In a World Press Freedom Day briefing at the US Department of State’s Washington Foreign Press Center on Tuesday last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken responded to a Central News Agency reporter’s question about Taiwan’s media environment by saying that Taiwan is on the front lines of China’s “hybrid war.”
Blinken said that the US government has joined with Taiwanese authorities and civil organizations “to try to build societal resilience to disinformation and other forms of foreign interference.”
Blinken’s response shows that the US is aware that Taiwan faces challenges from local collaborators who work hand in glove with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), using media and social networks in an attempt to brainwash Taiwanese and undermine their faith in democracy.
Taiwan occupies a key position on the defense lines against authoritarian expansion, and if Beijing achieves its goal of weakening Taiwan, the first island chain of the Indo-Pacific region would risk being breached.
The CCP is always looking for ways to cut off Taiwan from international support by sowing division with the US, such as by seizing upon changes in international dynamics to cook up stories about the US abandoning Taiwan.
When the US withdrew from Afghanistan last year, Chinese media promoted the catchphrase: “Today Afghanistan, tomorrow Taiwan,” which was quickly taken up by pro-China figures and media locally. Not until US President Joe Biden explained that the situations in Afghanistan and Taiwan were different did these voices quieten down.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, a similar analogy emerged: “Today Ukraine, tomorrow Taiwan.” Commenters said that the US would watch a Taiwanese invasion from the sidelines. However, as the Ukrainians bravely resist their enemy, the US and other democratic countries have been supplying aid, and this has caused attempts to undermine trust to fizzle out.
In fact, the US’ direct or indirect support for Ukraine is consolidating mutual trust with its democratic allies and building prestige, notably in the Indo-Pacific region.
Recent adjustments to the sales of US military equipment to Taiwan have also inspired pro-China elements to cook up negative rhetoric about “sea changes in US-Taiwan relations” and “shocks to the public’s confidence.”
The war in Ukraine is one of the largest global conflicts in generations, and observers wonder why the Russian military has become bogged down given its military prowess.
As Taiwan develops and enhances its asymmetrical warfare capabilities, it is likewise learning from Ukraine’s experience, including strengthening the warfare capabilities of its reserve forces, increasing its all-out defense capacity and discussing whether to bring back one-year compulsory military service.
This also applies to US arms sales to Taiwan. Military ties between the two nations are well established, and the US is highly involved in Taiwan’s military planning. Through continuous reviews, the kinds of weapons that the US sells to Taiwan are sure to change. The fundamental relationship has not altered much, but interactions between the two sides are now more frequent than before.
It does not take an expert to see a pattern of development in the attempts to sow divisions between Taiwan and the US. If the US’ approach to Taiwan differs from the past, the rumormongers would say that the relationship has changed and Taiwan is headed for trouble.
On the other hand, if the US upgrades its interactions with Taiwan, skeptics could sing in tune with the CCP by accusing the US and Taiwan of being provocative and escalating tensions.
Another thing these troublemakers do is belittle and vilify US support by suggesting that it has ulterior motives. For example, in January last year, then-US ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft planned to visit Taiwan until then-US president Donald Trump’s outgoing administration canceled the visit. At the time, the rumormongers alleged that her planned visit was aimed at lobbying Taiwan’s government to buy US coal.
Similarly, when former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo visited Taiwan in March, he was accused of doing so for personal commercial gain. When a heavyweight US congressional delegation visited Taiwan last month to meet President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), the US senators and representatives were accused of pushing the sale of US-built airliners.
Pro-China media do everything they can to distort and smear, while China plays the same tune by accusing US politicians of “professing values while thinking about nothing but self-interest.”
With the transition from Trump’s Republican administration to Biden’s Democratic team, it was inevitable that US policies would change, including its Indo-Pacific policy and those regarding its relations with Taiwan.
For example, with regard to high-level contacts, the Trump administration took a high-profile approach by sending Cabinet officials to Taiwan, whereas the Biden administration has sent former senior officials or friends as special envoys.
During the latter part of the Trump administration, the state department lifted restrictions on engagement with Taiwan, but after Biden took office, his government reinstated those guidelines. However, it did so with a more relaxed approach and has not stopped encouraging US-Taiwan exchanges.
The strong anti-China mood in the Democratic and Republican parties alike means that the US will certainly go on deepening its interactions with Taiwan. However, the enemy is always keen to take advantage of any policy adjustments by either party.
Even though Taiwan and the US do their best to counter disinformation, it can spread quickly, often embroiling Taiwanese society in political spats about how much support can be expected from the US government. Excessive speculation undermines mutual trust between Taiwan and the US, and gives China room to engage in cognitive warfare.
Relations between Taiwan and the US should be comprehensive and strategic. The Biden administration has repeatedly emphasized a “rock solid” commitment to Taiwan. Both sides should work to cement their alliance through substantial actions that make it difficult for China’s disruptive tactics to succeed.
In October last year, the Biden administration announced plans for an Indo-Pacific economic framework. Deputy US Trade Representative Sarah Bianchi said that the four negotiating “pillars” of this framework would include “fair and resilient trade, supply chain resilience, infrastructure and decarbonization, and tax and anticorruption.”
At the very least, Taiwan can play an important role with respect to supply chains.
Speaking at a US House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on April 28, Blinken made it clear that Taiwan would not be shut out of the framework. What people in Taiwan hope for is not only to take part in the framework starting from the first round, but also to upgrade cooperation with other countries in the region.
Additionally, Taiwanese also hope to negotiate a trade agreement with the US as soon as possible. Further strengthening Taiwan-US economic and trade relations through an international framework and a trade agreement would not only strongly signal the building of a “rock solid” relationship between Taiwan and the US, but also defeat cognitive attacks that harm mutual relations.
It would also enable Taiwan to fully break free of its abnormal economic dependence on China.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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