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  • Christina Lai

Liberal Democracy and Regional Security: Framing U.S.-Taiwan Relations in the Indo-Pacific

Updated: Oct 4, 2023

Taiwan has been consistent in framing its commitment to liberal democracy as worth investing in. This has allowed the island to navigate the swings of its domestic politics while still maintaining its valued partnership in the American sphere, which now more than ever, the island needs.

A supporter holds the flags of the U.S. and Taiwan
Image credit: Reuters/Stephen Lam

*This article was presented at the 3rd Canterbury Conference on Indo-Pacific Security: Enduring Alliances and Security Partnerships hosted by the Institute for Indo-Pacific Affairs, Christchurch, 4 July 2023.


In December 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden demonstrated increased support for Taiwan by signing the Taiwan Enhanced Resilience Act (TERA). This legislation received bipartisan support and allocated more funds to enhance Taiwan’s defense capacity and people-to-people exchanges. In fact, TERA was a part of the U.S. umbrella legislation to strengthen U.S.-Taiwan relations and deter China’s aggression.


Over the last few years, China has become more assertive in its foreign policy and territorial claims, and this has led to increasing worries among countries in the Indo-Pacific region. Meanwhile, Taiwan is at the forefront of China’s economic sanctions and military intimidation. The improvements in U.S.-Taiwan relations lead to the following empirical puzzles: what role does Taiwan play in U.S. grand strategy in the Indo-Pacific region and how can the political leaders in Taiwan adopt effective framing strategies to obtain substantive commitments from the United States?


Even though China became more assertive in terms of its territorial claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea in the 2010s, the two major parties in Taiwan perceive a rising China differently. During the administrations of Presidents Ma and Tsai, Taiwan’s framing strategy of liberal democracy signaled their joint efforts in warding off Taiwan’s authoritarian future under PRC’s rule. However, they differ in how to advance Taiwan’s security. The former advocated political rapprochement with Beijing, while the latter seeks security support from the U.S. and its allies.


Democracy as a Discursive Framework

Taiwan is not only a beacon of democracy in East Asia, but also a significant contributor to trade and investment in the Indo-Pacific region. To be clear, political leaders in Taiwan have all taken pride in Taiwan’s peaceful power transition in the late 1990s and its democratic achievements. They all considered Taiwan as a democratic forerunner in the Chinese community and articulated their visions of Taiwan that were quite different from a more authoritarian China.


President Ma: Democracy and Dialogue with China

In his 2008 inaugural address, President Ma welcomed Chinese investment in Taiwan’s stock market, real estate, and infrastructure projects. When asked about the risks of Taiwan’s over-dependence on China, Ma was quite confident about his handling of bilateral relations. He said:


“[O]ver a period of more than 20 years, we haven't even seen a single case where the mainland uses trade or investment as a political vehicle in achieving their political objectives. Although nobody knows whether that will happen, by and large, I think [the mainland Chinese] do business in a normal business way.”


The year 2011 marked the 100th anniversary of the Republic of China, and Taiwan has also become a liberal democracy with vibrant NGOs and grassroots organizations. President Ma pointed out that the vitality of civil society and Taiwan’s democratic way of life is the benchmark for the Chinese community worldwide. Liberal democracy certainly can take root and blossom in a Chinese society. In the second part of his tenure, President Ma was quite optimistic about a democratic future in China. Aside from bilateral trade, Ma wanted to have dialogues on democracy and the rule of law with China.


On Taiwan’s security, President Ma did not emphasize the association with democratic governance, and he promised to maintain Taiwan’s defense capabilities. The Taiwanese government would purchase arms from the United States, but he would never ask the U.S. to fight for Taiwan. In this sense, he claimed that political rapprochement with China is the most crucial part of Taiwan’s national security. This rapprochement could establish a consensus regarding "mutual non-recognition of sovereignty and mutual non-denial of authority to govern."


President Tsai: Democracy and Security in Taiwan

During her tenure, President Tsai has clearly elaborated on her vision of the nation, as Tsai’s statements centered on political identity (who the Taiwanese are) and future direction for the country (Taiwan ought to keep its democratic way of life). Her framing strategy has been carefully and deliberately constructed to showcase Taiwan’s role in upholding peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.


For example, Tsai supported the U.S. proposed policy of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, and stated that Taiwan is willing to work with all like-minded countries. Specifically, China’s military provocations from the air and on the seas not only pose a threat to Taiwan, but also to the peace in the Asia Pacific. Taiwan’s security is tied to the overall regional order, and it has never been such a critical concern for the international community than it is at present.

More importantly, Tsai articulated why democratic institutions and regional security are both essential for Indo-Pacific countries in countering China’s military expansion. In 2022, she claimed:


“Taiwan is a global symbol of democracy and freedom…Taiwan’s security means upholding regional stability and democratic values…Beijing’s attempt to erase the sovereignty of Taiwan has threatened the status quo of peace and stability in the region.”


Starting in the 2020s, President Tsai has urged countries in the Indo-Pacific region that share democratic values, such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia, to help support Taiwan’s democracy and autonomy. When faced with a more assertive and authoritarian China, Tsai’s vision for Taiwan is a country of democratic resilience and progressive values in Asia.


Policy Implications for the Indo-Pacific Region

Taiwan’s active association with democracy and regional security carries substantive implications for U.S. allies and partners, such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. As the Asian regional order has undergone a structural change from the hub-and-spoke system to several multilateral settings, one thing remains unchanged: there is a set of liberal values that underpin U.S.-led security networks.


Even though countries in the Indo-Pacific have not established formal relations with Taiwan, the Taiwanese government has shown that it is ready to play a positive role in upholding a rules-based international order. People in Taiwan choose to live under democratic rule, and they are entitled to determine Taiwan’s future. However, Taiwan’s defense policy, regional engagement, and free trade agreements, need greater support from countries in Asia and beyond. U.S. allies should take the scenarios of the Taiwan Strait crisis more seriously, and embed Taiwan in multilateral security partnerships. More importantly, they should state their rhetorical position explicitly, so that countries in the Indo-Pacific region can speak in one coherent voice against China’s expansionist ambitions.


DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of IIPA and this platform.

 
Author

Christina Lai is assistant research fellow at the Institute of Political Science, Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan.

 
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