John Oliver is an interesting figure. He’s probably the closest thing we have to an H.L. Mencken, or an Upton Sinclair in our modern digital age. I haven’t watched him consistently since the first or second season of his HBO show, Last Week Tonight, which premiered back in 2014. But whenever he covers something that I’m interested in, I’ll check him out. Usually his take makes me less angry than any other mainstream perspective. The main virtue of his approach is that he gives a single topic 20 minutes to a half hour of his show. Whether the segment is more muck-raking or educational, he’s always able to cover more of the story than any three minute segment. But not even John Oliver is immune to military industrial complex propaganda. Per usual, he does better than most, but even he left some important stuff out in his recent video on Taiwan. So I corrected it for him…
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Video Transcript after the jump…
First off, let me say I am a big John Oliver fan. The way he really dives into an issue is superior to most comedy out there, and honestly a lot better than most cable and network news when it comes to analyzing a subject. But when I saw that he was doing a video on Taiwan, as he did two weeks back, I had a hunch I would have problems with it. And I was right. Today, I will talk about what John Oliver missed about Taiwan.
To start, I should point to the many things he got right. By giving the subject room to breathe, he was able to dive into the history of Taiwan and its relationship with China. Taiwan’s special status was the result of a nasty civil war, and its roots were anything but democratic. He also makes the US’s not particularly Noble historic interest in an independent Taiwan explicit as well, which I really appreciated.
“You know, I do quite miss that period of history when the only way to learn about other cultures was to have a British man on amphetamines tell you which were the good ones and which were the baddies. Here we see Formosians living in freedom, well not freedom per se, but they’re not commies and that’s where my curiosity terminates”
You would be surprised how little this comes up in most reporting on Taiwan. We usually just hear Taiwan is a vibrant democracy, which it now is, and that the dastardly Chinese want to crush it. By telling more of the story here, Oliver is already ahead of most journalism on the topic. And then he closes with a really basic, central observation that makes this probably my favorite piece of mainstream reporting on Taiwan this year.
“Polls have consistently shown, that when they are asked about independence from or unification with China, something like 1.5 percent want unification as soon as possible, and about six percent want independence as soon as possible. But the vast majority favor some version of sticking with the status quo.”
This is a really fundamental thing that almost all Western commentary misses. Across most major US think tanks and publications we are seeing a move to make explicit security commitments to Taiwan. A growing constituency of defence contractors and idiots in Washington DC clearly want to turn Taiwan into a sort of neo-West Berlin, an outpost of the West, isolated from its surroundings, which is directly against the wishes of 90% of the Taiwanese and would be economically disastrous for the island.
Yes, Taiwan is a vibrant democracy built on top of a world beating economy, but that economy depends entirely on its economic relations with mainland China. Taiwan is a fully developed country today because of its connections to the larger China. Taiwanese companies build all the iPhones, but they use cheap mainland labor in communist Chinese factories to do it. Even Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation, the chip company everybody loves talking about, operates a few of its many fabrication plants in mainland China. World War III over Taiwan is a real risk. But China doesn’t have to fire a single shot or even attempt a blockade to crush the Taiwanese economic miracle. They can just confiscate a lot of it. The severing of ties would be tremendously damaging to the mainland’s economy as well, but if the US succeeds in forcing Taiwanese autonomy, China’s leaders may be angry enough to do it. I guess Taiwan could try to reach out to Vietnam or Bangladesh to be it’s new low cost partner, but that strikes me as pretty unlikely. The joint Taiwanese-Chinese economic miracle relies on cultural affinity, and geographical proximity that Taiwan doesn’t have anywhere else. China wanted every opportunity to bring Taiwan closer. What use does rapidly developing Vietnam have for Taiwanese middle men?
Oliver doesn’t come right out and say that the people trying to upset the status quo are probably Taiwan’s worst enemies, but it is strongly implied. He convincingly lays out what strategic ambiguity is and why it’s important.
“It’s something that lets us maintain functional relations with Taiwan, and still have a full formal relationship with China. It’s an approach that began in the 1970s and it’s built on top of a series of absurdly carefully worded statements.”
Oliver does a good job of portraying how frustrating and silly this policy can seem. We arm Taiwan, and act to make it economically successful, but we don’t have a firm commitment to its security. If China tried to invade, would we help? Or not? It’s confusing but Oliver makes it clear that it’s also essential to the basic functioning of the Chinese and Taiwanese economic miracles.
“No one really knows! It is a willfully confusing, will they or won’t they dance, that for 40 years has been the backbone of US-Taiwan policy”
The status quo works, and Oliver closes by pointing out that the status quo is what the vast majority of Taiwanese want, and we should listen to them. But things are unsettled right now. And this is the most important thing Oliver’s video leaves out. He points out that things are unsettled, but like almost every other piece of US media, he leaves out WHY the status quo is unsettled. The video begins with this clip from NBC.. .
