Written by Charles K. S. Wu, Austin Horng-En Wang, Fan-Yu Chen, Yao-Yuan Yeh.
Amidst the latest series of actions that draw China’s ire, the U.S. officially invited Taiwan to participate in an inaugural Summit for Democracy along with 109 states. Though the summit has several major themes for discussion on its agenda, including defending against authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and promoting human rights, many observers would agree that the convention is primarily symbolic and would not deliver substantial policy changes among the participants. Therefore, before formulating a strategy for Taiwan’s participation in the summit, it is helpful to grasp the geostrategic backdrop that gives rise to the summit in the first place.
Essentially, the democracy summit should be seen as an endeavour of the U.S. to reconnect with fellow democracies to rally their support for a new Cold War with China. A major pitfall of Trump’s foreign policy is that the U.S. has gradually given away its role as the defender of democratic norms and international institutions. By prioritising realpolitik and openly working with and praising authoritarian leaders of Russia, China, and North Korea, U.S. reputation and the democratic values others associate the country with were weakened. U.S.’ passivity in defending democratic values coincided with efforts by authoritarian regimes to confuse, misinterpret, and even misrepresent these universal values and their importance. As the U.S. welcomed China into the liberal international system and toned down the sharp difference between democracies and non-democracies, China has taken advantage of such open-mindedness to not only buttress its comprehensive national power but also finds ways to discredit the liberal international system.
In weakening respect for universal human rights, for instance, China has used its influence in the Human Rights Council to tweak the definition of human rights to prioritise economic development over universal human rights. Doing so allows China to justify its own behaviours in rolling out draconian policies against minorities in places like Xinjiang. Additionally, China seeks to export authoritarianism under the guise of offering strategies for rapid economic growth. China adopts a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, since the early 2000s, it has used propaganda apparatus such as Confucius Institutes and other public diplomacy programs in Western democracies to shore up approval for the communist regime. On the other hand, the Belt and the Road Initiative allowed China to tout its governing styles as a feasible alternative to enable developing countries to achieve their political goals while cracking down on domestic dissent.
To a certain extent, Chinese efforts have achieved success. In the early 2000s, few around the world believed China to be a democracy or could embody what a democracy stands for. Many would believe China to be a functioning democracy and a model to emulate, especially among developing countries. As China continues to forge stronger relationships with countries worldwide, failed U.S. foreign policy contributes much to the U.S.’ own undoing. Moreover, U.S. criticisms of the lack of burden-sharing among NATO powers gave China opportunities to cement relationships with core members in the E.U. The recent AUKUS alliance at the expense of France further weakened long-standing transatlantic partnerships.
Students of the constructivist theories in international politics learn that the international system, though rigid most of the time, could produce seismic changes from continuing social interactions. We are now witnessing how feelings and meanings toward democracy have been reshaped or, in some cases, even cast in a negative light as a result of efforts by autocratic leaders promoting authoritarianism as a substitute for democratic values. China’s rise poses an existential threat to Pax Americana and the values, identity, and discourse it represents in history. As China continues to label itself a democracy while criticising American democracy – just as it paradoxically proclaims that authoritarianism is more efficient for developing the economy – eventually, there will be an identity shift that considers authoritarianism an ideal substitute for democratic values. The dethroning of American hegemony will not necessarily involve guns and powder.
Cognizant of China’s ideological threat to U.S. hegemony, the Biden administration strives to do what is necessary to restore U.S. leadership. The growing Sino-U.S. decoupling made the U.S. believe that this new Cold War with China is not simply economic, political but ideological. Seen in this view, this upcoming summit could be perceived as a much-needed effort for the U.S. and other likely-minded allies to confront threats to democracies posed by countries like Russia and China. The invitation list highlights the U.S.’s strategic refreshment in the democratic value. For example, Taiwan is invited, while China and Hong Kong are not. Malaysia – which just had its first democratic turnover in 2017 – is invited, while Thailand and Myanmar – the two countries that suffered from serious democratic ebb – are not. Malaysia, Thailand, and Myanmar share the same level of democracy in the V-Dem’s liberal democracy scores, but whether they are approaching or leaving the democratic norm is a watching point for the Summit for Democracy. The same strategic choice can also be found in Europe. Hungry has a higher V-Dem score than Ukraine, but the recent anti-LGBT law and a downward trend of its democratic evaluation eliminate its likelihood to be invited by the United States.
The role of Taiwan in this conference is thus less about its geostrategic values to the U.S. (although these are certainly legitimate reasons), but more about the country representing a beacon of democracy and the U.S. strong commitment to protecting a democracy even when the costs are prohibitive. Judging from the responses from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Taiwan, the country seems to be able to grasp the importance of its role in the summit. It will share the country’s success of democratisation and democratic governance. Audrey Tang, the technology czar of Taiwan, could also share their first-hand experiences of how Taiwan fends cyberattacks and misinformation campaigns from China.
If the U.S. is serious about pushing back the ideological challenge from China, the summit would be a harbinger of what is to come in the next few months. It is imperative to remind and enlighten fellow democracies of the ideological threats an authoritarian regime like China could pose to the livelihood of democracies. The rekindled efforts to highlight common democratic values will also help the U.S. restore transatlantic partnerships. A key reason European powers, unlike the U.S., have been lukewarm in balancing against China is that they do not genuinely consider China threatening. The United States needs to point out that China’s values are anathemata to the ones held dear by democracies. European powers should be able to decipher China’s intentions in their interaction with China, especially when China sanctions them from raising concerns of clear human rights violations in China. More efforts like the democracy summit should continue to surface until democracies worldwide are clear and determined to squash the ideological battle with China. In the old Cold War, the West was never hesitant to reject communism; there is no reason that reaction toward China should be different now.
Charles K. S. Wu, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of South Alabama
Austin Horng-En Wang, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Fan-Yu Chen, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Soochow University, Taiwan
Yao-Yuan Yeh, Chair and Associate Professor in the Department of International Studies & Modern Languages at the University of St Thomas, Houston
This article was published as part of a special issue on the Summit for Democracy.