Taiwan has become widely regarded as an exemplary consolidated democracy, albeit with some defects. In Freedom in the World 2022 report, Freedom House gives Taiwan a 94 of 100 ratings, meaning the country counts as fully free. Freedom House also notes that “Taiwan’s vibrant and competitive democratic system has allowed three peaceful transfers of power between rival parties since 2000, and protections for civil liberties are generally robust”. Taiwan’s democratic standing has become more pronounced considering the rapid mainlandisation of Hong Kong under the repressive National Security Law. This is symbolised by the fact that Taiwan has become the only spot in the Chinese-speaking world where the June 4 Tiananmen Massacre can be commemorated openly.
There is an unmistakably rising salience of democracy in the United States-led international support of Taiwan’s national security and international participation over the past five years. We see two intertwined drivers of this trend: first, the US and allies’ rediscovery of the value of Taiwan as a fellow liberal democracy in their own strategic re-positioning vis-à-vis China; second, the impact of Taipei’s own democracy diplomacy, namely a strategic narrative and programs seeking to capitalise on its role in upholding and promoting universal values of democracy and human rights as moral leverage to shore up international empathy.
After experiencing many years of low tide, US-Taiwan relations have started to warm up dramatically since the Trump administration. From then to now, the US and its allies have become progressively stronger in supporting Taiwan regarding its national security and international participation. As a result, the renowned US strategic ambiguity in defending Taiwan seems to have become somewhat less so. It is noteworthy that Taiwan’s role as a fellow democracy is frequently invoked as one of the major factors to justify a series of policies and legislation aimed at beefing up security commitment to Taiwan, such as arms sales and military cooperation, and sustaining its diplomatic profile. More prominently, in their milestone China policy speeches, the US leaders, from Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo to Joe Biden and Antony Blinken, have invariably referred to Taiwan as a vibrant democracy, emphasising explicitly or implicitly the shared values as a key reason to support and defend Taiwan. This new sentiment has also spread to some of the US allies. For example, the Joint Statement of Australia-US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) 2021 emphasised “Taiwan’s important role in the Indo-Pacific region” as “a leading democracy and critical partner for the two countries”.
The above trend results from a paradigm shift in the US or Western relations with China. Indeed, starting from around 2018, there has been a growing realisation that the rise of Xi Jinping’s totalitarian party-state is not just about geopolitical rivalry or clash of civilisations but a threat to universal values of freedom and human rights and the fabrics of a democratic way of life globally. This has just translated into the notion of China posing “systemic challenges” to the West in NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept. President Biden has claimed to see a global struggle of democracies vs autocracies, a perception reinforced by the Ukraine war and Beijing’s collusion with Moscow. Under such circumstances, and since democracies must work together to resist the expansion of autocracies and even reorient the key supply chains within the community of democracies, Taiwan has gained new appreciation in two ways. First, it can be seen as a frontline democracy. Second, the US leaders from both recent administrations, including Biden, have consistently extolled Taiwan’s democracy as pathbreaking for all the Chinese people. It was natural that the Biden administration invited Taiwanese officials to the first Summit for Democracy in December 2021.
In short, democracy makes Taiwan more worth defending. Democracy also adds significant moral weight to the other drawcards which make the US and its allies willing to support Taiwan, such as its strategic location in the first island chain and its crucial role in the global manufacturing of semiconductor chips.
