How do international media portray Taiwan in their coverage?

Screenshot of Taiwan's state Central News Agency (CNA) showing coverage of war in Ukraine. Fair use.

International mainstream media often reduce their coverage of a country solely based on the risk of a conflict, or narrow it to an ongoing war. Recently this has been the case of Taiwan and Ukraine. But how do the Taiwanese media assess this simplistic portrayal?

Global Voices spoke to Chris Wang (王思捷), who acts as deputy editor-in-chief at Taiwan’s Central News Agency (CNA), the country's main state-owned media outlet to understand how Taiwanese media professionals assess their own media situation, and how their country is portrayed abroad.

The interview took place in English over email and is edited for style and brevity.

Photo of Chris Wang. Used with permission.

Filip Noubel (FN): There is a lot of “Ukraine today, Taiwan tomorrow” talk pointing at the fact that Taiwan should learn from Ukraine’s full-scale invasion by Russia as it cannot exclude a similar attack from China. What do you make of this comparison?

Chris Wang (CW): In my view the comparison is legitimate, as Taiwan, like Ukraine, has to do all it can to defend itself from a neighboring bully’s territorial ambition. However, I would argue that Taiwan’s situation is a lot different from Ukraine’s not only from a military point of view, as Ukraine shares a long border with Russia, while Taiwan is an island off the Chinese coast, making a potential Chinese invasion a vastly different scenario from the Ukraine war, but also because of the strategic implication of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan for global economy and balance of power.

From a military point of view, an invasion by China is expected to look a lot different from the Russian attack, which utilized mostly land forces. Beijing would more likely launch a missile attack, or implement a naval blockade against Taiwan before an ultimate amphibious assault, if Taiwan failed to resist the PLA’s initial missile and air attack.

However, the most meaningful aspect of Ukraine war’s inspiration for Taiwanese people is the will of the Ukrainian people to fight and defend their homeland at all costs. While the giant gap between the military capability across the Taiwan strait has attracted most of the attention among strategists and military officials, the will to fight, as well as combat readiness among the public probably represent the most glaring weakness for Taiwan.

Fortunately, the people of Taiwan have raised their awareness in that regard since the Ukrainian war broke out. This can be evidenced by a high support of extended compulsory military service from four months to 12 months, as well as popular discussions of the civil defense framework.

FN: In this context, what is your assessment of this new (or renewed) diplomatic alignment linking Taiwan to countries in Central Europe such as Lithuania, the Czech Republic, or Slovakia?
CW: Taiwan and its people have always shared close feelings and empathy with countries sharing a similar authoritarian past and a struggle for democracy. Democracy activists in Taiwan also sought inspiration from Central and Eastern European countries, as well as the Baltic states, and incorporate the experiences into their campaigns.

The amicable relationship goes two-way. Beijing’s refusal to play by the rules, its negligence of human rights, and hidden agenda behind its economic and diplomatic activities have raised alarm in Western countries. It seemed to me that these countries, including Lithuania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, have begun to reassess their relationship with China under the new Cold War climate. While those countries have not categorically overturned their ‘One China policy‘ [having diplomatic relations only with Beijing], especially for their administrative branches, the states find that developing relations with Taiwan serve their national interests in many areas including technology, business and diplomacy. 

Therefore, it’s not surprising for me to see countries in Central and Eastern Europe seeking to further develop ties with Taiwan. In turn, Taiwanese people appreciate their support in the international community and welcome deepening bilateral ties with the countries.

FN: Taiwanese society is very much focused on China, Japan and the US when looking abroad, and very little so on Southeast Asia despite the key importance of this region for Taiwan’s economy, labor market, tourism and security. What is the strategy of CNA in regards to this vast region?

CW: This is a good question and a very accurate observation. Media outlets, politicians as well as ordinary people in Taiwan usually pay more attention to the US, Japan, China – and to a lesser degree, Europe – despite our geographic proximity with Southeast Asian countries and extensive activities in tourism, trade and labor.

Taiwan's government has tried to shift the focus from the so-called “Western-centric” position to more engagement with its Western Pacific and Southeast Asian neighbors, such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and even Thailand. The first time was in the early 1990s, when then-President Lee Teng-hui advocated the “Southbound Policy,” which tried to divert investment and trade activities from China to Southeast Asia. The attempt basically failed as Taiwanese capitals still poured into China.

Current President Tsai Ing-wen also adopted a “New Southbound Policy” after taking office in 2016 which gradually saw positive results, despite the fact that cross-strait trade with China remains dominant.

CNA values the importance of this region. Currently we have full-time correspondents in Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Bangkok, Hanoi and Singapore – the only media outlet in Taiwan to do so. Our strategy is simple: to have as many correspondents in these countries as possible because it’s important to have reporters on the ground to present better observation and news reporting.

At the same time, CNA’s English-language coverage is also widely read among Southeast Asian migrant workers since it’s the only and most trustworthy news source they could get now.

FN: US but also general western media puts the risk of a war with China at the center of its Taiwan coverage. What is your take on this and can Taiwanese media also operating in English and other languages change that?

CW:  It’s been like this for decades. A Western reporter once told me that, for most people in the world, Taiwan is always a “war and peace story” because it’s been one of the most dangerous flashpoints. I tend to agree with that notion.

Several Western media outlets either pulled their reporters out of Taiwan or reduced the size of their Taipei bureaus when Taiwan-China relations were “warmer” during the Kuomintang administration between 2008-2016. During that period most Western media only parachuted reporters from Beijing or other Northeast Asian cities to Taipei when needed, which, in my view, resulted in inaccurate and biased reports sometimes.

Ironically, it wasn’t until former US president Donald Trump launched a US-China trade war and the world began to rally behind Washington for the “new Cold War” that Western media outlets started to post correspondents back to Taiwan again.

I really don’t see this phenomenon changing since it’s only natural for Western countries to pay attention to Taiwan when a potential war means their young people could have to sacrifice their lives in military conflicts and global trade, shipping routes and supply chains could be disrupted because of the war.

For the few Taiwanese media outlets operating in English like CNA, we always try to make Taiwan’s voices heard either in politics, economy, or the “softer” side of Taiwan, such as travel, nature, food and culture, in the hope of presenting every facet of Taiwan’s society. However, international media like the New York Times, BBC or Financial Time have a bigger microphone than us. And we know that.

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