Looking for the Real ‘Troublemaker’ in the Taiwan Strait

photo credit: Reuters/達志影像
Why you need to know

Global headlines have a tendency to portray Taiwan and the DPP as the cause of instability in the Taiwan Strait. But things are a little more complex than that.

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It has not even been two weeks since Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) was sworn in as president of Taiwan, and already the old global editorial practices and inherent biases are once again rearing their ugly heads. Tensions in the Taiwan Strait, we are told, are “rising,” all implicitly because President Tsai has refused to acknowledge the so-called 1992 consensus and “one China” framework in her inaugural speech, or because she heads a “pro-independence” party. For those of us who have been following the politics of the Taiwan Strait over the years, that language is oddly familiar. And the worst part is, it’s also misleading.

Much of this comes from the framing that editors worldwide rely upon to help make sense of the complex Sino-Taiwanese relationship to their audiences. Headlines and lead paragraphs, in particular, must play up the drama to attract readers who otherwise may not be interested (for example, “Beijing warns of ‘tension and turbulence’ in cross-strait ties if DPP shuns ‘one China’ principle,” the South China Morning Post alerted on May 26). In the end, it’s all about storytelling, and when you’re competing with the rest of the world, it needs to sound dramatic; otherwise, why should readers continue reading?

Such practices, moreover, are compounded by Beijing’s longstanding propaganda efforts, which have successfully framed the narrative in China’s favor. Consequently, if there is “drama” or a risk that the situation in the Taiwan Strait may spin out of control, it is invariably Taiwan’s fault, or in this case, Ms. Tsai’s and her “pro independence” party.

The narrative papers over the fact that China is ruled by an authoritarian regime, whose claims on Taiwan have much more to do with an annexationist and expansionist policy than with valid historical claims. It also conveniently ignores the fact that the 23 million people of Taiwan, a democracy, are just as entitled to self-determination as any other peoples around the globe. According to this established narrative, Taiwan, Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party are the “troublemakers” who are “infuriating” or “unduly putting pressure on” President Xi Jinping (習近平) by refusing to step in line. This framing suggests continuity—the DPP as “troublemaker”—while implying that the past eight years under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the “pro Beijing” Kuomintang (KMT) constituted a hiatus where reasonableness and rationality prevailed in Taipei.

In the past week, during which Beijing has threatened to suspend all dialogue with Taipei, many international media outlets have parroted, often implicitly, Beijing’s position that President Tsai was somehow responsible for the “rising tensions.” It didn’t seem to matter that Mr. Xi had painted himself into a corner by making impossible demands on Tsai prior to her inauguration speech, or that the new president—as any other head of state—had to answer to the people who elected her by addressing the issues that matter to them (and being part of China isn’t one of them).

Truth be told, if tensions indeed rise in the Taiwan Strait, it will be Beijing’s fault, not Taipei’s. President Tsai has already made concessions and stated her intention to continue negotiating with China in a constructive manner. The notion that Beijing, a would-be superpower, would let a couple of missing words in one speech by Tsai hijack the entire exercise of establishing a modus vivendi across the Taiwan Strait is worrisome, to say the least. Surely, after eight years of rapprochement, Chinese officials and academics have had enough exposure to Taiwanese society to understand that President Tsai could not possibly have gotten away with recognizing “one China” in her inaugural speech, not at a time when support for unification in Taiwan is an all-time historical, single-digit low. And yet she is supposed to be responsible for Beijing’s “anger,” for putting President Xi’s “in a difficult spot”?

As we saw earlier, the conventional narrative reinforces the assumption, unquestioned by many editors, that ties across the Taiwan Strait were to inevitably (and immediately) deteriorate due to Ms. Tsai’s election, which is to be contrasted with the previous eight years of relative calm under President Ma.

But this angle doesn’t stand up to scrutiny and furthermore relies on a misreading of China’s behavior in recent years. In reality, tensions in the Taiwan Strait have been rising for a while, even with the KMT in charge. Although Beijing’s signaling may not have been as explicit, there is ample evidence that the Chinese leadership had been losing patience with the Ma administration, which had failed to deliver what Beijing wanted—a services and trade-in-goods agreement and reciprocal representative offices, among others. Moreover, several incidents in which Taiwanese were sidelined, abducted, forced out of meetings, or isolated in the international community due to Chinese pressure occurred while Mr. Ma and his KMT were still in charge. Therefore, most of these developments were not a direct answer to Ms. Tsai’s election, but rather the result of growing Chinese assertiveness and extraterritoriality. In other words, what we are witnessing is a trend in Chinese behavior that is largely independent of electoral developments in Taiwan. To a large extent, the ensuing tensions aren’t so much related to who sits inside the Presidential Office in Taipei, but instead to behavior by Beijing that is completely out of sync with the desires and expectations of the Taiwanese, including the majority of those who traditionally vote for the KMT.

No doubt as the relationship matures both sides of the Taiwan Strait will need to demonstrate flexibility and goodwill. However, global media would do Taiwan—and the world—a great service by presenting a more balanced picture of the situation, one that doesn’t constantly blame the democratic island-nation for refusing to give in to the impossible demands of an annexationist regime. There’s plenty of drama in this, too.

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