Protecting Democracy in Taiwan

August 8, 2022 | 9:00 am
Three passports from TaiwanTzuhsun Hsu/Flickr
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

Many people assume that sovereignty is a guarantor of democracy. That’s not true in Taiwan. The only way to reliably safeguard Taiwan’s democracy is to accept the status quo on the question of sovereignty. Speaker Pelosi said she accepts it when she spoke with President Tsai Ing-wen. President Biden did the same when he spoke with President Xi.

What is the status quo?

The key to answering that question lies in remembering one very important and often overlooked fact. Tsai Ying-wen is not the president of Taiwan. She is the president of the Republic of China. She salutes the flag of the Republic of China. It’s the name of the country on her passport.

The leaders of the People’s Republic of China–the other China–are unlikely to risk a war to change that status quo because it implies the question of sovereignty is already decided in their favor; that Taiwan, as its official name indicates, is also a China. The United Nations, the United States and almost every other nation in the world recognizes only one China: the People’s Republic of China. 

The Republic of China is not a sovereign state. But it is also not governed by its recognized sovereign. That’s an unusual and fragile international status, born of complicated and controversial historical circumstances, but one which has allowed the people of Taiwan to develop one of the most vibrant and progressive democracies in the world. The greatest threat to that democracy is not its lack of sovereign status, but the threat of a war over it.

Most US government officials and non-governmental experts suspect the communist government in Beijing is determined to change the status quo by force as soon as it believes it can. They fear its leaders intend to invade Taiwan and assume control of its government. 

Chinese communist officials and experts suspect the United States is encouraging efforts by the people of Taiwan to change the status quo. They fear the United States government intends to help the Taiwanese people transform their island into a sovereign state with a new name, a new flag, a new passport, and a new non-Chinese national identity. 

These mutual suspicions are not unfounded. 

The greatest threat to peace, and to Taiwan’s democracy, is if these fears lead decision-makers in both Chinas, and the United States, to assume war is inevitable. Once that psychological threshold is crossed, government officials are likely to begin throwing caution to the wind. Some, like former US Secretary of State and prospective presidential candidate Mike Pompeo, already have.

Deterrence isn’t working

Constantly preparing for war and demonstrating the will and ability to prevail pushes decision makers closer to that threshold. So, it’s not a reliable means to keep the peace and preserve Taiwan’s democracy. The balance of military forces between the contesting parties is too close and too fluid to deter either side if they believe there is an opportunity or a necessity to act. That’s unlikely to change, no matter how much the United States or the People’s Republic of China invests in the arms race this perceived test of wills over Taiwan’s sovereignty is generating, an arms race that includes nuclear weapons.

Moreover, the Biden administration’s decision to define US-China relations as a zero-sum contest for global supremacy between democracy and autocracy undermines the supposed rationality of deterrence. It strengthens the perception a US-China conflict is inevitable. It incorporates the dispute over Taiwan’s sovereignty into an irrational ideological contest to determine the future of human civilization. There can be no middle ground, no compromise in such a contest. Without that middle ground the unusual and fragile international space in which Taiwan’s democracy was born and continues to thrive will disappear. 

Although Pelosi and Biden claim they are not seeking Taiwanese independence, their repeatedly expressed determination to win an imagined global struggle with Chinese communism makes those claims harder to believe. Even if President Xi and his colleagues did believe them, they have good cause to worry a future US administration might think differently.

Chinese leaders consistently refuse to promise they will not use force to assert their sovereign claim to Taiwan. But they also say the use of military force will not be necessary if that claim is not challenged. The unrelenting barrage of threatening Chinese language and behavior towards Taiwan gives US decision-makers, from both parties, ample cause to worry their counterparts in Beijing may act precipitously.  

It is difficult to imagine anyone winning a war between the United States and China over Taiwan. The economic costs to China, the United States and the global economy could dwarf the damage on the battlefield. The biggest losers, the people who will suffer most, are the people living in that battlefield, the people of Taiwan. They will be the ones who lose their lives and their property in the horrifically destructive violence such a war is likely to bring to the island.

Taiwan’s best hope

Unlike almost every other major problem facing humanity today, the best solution to the problem of Taiwan is to leave things as they are. What’s the value of being a sovereign nation? Is it greater than the cost of a war? Politicians often promise that victory will bring about a better world. They inflame people’s passions and invite them to bet their lives on what almost always turn out to be false hopes. 

The false hope of China’s communist leaders is that the people of Taiwan want to be united with their Chinese compatriots on the mainland. That hope is fed by the misperception that the desire for independence is a product of the manipulations of a tiny minority of “separatists” encouraged and supported by the United States, which seeks to keep the island out of Chinese communist hands for selfish reasons. 

The false hope of many US officials and experts is that the Chinese communist government is, as President Obama put it, “on the wrong side of history.” They think that while a war over Taiwan might be dangerous and costly, in the end the democracies on the right side of history will prevail, all Chinese will be liberated from an odious autocracy, and the entire world will be better for it.

The best thing decision-makers in the United States and China can do for the people of Taiwan, and the rest of the world, is to set aside their fears, their fantasies, and their differences. They should begin to work earnestly to stabilize a relationship that appears close to spiraling out of control. They should exercise restraint, avoid hostile rhetoric, stop military posturing, and replace symbolism and signaling with dialogue and negotiation. If they do, the unusual and fragile international space that continues to nurture Taiwan’s democracy stands a much better chance of surviving.