Speed Reads


John Oliver explains America's 'deeply weird,' weirdly practical strategic ambiguity on Taiwan and China

Taiwan is "in the news these days … because of its relationship with China, which, to put it mildly, is fraught — and recently it's getting even fraughter," John Oliver said on Sunday's Last Week Tonight. Basically, "China insists that Taiwan — an independently operating entity with its own democratically elected leaders, armed forces, and constitution — is actually part of China, and in no way a separate country. Here's an understatement: The Chinese government feels strongly about this."

"Taiwan is such a third-rail for China," U.S. companies and movie stars keep apologizing to Beijing, Oliver demonstrated. "So if China is getting T-shirt retractions from The Gap, loudly vowing to reunify with Taiwan, and sending stacks of warplanes toward it in record-breaking numbers, it feels like tonight it would be worth taking a look at Taiwan — how it got to be in the unique position that it's in, what the world wants from it, and most importantly, what it wants for itself." 

Oliver started with "a ludicrously brief history of the last 400 years" in Taiwan, improbably leading to "where we are right now, with Taiwan established as a highly developed and wealthy country — and yet, no one is allowed to call it one." Only 14 countries and the Vatican recognized Taiwan as a country, he said, while the U.S. has "spent the last half-century walking a diplomatic tightrope with a policy known as 'strategic ambiguity,'" where "uncertainty is kind of the point, especially when it comes to defense."

Would the U.S. defend Taiwan in a Chinese invasion? "No one really knows," Oliver said. "It is a willfully confusing, will-they-or-won't-they dance that for 40 years has been the backbone of U.S.-Taiwan policy." The world doesn't seem to have any better ideas, but Americans in particular "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," he said. "But from a practical standpoint, would that be better? And is that even what the people of Taiwan want? Could it be that maintaining the current deeply weird, ambiguous status quo is actually the best option here?" Beijing won't like Oliver's conclusion. (There is NSFW language peppered throughout.)

If geopolitics and history aren't your things, Last Week Tonight helped create a local car dealership ad, and aired it last week. Watch below.