Taiwan as a Cultural and Ideological Factor in Sino-American Relations

Taiwan is also an important factor in Sino-American relations because of certain cultural and ideological considerations. In general, calculations of security interests in strategy and policy mostly belong to a realist frame of analysis. Calculations of cultural and ideological factors in strategy require a different approach, one based on an appreciation of deeply held values and expectations of the majority of a country’s population over several generations.

The cultural values and expectations of the people of the United States, China, and Taiwan are not supportive of a communist party-led state. Whereas the United States reflects an historical tradition of representative democracy, decentralized authorities, and high levels of personal freedom and liberty, China and Taiwan do not have the same mix of historical traditions. Over their history, the people of China and Taiwan have shown a high degree of toleration for authoritative systems, especially when the cost of opposition was high. However, in circumstances where the Chinese or Taiwanese people have had an opportunity to live under more liberal circumstances (as demonstrated in Singapore, Hong Kong, and the Republic of China on Taiwan), they have enthusiastically embraced those political and social alternatives — even though their forms of democracy and degrees of personal freedom reflected their own cultures and did not exactly mirror those of the West.

If given a choice, the people of Taiwan (and probably a large percentage of the people of mainland China if viable alternatives existed) would prefer not to be governed by the Communist Party of China (CPC). There is no compelling reason for the United States to either support the continuation of the current political system on mainland China or to facilitate the importation of communist party rule into Taiwan.

The United States has a long tradition of promoting American values such as freedom and democracy. At the same time, Washington has learned at great expense the difficulty of trying to impose such ideology and political processes on other countries. Because of the strong sense of Chinese (and Taiwanese) self-identification, it would almost certainly be counterproductive for the United States to pursue active intervention to try to reform China’s political system or to dictate the direction of Taiwan’s evolving democracy. It would, however, be in U.S. interests to explain theories of democracy and freedom through various communications channels. It goes without saying that the American tradition of supporting human rights and opposing gross violations of those rights ought to continue as a matter of decency.

In terms of Sino-American strategic relations, a carefully nuanced and balanced U.S. approach in the areas of culture and ideology seems most appropriate. The United States ought not to seek regime-change in mainland China. Nor should Washington accept the argument that imposition of China’s government on the people of Taiwan may be an acceptable cost justified by efforts to improve U.S.-PRC relations. In this respect, the cultural and ideological aspects of U.S. policy towards China and Taiwan play important roles in maintaining certain parameters preventing Taiwan from being expendable in East Asian power politics.

In terms of Chinese culture, the value of the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan has diminished in recent years. In the past, that value was strong because of the preservation of traditional Chinese culture on Taiwan while the mainland was undergoing cultural “cleansing” under CPC policies enacted during the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and other devastating political, economic, social, and cultural movements. In more recent years, the CPC has recognized the value of traditional Chinese culture and has sought to preserve and restore many elements of that culture to strengthen national pride. By contrast, on Taiwan the power and influence of the mainlanders has weakened considerably while that of the Taiwanese has risen. Today, many Chinese cultural symbols on Taiwan have been replaced by those native to Taiwan itself. As a result, one can say that, currently, mainland China is more successful in preserving Chinese culture than Taiwan. On the other hand, the DPP has shown little interest in contributing to Chinese culture; rather, it focuses on building a stronger sense of uniquely Taiwanese culture as part of its strategy to create a consensus supporting an independent Taiwan nation-state.

In terms of ideology, during the early stages of the Cold War, the ROC was a leader of anti-communist movements in the Asia-Pacific region. At that time, there was fierce rivalry between Beijing and Taipei over the ideological future of the Chinese people, a rivalry reflected in the polarization of many overseas Chinese communities. Over time, with the weakening of the KMT’s power on Taiwan and the growing success of the CPC’s more tolerate application of socialism on the mainland, the ideological factor in the triangular U.S.-PRC-Taiwan relationship receded in importance. Today, the intense ideological rivalry between the PRC and ROC has been replaced by a more global  rivalry between China’s political, economic, and social model for national development and modernization and the U.S. model of democracy, capitalism,  and personal freedom of expression.

Overall, from the perspective of cultural and ideological factors influencing Sino-American strategic relations, the cultural factor has diminished in importance while the ideological factor has shifted in focus to the competitive modernization models offered by the United States and China. In an era of Sino-American strategic competition, the likelihood of Washington continuing its support of Taiwan’s fledgling democracy is high, because the freedom of Taiwan’s 24 million inhabitants is viewed as being both symbolically and morally important.