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‘Troublemaker’ and ‘Pawn’: US-related Narratives Amid Taiwan’s Presidential Election

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‘Troublemaker’ and ‘Pawn’: US-related Narratives Amid Taiwan’s Presidential Election

Tropes attacking Taiwanese politicians for supposedly being alienated from – or being too close to – the U.S. have been common for decades. This election cycle is no exception.

‘Troublemaker’ and ‘Pawn’: US-related Narratives Amid Taiwan’s Presidential Election

Taiwan’s Vice President William Lai, who is also the DPP’s presidential candidate, during a welcome event in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Aug. 16, 2023.

Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

As Taiwan’s presidential election draws nearer, national-level issues like Taiwan’s relationship with the United States, its most important ally, come to the forefront of public discourse. Candidates are examined based on their foreign policy platforms, but there is a proliferation of narratives and even disinformation about the bilateral relationship within Taiwanese society aimed at influencing voters’ decisions. Some attack candidates as incapable of handling the intricate interactions with the United States or winning Washington’s trust. Others may suggest that the U.S. is not a reliable partner, and a candidate seen as overly “pro-America” may not necessarily serve Taiwan’s best national interests in the long run.

Similar debates occur in many other countries, and it is no news that China’s propaganda apparatus intends to influence Taiwanese voters’ perception of the United States in Beijing’s favor. Within Taiwan, political parties, politicians, and media can inadvertently contribute to this campaign by replicating and disseminating these narratives. 

Today, China poses an existential threat to Taiwan and presents pacing challenges to U.S. supremacy. Therefore, Taiwan’s experience in countering narratives that could harm the Taiwan-U.S. relationship is worth attention from other democracies facing similar challenges.

Narratives in the Past

Since Taiwan’s first presidential election in 1996, narratives like the “troublemaker” and the “pawn” have been commonplace during campaigns. The troublemaker narrative typically characterizes Taiwanese politicians or political parties as provoking regional instability due to their advocacy for Taiwan’s formal independence. It can be traced back to Chinese propaganda against Lee Teng-hui, the first elected president of the Kuomintang (KMT). 

With a shared agenda of opposing Taiwan independence, both the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tend to label candidates from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has Taiwan independence in its party platform, as “troublemakers” during elections.

The troublemaker narrative may gain credibility whenever U.S. officials reiterate their longstanding policy of not supporting Taiwan independence or push back Taiwan’s attempts to achieve this goal. For example, there were rumors that former U.S. President George W. Bush called his Taiwanese counterpart, DPP’s Chen Shui-bian, a troublemaker when meeting then-CCP leader Hu Jintao. Ma Ying-jeou, Chen’s successor from the KMT, vowed that he and his party would not be “troublemakers” and would not alter the cross-strait status quo to reassure the international community.

The pawn narrative, on the other hand, suggests that the United States uses Taiwan as a tool to advance its grand strategy of constraining China. Implicit in this narrative is the idea that the U.S. would not hesitate to provoke China with activities like arms sales to Taiwan or symbolic gestures signaling Taiwan’s independent status. Meanwhile, it implies that the U.S. would not risk its troops’ lives to intervene in any cross-strait conflict it incites. 

This narrative may invoke Taiwanese skepticism of Washington’s commitment to the defense of Taiwan, which was “abandoned” by the United States after the termination of formal diplomatic ties in 1979. Despite the remarkable improvement of Taiwan-U.S. relations in recent years, Taiwanese politicians still worry that Taiwan could be regarded as a U.S. “pawn,” a “bargaining chip” in China-U.S. relations, or a “product on a shelf.”

These narratives have their variations or spin-offs. For example, the troublemaker narrative can be reframed as “U.S. concern” regarding certain Taiwanese politicians whose policies may raise eyebrows in Washington. Taiwan’s current president, Tsai Ing-wen, became a target of this narrative in her first unsuccessful presidential bid in 2012 after the Financial Times reported an anonymous U.S. official’s concern about her willingness and ability to maintain cross-strait stability. 

The pawn narrative can also have a variant as Taiwan’s “reliance on America.” It is a recurring theme in Chinese propaganda, which accuses the DPP administration of pursuing independence through collaborating with the United States. This narrative often appears alongside the idea of the U.S. “constraining China,” insinuating the symbiosis of the two strategies. It tends to surface when the United States adopts measures to enhance Taiwan’s international standing or defense capabilities, or when the Taiwanese government makes efforts to strengthen its relationship with Washington.

In addition to the two major narratives and their spin-offs, there are minor narratives that are occasionally raised. The “China-U.S. co-management” narrative implies that Washington and Beijing have a tacit agreement to jointly manage the Taiwan question to prevent escalation. The object to be “managed,” in this context, can be Taiwan, the situation in the Taiwan Strait, or Taiwan independence. For example, in a 2005 summit with Bush, Hu Jintao expressed his hope for cooperative efforts between China and the U.S. to oppose Taiwan independence. 

