by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Michael Vadon/CC

The Failures of International Media In Reporting on the Trump-Tsai Phone Call

AMERICAN MEDIA coverage of the Trump-Tsai phone call was, unsurprisingly, quite bad. For the most part, media coverage fell into established tropes that any defense of Taiwan would be overly provocative of China, and so criticized Trump’s actions as dangerous. Trump’s statements on Taiwan, going so far as to refer to Tsai Ing-Wen as the “president of Taiwan” when previous American presidents were not even allowed to refer to Taiwan by name, were viewed as a foreign policy blunder by Trump. Trump’s statements were seen in line with the general lack of knowledge of international relations which Trump demonstrated during election season.

Nowhere in the minds of foreign policy ideologues was it contemplated that Taiwan is a free and democratic country which America should have a moral obligation to defend as it spouts off platitudes about democracy and freedom to justify military interventions in other parts of the world. It is reflective of to what extent America’s claim to stand with its allies on the basis of shared values of democracy and freedom is hypocritical that the reaction from much of the American foreign policy establishment after Trump’s phone call with Tsai has largely been panic that Trump will destabilize America’s delicate balancing act with China. Such claims only disguise that America’s first concerns are always with its own interests. At best, such claims are probably just self-deluding ideology for America to assuage any twangs of guilty conscience about its actions abroad.

Donald Trump. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore/CC

In general, international media reporting on Taiwan is quite mediocre, usually falling into predictable tropes about rising cross-strait tensions and seeing all of Taiwanese politics as solely shaped by by cross-strait relations, even if the reality on the ground in Taiwan is quite different. That would be the end result of that usually China-focused commentators are the ones producing Taiwan commentary, even when they may not be experts on Taiwan or may be reporting on Taiwan from Beijing—resulting in that Taiwanese politics is always understood only through the lens of China.

Trump Suddenly Seen As A Rational Political Actor?

NEVERTHELESS, we might note that in many cases, reactions from political commentators that took a pro-Taiwan stance were not necessarily more nuanced. Those who had previously been quaking in their boots that Trump’s election victory would spell a fundamental disruption of the post-war political order of the Asia Pacific, now suddenly turned around and praised Trump to the high heavens.

International media evaluated the Trump-Tsai only in the context of Trump’s long string of illogical actions, without any consideration that this might be a logical action from a normally illogical political actor. But pro-Taiwan commentators instead took the polar opposite stance of claiming that because Trump seems to have done something logical for once, each and every one of Trump’s actions regarding Taiwan policy as part of a broader Asia policy must be logical.

Tsai Ing-Wen. Photo credit: Presidential Office

Trump has been called the least qualified president-elect in history by some commentators. Indeed, during election campaigning, Trump has oftentimes demonstrated little to no knowledge of American foreign policy or even what American’s military capacities are. When asked about the American nuclear triad during a presidential debate, for example, Trump’s answer was “I think – I think, for me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me.” When asked about American cybersecurity, Trump answered, “The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough.”

For some, the view often was that because Trump had done something seemingly beneficial for Taiwan on one occasion, this was somehow indicative of greater reasoning capacities by Trump than he had previously demonstrated. And so Trump must suddenly be seen as having a premeditated, highly logical, and wholly thought out position on Taiwan and the Asia Pacific—in spite of all signs to the contrary from his past actions.

Examples raised to claim that the Trump-Tsai phone call was part of a coherent Asia policy by Trump included raising that the call was premeditated, one which had been planned in advance between both Trump and Tsai. Even if it was Tsai called Trump, this was taken to suggest that Trump took an interest in Taiwan. But that much should be obvious and that fact proves very little. World leaders do not simply ring each other up on speed dial anytime one of them wishes to talk to another. Trump may have simply accepted a call from Taiwan without knowing very much about Taiwan. Likewise, it bears remembering that even if it was members of the political establishment who brokered the call, such as former Senator Bob Dole, the call was primarily Taiwan’s initiative and not Trump’s.

Bob Dole. Photo credit: Public Domain

If Trump talked with a number of heads of state during the day as his phone call with Tsai, but only tweeted about his phone call with Tsai, this may not have been because Trump realized the special significance of his phone call with Tsai versus phone calls with other heads of state, as pro-Taiwan commentators would like to think. Again, given Trump’s well-established tendency to only think in the short-term, Trump may have simply wished to stick it to China as quickly and in as provocative a manner as possible. It is not fear mongering to suggest that Trump’s statements on Taiwan may be part of Trump’s broader tendency towards extreme short-term thinking and tendency of making statements he later regrets, based on the bare facts of the man’s political record. 

With reports that Trump’s transition team is belatedly attempting to come up with draft blueprints for policy after having failed to realize that it should have done this ahead of time during campaign season, it is unlikely that Trump would have any formulated long-term Asia policy which an apparent pro-Taiwan stance is part of. As has been suggested many times in the past, Trump may have never seriously considered that he would actually win the presidency. Indeed, suggesting no truly coherent position on Taiwan on his part, Trump had previously made statements attacking Taiwan alongside Mexico as a stealer of American jobs.

