John Oliver dissects Taiwan tensions: ‘Deeply weird, ambiguous status quo’

John Oliver examined the confusing diplomatic status of Taiwan on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight, amid escalating threats from China, which insists the independent, democratically led island 100 miles off the mainland is not a separate country.

“Here is an understatement: the Chinese government feels strongly about this,” Oliver explained. So strongly, in fact, that after actor John Cena said, “Taiwan is the first country that can watch F9” during press for the Fast and the Furious franchise earlier this year, he released a video apology to all of China, in Mandarin. “Every part of that is so weird,” said Oliver. “It’s weird John Cena apologized to China, it’s weird he did it for calling Taiwan a country, and it’s weird to see him do it in pretty decent Mandarin.”

Cena is not the only one – Paramount recently edited a Taiwanese flag off the jacket of Tom Cruise’s character in the new Top Gun movie, and the Gap retracted a T-shirt that featured a map of China without the island.

The mental gymnastics and trepidation led Oliver to wonder: how did we get here, and what does Taiwan want for itself?

“Historically, Taiwan has been like the Stanley Cup of Asian history in that different people keep passing it around and carving their names on it, he explained, summing up the island’s last 400 years very briefly: indigenous people lived on Taiwan, formerly known as Formosa; it was colonized by the Dutch, then the Spanish, then controlled by China, who ceded it to Japan in 1895. After the second world war, the Allies put Taiwan back under Chinese control. It was ruled by the Nationalist party, who fled there under Chiang Kai-shek after the Communist party’s victory in the Chinese civil war.

From the 1970s onwards, “against the odds, Taiwan shifted from the dictatorship to a functioning, vibrant democracy – and I do mean vibrant,” Oliver said, cutting to clips of brawls in the Taiwanese parliament – throwing water balloons at each other, hurling pig guts during a debate over pork imports, and an all-out fight over an infrastructure development plan.

Taiwan is also a major player in the global supply chain – the fastest-growing economy in Asia last year, and a leading manufacturer of semi-conductors, used in everything from cars to sex toys. “So the next time that you fire up a butt plug that has 100,000 times more computing power than the Apollo moon mission? Make sure you say ‘thanks, Taiwan!’” Oliver joked.

Still, owing to pressure from China, “even huge international organizations like the WHO are forced to play this ridiculous game of freezing out Taiwan from full participation.” The vast majority of world governments have no official diplomatic relations with Taiwan – today, only 14 countries and the Vatican officially recognize it as an independent country.

The US has maintained a tense strategy of “strategic ambiguity”, which allows for a functional relationship with Taiwan while still maintaining formal diplomatic channels with China.

“We ‘acknowledged’ China’s claim [to Taiwan] but didn’t ‘agree’ with it, leaving Taiwan’s status as ‘undetermined’,” Oliver translated. “You know, like Schrödinger’s cat, or the Scientology version: Miscavige’s wife. They could be one thing, or the other thing, and no one knows for sure.

“I know that this policy can occasionally seem ridiculous, but the uncertainty is kind of the point,” he continued. Case in point: the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, in which the US committed to assist Taiwan in maintaining its self-defense capability, but stopped short of promising to defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion. Instead, “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means” would be of “grave concern” to the US.

“What does that even mean?” Oliver wondered. “Does it mean the US would deploy military assets? Or just that a US general would slightly raise an eyebrow? 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.”

What does Taiwan want for itself? “Even that is not easy to answer,” said Oliver, in part due to a mix of cultures and traditions on the island. But the vast majority of Taiwanese people favor maintaining some version of the status quo for now.

Explicitly formalizing independence, however righteous, would be incendiary and impractical. “It’s like meeting your partner’s parents for the first time and saying, ‘hello, I regularly fuck your offspring,’” Oliver said. “Yeah, everyone was aware of that, but now that you’ve officially declared it, things are going to get much more difficult for everyone involved here.

“I know ambiguity is inherently frustrating, especially for Americans who might look at a place like Taiwan, which looks and acts like a country, and feel that it is weird and farcical to not acknowledge it as one. But from a practical standpoint: would that be better?” he added.

“Could it be that maintaining the current deeply weird, ambiguous status quo is actually the best option here? I don’t know – I’m not Taiwanese, and frankly, people who aren’t Taiwanese making decisions for Taiwan is a bit fucking played out historically.”

Oliver called on western audiences to look past seeing Taiwan as a “poker chip in a never-ending game of us versus them” and instead as “23 million people who, in the face of considerable odds, have built a free, democratic society and very much deserve the right to decide their own future in any way that they deem fit.”

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