The Anomaly of Taiwanese Democracy

Why Washington should care about the success of this small island’s democratic experiment.

At a moment when democratic governance seems increasingly under strain in countries around the world, Taiwan is a rare bright spot. Since emerging from decades of martial law in 1987, the island has held seven national elections unmarred by significant irregularities and experienced multiple peaceful transfers of power between the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its principal rival, the Kuomintang (KMT). During that time, Taiwanese politics has proven resilient in grappling with thorny issues such as same sex marriage, the rights of indigenous peoples, and reliance on nuclear power, all of which have been the subject of civil public debate and incorporated into the platforms of political parties. Last month, Taiwan’s democracy successfully conducted what was arguably its most high-stakes election to date, which resulted in a second term for DPP President Tsai Ing-Wen and a renewed majority for the DPP in Taiwan’s legislature.

Taiwan’s democratic resiliency is especially notable in light of the unrelenting hostility it faces from the government of mainland China, which views the island as a renegade province and has warned that any attempt by Taiwanese authorities to declare independence will be met by force. In recent years, Beijing has engaged in a sustained pressure campaign to persuade the Taiwanese public that reunification is the only viable future for them, including information warfare aimed at sowing division in Taiwanese society, selective limitations on trade aimed at weakening the island’s economy, bellicose rhetoric threatening military action, and aggressive diplomatic measures designed to isolate and humiliate Taiwan on the international stage.

In the run up to January’s election, Chinese authorities intensified these efforts in an attempt to dissuade Taiwanese voters from supporting the DPP, which is wary of closer relations with the mainland, in favor of the KMT, which favors them. But these intimidation tactics appear to have backfired by souring public opinion towards Beijing. China also did itself no favors with its response to protests in Hong Kong, which Tsai and her DPP colleagues used as a powerful cautionary tale. Tsai won the largest victory of any presidential candidate in the history of the island. In effect, Taiwan’s voters took stock of Beijing’s warning and responded with a vote of confidence in their democracy and way of life. It was a powerful message, and more than a little brave.

But another crucial factor in Taiwan’s defiance was the United States, which has provided Taiwan’s government with arms and for decades sought to deter Chinese aggression against the island. This has created a degree of reassurance for Taipei in the face of China’s overwhelming military dominance.

U.S. support for Taiwan has its origins in the Cold War. It is guided by a framework developed when China was comparatively weak and the top U.S. foreign policy priority was containing the Soviet Union. Today, however, that rational looks increasingly outdated. The U.S.S.R. is gone, and China has grown more assertive and militarily formidable. It raises the question: how much should Taiwanese democracy matter to Washington?

The answer, in short, is a lot. While Cold-War logic may no longer apply, the United States faces a new threat in the rise of illiberalism. Autocratic states seem increasingly emboldened to tout the virtues of their own political model. Even established democracies are electing parties and politicians who seem intent on tearing down liberal structures. In this climate, the success of Taiwan’s democratic experiment could not be more vital, both to the United States and to the world. It is well worth defending.

Taiwan is an anomaly in the international system. It is a self-governing island with a distinct cultural identity, robust political institutions, a sophisticated military, and a mature, globalized economy. And yet its sovereignty is acknowledged by only 14 countries and a dwindling number of international institutions and major corporations. Taiwan’s 23 million citizens can travel the world on passports issued by Taiwanese authorities and exchange New Taiwanese Dollars for other currencies, but in most cases they will be doing so in countries that do not recognize the government whose name is printed on those documents.

This situation is a function of Taiwan’s complex past and the evolving, often ambivalent views of its residents towards their national identity and their relationship to mainland China. The current government of Taiwan is descended from the authoritarian regime of General Chiang Kai-Shek, the leader of the KMT, and its associated nationalist military forces during the Chinese Civil War. In 1949, Mao Zedong’s Communist forces drove Chiang and the KMT from mainland China to Taiwan. Chiang then imposed martial law and exercised autocratic rule over Taiwan’s inhabitants for the next 38 years. Eventually, the government gradually democratized. In 1996, the island held its first direct presidential elections.

