Reflections on Taiwanese Election Day

By Aaron C. Brown, Vice Chair of the Board.

Why should Americans care about the fate of the Republic of China (ROC), or as we call it, Taiwan?

At a time when many of us are tired of foreign commitments and misadventures abroad, it can be hard to understand why the security travails of a small island nation—half a world away—should preoccupy citizens or policy makers here at home. And when you consider that Taiwan’s security threats derive entirely from its rocky relationship with China—a communist nation which regards Taiwan as a renegade province—the desirability of committing to Taiwan’s security becomes even less obvious.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is, for better or worse, on track to be the world’s largest economy (it is now No. 2) and it possesses one of the world’s most formidable militaries. Future relations with mainland China are destined to be a major focus of American foreign policy.

In light of this, why should American governments enter into this hornet’s nest at all? Why not just come to grips with the inevitable, and acknowledge that the PRC’s desire to repatriate Taiwan as part of “one China” is an internal political matter, not something worth resisting in the West?

These are the sorts of questions that preoccupied me when I travelled to Taiwan in October, as the Seattle member of an 11-person delegation of World Affairs Council representatives from around the country (funded by the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office, the rough equivalent of a Taiwanese diplomatic office).

Thanks to the ROC government, our delegation met with political parties, think tanks, government ministries and others in an effort to understand the internal and external politics of the country and region, and to assess the nature of our respective countries’ unusual relationship.

We also made time for some beautiful island scenery, religious and historical sites and fantastic food.

Fortunately, our visit coincided with the 100-year anniversary of the birth of the ROC—the first modern Chinese government which fled to Taiwan in 1949. Thus, we were treated to an impressive military parade and attendance at some spectacular, well-attended diplomatic and national celebratory events.

Despite all the fanfare and celebration, the case for robust U.S. support for Taiwan is what interested me most.

All things being equal, most Americans favor democratic developments abroad, and presumably wish that the mainland would adopt more democratic values. But at what cost?  Can the Taiwanese make the case that protecting their democratic outpost should indeed be a priority for the United States?

I cannot speak for others, but I myself became convinced that they can.

In order to understand why, it’s important to grasp the nature of the social and economic interdependence between Taiwan and China that currently prevails. The two Chinas’ relationship is characterized by hundreds of billions of dollars in cross-strait investment, and hundreds of thousands of mixed Chinese-Taiwanese marriages. But even more significantly, tourist visits between the countries have increased dramatically since travel restrictions were lifted over the last several years.

Mainland Chinese were first permitted to visit Taiwan in 2008. As of 2011, approximately five million Taiwanese have visited the mainland every year, while 1.6 million mainlanders have visited Taiwan. The ROC government estimates this number will rise to 2 million mainland visits to Taiwan annually over the next few years.

Why does this matter? As Ambassador Stephen S.F. Chen of the National Policy Foundation think-tank explained to our group that Taiwan is the only true Chinese democracy, and that no other country can make that claim.

As such, it is vitally important that Taiwan continue to thrive and in so doing show the world—and mainland China—that democracy can indeed function in a Chinese society (contrary to the claims of the PRC.) More specifically, with so many mainlands Chinese visiting Taiwan, observing Taiwanese civil society and political life, my hope is that more and more mainlanders will come to see the desirability of the Taiwanese system and eventually want to emulate it on the mainland.

Sound like a pipe dream? Well, it does appear to be the Taiwanese’s long game.

There’s no chance of Taiwan ever achieving military superiority over China, of course. But as long as Taiwan (with U.S. help) can lessen the chance of a belligerent China quashing the Taiwanese political system and way of life, many hold out hope that a political transformation of the mainland is at least somewhat more likely.

Needless to say, such a democratic transition would revolutionize the region and the world, in ways that would surely serve U.S. political interests.

January 14 is the Taiwanese Presidential Election—what many are billing as the most important Taiwanese election in years. While much of the election has focused on domestic and economic issues, the future of cross-strait relations are also up in the air, as the incumbent party proclaims the virtues of the status quo while the Democratic Progressive Party challenger has hinted at wanting to move in a different direction.

You can be sure that both the PRC and the United States are monitoring the election closely.

After the election, I will have more to say about the carefully negotiated political relationship between the two Chinas, and what the outcome of the election might mean for the future of cross-strait relations.

Submitted by Aaron C. Brown, Vice Chair of the Board of the World Affairs Council of Seattle. The comments of the author do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the World Affairs Council or its affiliates.