As such, it is altogether too premature to suggest that Trump has thought out his Taiwan policy or broader Asia policy. First, we cannot found any prediction of Trump’s actions or reevaluation of Trump’s policies based on something as minor as a phone call and two Tweets. More importantly, Trump’s past record also raises too much questions about his present actions, which is what has been quickly forgotten by many. Sounding a cautious note is not necessarily the same as the same as international media’s fear mongering reaction to the Trump-Tsai phone call was. In more cases than not, wishful thinking prevails, however.

Wishful Thinking By Pro-Taiwan Commentators?

NAMELY, MANY of those who argued the polar opposite stance as international media about the Trump-Tsai phone call fell into a fallacy of conflating political reality with one’s own wishful thinking. In politics, all too often, people believe what they want to believe rather than what the facts of political reality would attest to. The election of Trump on campaign promises to take back America from corporate overlords when he almost certainly has more corporate ties than any other presidential candidate in history is in itself an example of this phenomenon.

Photo credit: Photo Phiend/Flickr

Pro-Taiwan commentators wish to claim a stronger relationship between Taiwan and America would be beneficial to both oftentimes because they would like this to be true, for Taiwan’s sake. This comes to become a view all-dominating of how one reads American politics and, in the case of Trump, this leads to rushed conclusions about Trump’s presidency being beneficial for Taiwan and giving Trump too much credit for Asia policy when it is far too early for such conclusions to be made and Trump’s past record indicates otherwise.

To begin with, after a record of demonstrating that he was ill-prepared for the presidency during election campaigning, Trump is not suddenly vested with the same capacity for rational behavior one would expect from less unorthodox presidential candidates just because he somehow won the American presidency through the mechanism of the electoral college. Indeed, attempting to dupe one’s self into believing that one merely needs to have faith in the foresight of Trump’s plans for Taiwan may in the long-run do more harm than good for Taiwan if this leaves Taiwan unprepared for the possibility of Trump suddenly reversing course and abandoning his support of Taiwan, which has already been the case with many policy reversals by Trump to date. As the Chinese proverb goes, that would merely be deluding one’s self and others at the same time.

Ultimately, A Problem Of How We Attempt To Appeal To America About Taiwan?

CRITIQUES OF international media’s reaction to the Trump-Tsai call by pro-Taiwan commentators should therefore be grounded on calling out American hypocrisy on relations with Taiwan instead of trying to convince one’s self and others that the media has gotten it wrong on Trump the all-knowing’s master strategy for the Asia Pacific. But it remains that too much of commentary from a pro-Taiwan standpoint has attempted to paint the Trump-Tsai phone call in the rosiest of term. At times, this has involved claiming that international media is factually wrong while making what are in themselves factually dubious claims about the rational and thought out nature of Trump’s Asia policy.

On the other hand, that Taiwan has enjoyed an increased profile in international media in recent days after the Trump-Tsai phone call has already led to some instances of sympathetic news coverage of Taiwan which focus on Taiwan’s marginalized and victimized status in international affairs. Such articles arguably prove more effective than dry articles which discuss Taiwan’s relation to America only in terms of its possible geopolitical advantages or disadvantages to America which are easily forgotten for those who do not normally take an interest in Asian politics. 

Photo credit: CNA

This points to how instead of always appealing to America with claims about American national interest which can always be undercut, appeals to America to aid Taiwan could instead rest on moral claims calling on America to live up to its claimed responsibility as a global defender of democracy and freedom—pointing to the fact that America especially owes Taiwan something when, for decades, it abetted KMT military rule and was happy to leave the Taiwanese people stranded in the limbo of “strategic ambiguity” of uncertainty as to whether it would act in defense of Taiwan.

Ultimately, this returns to the fact that attempts to out-argue the claims of international media that defense of Taiwan is too dangerous for America—as international media claimed about the Trump-Tsai phone call and has claimed many times in the past—can always be undercut. Although it is true that defense of Taiwan is one way for America to hold China in check, it is to be questioned whether Taiwan’s security is beneficial to American national interest in any and all cases. Defense of Taiwan beyond a certain point is rationally unjustifiable for American national interests, whether with regard to the Asia Pacific or the world writ large. This is true whether it is under president Trump or anyone else. And when push comes to shove, between Taiwan and China, the rational choice for America will always be China.

What is needed is to point to the hypocrisy of how the world treats Taiwan, as evidenced in international media reports on the Trump-Tsai phone call, and to raise awareness of Taiwan’s unjustly marginalized position in the world in that way. Claims about America’s mistreatment of Taiwan are not contingent upon rational calculations of how useful Taiwan is to America at any given moment. In this way, they avoid the problem that arguing for Taiwan solely on the basis of its benefit to American national interest justifies America abandoning Taiwan if it seems too dangerous to stand up for Taiwan to China. Yet this is sorely lacking at present, again, returning to the long-term emphasis in appealing to America to aid Taiwan on the basis of rational interest and rational interest only and failure to be critical of America which has dominated pro-Taiwan politics in the United States for so long.

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