A Taiwanese minister speaking at the virtual US-led Summit for Democracy last week had her video feed cut off after a map she presented showed Taiwan in a different colour to China, which claims sovereignty over the self-governing island.
The slide show on Friday by Taiwanese Digital Minister Audrey Tang alarmed US officials, according to sources who told Reuters that the video was replaced by an audio-only feed at the White House’s request.
President Joe Biden’s administration was concerned that the map would contradict Washington’s “one-China” policy, which avoids taking a position as to whether Taiwan is part of China, the sources said.
The incident highlighted the difficult position of the US regarding its unofficial relations with Taiwan, after it had invited the island to participate in the summit as a show of support against increasing diplomatic and military pressure from China.
The US has maintained the “one-China” policy since switching its recognition to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1979.
The US State Department defended the video feed’s abrupt disappearance as an “honest mistake” due to confusion over screen sharing by the moderators.
“We valued Minister Tang’s participation, which showcased Taiwan’s world-class expertise on issues of transparent governance, human rights, and countering disinformation,” a spokesperson said.
Tang’s presentation included a color-coded map from South African NGO CIVICUS, ranking the world by openness on civil rights.
Most of Asia was shown, with Taiwan colored green, making it the only regional entity portrayed as “open,” while all the others, including several US allies and partners, were labeled as being “closed,” “repressed,” “obstructed” or “narrowed.”
China, Laos, Vietnam and North Korea were colored red and labeled “closed.”
When the moderator returned to Tang a few minutes later, there was no video of her, just audio, and a screenshot captioned: “Minister Audrey Tang Taiwan.”
Later, an onscreen disclaimer declared: “Any opinions expressed by individuals on this panel are those of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States government.”
The incident, according to Reuters, triggered a flurry of email exchanges between US officials. Sources said that officials at the National Security Council (NSC) expressed their anger to the State Department at the possibility that Taiwan might have been represented as a distinct state at a conference organised by the US government.
Washington complained about the presentation to Taipei, which in turn was angry that Tang’s video had been cut.
Sources confirmed that one of the reasons for the US’s sharp reaction was the absence of the map in the “dry-run” revisions of slides before the summit, raising questions as to whether there was intentional messaging by Tang and Taiwan.
Analysts say that the US is concerned over the possible impact of the incident, as officials are working to build on the November summit between Mr Biden and Chinese Leader Xi Jinping. Their main aim is to improve communication between each other after months of constant escalation over Taiwan, trade, China’s nuclear arsenal and human rights issues.
Sources said the incident could signal that US support for Taiwan may not be as “rock solid” as Washington has repeatedly stated.
An NSC spokesman said Reuters’ account of the incident was “inaccurate”.
“At no time did the White House direct that Minister Tang’s video feed be cut,” the spokesman said in an email, also blaming it on confusion over screen-sharing and adding that the full video could be viewed on the summit web page.
Asked whether she believed the US government cut the video due to the slide, Tang told Reuters in an email: “No, I do not believe that this has anything to do with the CIVICUS map in my slides, or US allies in Asia for that matter.”
Taiwan’s foreign ministry blamed “technical problems” for the incident and reaffirmed its strong relationship with the US.
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