Chiang and other KMT leaders viewed their regime as the legitimate government of mainland China in exile, a belief reflected in the formal name of Taiwan’s government, the Republic of China (ROC). For three decades, most world powers including the United States treated Taiwan’s government on these same terms, allowing Taipei to represent China at the United Nations and other international institutions. The notion that the Taiwan government could represent the historical nation state of China was one of the more strained artifacts of the Cold War, and it collapsed in the 1970s. In 1979, the United States joined most other world powers in derecognizing Tapei.

In recognizing Beijing, however, the U.S. did not abandon Taiwan. Indeed, to a far greater extent than most bilateral relationships, U.S.-Taiwan ties are codified into law. Under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the United States affirms that it will treat “Taiwan’s governing authorities” the same as other foreign countries under U.S. law. The act also provides that the policy of the United States is to foster close commercial and cultural ties with the Taiwanese people and to treat any attempt to settle the question of Taiwan’s international status by non-peaceful means as a “matter of grave concern.” To realize the first of these goals, the TRA established a quasi-embassy in Taipei known as the American Institute in Taiwan. As to the second, the act requires the United States to provide Taiwan with military supplies and services. In addition, the TRA declares that the United States will “maintain the capacity” to defend Taiwan.

When Congress passed the TRA in 1979, the law served an obvious national security purpose: Washington wanted to cement its rapprochement with Beijing in the face of Soviet expansionism, but did not want to appear to be selling out an old friend, nor encourage a Chinese takeover of a strategically important landmass. Furthermore, American military power at the time dwarfed that of China, which had only recently emerged from the political chaos of the cultural revolution, making U.S. assurances credible.

Today, the situation looks quite different. The Soviet Union exists only in history books, and the United States’ relationship with China has evolved from a geopolitical marriage of convenience to a more complex dynamic in which mutual suspicion and resentment are tempered by economic interdependence and the need to cooperate on shared challenges like climate change. Meanwhile, the PRC’s military capabilities have grown in tandem with its economy, making armed conflict with Chinese forces a far more dangerous and costly prospect than it was in the late 1970s. For these reasons, one prominent commentator has called Taiwan “the most dangerous example of American foreign-policy insolvency in the world.”

China’s rise doesn’t mean invading Taiwan would be a cakewalk, however. Most military analysts are of the view that attacking Taiwan would be a huge gamble for Beijing. No degree of military superiority can change the fact that Chinese forces would be attempting the largest amphibious invasion in history, seeking to subdue a hostile population in unforgiving geography, and facing down an enemy that has been preparing for such a contingency for years. In such circumstances, the prospect of U.S. military support to Taiwan’s could persuade cooler heads to prevail in Zhongnanhai.

At the same time, there is good reason to revisit the underlying rationale for the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. Four decades onward, the original considerations motivating the TRA are largely obsolete. The Cold War context of American support to the KMT regime is a distant memory for older Americans, and for younger Americans is an anachronism on par with perestroika or glasnost. After nearly twenty years of exhausting and pointless war in the Middle East and Afghanistan, it’s not wrong to ask whether the American public is ready to involve itself in yet another overseas conflict predicated on strategic reasoning that is largely irrelevant to the major challenges facing the United States today.

If the exigency of the Cold War has faded from view, a new threat to U.S. national interests has taken its place: the rise of authoritarian nationalism. Today, the United States faces an intensifying global competition between democratic and authoritarian values in a way few would have predicted even a decade ago. Dissatisfaction with democracy is at record highs, and illiberal—typically right wing—political movements have risen to power in countries that until recently were viewed as having successfully transitioned away from autocracy, such as Hungary, the Philippines, and Brazil. Alongside this illiberal resurgence, unambiguously authoritarian states including China have become more assertive in promoting their own models.

