This article originally appeared in the National Review.
By Daniel Twining and J. Michael Cole, August 8, 2022
Over the past 48 hours, the world’s attention was fixed on the aircraft carrying House speaker Nancy Pelosi and her delegation to Taipei International Airport on the evening of August 2. Ending more than a week of speculation and intensifying threats from Beijing, Pelosi was at long last on Taiwanese soil — the first such visit by a speaker of the House — in a quarter century. Her visit sent a clear signal to the world’s democracies — and to its authoritarians — that freedom-loving countries stand together and will not be deterred.
But there is a lot of work to do.
As autocracies such as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) intensify their offensive against the free world, democracies have often struggled to effectively counter this persistent threat to our values and institutions. Should we concentrate on bolstering democratic resilience at home, or should we confront Beijing, Moscow, and other autocratic hubs more directly? The world’s leading democracies have yet to reach a consensus. But one thing is clear: Our chances of prevailing in this era-defining ideological contest will largely depend on our ability to achieve unity of purpose within the democratic camp. And we cannot do this if we leave potential partners like Taiwan out in the cold.
In recent years, a growing number of countries have deepened their engagement with Taiwan, whose status as a democratic nation and leader in advanced technologies has increased the appeal of closer relations. From its dominance in the semiconductor industry to medical assistance in times of pandemic, Taiwan has demonstrated its ability and willingness to be a responsible stakeholder. There has also been growing recognition of the value of Taiwan’s experience coping with China’s authoritarian influence.
Despite these developments, many countries — including advanced democracies — remain wary of fully engaging the Taiwanese government, which on some occasions has resulted in Taiwan’s exclusion from international forums. Taiwan has even been kept out of gatherings with exclusively democratic membership, where China couldn’t exercise influence as it does in multilateral organizations like the U.N.
Some fear that highly visible relations with Taiwan will attract Beijing’s attention and invite retaliation. This is a serious threat for countries in China’s immediate neighborhood as well as those for those who rely heavily on infrastructure investment under the PRC’s Belt and Road Initiative. Yet countries with economies far less dependent on China have no such excuse for their being equally timid about public engagement with Taiwan.
For this latter group of countries, the key concern is the perception that Taiwan is “anti-China,” and that collaboration would therefore harm relations with China. Yet this shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Taiwan and the Taiwanese people. With very few exceptions, the great majority of Taiwanese recognize the legitimacy of the PRC (in contrast with Beijing’s refusal to recognize Taiwan’s independence) and are in favor of economic engagement. In fact, more than 40 percent of Taiwan’s external trade is with China and has continued to increase despite the rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait. More than 1 million Taiwanese work and live in China, according to some estimates.
However, the Taiwanese are also determined to defend their way of life and preserve the democracy they built after decades of martial law. They know they would lose these achievements if the PRC annexed the island. The destruction of Hong Kong’s political autonomy is an ominous precedent. Taiwan’s resistance to military coercion and to the Chinese Communist Party’s campaign to undermine its democracy is a natural outcome of the markedly distinct forms of government, mores, and values that characterize the societies on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Taiwan’s experience is therefore one of balancing, hedging, and pragmatism rather than denial or irrational hatred of China. Indeed, Taiwan is an excellent case study on how a democratic society can both engage with the PRC while protecting its sovereignty, good governance, democracy, and human rights. There is no better example on the planet of a society that can combine both. It therefore makes no sense for other democracies, as they develop their own tactics and strategies to balance their own relationship with China, to exclude Taiwan from that discussion.
In fact, Taiwan can help them find a better and more constructive balance between engagement and defense in their interactions with China, and a more granular understanding of areas where Chinese influence is legitimate and where it is potentially nefarious. By virtue of its long history with and proximity to China, Taiwan’s transformation into a prosperous and democratic society on the doorstep of one of Asia’s most oppressive regimes is an asset to the international community.
Being pro-Taiwan is not the same as being anti-China. As we collectively explore the best way to mitigate and counter the corrosive elements of our own engagement with the PRC, we would be unwise to exclude this success story from our conversations.
Daniel Twining is president of the International Republican Institute. J. Michael Cole is the Taipei-based senior adviser on countering foreign authoritarian influence at the International Republican Institute.