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CvT: The Impact of Sensationalized Media on US-TW-CN Relations

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In recent weeks, much to the consternation of scholars in China and Taiwan studies, there have been various media reports of a sensationalist nature hyping up the possibility that an assault could soon break out between China and Taiwan. Anne Applebaum of The Atlantic, stated on Twitter, for example, “Two crises the Biden administration needs to be prepared for: Another Russian invasion of Ukraine, and a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Both could happen at any moment.” A Politico article on the subject also originally incorrectly stated that the United States “is treaty-bound to help Taiwan defend itself against Beijing” until it was edited after being panned by scholars.

News organizations are not entirely to blame for this sensationalism. The Financial Times published an article which quoted senior US government and military officials stating that they fear China may try to launch an attack against Taiwan sooner rather than later. The article stated, “Admiral Philip Davidson, head of US Indo-Pacific command…told senators China could take military action ‘in the next six years.’” Meanwhile, scholars took to Twitter to criticize the article, feeling that the quoted officials’ understanding of the Taiwan situation was out of touch with reality.

China’s activity sets an uncomfortable stage

Certainly, China’s own actions have not helped calm the situation. In 2019, for instance, Xi Jinping stated that unification must happen, and inevitability will happen. China has also sent military planes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) and conducted cross-Strait military drills with increasing frequency. Moreover, Beijing’s opportunistic activity while the world toiled with the pandemic has led to record high negative views of China in many countries, likely due to negative perceptions of China’s initial handling of COVID-19, the undermining of Hong Kong’s democratic system, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and sanctions against European individuals and organizations – all of which has culminated in the deployment of sanctions on senior politicians, commercial blacklistings, and the freezing of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) between the EU and China. These actions have all served to set an uncomfortable backdrop through which to frame the China-Taiwan conflict and rattle Taiwan and its international partners.

The implications of media sensationalism

Throughout the commotion, however, it is imperative to look at concrete signals from China. While there has been a deployment of infrastructure around the Strait, there has been no massive mobilization of military forces as would be expected if there were plans for an upcoming invasion of Taiwan.

This calls into question, then, the implications of the sensationalist articles that have been circulating around mainstream media platforms. Over the short-term, the most dangerous impact is that fears of an impending Chinese invasion of Taiwan will be unnecessarily amplified and could inadvertently introduce oil into an already heated environment. In the long-term, however, such articles may lead Americans to rethink US commitments with Taiwan. The US and Taiwan do not maintain a formal security pledge, and the law which concerns US-Taiwan relations – the Taiwan Relations Act – does not state that the US is in any way obligated to defend Taiwan in the event of an attack. Rather, it merely states that the US will provide “defense articles and defense services” for the purpose of Taiwan’s self-defense. The US policy on Taiwan’s defense, therefore, is referred to as a form of strategic ambiguity.

A better path forward for reporting

How could these sorts of articles have been improved? A better understanding of the relationship between the US and Taiwan, and of scholarship on China-Taiwan relations would be a good start. Respected scholars Evan S. Madeiros and Jude Blanchette, for example, have stated that, “Beijing’s strong preference is to create a situation in which the people of Taiwan and their leaders recognize their future is inevitably tied with the mainland, and then negotiate a reunification deal on Beijing’s terms. The Xi administration’s undermining of Hong Kong’s political and legal autonomy serves only to make Taiwan more resistant to Beijing’s overtures. This means Beijing will need to rely even more on coercion and political warfare to achieve its goal of reunification. This reality, more so than armed conflict, is the near-term challenge U.S. policymakers need to be focused on.” It is also a reality that journalists must appreciate.

It is clear that there is a dire need for more interaction and communication between journalists and scholars in order to provide readers with a more informed and accurate picture of the situation between China and Taiwan. In a time of clickbait articles and fervent anti-China McCarthyism sentiment, sensationalism in media, when combined with ill-informed journalism, will only serve to exacerbate the situation – a danger for policymakers who are entrusted to make well-informed and reasonable decisions, if need be.

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