by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Audrey Tang/Facebook

REPORTS HAVE STATED stated that Digital Minister Audrey Tang’s video seemed to be cut during the Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy last week. If the video was cut, it is believed that this took place due to a map that appeared during Tang’s presentation which displayed Taiwan in a different color than China, with concerns that this would be perceived as support for Taiwanese independence. 

The map was intended to highlight the different status of human rights in Taiwan compared to China, with China colored red and Taiwan colored green on the map. Tang’s feed was cut after the map appeared, resulting in only Tang’s voice being heard, and no image being displayed on the screen. A disclaimer also appeared after Tang finished speaking, emphasizing that the views of speakers do not reflect official US policy. 

Facebook post by Audrey Tang on the presentation, which does not show any interruption

Tang’s presentation was on Taiwan’s successes fighting COVID-19, with Tang describing the QR code contact tracing system used in Taiwan, and touting transparency in government as a factor for Taiwan’s successes fighting COVID-19. The incident took place last Friday, but was only reported on today, after sources spoke to Reuters. For its part, both the US State Department and the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs have claimed that the video feed being cut was due to technical issues. The archived version of the video does not show any interruptions. 

Taiwanese policymakers invited to the Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy include Tang, independent legislator Freddy Lim, and Taiwan’s representative to the US, Hsiao Bi-khim. Lim is not only the only Taiwanese legislator invited to the summit, but also the only parliamentarian from Asia invited. Taiwan’s inclusion in the Summit for Democracy takes place despite Taiwan’s lack of membership in the UN and other international organizations, at a time of strengthened ties between the US and Taiwan. 

Nevertheless, the Chinese government has hit back at the Summit for Democracy, with state-run media frequently touting China as a superior democracy to the US. Such messaging has also lashed out at the US diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, with the Chinese government claiming that the US would not have been wanted at the Olympics, nor would China have wanted to attend the Summit for Democracy, though Chinese state-run media’s preoccupation with the matter seems to show otherwise. 

The US’s stance on Taiwan has become increasingly questioned after a series of gaffes in late October and mid-November by US president Joe Biden in which Biden seemed to express support for Taiwanese independence, before this was quickly walked back by the White House. This took place in context of and added further confusion in the wake of comments by Biden earlier in October in which he seemed to suggest agreement between the US and China on Taiwan when there is no official agreement—despite frequent efforts by China to conflate the US’s One China Policy with China’s One China Principle. Notably, the mid-November comments took place after a virtual meeting between Biden and Chinese president Xi Jinping. 

However, Biden’s comments that seemed to express support for Taiwanese independence were reported on by international media more widely than his comments earlier in October. In part, this was because they took place in a similar timeframe to visits to Taiwan by US elected representatives. 

The cutting of Tang’s video feed might be read as the US again walking back support for Taiwan. Either way, the incident will lead to further ambiguity about the level of current US support for Taiwan. 

Reportedly, the White House National Security Council was incensed by the fact that the map did not appear in trial runs of the presentation. If so, this raises the possibility that Taiwan’s actions were deliberate, perhaps with Tang hoping to push the matter of the US’s stance on Taiwan. But insofar as elements of the US national security establishment have long viewed Taiwan as a “troublemaker” intent on pushing for independence regardless of what the costs could be for the US, one wonders if the incident will add to this perception, if it is read as a deliberate set-up by Taiwan, rather than an accident. 

Current president Tsai Ing-wen seems to have managed to win over the US national security establishment by adhering to support for the status quo, rather than pushing for independence. Yet there is concern about what stances a future DPP president might take among US policymakers. To this extent, one notes that Tsai’s 2012 run for president was sabotaged by the US over concern that she would prove a pro-independence provocateur in the mold of Chen Shui-bian. How the US will treat a future Taiwanese president from the DPP or another pan-Green party is less than clear. 

US President Joe Biden. Photo credit: Lisa Ferdinando/US Department of Defense/Public Domain

It is not impossible that news of the incident was released so as to frame Taiwan’s participation in the US Summit for Democracy in a particular way. There are conflicting actors in the Biden administration where US policy on Taiwan and China are concerned, raising the possibility that this information on the summit was released in order to try and push the Biden administration toward a certain position. Specifically, the strengthened ties between the US and Taiwan that have occurred as of late has led to a renewed debate about whether the US should continue to adhere to policies of “strategic ambiguity” about what action it would take in the event of a Chinese invasion or whether it should move toward “strategic clarity”. 

Nevertheless, if the US did cut the feed of Tang’s video—even if someone simply overreacted and it was more accidental than not—the optics would be poor. Despite the fact that the Summit for Democracy is intended by the Biden administration to show the contrast between the US, like-minded democracies, and China, it is after all the Chinese government that will frequently cut televised feeds when they touch on sensitive political topics such as Taiwan. 

That Tang’s feed was cut would draw uncomfortable parallels between the US and China, suggesting that differences between the two are not as large as the former would like to project. One expects the Chinese government to potentially leverage on the incident for the sake of propaganda. At the same time, this does raise that while the Chinese government frequently touts that it has “red lines” on Taiwan that it does not wish international actors to violate, this is also true of the US, which has made it clear that Taiwan would lose support if it were to push for formal independence. 

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