Taipei’s own democracy diplomacy is also a driver behind the expanded international support of the island state. Since the US switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979 and annulled the Sino-American Mutual Defence Treaty, one strategic question for Taipei has been: how to ensure the US and its allies continue to support the island state militarily and diplomatically against the PRC aggression? President Lee Teng-hui wanted the world to see the rapidly democratising “new Taiwan” as distinct from China and the old ROC, thus worthy of support as a separate entity. However, such soft power campaigns from Taipei became far more effective and have echoed particularly in the US, when Washington started to reset its relations with China, as mentioned earlier. Taipei’s narrative now portrays itself as standing on the frontline against Beijing’s global attacks on democracy. As President Tsai has stressed: if Taiwan’s democracy can be secured from erosion by China, as opposed to becoming the next Hong Kong, then the entire democratic bloc in the Indo-Pacific is safer. This democracy-security nexus, or the idea of invoking the democratic value of Taiwan to strengthen international support, is reinforced by the lesson from the Ukraine war. While the war inspires the Taiwanese regarding a so-called hedgehog strategy defined by enhanced defence self-reliance and asymmetric defence against PLA assault, Taipei has not lost sight of the fact that the US and its allies have often framed their rescue of Ukraine in the name of defending democracy. Therefore, it would suit Taipei to foster a perception that aggressions on Ukraine and Taiwan are coordinated actions of a China-Russia autocratic bloc against the democratic world.
Taipei’s democracy diplomacy goes beyond rhetorical positioning. President Tsai has declared that Taiwan is “a beacon of democratic transition for people on mainland China, Hong Kong, and friends all over the world pursuing democracy.” Indeed, Taipei has been lending direct material support to the campaigns for human rights and democracy in the Indo-Pacific region, including mainland China and Hong Kong, much to the appreciation of transnational activist communities. The Ministry of Education, Mainland Affairs Council, and the DPP have been organising study tours or summer camps for the youth and students from the region to witness Taiwan’s vibrant democracy and dynamic civil society and learn about the island’s history of democratic transition. In particular, the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD), managed by MOFA, is Asia’s first and, so far, the only national-level funding body to support democratisation globally. Since its founding during the Chen Shui-bian administration, modelled on the Washington-DC-based National Endowment for Democracy, TFD has been giving funds to help numerous social movements and activist groups in the Indo-Pacific for almost twenty years. Its Annual Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award are easily one of the world’s most generous awards of its kind. Human rights advocates from Afghanistan to North Korea have all received this award and felt profoundly grateful for the enlightening light beamed from Taiwan, the beacon of democracy.
On the other hand, there is more Taipei can do. For example, the government has remained muted over the major incidents of political and military repressions in Southeast Asia, such as in Myanmar and Thailand. Robust economic ties between Taiwan and these countries have put Taipei in a dilemma when voicing democratic support in the region. Taipei’s democratic aspiration might cause a diplomatic backlash and adversely impact unofficial state-to-state relations. Further, as outlined by Freedom House, Taiwan also faces challenges regarding protecting Southeast Asian migrant workers’ rights. These workers are the backbone of Taiwan’s semiconductor manufacturing and economy; improving their rights and livelihood are the areas Taipei needs to improve to sustain its image as a beacon of democracy and an active promoter of human rights in the region. Also, while Taiwan’s model of democratisation finds its most admiring audiences among the Chinese and Hong Kong activists for obvious reasons, Taipei’s actual support for them is not as significant as logically hoped for. To be fair to Taipei, the lack of formal diplomatic standing blocks its role in democracy promotion. The Bali Democracy Forum, for example, could have been a great platform for Taiwan to inform the region of this democratic transition and benefit regional civil society, but Taipei was not even allowed to attend due to a lack of diplomatic recognition.
To conclude, the community of democracies has rightly enhanced its support for Taiwan’s national security and rights to international participation due to its significance as a vibrant democracy. However, it remains crucial that the Taiwanese people themselves should be fully dedicated to defending their democratic way of life and willing to sacrifice for their homeland. Those thirty or so Taiwanese volunteer fighters who are risking their lives daily to resist the Russian invaders in Ukraine are showing the right spirit for the young generations back home. While promoting itself as a beacon of democracy has generated staunch support from the international community, a consolidated approach to defending democracy at home would further enhance Taipei’s national security and survival.
Ratih Kabinawa is a PhD candidate in International Relations and Asian Studies at the University of Western Australia. Her main research interest is in transnational politics and Taiwan’s foreign policy in Southeast Asia. She is a regular contributor to Taiwan Insight – an online magazine of the Taiwan Studies Programme, University of Nottingham, UK.