What you need to know
To change the international narrative about Taiwan, we have to first get rid of the overused and erroneous terms.
Journalists and commentators are preparing for Taiwan's January 11 elections. A previous commentary discussed repetitive clichés and other errors that appear in English-language reporting about Taiwan politics, including the oft-repeated terms like “renegade province” and “vibrant democracy.”
In the lead-up to the election, we ought to discuss a few more examples to paint a more accurate picture of Taiwan.
“One China Policy”
The United States and People’s Republic of China do not have an identical One China Policy. The U.S. does not adhere to the PRC’s One China Policy or One China Principle. It has also never established any stance on or approval of China’s claims that Taiwan is part of China.
The distinctions are explained in innumerable publications. Relevant primary documents such as the Shanghai Communique, Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations and August 17 Communique (collectively known as the Three Communiques) are available online.
Yet days before Taiwan’s election, The Washington Post incorrectly alleged that successive U.S. presidents since Richard Nixon have adhered to Beijing’s One China policy.
“The Most Important Election"
From 1996 onwards, at every election, a politician seeking office, an enthusiastic voter, or a commentator claims it is the most important election ever (or at least in the speaker’s lifetime).
For example, Taiwan’s 2015 national elections were “slated to be the most important in the democracy in nearly 20 years.” A commentator also claimed the 2014 local elections the “most important election in Taiwan’s voting history which started in 1996,” though elections in Taiwan predate 1996.
Even in 1994 when the current presidential candidate James Soong won the governor election, it was dubbed as “the most important election in decades.”
Rather than just stating an election as the most important in a given timeframe, we should examine its significance with an appropriate context. The 2020 elections are worth paying attention to because of factors like China’s rapid improvement of its military capabilities and its continuous threats to annex Taiwan with force.
There’s no doubt commentators described the Taiwan Strait as a flashpoint during the Cold War. The terminology survived into the Internet era; on January 1, 1997, Taiwan’s government published a commentary describing China and Taiwan’s different interpretations over the One China Principle as making the Taiwan Strait a potential military flashpoint.
An old BBC website that describes Taiwan’s history and politics is titled “Taiwan Flashpoint.” More recently, media outlets published reports with titles like “Taiwan could be the next 'flashpoint'” and “Taiwan is again becoming a flashpoint between China and America.” A former U.S. diplomat turned scholar also said that Taiwan is the most likely flashpoint in U.S.-China relations.
But the term is a grossly outdated one. Supporters of former President Ma Ying-jeou have described his China policies as a rapprochement that successfully turned this former East Asian flashpoint into a peaceful Strait. A Taipei Times commentator urged that the flashpoint narrative “must change,” and instead suggested an alternate scenario where Taiwan and China can coexist peacefully. Taiwan can have a bright future if Beijing’s leaders move away from the old animosities, if the international community evaluate Taiwan in its own right, and if Taiwan reinvents itself.
With the energy needed to power all the flashing, no wonder the energy supply is one of the more prominent issues in this year’s election.
A 2020 television series about Taiwan’s recent political history, 國際橋牌社, is named “Island Nation” in its English translation. But its literal translation would be “international contract bridge club.”
In fact, the Republic of China’s territory still formally includes the mainland (and vast claims in the South China Sea as reiterated by the Tsai Ing-wen administration), even if the free ROC territories are all islands. Publications from Hong Kong, Germany, the United States, and Thailand recently identified Taiwan as an island nation, while several Taiwan-based English-language publications refer to Taiwan as a country and never an “island nation.”
From Taiwan’s local perspective, the government-affiliated Central News Agency referred to Nauru as a Pacific island nation and the Republic of China as simply Taiwan.
Notwithstanding books with the title Xi Jinping’s Nightmare that discuss contemporary China broadly, commentators also like to opine that Xi Jinping has nightmares specifically about Taiwan.
Months after President Tsai took office, a scholar stated in the Legislative Yuan that if the situation in the Taiwan Strait destabilized it would result in Xi Jinping’s China dream turning into a horrific nightmare. Taiwan’s young voters were recently described as a nightmare for Xi Jinping in the upcoming election.
Other variations on the Taiwan nightmare theme assume China has nightmares about Taiwan’s Kamikaze Drones, or the U.S. coming to Taiwan’s aid, or that Hong Kong is a mess but Taiwan would be a nightmare. Though the latter author also once wrote that the far greater nightmare would be a Chinese leader becoming the Chinese Gorbachev who dismantles the entire system.
Some commentators assess the nightmare as Taiwan’s rather than China’s. Seminars are named for the nightmare scenario of a People’s Liberation Army invasion. Editorials worried about a nightmare scenario under the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement bilateral trade agreement between China and Taiwan. And commentators questioned whether Taiwan’s shift to an all-volunteer military was a vision or a nightmare.
Perhaps the invasion nightmare is neither China’s nor Taiwan’s, but it would rather change the entire strategic landscape between the U.S. and the rest of Asia. Let that be a wakeup call for policymakers in the U.S. and Taiwan.
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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)
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