Written by J. Michael Cole.
Image credit: Secretary Blinken Participates in a Virtual Discussion With Young Democratic Leaders From Around the World by U.S. Department of State/Wikimedia Commons, license: Public Domain
Taiwan was among the more than 100 countries invited by the U.S. to participate in President Joe Biden’s “Summit for Democracies” held on December 9-10. Minister without portfolio and Taiwan’s “digital minister,” Audrey Tang, as well as Taiwan’s representative to the U.S., Hsiao Bi-khim, represented Taiwan at the Summit.
For months leading up to the announcement, there was speculation as to whether Taiwan, a democracy of 23.5 million people, would be among the official participants at the Summit, held virtually due to the Covid 19 pandemic and serving as a first step ahead of the in-person gathering next year.
The decision to allow Taiwan to join the event was undoubtedly the right one. The Summit occurs in a time of resurgent authoritarianism, spearheaded by China and Russia, and democratic backsliding in many parts of the world. It also takes place amid a crisis in confidence among some of the world’s leading democracies, where political polarization, disinformation, and illiberal tendencies have threatened the functioning of democracy as the ideal form of governance to meet the challenges of the 21st century. In recognition of this, addressing the domestic challenges facing democracy, from transparency to combating corruption, is part of a series of commitments that states which have been invited to this year’s Summit must demonstrably abide by as a condition for participating in next year’s Summit. Those are tasks that the Taiwanese government, working with non-governmental organizations, has agreed to pursue. Therefore, inclusion into the Summit participants is not a free pass: it comes with tangible commitments and goals that must be attained.
The inclusion of Taiwan among the participating countries at the Summit served both as recognition of its accomplishments in democratization and a reaffirmation of the role that this thriving democracy can play within the community of nations. It sent a strong signal that, in the crisis of our time, the world cannot afford to exclude the democracies that, when working in concert, can come up with the solutions to some of the most intractable of challenges facing us. It also underscored how views on Taiwan and China have shifted, and that abiding to one’s “one China” policy no longer need to serve as an impediment to Taiwan’s inclusion in such international fora, Beijing’s anger notwithstanding. It is not difficult to imagine that, just a decade ago, Taiwan would likely have been left out in the cold as the world’s other democracies assembled for such a Summit.
Among the many reasons why it made perfect sense for Taiwan to be included in the Summit—which also includes a series of off-the-record consultations and side events—are the examples it set in striking a balance between the uses of artificial intelligence and other technologies while protecting personal privacy in the battle against Covid 19. Besides the more technical aspects of this success, Taiwan has also demonstrated how public trust in government, the confidence that the authorities will not abuse such intrusions during a crisis, is a critical variable in the successful marriage of technology and human rights. How Taiwan got to that point is one of the lessons it can share with other democracies that have struggled in this area.
The Summit is also part of an effort to develop a collective strategy to counter efforts by countries like China and Russia to upend the liberal democratic world order and, through “sharp power,” to use our very institutions against us. Here again, as a neighbour to what is arguably modern history’s most powerful authoritarian party-state, Taiwan has a wealth of knowledge to share with its partners worldwide. Its resilience in the face of multifaceted coercion from China, and yet its continued ability to entertain vibrant commercial ties with Beijing, can enlighten countries worldwide that currently struggle to find a proper balance between economic imperatives with the world’s second-largest economy while retaining their sovereign right to make their own political decisions.
Taiwan’s participation at the Summit adds resilience and logic to President Biden’s fledgling concert of democracies. It also adds to Taiwan’s deterrence against Beijing’s annexationist designs by further incorporating Taiwan into the grouping of democratic nations that are now striving to push back against authoritarian expansionism. It is a recognition that Taiwan, as a front-line state in this emerging clash of ideologies—a new “cold war” of sorts—is key to the future of civilization. It is a country whose fate is linked to that of societies worldwide. This is not only because it is the world’s most important producer of semiconductors but because its experiment with democracy, its resilience in the face of a sustained threat to its survival, may hold some of the solutions to bolstering democratic resilience elsewhere. And the reverse is just as true: as it seeks to mitigate, counter, and push back against the exogenous threat posed by China and its internal proxies, Taiwan can gain significantly from being allowed to join a multilateral effort whose ultimate goal is the rejuvenation and strengthening of democracy in the 21st century.
The Biden administration’s decision to invite Taiwan, and to feature it as an equal among nations, no doubt contributed to Beijing’s ire. In the week leading up to the Summit, the Chinese party-state apparatus launched into a tirade against the Summit. It accused the U.S. of using the gathering as a geopolitical tool—which it is, and it was grand time democracies agreed that they were facing a problem and therefore needed to come up with collective solutions among like-minded countries. Beijing has also sought to create a false moral equivalence by asking who has the “right” to define democracy and claiming that it, too, is a democracy, a bid that blurred the lines and which clearly aimed to sow confusion and divisions abroad (other than the far-left, it is unlikely that such a ludicrous claim will have much traction in the West).
Whether it admits it or not, the Summit (along with the diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics by a growing number of countries) has put Beijing on notice. Just a few years ago, it was Taiwan that would have been left out in the cold. That is no longer the case.
J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior fellow with the Taiwan Studies Program at the University of Nottingham, a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, Canada, and a senior fellow with the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, D.C. He is co-editor with Hsu Szu-chien of the volume Insidious Power: How China Undermines Global Democracy, published in 2020.
This article was published as part of a special issue on the Summit for Democracy.