“China has long viewed Taiwan as its own national territory. China’s President Xi Jinping on Saturday all but declaring it policy. The complete reunification of our country must be and will be realized he said”
Does that seem kind of weird to you.
“China has long viewed Taiwan as its own national territory. China’s President Xi Jinping on Saturday all but declaring it policy.”
‘All but declaring it policy’ She just said that it’s always been Chinese policy. This is the central dishonesty of all US media right now. It ties itself in knots to try to make China look like the aggressor here. Even though it is not China that’s overthrowing the status quo, at all. This is the main weakness of Oliver’s video. At no point during this 22 minute video do we hear the name Donald Trump.
Now to be clear, I believe that the US was the more aggressive party long before Trump was president, as I laid out last year.
“2015 and 2016 were very scary years for China. Their economy’s charmed life of hyper-growth was clearly ending. In 2015 the Chinese stock market crashed, and GDP growth fell below 7% for the first time in 25 years. Their great rival was headed by a charismatic international celebrity, who was surrounding China in an ever tightening web of anti-CCP allies. This alliance had just finished negotiating the Trans Pacific Partnership, a massive trade deal designed specifically to cut Chinese exports, and they were working on an Atlantic version that would have cut China out of European trade as well.”
So the whole second half of the Obama administration was about encircling and containing China, but everybody was careful to maintain the status quo on Taiwan. Oliver emphasizes that strategic ambiguity was the “It is a willfully confusing, will they or won’t they dance, that for 40 years has been the backbone of US-Taiwan policy”
But it was the backbone of US-China policy as well. Before Trump, everybody understood that a sensible, peaceful containment of China would leave the Taiwanese red line alone, because screwing around with strategic ambiguity was almost guaranteed to trigger instability and maybe even violence.
I wrote a long medium post on this, that I will link in the description but it’s important to understand that for half a century the US relationship with China was based on a few pillars. The two most important are probably friendly trade policy and strategic ambiguity with Taiwan. It took me a while, but I now agree with Obama and Trump and Biden that the US-China trade relationship needs to be renegotiated. We have asked working Americans to sacrifice too much. It’s very important, however, to point out that it’s the United States that is making this decision to throw out free trade, in service to our own domestic concerns. Our government and media are working hard together to find ways to blame the Chinese, but we are making the decision to change the relationship. Obama understood this, so he focused on trade, and other military alliances in Asia, carefully avoiding blowing up the Taiwan issue.
Donald Trump’s China policy was largely a joke. His trade war might have had a real impact, if he hadn’t chosen to go after all of our allies on trade as well. His Brutishness actually gave China a great opportunity to look like the good guy, one that the Chinese government squandered by falling down to his level with its combative “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy. Trump was largely ineffectual, but his Taiwan policy was deeply disturbing. Before he was even inaugurated, he was flaunting a direct phone call with the Taiwanese president. But we only learned this past October 7th just how far Trump went towards throwing out Strategic Ambiguity. In a blockbuster report US media is doing its best to avoid ever mentioning again, it was revealed that we have had US troops on Taiwan for at least a year.
The US is starting the new cold war. Not China. That “at least a year” in the journal headline is really important. The Chinese government would have known we had remilitarized Taiwan as soon as we did it. So did Trump do it in September 2020, or was it back in 2019, or 2018? The date is important, because that’s the date after which every story about China acting crazy over Taiwan is wrong. If we had US troops on Taiwan in 2019, then even China’s crushing of Hong Kong might not have been crazy aggression, it might have been a stupid but understandable over-reaction.
We know for sure that US troops have been on Taiwan for a year, so every story in 2021 has not been about China being crazy, it’s been about China reacting to the US knocking over the other main foundation of the US-China relationship. The Wall Street Journal story revealing US troops on Taiwan was published on October 7th. The John Oliver piece aired on October 25th. The revelation that the US has remilitarized Taiwan is the most important thing that John Oliver and his writers missed. There was more than adequate time to include this blockbuster story. I think it’s fair to call leaving this story out a little dishonest. We got to hear about China flying it’s jets through airspace it shares with Taiwan, but the Wall Street Journal’s bombshell on the US’s abandonment of one of the most important aspects of Strategic ambiguity isn’t worth mentioning? Not great.
In his defense, John Oliver isn’t the only one who has been ignoring this vital piece of news. Every serious US media establishment has as well. It’s an extraordinary indictment of US foreign policy reporting that I have higher expectations of a profanity laced comedy show than I do of most cable and network news. But I do have higher expectations of John Oliver. And in this case, in a generally pretty good segment, John Oliver let me down.
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