Some scholars point out that the international system is on the cusp of a power transition: from West to the East, from the United States to China.
This is not the first time in history that a power transition may be occurring. According to Dr. Dan Kliman, however, the current transition may be more dangerous than others in the past due to the nature of the regimes involved. In his book, Fateful Transitions: How Democracies Manage Rising Powers, From the Eve of World War I to China’s Ascendance, Kliman argued that conflict is more likely between democracies and autocratic states in a power transition since the latter masks their intentions and shuts out foreign influences. He notes that it is easier to establish trust between democracies because of shared values and transparent political institutions.
It stands to reason then that the United States will be in a better position to manage a transition—which is not assured—with a rising autocratic China along with other democracies than without. With great foresight to the challenges now facing democracies worldwide, Sen. John McCain issued a clarion call for a “League of Democracies” over a decade ago in 2007. While on the presidential campaign trail, the senator highlighted the purpose of a grouping of democracies best. The premise and conditions that gave rise to his call are more pronounced now than ever before in the post–Cold War era:
We should go further and start bringing democratic peoples and nations from around the world into one common organization, a worldwide League of Democracies . . . like what Theodore Roosevelt envisioned: like-minded nations working together in the cause of peace. The new League of Democracies would form the core of an international order of peace based on freedom. It could act where the UN fails to act, to relieve human suffering in places like Darfur. It could join to fight the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa and fashion better policies to confront the crisis of our environment. . . . It could bring concerted pressure to bear on tyrants in Burma or Zimbabwe, with or without Moscow’s and Beijing’s approval. It could unite to impose sanctions on Iran and thwart its nuclear ambitions. . . . This League of Democracies would not supplant the United Nations or other international organizations. It would complement them. But it would be the one organization where the world’s democracies could come together to discuss problems and solutions on the basis of shared principles and a common vision of the future.
Taiwan’s survival after derecognition is in large part attributable to the fact that it became a democracy. When the United States normalized relations with the PRC, there were senior U.S. policymakers who believed that it was only a matter of time—and not a very long time—that Taiwan would collapse into PRC’s embrace. Despite such expectations, Taiwan thrived in the ensuing four decades. The government liberalized from the top down, while an active civil society fervently pushed for political reforms from the bottom up. Taiwan evolved from an authoritarian government to a vibrant democracy. As a result, support for Taiwan grew within the United States. If Taiwan did not become a democracy, it’s far from assured whether it would be as it is today. As the world becomes more globalized, Taiwan’s ability to resist PRC coercion and maintain its social and economic system will depend in more part on its ability to rely on a support network of like-minded countries.
Cross-Strait Relations and Hong Kong
Another positive contribution of Taiwan’s democracy is for its demonstration effect on China and Hong Kong. The only hope for China to become democratic is if Taiwan remains free and democratic. As a Chinese-speaking democracy, Taiwan has a unique role in China’s democratic future. Taiwan’s democracy and what happens in it has a demonstration effect on Hong Kong and the PRC.
Exposure to Taiwan’s democracy give Chinese people a taste of democratic life. Taiwanese political talk shows, which are famous for their no-holds-barred political sparring, are a big hit in China. Moreover, Taiwan’s presidential elections are closely watched by Chinese netizens—albeit tightly controlled. All of this should ostensibly raise expectations for democracy in the PRC.
Influence operations by authoritarian governments are on the rise. This was made abundantly clear in the recent U.S. presidential election. But, it is not only Russia that is engaged in such subversive activities but also China.
Such operations involve not just political meddling and propaganda but infiltration of political parties, NGOs, and businesses. Recent events in New Zealand and Australia, and other Western countries, are cases on point.
Taiwan’s long experience in dealing with Chinese political warfare and influence operations could help other countries that now face similar threats by information sharing and raising situational awareness.
While concerns over the Trump administration’s lack of emphasis on values in foreign policy has been a drag on the credibility of his administration’s foreign policy, Secretary Tillerson’s forceful remarks at the Community of Democracies is a step in the right direction. Despite the challenges that bedeviled the start of his administration, President Trump has a historic opportunity when he makes his way to Asia in November to get his foreign policy back on the right track. Against the backdrop of the growing threat of influence operations by authoritarian governments, the United States and her democratic allies should revitalize the League of Democracies and Taiwan must be an integral part of it.
Russell Hsiao is the executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute and chief editor of the Global Taiwan Brief. This article is adapted from remarks delivered at the East Asia Democracy Forum held in New York on September 18, 2017.
Image: Pro-China supporters hold Chinese national flags in front of landmark building Taipei 101, outside the dinner venue of Sha Hailin, a member of Shanghai’s Communist Party standing committee, in Taipei, Taiwan August 22, 2016. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu