by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: US Embassy Canberra/Public Domain
INCONSISTENT REPORTS on whether Taiwan was mentioned or not at the Trump-Xi summit earlier this month illustrate the need to distrust media reports and to be more deeply skeptical of comments about Taiwan by either the Trump or Xi administrations. Namely, it was initially reported that Taiwan did not come up at the Trump-Xi summit, leading those who predicted no major change in US-Taiwan relations at the Trump-Xi summit to take this as a confirmation of their view that trade and North Korea would be issues that took precedent over Taiwan at the summit. This was also interpreted as relieving to Taiwan, which called for there to be no change in American policy on Taiwan at the meeting for fear that Trump might attempt to use Taiwan as a bargaining chip with China. Apparently, it was more relieving that Taiwan would not come up at all rather than Trump potentially embrace this option in negotiating with China. Other analyses suggest that caution is still needed regarding how to interpret the meeting’s outcome.
In retrospect, it emerges that news reports claiming Taiwan was not mentioned at the Trump-Xi summary were inaccurate. News reports sometimes claimed that Taiwan was not mentioned, period, when specifically Taiwan was not mentioned in the initial official comments about the meeting and the press briefing after the talks. But, as far as one can piece together the timeline of a shift in news coverage between reports that Taiwan was not mentioned and reports that Taiwan was mentioned, this shift seems to have probably occurred after the Tsai administration was briefed about the aftermath of the Trump-Xi summit, which we do well to remember occurred behind closed doors. Returning the tendency of western media outlets to base some of their reportage secondhand off of statements from Chinese state-run media for the lack of any other direct channel into the proceedings of the Trump-Xi summit, state-run media did not actually claim that Taiwan was not mentioned, but at the time of the meeting made general statements neither confirming or denying whether Taiwan was mentioned or not.
Subsequent reports confirm that Taiwan was mentioned at the meeting, but largely claim that this was a “brief” mention, in which there was no shift in Taiwan policy whatsoever except for reiterating present orthodoxy on Taiwan between America and China. However, while this episode is an instructive one about how a media narrative builds up based on misperceptions on the part of the press, leading to mistaken evaluations, it should serve as a reminder that we should to a large extent distrust any official channels on the part of China or the US when it comes to the question of Taiwan.
Obviously, China is not a country which allows for freedom of press and state-run media outlets are for the sake of propaganda, not objective news reporting, and so it seems obvious as to why Chinese media should be distrusted. However, while the White House has in the past been comparatively more open to the press, the Trump administration has no compunction with outright lying to the public in its press statements and it has taken steps to limit media access to outlets which do not report with a strong bias favoring it. As a result, since the Trump administration took office, one has observed many cases of obscure, newly established far-right-wing media outlets being the media outlet granted access to crucial events in international affairs, such as with the meeting between Xi Jinping and American secretary of state Rex Tillerson which preceded the Trump-Xi summit.
Either way, regardless of whether the White House official release has become untrustworthy under the Trump administration and the Trump administration only, strategic ambiguity has always been the name of the game when it comes to US-Taiwan relations, and preserving ambiguity on its Taiwan stance has been a part of American Asia-Pacific strategy for decades. And we do well to remember that meetings as the Trump-Xi summit occur behind closed doors for a reason.
If America did in fact decide on a shift in Taiwan policy, whether on its own or in consultation with China, it might be American interest to lie to the press to keep Taiwan in the dark until the right moment to reveal this shift in American stances to the world. Information asymmetry always has its uses in international political maneuvering and it always will. And so vigilance and skepticism of official statements from both America and China are necessary at all times. Some have suggested that those call for skepticism of Trump may in fact be motivated by a desire for Trump to fail and were thus disappointed in the outcome of the Trump-Xi summit seeming not to indicate any overt move by Trump to bargain away Taiwan, but either way, it seems common sense to simply not place blind faith in either America or China when it comes to their Taiwan stances.
International agreements, after all, do not hold absolutely and they are broken by the involved actors when they deem it to more advantageous to break such agreements rather than adhere to them. As the history of even just the past century attests to, when nation-states decide that, rationally-speaking, it is worth the damage to credibility to break an international agreement according to a cost-benefit analysis, they will do so. This is particularly true of superpowers as the United States or China, which have the global reach that they are sometimes able to defy international law or the treaty agreements that they have themselves agreed to in the past and the international community has little choice but to live with it.
With Taiwan’s tenuous unofficial relation to the US, this is in fact already the product of America’s ability to violate international agreements and go alone against the consensus of the international community. As political scientist and theorist Wu Rwei-Ren has suggested, for example, one can in fact view the Taiwan Relations Act as America using domestic laws to defy international consensus regarding Taiwan—something it is only able to accomplish because it is a superpower.
Due its nature as a domestic policy, one can also suggest that it would be all the more easy for America to unilaterally repeal the Taiwan Relations Act and adhere to international standards calling for the total non-recognition of Taiwan. And obviously, American will break from Taiwan Relations Act if the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. This is merely political rationality at work here. As such, skepticism of America and China alike is necessary in predicting future developments. Indeed, failing to be cautious enough on potential shifts in policy on the two superpowers will have disastrous and irreversible results for Taiwan, and it is far better outcome that a sharply skeptical view proves in retrospect to have been reading too much into the picture than for Taiwan to be caught wholly unaware by future developments that it had dismissed out of hand.