What Does the Summit for Democracy Tell Us About U.S.-Taiwan Relations?

Written by John W. Tai

Image credit: Secretary Blinken Delivers Remarks at the Award for Corporate Excellence Ceremony by U.S. Department of State/Flickr, license United States government work

The Biden administration just concluded its first Summit for Democracy. Prior to the event, the world took notice that Taiwan was among the 111 countries invited, but much to China’s ire, the latter was not. This invitation is the latest in a series of moves that seems to demonstrate Washington’s determination to upgrade its ties with Taiwan. In this context, what should we make of Taiwan’s participation in President Biden’s signature event? What does it mean for U.S.-Taiwan relations? Is the United States modifying its long-standing position on the situation across the Taiwan Strait? To address these inter-related questions, we can examine the Summit for Democracy through the prisms of U.S. domestic politics, U.S. foreign policy, and U.S.-China relations.

Domestic Politics in the United States

One persistent criticism leveled against the Trump administration by the Democratic Party is that the former’s actions have undermined America’s leadership role in the world. The Democrats’ criticism of former President Donald Trump and his administration is captured succinctly in candidate Biden’s statement in his 2020 Foreign Affairs article: “By nearly every measure, the credibility and influence of the United States in the world have diminished since President Barack Obama and I left office on January 20, 2017.”

According to Biden, among the Trump administration’s misdeeds that led to America’s diminishing credibility and influence, the most significant was that President Trump “has turned away from the democratic values that give strength to our nation and unify us as a people.” As Biden wrote, democracy is “the wellspring” of American global power and it “strengthens and amplifies our leadership to keep us safe in the world.” Therefore, candidate Biden asserted that as president, his first task would be to “repair and reinvigorate our own democracy, even as we strengthen the coalition of democracies that stand with us around the world.”

The Summit for Democracy was conceived in this domestic political context. In his Foreign Affairs article, candidate Biden wrote: “During my first year in office, the United States will organize and host a global Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world. It will bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda.”

Viewed through the prism of domestic politics, the significance of the Summit for Democracy is that it represents an ongoing criticism of the Trump administration and a concrete measure to distinguish the current U.S. administration from its predecessor. In other words, the summit is, at the basic level, motivated by domestic U.S. political considerations.

United States Foreign Policy

Of course, if domestic political considerations in the United States was the only factor, there would be little need to convene a global event involving representatives from over 100 countries. In this respect, there is a noticeable foreign policy side to the Summit for Democracy. On this point, the event reflects the American political elites’ continuing emphasis on the ideological aspect of U.S. foreign policy, at least rhetorically. In addition, the summit marks an effort to repair U.S. relations with its allies and partners with U.S. geostrategic interest in mind.

Since his campaign for the presidency, President Biden has repeatedly spoken of the importance of “values,” a euphemism for democracy, in U.S. foreign policy. At the G7 Summit in June of this year, President Biden asserted: “I think we are in a contest…with…autocratic governments around the world as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in a rapidly changing 21st century.” He also spoke of how the United States must work with “other nations that share our values and goals.” In his Foreign Affairs article, candidate Biden expressed his view that U.S. national security is tied to the country’s democratic ideals when he wrote the following about NATO: “NATO is at the very heart of the United States’ national security, and it is the bulwark of the liberal democratic ideal – an alliance of values….”

As many experts have pointed out, the Biden administration’s repeated emphasis on the importance of democratic values in U.S. foreign policy is a continuation of the Trump administration’s rhetoric and practice. But this fact is important because it suggests that at least for now, there is a political consensus in Washington that ideology is a key element in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy for the foreseeable future.

Nonetheless, inasmuch as it seems that ideology is once again occupying a key role in U.S. foreign policy, it does not mean that the United States no longer practices realpolitik. In fact, the juxtaposition between idealism and realism in the conduct of foreign relations is a persistent tension in the American diplomatic tradition. The inclusion of countries with questionable democratic credentials, such as the Philippines and Pakistan, which are important for their roles in the U.S. geostrategic framework, on the list of invitees for the Summit of Democracy highlights this tension and reality. Indeed, one cannot overlook the fact that the Summit for Democracy is a useful vehicle for the current U.S. administration to continue the process of repairing and restoring U.S. alliances, something that both candidate Biden and President Biden declared to be a critical element his foreign policy agenda.

