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Trapping Taiwan: The Effects of Western Alarmism

Anders Blomso, a Masters student of Taiwanese Literature, Language and Culture at the National Taiwan University, examines the impact of Western coverage of Taiwan. This piece is accompanied by photos of Taiwan’s National Day in October 2021 by Isis Briones, a Mass Communication and Mandarin undergraduate at the National Chengchi University.


In early October, over the course of four days from the 1st to the 4th, nearly 150 Chinese warplanes crossed the Taiwan Strait into Taiwan’s airspace. This show of military strength, though unprecedented, was unsurprising given China’s increasingly hostile rhetoric towards Taiwan. Since the 2016 election of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) member Tsai Ing-wen as President of Taiwan, China has ceased direct communications with the nation. But while Xi Jinping’s rhetoric on foreign policy has taken an aggressive turn, it is Western analysts across the mainstream media who have been most eager to highlight the possibility of warfare; a quick search of “Taiwan” on any major international news site reveals coverage focused almost exclusively on increasing China-Taiwan tensions. This is echoed among US government officials, with Admiral Phil Davidson, the outgoing commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), predicting the invasion of Taiwan within the next six years. The alarmism found in Western media bordered on the absurd when in May of this year, as many countries were still battling to keep Covid-19 deaths down, the Economist dubbed Taiwan “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth.” This was despite its highly effective handling of the Covid-19 virus.

“But while Xi Jinping’s rhetoric on foreign policy has taken an aggressive turn, It is Western analysts across the mainstream media who have been most eager to highlight the possibility of warfare.”

Given this escalation of the rhetoric regarding Taiwan in international media and politics, it was somewhat surprising when President Tsai struck an optimistic note at Taiwan’s National Day Celebration last October. A few days after Chinese warplanes entered Taiwan’s airspace, Tsai declared that Taiwan is “no longer seen as the orphan of Asia, but as an Island of Resilience that can face challenges with courage.”


The phrase “Orphan of Asia” is the title of Taiwanese writer Wu Zhuoliu’s best-known novel; a key work often used tosuccinctly describe national identity in Taiwan. The island nation was initially ruled by the Qing Dynasty, then ceded to and colonised by Japan following the First Sino-Japanese War, before finally being handed to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) after WWII. These series of incursions mean that Taiwanese identity has been defined by a sense of sorrow since its emergence during the period of Japanese colonialism. To be Taiwanese has, for Taiwanese nationalists, been the political tragedy of both abandonment and abuse at the hands of off-island regimes.

But recent years have seen a reversal in Taiwan’s international fortunes. The Covid-19 pandemic may have shut downmuch of the Western world in 2020 and 2021, but Taiwan’s pandemic response kept the vast majority of its residents safe. The effects of a quick response extended beyond Taiwan: the effective mass production of facemasks, which were shipped to countries around the globe, led to Taiwan adopting the slogan “Taiwan can help” – a far cry from the self-imposed nickname “Orphan of Asia.”

"To be Taiwanese has, for Taiwanese nationalists, been the political tragedy of both abandonment and abuse at the hands of off-island regimes."

There is a lesson here for Western analysts. The decision to focus on China’s militarism, often at the expense of Taiwan’s successes, allows China and the US to tell the story of the region and creates an atmosphere in which conflict withChina appears to be inevitable. It also ignores and excludes perspectives coming from Taiwan, meaning that once again Taiwan has been forced to cede its capacity to construct its own national identity on a global stage.

Graham T. Allison, a politics professor at Harvard University, has compared the geostrategic future of US-China relations to Ancient Greek historian Thucydides’ famed assertion that “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made [the Peloponnesian] war inevitable.” This so-called “Thucydides Trap” describes how the hegemon’s fear of being displaced as the premier military and economic power results in the near “inevitability” of war with the perceived challenger – in this case, China.


Amid a myriad of op-eds speculating over an invasion of Taiwan, it can be easy for both analysts and societies at large to fall prey to the trap. War is not an inevitable conclusion, as a study by the Belfer Center showed, with four in the sixteen cases of similar rivalries solved peaceably. While the real challenges of avoiding war cannot be understated, the perception of an inescapable collapse into violence is inaccurate. As Allison asserts, “if leaders in the United States and China let structural factors drive these two great nations to war, they will not be able to hide behind a cloak of inevitability.” In this context, alarmist journalism must be held responsible for its complicity in preemptively stoking fear, and potentially drawing the US into the Thucydides Trap itself. As Shih-Yueh Yang, a professor of international affairs and business at Nanhua University, pointed out, “not a single shot has ever been fired... In contrast, thousands of rockets have already exploded over [the] Gaza/Israel border, and hundreds of people have died.”

The challenges that Taiwan presents to the international community are complex and should be treated seriously, but at the same time we need to avoid laying the groundwork for future violence and an attack on Taiwanese sovereignty. The likelihood of war remains a contested issue. As Yang goes on to argue, an invasion in the near future – though not impossible – would be “challenging and thus highly unlikely” for a number of geographic and political reasons. Taking a cue from Tsai, we should balance our coverage of Chinese militarism with equal coverage of Taiwanese perspectives. By including the voices of the people who stand to lose the most in the face of war, we can better understand the issue and find powerful resources for rethinking strategies for peace in the region. Perhaps we too can enjoy the hope Taiwan carries in spite of a history of, and in the face of, political violence.



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