Taiwan’s Role in Bolstering Democracy and Civil Society in Asia

Written by Robert S. Wang.

Image credit: 太陽花學運 by Tinru/Flickr, license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The 2017 US National Security Strategy stated starkly that “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region.” In 2018, US Vice President Pence noted that “for a time, Beijing inched toward greater liberty and respect for human rights, but in recent years, it has taken a sharp U-turn toward control and oppression.” Separately, pointing to the “deteriorating” human rights situation in China, the European Commission’s 2019 EU-China Strategic Outlook called China “a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance.” Clearly, the United States and the European Union have both come to the conclusion that China’s increasingly authoritarian and repressive policies are now threatening the fundamental values of the liberal international order which they have championed since WWII. Beijing’s recent staging of military exercises and air force manoeuvres to intimidate peaceful protestors in Hong Kong and Taiwan’s democratically elected government highlight the dangerous risks of this threat. The question now is whether and how the United States and Europe will actually respond to support democracies and promote universal human rights in the face of China’s growing threat to the maintenance of these values around the world.

As I see it, the United States and EU governments need to respond urgently and strongly at this time if they are to show that they truly intend to defend the values of the liberal international order. They should start by working with human rights NGOs to document and publicise even more widely China’s gross human rights violations. The aim here is to raise public awareness and highlight deteriorating human rights conditions under China’s increasingly repressive authoritarian regime for the world, including Chinese people at home and abroad, to see. For instance, the mass detention of over a million Muslims in “re-education camps” should not only be of concern to Muslim communities but also to all peoples, particularly to ethnic and religious minorities in other countries. Notwithstanding Beijing’s retaliatory measures, senior US and European officials also need to speak out publicly against Beijing’s increasingly repressive measures at home, as well as express support for democracies and the individual rights and freedoms of people around the world, including in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Apart from the above, the United States and European countries should take concrete action to bolster democracies and promote universal human rights values. One of the most effective ways to do this, for example, is to respond directly to China’s threat against Taiwan and its democracy by expanding broad and multi-faceted ties with Taiwan to enable it to resist Beijing’s military intimidation and efforts to isolate Taiwan from the global community. The United States recently demonstrated again its commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act by moving ahead with the sale of F-16Vs to Taiwan. Beyond this, the United States and the EU should proceed as quickly as possible to negotiate bilateral trade and investments agreements with Taiwan to expand economic ties as well as to bolster Taiwan’s strategic position in the region.

At the same time, the United States and the EU should significantly expand support for their NGOs and non-profit institutions, such as the US National Endowment for Democracy, to encourage and enable them to engage more actively with Taiwan’s NGO community. Over the years, I have witnessed the impressive growth of Taiwan’s grassroots civil society which essentially is the foundation underlying Taiwan’s remarkable transition to democracy. To sustain this still relatively young democracy, especially under mounting pressure from Beijing – including the use of money and influence operations – more must be done to strengthen civil society in Taiwan. This is where experienced NGOs from advanced democracies can play a critical role by working with their Taiwanese counterparts on various civil society projects that will buttress Taiwan’s democracy. Such cooperation would also help to expand Taiwan’s international space and strengthen its ties with other democracies around the world.

Finally, an expanded international NGO presence in Taiwan can serve not only to strengthen Taiwan’s own democracy and civil society but also to facilitate the growth of NGOs and civil societies more broadly in the region, particularly in Southeast Asia. In 2016, partly as a means of limiting Taiwan’s dependence on China, the current Taiwan administration launched a New Southbound Policy to expand its economic, social and people-to-people ties with countries in South and Southeast Asia. In this connection, the administration had also supported a proposal to establish an NGO centre that could be used by Taiwan and international NGOs to train and cooperate with NGOs across the region. If this proposal is eventually adopted and implemented, US and European NGOs would use Taiwan as a platform to promote the growth of civil societies and democracies, especially among developing countries in the region. As such, Taiwan can serve not only as a model but also play a key role in fostering the growth of democracies in Asia.

Robert S. Wang is a Senior Associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service (SFS). He was a career Foreign Service Officer in the U.S. Department of State from 1984-2016.

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