Taiwan and Remaking the Case for a League of Democracies
5. Strategic: Taiwan’s experience can help countering the global rise of influence operations by authoritarian countries.
Why does it matter that Taiwan is a good symbol for U.S. democracy promotion? There are three main reasons: 1) credibility, 2) as a model for other Asian countries, and 3) strengthening people-to-people ties.
There is a perception among countries that the U.S. government’s promotion of democracy and human rights are entirely self-interested—either it is for resources or to topple unfriendly governments. This perception is usually the result of counterefforts by the ruling elites of those countries, which see democracy promotion as a direct threat on their political rule.
Taiwan’s experience with democratization first as a recipient of the United States’ democracy assistance and as a proponent of democracy elsewhere helps to enhance U.S. credibility among the population of other countries that are the target of U.S. democracy promotion efforts. Greater credibility among the population of the host countries will increase receptivity of the host population to U.S. efforts to support democratic institutions and human rights in those countries.
The United States promoted democracy in Taiwan was motivated in large part by a genuine revulsion by the American public to the plight of Taiwanese people persecuted during the “White Terror,” which refers to the period of political suppression following the February 28 Incident between 1947 to 1987. That is why section two, subsection three of the Taiwan Relations Act states: “The preservation and enhancement of the human rights of all the people on Taiwan are hereby reaffirmed as objectives of the United States.”
Taiwan’s democracy serves as a model for other countries in the region with comparable political and economic conditions to Taiwan during the 1980s that are making a transition to a more open and accountable political system. The country was under martial law from 1949 to 1987. During this period, it also experienced remarkable economic growth. In the 1970s, the political elites began a gradual liberalization of political control that allowed the native population to participate more fully in the political process. This process reached an apex when former President Lee Teng-hui, a native Taiwanese, was anointed as Chiang Ching-kuo’s successor.
While Taiwan’s case is unique in the sense that the political elites faced enormous external political pressure to liberalize, it was also bottom-up inspired transition that make Taiwan’s democracy what it is today. Social movements that emerged in the 1970s that focused on environmental protection, to evolving to include antipollution, consumers, labor, feminist, aborigines, farmers, students’ education and teachers’ rights.
Former Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel noted in 2015: “There is a lot that Burma can learn from Taiwan,” he said, adding that the Taiwan example “may serve as an inspiration for many young people in Myanmar.”
There are also the more tangible aspects of deepening people-to-people ties. Shared values and democratic culture can strengthen the people-to-people ties between the United States and Taiwan and therefore contribute to strengthening U.S.-Taiwan relations.
Democratization in Taiwan is also having a positive effect over the longer term on domestic political developments that serve broader U.S. policy objectives.
First, democratization is having a moderating effect on the country’s politics. In general, different interests represented by political parties are able to compete with each other in the political arena and, over time, this has led to more moderate positions taken by the political parties. This is further illustrated by the measured policies of the current ruling government and also the election of the opposition-party chairperson in May.
Taiwan’s democracy has come a long way from the raucous politics of the 1990s and 2000s. Over time, the driving force in Taiwan’s elections has become less about the primordial issue of independence or unification. Despite some politicians’ efforts to frame issues as such, the fact of the matter is that Taiwan is not on an inevitable path of unification under the People’s Republic of China, nor is it headed in an inseparable path towards independence.
In view of Taiwan’s 2016 presidential and legislative races, coupled with the fact that an overwhelming majority of Taiwanese voters now prefer the “status quo,” the Taiwanese voters will not accept—nor could any political parties commit to—making any dramatic shift to the “status quo.”
Since 2008, there appears to have been a fundamental shift in the Taiwanese electorates’ that all political parties vying for power would have to accept. Democratization in Taiwan and its elections in particular—which some observers saw as a flash point of instability—is becoming a stabilizing force for cross-Strait relations.
Second, a free and hyperactive media environment in Taiwan encourages greater transparency, helps unmask corruption, and disinfects the political process. However, an open media market also makes Taiwan’s democracy susceptible to foreign-influence operations.
Third, public trust in institutions make decisionmaking less dependent on individual decisionmakers and contribute to a more stable political process.