February 27, 2019 5:22PM

Media Misses: Worrisome International Flashpoints

It is no secret that Americans tend to focus more on domestic news stories than on the coverage of international affairs.  Media priorities also reflect the perception that, unless the United States is about to enter a major war or is already mired in one, readers and viewers care primarily about issues at home. Unfortunately, that situation can cause Americans to be blindsided by dangerous overseas developments.  

While recent coverage has focused on such issues as the fight over President Trump’s border wall and Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee, two worrisome foreign crises are brewing.  One is a clash between Pakistani and Indian warplanes that led to the loss of two Indian aircraft, and the capture of one pilot.  It was the most serious military incident between the two countries since their full-scale war in 1971.  The escalation of tensions involving two nuclear-armed powers is—or at least should be—a matter of grave concern to the entire world.

Yet most American media outlets seem to be paying, at most, modest attention.  For example, the top five items in the February 27 “Post Most”—the Washington’s Post daily summary of the most popular and important articles in its pages—were about Cohen’s impending testimony.  The armed clash between India and Pakistan was only the sixth item listed.  Such treatment suggests questionable priorities by both the Post’s editors and readers.

The other international flashpoint is the alarming deterioration of relations between Taiwan and Mainland China.  As I discuss in a new article in China-U.S. Focus, that situation has been worsening for the past two years.  The latest incident is an effort by Taiwanese hardliners under the banner of the Formosa Alliance to push President Tsai Ing-wen’s government to hold a referendum on formal independence.  Chinese leaders have made it clear on several occasions that any move toward the goal of independence is unacceptable and would cross a clear red line.  Even some long-time pro-Taiwan partisans are cautioning Tsai not to go down that path.

Zealous pro-independence activists are risking a catastrophe. Although it is increasingly uncertain whether the status quo of Taiwan’s de facto independence can be sustained over the long-term, prudent political actors would at least try to perpetuate that situation as long as possible. Taiwan enjoys a wide range of benefits from its current status, despite the frustration of not having official international recognition from more than a handful of countries—all of them small.  The Taiwanese people have built an economic powerhouse, and the island is a robust liberal democracy.  A referendum on formal independence, in defiance of Beijing’s warnings, would put all of those benefits in danger.

As bad as a major fight between India and Pakistan would be, there is one important difference between that scenario and a war between China and Taiwan.  The United States has no direct risk exposure to an India-Pakistan conflict.  However, Washington does have an implied commitment to defend Taiwan.  Even the language of the Taiwan Relations Act, which Congress passed when Jimmy Carter’s administration decided to switch diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, suggests that the United States would not stand by idly if the Chinese government sought to coerce the island.  And U.S. officials since the passage of the TRA have repeatedly implied—or even stated outright—that there is a security commitment to Taiwan.

At the very least, both the news media and the general public need to pay more attention to such serious international developments.  It is easy to become mesmerized by domestic policy disputes and emotional politics, but some foreign crises can have a major adverse impact on this country.  The alarming events in South Asia and the Taiwan Strait should be on every American’s radar.