The “U.S. pressure for cross-strait negotiations” narrative suggests that Washington., in an effort to achieve lasting peace in the Taiwan Strait, may push Taipei to engage in political negotiations with Beijing, even if such negotiations lead to Taiwan’s further integration into China. Despite former President Ronald Reagan’s “Six Assurances” that the U.S. “will not play a mediation role between Taipei and Beijing,” proposals like Kenneth Lieberthal’s “interim agreement” and Joseph Nye’s “Taiwan Deal” recommend a more active role for Washington in facilitating the peaceful settlement of cross-strait disputes. 

Finally, the “U.S. interference in Taiwan’s elections” narrative alludes to U.S. government actions like “interviewing” or even “taking sides” among Taiwanese presidential candidates to promote policies benefiting the U.S. national interests.

Narratives in the 2024 Election

Many of these narratives have resurfaced during this year’s presidential election campaign with some transformation. 

“Lai skepticism,” a variant of the troublemaker narrative, implies that William Lai, Taiwan’s vice president and the DPP’s presidential candidate, lacks Washington’s trust due to his support for Taiwan independence. This narrative was reinforced by two Financial Times reports in January and July, in which scholars and anonymous U.S. officials expressed concerns about Lai’s potential for provoking Beijing.

According to research by the Taiwan Information Environment Research Center (IORG), the troublemaker narrative gained traction online when Lai skepticism emerged from January to September 2023. The publication of the two Financial Times reports in January and July, and Lai’s transit visits to the U.S. in August, are three periods when both the “troublemaker” and “Lai skepticism” narratives went viral. His low-profile transit in the U.S. was interpreted as a signal of Washington‘s doubt, which supposedly led to a deliberate reduction of Lai’s publicity. Meanwhile, the KMT’s presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih was often depicted as a figure who could make the U.S. feel more “relieved” with his platform advocating for increasing cross-strait dialogues and interactions. 

Unlike the troublemaker narrative, which is more specific to individual politicians, the pawn narrative often targets Taiwan as a whole and can be raised during and off election season. From April 2021 to September 2023, the troublemaker narrative only went viral when then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022, before reemerging in 2023 as noted above. In contrast, the pawn narrative was consistently mentioned throughout the period and focused less on the specific presidential candidates. 

For example, the “destruction of Taiwan” theory, a variant of the pawn narrative, was brought up in May when U.S. Congressman Seth Moulton’s remarks were twisted to suggest that the U.S. intended to “blow up” TSMC facilities in Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. The “abandoning Taiwan” theory also gained attention in June with a rumor about the U.S. review of its citizen evacuation policy for Taiwan.

The pawn narrative can be utilized against the DPP administration and politicians often through its spin-offs like the “reliance on America” and “seeking foreign support” narrative. They have been mentioned in events like Tsai’s meeting with former U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in April, former Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu’s criticism of the DPP administration as “seeking independence with foreign support” in June, and Lai’s transit in the U.S. in August. 

Lastly, some narratives emerged when U.S. officials made related comments. When U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited China in June, his comment about Taiwan as an issue “that we’ve actually managed responsibly” was interpreted as his intention to pursue “China-U.S. co-management.” U.S. envoy to Taiwan Sandra Oudkirk’s support for cross-strait dialogue was cited by Taiwanese pundits as a sign of U.S. concern about rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait and pressure on Lai to engage with Beijing. Laura Rosenberger, a senior U.S. diplomat on Taiwan affairs, was viewed by Taiwanese commentators as an “interviewer” when she met with presidential candidates during her trip to Taiwan in June.


Many of these narratives, like all disinformation or conspiracy theories, may contain elements of partial truth but they are problematic because they rely on speculation, opinion, or rumors. U.S. officials have reiterated their position that the U.S. government will not “take sides” in Taiwan’s elections, and none of them endorses the narratives mentioned above. While some of these narratives like “troublemaker,” “pawn,” or “U.S.-China co-management” accusations, may surface in discussions within the U.S. policy circle and may even find support from scholars or former officials, they are not formulated as official U.S. policies. Exaggerating the significance of these narratives in Washington’s political agenda can be rather misleading.

Some of these narratives politicize foreign affairs to attack specific political parties and politicians for political gain. To that end, the personal viewpoints of individual experts are sometimes portrayed as authoritative sources suggestive of the U.S. government’s preferences. 

For instance, former U.S. envoy to Taiwan Douglas Paal criticized Tsai for having “no desire to reach cross-strait agreements” in a TV interview days before the 2012 presidential election. He later rejected the claim that his commentary impacted the outcome of the vote. In December, Bonnie Glaser, a noted U.S. expert on Taiwan, denied endorsing Hou Yu-ih after shared a photo with her on social media and reposted her co-authored article proposing the DPP remove its “Taiwan independence” platform.

Politics ideally stops at the water’s edge, and that should be more so when it comes to Taiwan’s relationship with Washington. The United States plays a pivotal role in ensuring Taiwan’s security and prosperity, and all three presidential candidates claim to have a pro-America stance. The politicization of such a crucial issue, fraught with problematic narratives, is counterproductive. It can hinder the development of a healthy bilateral relationship, erode Taiwanese people’s confidence in their allies, and ultimately undermine Taiwan’s long-term national interests. 

No matter how intense election campaigning has become, politicians, experts, and opinion leaders should exercise prudence in their comments, especially on matters not only decisive to the vote but also influential to people’s perception of the U.S. in the longer term.