U.S.-China Relations

In an important way, the present state of U.S.-China relations is consistent with the American diplomatic tradition in that it reflects the U.S. administration’s view that China is both an ideological and a geostrategic adversary to the United States. This is also another similarity between the Trump administration and the Biden administration. As Antony Blinken declared in his first speech as the U.S. Secretary of State, “China is the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system.” He also described the U.S. approach toward China as “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be and adversarial when it must be.”

For the Biden administration, the United States cannot succeed in this approach on its own; it requires the cooperation of like-minded countries. As candidate Biden wrote in his Foreign Affairs article, “The most effective way to meet [the China challenge] is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China,” which “is playing the long game by extending its global reach, promoting its own political model, and investing in the technologies of the future.”

In this context, inviting countries like Pakistan and the Philippines, which have important geostrategic values but dubious democratic credentials, to the Summit of Democracy is sensible. Likewise, Taiwan’s involvement in the summit reflects U.S. geostrategic considerations. In fact, Taiwan has played a prominent role in the U.S. geopolitical framework vis-à-vis China for both Democratic and Republican administrations over the years, especially during times of tension in the relationship between the Unite States and China. The current U.S. interest in Taiwan reflects a genuine fear that Taiwan is a flashpoint that may bring about a larger contest of arms between the two great powers. But the United States has also had a long history of highlighting its support for Taiwan, especially since the island nation became a democracy, when the former wishes to voice its displeasure at China’s internal and external behaviors. Indeed, Taiwan’s achievements as a vibrant and prosperous democracy provide a clear and useful contrast with China’s deficiencies in this area. In this sense, U.S. relations with Taiwan also offers an excellent case study in the enduring tension between idealism and realism in the American diplomatic tradition.

U.S.-Taiwan Relations

The foregoing analysis suggests a few lessons for U.S.-Taiwan relations that we can draw from Taiwan’s participation in the Summit for Democracy.

First, the invitation to Taiwan to take part in the summit reflects a bipartisan recognition in the United States that Taiwan is a mature democracy whose achievements, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, should be rightfully acknowledged. In this respect, the invitation can be viewed as an extension of the Biden administration’s perspective that Taiwan should be more involved in international organizations. Indeed, in October of this year, at an even hosted by the German Marshall Fund, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Rick Waters voiced American support for Taiwan to be able to contribute more directly and significantly in international organizations.

Second, it would be very difficult to overlook the geopolitical considerations behind the U.S. decision to invite Taiwan to participate in the summit, especially when China was left off the guest list. It is clearly another effort to demonstrate U.S. support for Taiwan during a period of tension between the United States and China. However, it is also important to understand that despite the U.S. administration’s demonstrations of support for Taiwan, it has also been careful to repeat that the United States still adheres to its “one-China” policy and that there should be no unilateral change of the status quo in the Taiwan Strait by either side of the strait.

Ultimately, the U.S. administration sees the United States as engaging in a great power rivalry with China with no clear end in sight. The administration envisions a positive role for Taiwan in this geopolitical framework. In this framework, the United States expects Taiwan to support U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region and globally. The best way for Taiwan to do so would be for it to remain a prosperous democracy, maintain its autonomy, ensure stability in the Taiwan Strait, and contribute to the international community by sharing its development experience, technical knowledge, and governance insights.

John W. Tai, Ph.D., is a professorial lecturer at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, where he teaches a graduate seminar on Taiwan’s internal development and foreign relations. He is also a course coordinator at the Foreign Service Institute, U.S. Department of State. The views expressed in this article are his and do not represent the views of the U.S. government or any organizations with which he is affiliated.

This article was published as part of a special issue on the Summit for Democracy.

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