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Taiwanese Digital Minister Audrey Tang’s video feed during the democracy summit was pulled by White House officials, sources say. Photo: Handout

Taiwanese minister’s map disappears during US democracy summit

  • Sources detail ‘email flurry’ among US officials over different colours for Taiwan and Chinese mainland in video presentation
  • The map appeared for about a minute before Digital Minister Audrey Tang’s video feed was cut and replaced with audio only
A slide show by a Taiwanese minister caused consternation among US officials during President Joe Biden’s democracy summit on Friday, when it included a map showing the self-ruled island in a different colour to the Chinese mainland.

Taiwanese Digital Minister Audrey Tang’s video feed was cut during a panel discussion on “countering digital authoritarianism” and replaced with audio only, at the behest of the White House, according to sources familiar with the matter.

The White House offered no formal comment but the State Department said “confusion” over screen-sharing resulted in Tang’s video feed being dropped, calling it an “honest mistake”.

The sources, who asked not to be identified because of the issue’s sensitivity, said the White House was concerned that differentiating between Taiwan and China on a map during a US-hosted conference could be seen to be at odds with Washington’s one-China policy.

Beijing regards the island as part of its territory, to be returned by force if necessary. The long-standing one-China policy avoids taking a position on the issue.

Tang’s presentation included a colour-coded map from South African NGO Civicus, ranking the world by openness on civil rights.

Most of Asia was shown, with Taiwan coloured green, making it the only regional entity portrayed as “open,” while all the others – including several US allies and partners – were labelled as “closed,” “repressed,” “obstructed” or “narrowed”.

China, Laos, Vietnam and North Korea were coloured red and labelled “closed”.


‘One China’ explained

‘One China’ explained

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.”

An on-screen disclaimer later 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.”

One source said the map generated an instant email flurry among US officials and the White House National Security Council angrily contacted the State Department, concerned it appeared to show Taiwan as a distinct country.

Washington complained to Taiwan’s government, which in turn was angry that Tang’s video had been cut.

At democracy summit, a move to confront repressive nations’ ‘misuse’ of tech

The source called the US move an overreaction as the map was not inherently about national boundaries, but the NSC was also angry as the slide had not appeared in “dry-run” versions of the presentation before the summit, raising questions as to whether there was intentional messaging by Tang and Taiwan.

“They choked,” the source said of the White House reaction.

A second source directly involved in the summit said the video booth operator acted on White House instructions. “It was clearly policy concerns,” the source said, adding “this was completely an internal overreaction”.

The sources saw the move as at odds with the summit’s mission of bolstering democracy in the face of challenges from China and others. They also said it could signal the administration’s support for Taiwan was not as “rock solid” as it 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.

Taiwan’s foreign ministry blamed “technical problems”. Asked whether she believed the US government had cut the video because of the slide, Tang said: “No, I do not believe this has anything to do with the Civicus map in my slides, or US allies in Asia for that matter.”

The issue comes at a highly sensitive time for US-Taiwan relations, when some Biden administration critics and foreign policy experts are calling for more overt shows of support for the island, including an end to a long-held policy of “strategic ambiguity” as to whether the US would defend it militarily.

Taiwan experts said they did not see the colour-coding of the map as a violation of unofficial US guidelines, which bar use of overt symbols of sovereignty, such as Taiwan’s flag.

Fresh uncertainty over US ‘strategic ambiguity’ policy on Taiwan

“It was clearly not to distinguish sovereignty, but the degree of democratic expression,” said Douglas Paal, a former unofficial US ambassador to Taiwan.

Bonnie Glaser, of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, doubted there was a reference in US guidelines on using different colours for China and Taiwan on a map, “but that would be consistent with the idea of not endorsing a position on whether Taiwan is part of China”.

“It seems to me that a decision was made at the outset that Taiwan could/should be included in the Summit for Democracy, but only in ways consistent with US policy.”