Show caption Pro-Taiwan independence protesters gather to greet Nancy Pelosi outside Songshan airport in Taipei. The US has long maintained a position of ‘strategic ambiguity’ over Taiwan. Photograph: Helen Davidson/The Guardian Taiwan ‘Hoopla and yellow journalism’: Taiwanese Americans bemoan media fearmongering over Pelosi visit Hyperbolic tenor of debate shows lack of knowledge of country’s unique political situation, Taiwanese Americans say Wilfred Chan Wed 3 Aug 2022 06.00 BST Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share via Email
Nancy Pelosi’s arrival in Taiwan has inflamed US-China relations anew, with China’s military announcing it will conduct live-fire exercises around the island and state media condemning the visit as “stupid, reckless and dangerous”. Meanwhile, US commentators across the ideological spectrum, from Thomas Friedman to Tucker Carlson to Code Pink, have called Pelosi’s trip a reckless provocation to war.
But to Taiwanese Americans who have spent a lifetime grappling with the island’s strange geopolitical status, the hyperbolic tenor of the debate over Pelosi’s visit is indicative of how little most Americans know or care about the people of Taiwan.
“All of the hoopla and yellow journalism blowing up, it really only serves to bolster the Chinese acts of aggression,” says SueAnn Shiah, a 30-year-old writer and theologian who has made a film about Taiwanese American identity. “People come in with very little to no background knowledge, and often with a hyperbolic, fearmongering attitude. And then I’m hearing a lot of my people in Taiwan who have an extremely different approach to this situation.”
Taiwanese and Taiwanese Americans have long debated whether the island should formally declare independence, seek unification with China, or maintain the status quo.
It’s a heated debate that occurs under the daily threat of Chinese aggression, Shiah says, which is something that Americans – including anti-war protesters – often don’t understand. “I just want Americans to de-center themselves for a second,” she said. “I’m not going to pretend that the United States does not participate in imperialism. But in the specific case of Taiwan, the war is not being mongered by the United States. It’s acts of imperialist aggression from China. For those familiar with complexities of Taiwan situation, we understand US support as a deterrent to war.”
The United States has long maintained a stance of “strategic ambiguity” regarding Taiwan. That policy, established in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, does not officially take a position on the status of Taiwan but offers it “substantial but non-diplomatic relations”, including military support. US officials rarely visit Taiwan – the last high-ranking official to step foot on the island was the then House speaker, Newt Gingrich, in 1997.
The ambiguity is designed to prevent armed conflict between Chinese and Taiwanese authorities, whose predecessors fought over control of mainland China during the Chinese civil war until 1949, when Mao’s Chinese Communist party forced the ruling Kuomintang to retreat to Taiwan.
Since then, authorities in Beijing have claimed ownership over Taiwan, despite never ruling the island. Meanwhile, Taiwan developed from a dictatorship into an advanced democracy, but decades of international pressure from Beijing has kept Taiwan out of international bodies like the UN and WHO, and left just a handful of countries that officially recognize Taiwan.
That ambiguity can be confusing even to Taiwanese Americans.
“When I was growing up, I kept hearing that the US agrees with China’s position that Taiwan is a part of China,” says Jessica Drun, a non-resident fellow at the Global China Hub of the Atlantic Council, a pro-Nato thinktank. “It wasn’t until I came to DC that I was able to parse out the truth that fundamentally the US does not take a position on Taiwan’s status.”
Drun warned that China would use Pelosi’s visit to “shift the blame of any escalation or actions they take against Taiwan on to the United States, for supposedly violating the [‘One China’ principle]”.
“It’s important for us to push back on that narrative – we’ve never agreed.”
Others hope that the Biden administration might be able to help create a new paradigm for the debate around Taiwan’s future.
Albert Wu, a Taiwanese American historian based in Taipei, believes Pelosi’s visit is a “huge deal symbolically”. But the framing of the story around US-China conflict repeats a common problem in western stories about Taiwan: it erases Taiwan’s perspective.
“Even in the coverage of this Pelosi situation, which has brought so much attention to Taiwan, there’s just very little about what the actors in Taiwan are actually thinking. The narrative is, still, you need the US to come in and save Taiwan.”
Instead, he would like to see a rethinking of international relations where Taiwan has a say in its future. “If the Biden administration could say, ‘OK, let’s try to get all of us on talking terms,’ or even try to broker some sort of conversation, I feel like that would be so much more exciting to people in Taiwan.”
Still, Wu is wary of how supporters of Taiwanese independence have shown a willingness to ally with certain American politicians based on their hawkishness towards China.
“I feel very uncomfortable that we have to rely on people like Mike Pompeo for security, and they have no qualms about it. They’re like, ‘Anybody who supports Taiwanese independence, or anybody who even is willing to toe the line and be a little bit more belligerent and in your face with China, that is an ally.’”
Recent polling suggests the overwhelming majority of Taiwanese people support maintaining the status quo, a position shared by Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, who has said: “We don’t have a need to declare ourselves an independent state. We are an independent country already.” Shiah, who grew up in Detroit and has lived in Taiwan and the US as an adult, generally agrees.
Strategic ambiguity should not threaten China, Shiah said, as the policy helps keep lines of dialogue open on all sides. But in recent years, top officials in Beijing have grown hostile to ambiguity, declaring that China has “no room for concessions” over its goal of taking over Taiwan. Shiah worries that American hysteria over Pelosi’s visit will only further vindicate China’s intolerance for ambiguity – which increases the risk of war.
What makes things tricky is that non-Taiwanese people find it hard to understand how ambiguity could not only be desirable, but sustainable, Shiah said.
“Many Americans – even a lot of Asian Americans – can’t imagine living in strategic ambiguity forever. I remember after the election of Donald Trump, a lot of people felt so much uncertainty about their political future and were experiencing really intense mental health problems and anxiety. But everyone I know in Taiwan has always lived in a place of political uncertainty about the future. Life has to go on.”