Reuters appeared to put their foot in it last week following their exclusive interview with Tsai Ing-wen, but some people are trying to find something a little sinister going on.
The interview was supposed to revolve around a list of questions which had been pre-submitted to the President’s office, as is standard for such showpiece interviews. However, the controversial question about possibly speaking with US President Donald Trump was not on that list.
According to Presidential Office Spokesman Alex Huang (黃重諺) Tsai was "passively responding" to the question asked and evidently not expecting that it would be this question which led the story. The answer she gave was diplomatic and by no means inaccurate, but in suggesting another phone call between the two leaders was possible, was always likely to make headlines. Had the question been submitted in advance, I imagine she would have chosen to respond differently.
Then we come to the fact that the following day, Reuters had an interview lined up with President Donald Trump. Put on the spot, Trump understandably prioritized his ties with the Chinese president, whose support he needs in his efforts to quell the growing threat to the region, and indeed America, from North Korea.
By beginning his answer to the question about whether another call with Tsai Ing-wen was possible with the phrase “Look, my problem is…” Trump made it evident that he would not be opposed to the idea.
His answer was less diplomatically phrased that Tsai’s (diplomatic phrasing is not one of his strong points), but it was clear he is faced with a number of difficult policy issues regarding US – China relations and Taiwan is just one part of that from his perspective.
It seems to me that, whilst a more positive response from Trump would have been preferred, the answer he gave should not be seen as a flat refusal to speak again and was certainly not an attempt to shut-down the more positive ties between Taiwan and the US that have developed under his administration.
What is not helpful at all, is the seeming rush from some in Taiwan to suggest a Chinese conspiracy in this issue. It is easy to look at the scheduling of the two interviews and suggest that Reuters was deliberately trying to trip up Tsai over the issue and undermine her.
Reuters is a huge global news agency and in organizations of that size, one part doesn’t always know what the other part is doing. The Tsai interview was undertaken by Reuters Asia Bureau and, according to Taiwan’s Foreign Minister, David Lee (李大維), who addressed the matter Monday, they were unaware that the Reuters Washington Bureau had an interview with Trump lined up the following day.
For their part, the Washington Bureau is always going to ask him about relevant recent news stories, especially if they emerged from an exclusive Reuters interview. This is how the news cycle works.
According to David Lee, the Reuters Asia bureau has spoken to senior officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) to express what he described as "regrets and apologies" over the matter which he went on to say, "isn’t that serious."
He is absolutely right. Reuters is an international news agency which is not in the pocket of any national government and whilst people can criticize its content, few every question its impartiality. It has published plenty of articles critical of the Chinese regime before and no doubt will do again.
To imply that there was a conspiracy at play over these interviews is frankly ridiculous and makes those suggesting as much look paranoid and stupid.
If Taiwan wants to be seen as credible player on the international stage it has to be able to rise above such situations and behave in a statesmanlike manner, not descend into accusatory finger pointing. To their credit, the Tsai administration has done just that. The media and commentariat in Taiwan really should be following their lead.
More direct talks between Tsai and Trump would be nice, but is not essential. More important for Taiwan is to secure the arms sales that are badly needed to boost Taiwan’s military capabilities and continuing to build Taiwan’s cultural and trading ties, as well as representation on international bodies.
To do this, the focus of Taiwanese-US relations should be on building links with members of the Trump administration who are known to support Taiwanese interests and those within the Washington political machinery which can make a tangible difference to the relationship.
One opportunity might come in the increasingly tense situation over North Korea. The Trump administration seems keen to resolve the North Korea issue once and for all. They have identified the role China should be playing in this, but China appears reluctant to act against a fellow Communist dictatorship.
This presents an opportunity for Taiwan to offer credible diplomatic and perhaps even military support, whilst at the same time highlighting the ideological links between the regimes in China and North Korea.
Focusing on such areas where tangible benefits can be found is where all of Taiwan’s efforts should be focused right now. Leave the conspiracy theories and media scaremongering to those with nothing better to do.