The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Taiwan thanks NBA star Kanter for support as Australia pledges to help U.S. in island’s defense

Boston Celtics star Enes Kanter has become a public critic of Chinese authoritarianism. (Maddie Meyer/Photographer: Maddie Meyer/Getty)
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SEOUL — Taiwan’s November of intense public diplomacy continued Saturday, with its leader thanking Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter for his widely publicized backing of the self-governing island, shortly after Australia’s defense minister said it was “inconceivable” that Canberra would not aid Washington in a potential defense of Taiwan.

Kanter recently made headlines for videos criticizing Chinese President Xi Jinping, in which he voiced support for ethnic minorities under Beijing’s repressive rule and for the beleaguered pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. And on Saturday, he released a clip in which he said that “Taiwan is not part of China.”

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said in a video response that she appreciated the basketball star’s advocacy and pledged to “always defend our hard-earned freedom and democracy.” She also noted that Taiwan had many fans of the sport, in a seeming allusion to Kanter’s attack on Nike for being relatively silent on human rights issues in China, which is a key market for the sportswear giant.

Nike has said it does not obtain products or supplies from Xinjiang, the Chinese region where there has been a brutal state-sponsored campaign of repression against the Uyghur minority.

Taiwan’s heightened effort to promote its democratic status is an attempt to raise its profile as an entity distinct from China, which claims the island as part of its sovereign territory, said Ja Ian Chong, an Asia security expert at the National University of Singapore. “So much of the outward push by Beijing is to diminish Taiwan’s status [but] people are more aware now that it is different.”

Many members of Tsai’s governing Democratic Progressive Party explicitly support Taiwanese independence, although the president has staked out a more moderate position. China has promised to “smash” Taiwan in the event of a formal declaration of independence.

Beijing has reacted harshly to criticism of its policies involving Taiwan and Hong Kong; it considers the territories and matters relating to them to be among its many “red lines.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry previously dismissed Kanter’s past comments on Tibet as “clout chasing” and said that they were not worth rebutting — even as the Celtics were removed from NBA broadcasts inside the country.

Beijing views self-governing Taiwan as its territory, although the communist regime has never controlled the island. Beijing’s Nationalist rivals fled to Taiwan, which is separated from China by about 100 miles of water, after losing a long and bloody civil war in 1949. The island developed into a vibrant democracy after decades of authoritarian Nationalist rule, but China has increasingly threatened Taipei, with record numbers of Chinese warplanes flying near Taiwan in recent weeks.

The United States severed formal diplomatic ties with the Republic of China, Taiwan’s official name, in 1979, to set up relations with the People’s Republic of China. Washington is bound by legislation to help Taiwan defend itself, including through arms sales, but the Taiwan Relations Act does not specifically say the United States must support the island in case of war.

President Biden has vowed to defend the island from potential Chinese incursion, a promise that was an apparent contradiction of longtime U.S. strategic ambiguity. The White House later clarified that U.S. policy had not changed.

Biden delivered straight talk on Taiwan — contradicting a deliberately ambiguous U.S. policy. Did he misspeak?

In an interview published late Friday, Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton said it “would be inconceivable that we wouldn’t support the US in an action if the US chose” to militarily defend Taiwan.

“I think we should … look at all of the facts and circumstances without pre-committing, and maybe there are circumstances where we wouldn’t take up that option, [but] I can’t conceive of those circumstances,” Dutton, a leader of the conservative Liberal Party’s right wing, told the newspaper the Australian.

Canberra has a defense alliance with Washington, and Australia recently signed a landmark nuclear submarine pact with Britain and the United States that was widely seen as targeted at China. Australia’s relations with China have significantly worsened in recent years.

The minister’s statement “underscores what many have taken for granted,” said Chong, the Singapore professor. Dutton did not specify the nature of potential Australian assistance, but Chong suggested that recent “pressure and punishment” by Beijing could push Canberra to be more active.

Dutton’s pledge came several months after a senior Japanese defense official said that Tokyo had “to protect ... Taiwan as a democratic country.” The United States and Japan also have a long-standing defense alliance.

Taiwan welcomed a delegation of U.S. lawmakers this week, drawing a sharp rebuke from Beijing. Members of the European Parliament, led by prominent Beijing critic Raphaël Glucksmann, also visited the island this month.