years and how firmly Taiwan remains its most dangerous flashpoint. Pelosi wouldn’t be the first House speaker to visit the democratically-ruled island; Republican Newt Gingrich made the trip in 1997. But China under Xi is a much more powerful and assertive country than it was back then, and it’s determined to dominate Asia in a way befitting of a great power.

Standing immediately in its way is Taiwan, a teardrop-shaped island roughly the size of Maryland located less than 100 miles off the coast of mainland China.

Formerly known as Formosa, the island was taken over by the fleeing Chinese Nationalist government after it was defeated by the communists in 1949, in the Chinese civil war.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, more Taiwanese say they are willing to fight if attacked by China. But without firearms or sufficient military training, many wonder how to prepare.

Beijing considers Taiwan part of China, and after urging peaceful unification for years, has warned it will take the island by force if necessary — particularly if Taiwan formally declares independence.

Washington switched diplomatic relations to Communist China in 1979, adopting a “one China” policy that acknowledges Beijing’s claim to Taiwan, but doesn’t endorse it. To deter China from invading, the U.S. provides Taiwan with defensive weapons and maintains a policy called strategic ambiguity designed to leave China guessing as to whether American troops will defend the island if it is attacked.

While that approach has fostered a peaceful status quo for more than four decades, it has grown more fraught with the elevation of Xi, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

Xi has hitched Taiwan to his grand project of national rejuvenation, marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party last year with a speech that described unification as “a historic mission and an unshakable commitment.”

Much of China’s military planning and modernization is geared toward an invasion of the island. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force has tripled the number of sorties it’s flown around Taiwan the first half of this year compared with the same period a year ago, a tactic aimed at prodding and exhausting the territory’s air defenses.

Xi Jinping is China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.
(Andy Wong / Associated Press)

In June, Beijing said the sea separating China from Taiwan, known as the Taiwan Strait, did not qualify as international waters, claiming sovereignty over the waterway and challenging the U.S. Navy’s presence there.

Beijing has also accused the U.S. of blurring its “one China” policy when Cabinet officials and Congress members visit Taiwan with growing frequency. On three occasions Biden has made remarks suggesting the U.S. had discarded strategic ambiguity by pledging to defend Taiwan with force, but the administration has walked back the comments each time.

The tension between the nations with the world’s two largest economies shows few signs of abating. Xi will be less constrained after the 20th Party Congress later this year when he’s expected to secure his third five-year term, the first Chinese leader to do so since Deng Xiaoping imposed two-term limits in 1982. Biden’s ability to maneuver is also limited by the bipartisan enmity for China, one of the few issues rival lawmakers agree on in an otherwise severely polarized political climate. The call between the two leaders Thursday offered no offramps.

Caught in the cycle of escalation is Taiwan, whose voice is often drowned out by the din of Washington and Beijing. The government led by President Tsai Ing-wen has said little about a Pelosi visit — even as analysts say her appearance provides no concrete benefit to the territory and may be more trouble than it’s worth.

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. makes chips for iPhones, video game consoles and fighter jets. Now it’s being forced to choose sides.

“Taiwan’s agency in the U.S.-PRC-Taiwan triangle has varied over time, but at this moment, the drivers are the U.S. and China,” said Shelley Rigger, a leading Taiwan expert at Davidson College, using the initialism for the People’s Republic of China. “Taiwan is stuck in the middle.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think the Taiwanese government is in a position to speak frankly with U.S. officials,” Rigger continued. “The U.S. is Taiwan’s primary defender, and U.S. officials have shown a lot of ego and arrogance in the relationship. Offending American leaders by pointing out the downside of their decisions is not something Taiwanese officials are really in a position to do.”

Taiwan generally views visits by high-level U.S. officials and politicians as a political boost for the ruling party and a show of much-needed international support. Beijing has diplomatically isolated Taiwan to the point where it’s recognized by just over a dozen mostly small nations. China also thwarted Taiwan’s bid to join the World Health Organization assembly during the pandemic.

A Pelosi visit “would definitely encourage the people of Taiwan, basically saying that ‘you are not alone,’” said Chen Kuan-ting, chief executive of Taiwan NextGen Foundation, a think tank politically aligned with the governing Democratic Progressive Party.

That’s important because since Russia invaded Ukraine, confidence in Washington’s willingness to send troops to defend Taiwan in an invasion scenario has waned. A survey conducted by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation showed a 30% decline between last October and March in the number of respondents who believe the U.S. will come to the island’s aid.

Many in Taiwan say Pelosi can’t afford to back down, worrying another cancellation (she initially postponed a trip to the territory in April after testing positive for COVID-19) will send a signal to Beijing it can coerce and intimidate Washington.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has urged her country to better prepare for an invasion.
(Shioro Lee / Associated Press)

“Taiwan is a democratic country. We have the right to welcome any friend who supports” us, said Freddy Lim, a pro-independence legislator who met with Pelosi in Washington in June and urged her to visit Taiwan.

Beijing, which views a visit by Pelosi as a challenge to its sovereignty over Taiwan, said it would respond forcefully to her arrival. Analysts say China could place sanctions on the U.S. lawmaker, test missiles, or in the most provocative scenario, scramble fighters to try to turn her aircraft around. Doing nothing would make China’s leadership look weak, a problem China faces after threatening Taiwan for years.

“To have the same effect of cowing the Taiwan population, Beijing is forced to be more threatening,” said Ja Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore. “This cycle may continue until Beijing either has to follow through with its threats or its bluff is called.”

The last time tensions were this high in the region was in 1995, when then-President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan sparked a furor in Beijing by visiting the U.S., breaking diplomatic protocol. China, which also wanted to send a warning to pro-independence groups before upcoming Taiwan elections, responded by conducting a series of missile tests in the waters off the island. The standoff ended when the Clinton administration deployed more warships to the Taiwan Strait than had been assembled since the Vietnam War.

Many in Taiwan don’t expect the same muscular U.S. response — not when China’s military has advanced enough to inflict massive harm to the U.S. Navy.

But in a country where air raid sirens and military drills are a regular occurrence, few seemed fazed by the latest crisis.

“Pelosi’s visit will add to the intensity of [Beijing’s] diplomatic remarks,” said Su Liu Di-Sheng, a 23-year-old graduate student in political science at National Taiwan University. “But the military risk has always been high.”

Yang reported from Taipei, Taiwan, and Pierson from Singapore.

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Source: latimes.com

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Podcast: to Be Queer in Singapore

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Just this year, Singapore’s top court upheld section 377A. That’s a British colonial-era law prohibiting consenting sex between men. And while the government says it doesn’t strictly enforce that law, anyone who breaks it could face up to two years behind bars.

Meanwhile, thousands of Queer Singaporean activists and LGBTQ allies will gather in Hong Lim Park this weekend for an annual gay pride event — and send a clear message to lawmakers that they’re done being denied their basic human rights.

Read the full transcript here.

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Article: latimes.com

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