These trends should not be mistaken for a new Cold War, but nor are they benign. The United States will find it harder to pursue its foreign policy objectives in a world where authoritarian states wield great influence. On a moral level, furthermore, the United States should not passively condone the flourishing of a political model that treats repression and xenophobia as legitimate tools in the pursuit of economic growth and social order.

In meeting the challenge of authoritarian nationalism, the United States’ greatest asset will not be its military strength or even its diplomatic clout. Instead, it will be the vitality of its democratic allies and partners. Illiberal movements have succeeded by portraying democratic governance as a messy, corrupt, and ineffective. Defeating this narrative requires compelling counterexamples of thriving democratic states, especially ones that have chosen democracy in the face of authoritarian pressures. For this reason, Washington should make supporting such states a strategic and moral priority.

One would be hard pressed to imagine a candidate more worthy than Taiwan. Unlike most other East Asian countries, Taiwan has never experienced democratic backsliding in the face of economic slumps or social unrest. Just as remarkably, Taiwan’s political parties have repeatedly demonstrated that they can accept electoral loss without questioning the legitimacy of the political system. The island has a strong record on human rights, a high degree of transparency in its governance, and a well-functioning judicial system that has proven capable of defending civil liberties and the rights of minorities. These accomplishments place Taiwan in stark contrast with mainland China, which under Xi Jinping has sharply curtailed political expression and imprisoned more than a million of its own citizens in concentration camps.

There is, therefore, a strong argument for recentering U.S.-Taiwan ties around shared democratic values to a greater degree than is already the case. Such a recentering would not necessarily entail dramatic practical changes: U.S. officials could continue to sell arms to Taiwan, meet with Taiwanese counterparts in Taipei and Washington, and facilitate cultural and economic exchange between the American and Taiwanese publics. But in justifying and explaining these activities, the United States government should characterize its support to Taiwan as show of solidarity with a fellow democracy and not just a transactional security partnership.

This solidarity could be expressed in official speeches, at diplomatic summits, and new legislation aimed at affirming Taiwan’s democratic character and elevating the profile of U.S.-Taiwan relations. The recently passed Taiwan Travel Act, which makes it easier for high-level Taiwanese officials to visit the United States and vice-versa, is a useful model. The United States could even consider pursuing a trade deal with Taiwan on the logic that democracies with high-quality institutions and strong labor and environmental standards deserve enhanced access to U.S. markets.

Beyond the bilateral relationship, the United States should find ways to strengthen Taiwan’s global position, facilitate its engagement with the international community, and promote its democratic model. This would necessarily involve pushing back on China’s efforts to isolate and embarrass Taiwan on the global stage. Most obviously, the United States should use its outsized influence to arrest and if possible reverse Taiwan’s exclusion from international institutions. In addition, the United States should seek to build platforms for Taiwanese engagement with democratic partners outside of formal institutions. Finally, while there is little that U.S. authorities can do to stop private companies from erasing Taiwan’s sovereignty under pressure from Beijing, there is also nothing stopping them from criticizing the practice, and making such firms pay a public relations price at home in pursuit of the Chinese market.

In May, when Tsai Ing-Wen is sworn in as president for the second time, she will lead Taiwan into four years of great uncertainty. While Beijing has responded to the DPP’s victory with relative restraint thus far, internal pressures within Chinese politics may drive PRC authorities to act recklessly before the 2022 party conference, in which Xi Jinping is seeking an unprecedented third term as the country’s president.

Should Taiwan’s independent government be cowed or snuffed out, it would be a terrible loss for global democracy, one that would send a troubling message to other states struggling with authoritarian encroachment. In weighing its relationship with Taipei, the United States needs to ask itself if it is prepared to live in a world without Taiwan’s democratic counterexample.

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Trevor Sutton

Trevor Sutton is a senior fellow for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress.