The United States, China, and Taiwan are locked in a communication impasse that feels destined for disaster. If we hope to avoid a catastrophe, then coming to a better understanding of the nuances of U.S.-China-Taiwan communication stands among the most pressing issues in the age of globalization and as one of the keys to building peace in the Asia Pacific. Indeed, if the United States, China, and Taiwan hope to nurture relationships that are rooted in mutual respect and trust, then reimagining our shared fates is one of the most crucial communication issues of our age.
The communication dynamic between our nations was damaged throughout the past four years by Donald Trump’s brash, unilateral, and declarative tweets. As Communication scholars Chiaoning Su and Paige L. Gibson have demonstrated, Trump’s tweets destabilized U.S.-China-Taiwan relations. The conflict-based communication dynamic has also been fueled by the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) routine threats that if Taiwan declares independence, then China will invade. The CPC alleges that Taiwan’s secessionists threaten China’s sovereignty and the CPC’s cherished “one China” policy. For example, following Joe Biden’s inauguration, China ratcheted up its threats against Taiwan by sending 12 fighter jets, two nuclear-capable H-6K bombers, and one reconnaissance plane into Taiwanese air space, leading Taiwan to scramble its own fighter jets and to activate its air defense missile systems. Chinese military forces added a frightening twist to the threat by simulating an attack against the USS Theodore Roosevelt, one of the aircraft carriers that anchors the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet. The maneuvers were intended to intimidate Taiwan and to discourage the new U.S. president from taking any bold actions to defend the island nation, yet observers worried that the PRC was engaging in a dress rehearsal for war.
The Biden administration responded by ordering the Roosevelt and two of its destroyers to sail through the Taiwan Strait, indicating America’s unwavering commitment to defend Taiwan and to keep the Strait an area of open international navigation. Xi and Biden would not speak by phone until February 10, 2021, but in late January they were sending nuclear-armed warning signals, hence reprising the same dynamic that fueled the almost-war known as the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait Crisis. The incident indicates why a report from the Asia Society warns that “the United States and China are on a collision course.”
China’s threats against both Taiwan and the United States are curious, however, because multiple Taiwanese leaders have repeatedly declared Taiwan’s independence already. To help readers make sense of China’s threats, let me first review the historical facts and then offer a theory about why the threats keep coming.
The History of Taiwan’s Leaders Declaring Independence
Following Lee Teng-hui’s victory in Taiwan’s first democratic election in 1996, Lee declared Taiwan’s independence. Speaking with reporters from the Washington Post in 1997, Lee said “We are an independent, sovereign country . . . . Taiwan is already independent. There is no need to say so.” Speaking with the New York Times in 1998, when asked about China’s “reunification” threats, Lee scoffed, “we prefer to stay single. Why get engaged if engagement is equivalent to becoming a local government and making ourselves slaves?” In a July 9, 1999, interview with a radio reporter from Deutsche Welle (www.taiwandc.org/nws-9926.htm), President Lee reminded the reporter that unlike former colonies Hong Kong and Macau, “the ROC is a sovereign, independent state.”
These same claims were repeated on New Year’s Day 2019, when President Tsai Ing-wen delivered the “Four Musts” speech from the Presidential Office. Tsai asserted that no cross-Strait dialogue could take place without China agreeing to these four musts:
- China must face the reality of the existence of the Republic of China (Taiwan);
- it must respect the commitment of the 23 million people of Taiwan for freedom and democracy;
- it must handle cross-Strait differences peacefully, on a basis of equality; and
- it must be governments or government-authorized agencies that engage in negotiations.
Tsai’s “Four Musts” rebuke the CPC’s version of “one China.” Tsai’s naming strategy in the first “must,” listing the now popular “Taiwan” in parentheses after the old name, Republic of China, suggest the president may be moving the country toward a new name, one that drops “China” from its title. Tsai’s second “must” supports Taiwan’s commitment to “freedom and democracy,” establishing the island nation as the antithesis to China’s accelerating authoritarianism. Tsai’s third “must,” invoking long-standing U.S. policy and Taiwanese hopes, mandates that cross-Strait developments must be “peaceful.” The president’s fourth “must” includes a pointed reference to the fact that various KMT officials making pronouncements about future Taiwan-China arrangements are not acting on behalf of the democratically elected government of Taiwan—meaning their freelancing on cross-Strait relations amounts to undermining the national interest, and hence to treason. Tsai’s speech thus rejected China’s “unification” claims, confirmed Taiwan’s non-negotiable independence and freedom, and signaled that the president would no longer tolerate KMT subterfuge regarding the mainland.
Based on responses in America and Taiwan, Tsai’s New Year’s Day speech turned the leader from an embattled president worrying about local economic troubles into a national hero. Whereas Trump’s and Xi’s communication patterns were rooted in threats and unilateral declarations, Tsai’s “Four Musts” offered a template for future negotiations, albeit premised upon Taiwan’s independence. Cutting through the swirling threats hovering over Taiwan, Tsai’s clear, calm, and constructive speech demonstrated how a leader can reframe an issue while inviting future dialogue.
As these historical notes indicate, and as Tsai’s speech confirmed, there is no question about Taiwan’s independence. With its own currency and banking system, educational norms and institutions, political organizations and traditions, military establishment, and evolving national traditions, the island nation stands free and independent. This means China’s threats are not about salvaging some lost unity with the Taiwanese, but about colonial adventurism—and as is so often the case, pursuing such chest-thumping bravado abroad is driven by insecurity at home.
When in Doubt, Make a Nationalist Threat
So, if Presidents Lee and Tsai have both repeatedly declared Taiwan’s independence, yet China has not invaded, then what is going on? Why is China making threats? Why is the Party’s communication divorced from action? The answer is simple: Making threats against Taiwan makes for good nationalist rhetoric at home.
For context, consider the hearing before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in 2009, when Nicholas J. Cull offered a keen insight about the PRC’s diplomacy. The barrage of international Chinese flag-waving propaganda, Cull argued, was not actually meant to entice foreigners but to show domestic audiences how hard the government was fighting for them. “What I’m talking about here,” Cull said, “is conducting domestic propaganda by conducting foreign propaganda.” Cull’s insight applies to today’s situation as well; the CPC is making empty threats because it is scared.
In fact, as Nimrod Baranovitch argues, the CPC is facing a “legitimacy crisis” that flows from the “growing factionalism within the Party . . . massive corruption, a sharp economic slowdown, staggering environmental pollution, and growing social unrest” coupled with “the eruption of ethnic unrest in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia” and the debacle of televised repression in Hong Kong. Reprising Susan Shirk’s fragility thesis, Baranovitch argues that the Party suffers from “the unrelenting sense of threat,” meaning it couldn’t care less about its unfavorable ratings in Australia and America so long as wolf warriors win hearts and minds back home.
Threatening the foreigners, then, is not intended to change minds in Washington or Canberra or Taipei, but to bolster Xi’s street-fighting tough-guy image with domestic audiences whose nationalist desires need feeding. This poses a terrifying communication conundrum, however, for the more Xi tries to massage China’s legitimacy crisis at home by stoking nationalist desires, the more captive Xi becomes to them—and hence, the less likely Xi is to engage in sophisticated, multilateral negotiations with the United States or Taiwan, for that will be interpreted as weakness at home. China’s threat-based “wolf warrior” diplomacy has therefore built a communication dynamic that is unilateral, declarative, and escalatory, all in the hopes of masking a domestic legitimacy crisis.
Xi’s nationalism therefore echoes the same communication strategies Jennifer Mercieca diagnosed as fueling Trump’s dangerous rhetoric. In both cases, insecurity at home leads to overreach abroad, and domestic political instability leads to overbearing international communication. The result is a communication dynamic that is rooted in conflict, where threat meets threat, with each new round of angry rhetoric leading closer to war.
If we Communication scholars hope to do our part to try to stop this dangerous communication, then it is time for us to take what Lawrence R. Frey and Joshua S. Hanan call social justice interventions into the international arena. As a first step, we can partner with our colleagues and allies in Taiwan to ensure that their voices are heard—for the fate of Taiwan is in their hands, not America’s and not China’s.
- Hsin-I Cheng, Cultivating Membership in Taiwan and Beyond: Relational Citizenship (2021).
- Patrick Shaou-Whea Dodge, editor, Communication Convergence in Contemporary China (2020).
- Chiaoning Su, “Mediated Memory and Nation Building in Greater China,” China Media Research 12 (2016): 1-4.
- Guobin Yang and Wei Wang, editors, Engaging Social Media in China (2021).
- Michelle Murray Yang, American Political Discourse on China (2017).
- Sydney Hsin-I Yueh, Identity Politics and Popular Culture in Taiwan (2017).
- China Digital Times, https://chinadigitaltimes.net/.
- ChinaFile, https://www.chinafile.com/.
- The U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, https://www.cecc.gov/.
- The Formosan Association for Public Affairs, https://fapa.org/.
- People’s Daily Online, http://en.people.cn/.
- SupChina, https://supchina.com/.
- Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, http://en.people.cn/.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
STEPHEN J. HARTNETT is a Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado Denver and served as NCA President in 2017. Hartnett’s most recent books are A World of Turmoil: The United States, China, and Taiwan in the Long Cold War, from which this article is drawn, and the co-edited Imagining China: Rhetorics of Nationalism in an Age of Globalization.