Taiwan as a Political Factor in Sino-American Relations

An additional factor in Sino-American strategic relations is the possibility that the democratic experiment on Taiwan might eventually yield positive lessons for the people of mainland China. Although China remains a communist party-led state, the Chinese people themselves are maturing politically through a century-long process of trying to find an appropriate political model to incorporate both the best of China’s past as well as its tremendous potential for the future. Having lost control of the mainland to the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 1949, the Republic of China under the Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Party, retreated to Taiwan where it remains to this day. The likelihood of the KMT regaining control of the mainland through force is extremely small, so the probable influence of the democratic ideals of Sun Yat-sen embodied in the ROC constitution on Taiwan will most likely occur indirectly over time. 

There are several factors which might facilitate a more democratic governance on China. Internally on the mainland, these factors might include: (1) failure of the CPC to retain the support of a large portion of the Chinese population, a development made possible if the CPC fails to reign in rampant corruption or is unable to deliver on its promises of making China great again; and (2) an evolution of governance in China away from a one-party dominant state to a more federalist system or a political system allowing political parties with alternative agendas to freely compete for popular support. Currently, the CPC promotes the myth that only it has the ability to govern China; however, the validity of that myth is fleeting, as demonstrated by the seemingly endless cycle of changes in government experienced by China over the centuries.

Externally from the mainland, factors which might facilitate a more democratic governance on China include: (1) a global change in perceptions away from seeing a retreat of Western influence and rise of Chinese influence — such as might occur should the current Chinese model fail to deliver the promised goods; and (2) significant political, economic, social, and cultural accomplishments on Taiwan due to improved democratic governance.

In considering these internal and external factors, it would seem that the CPC’s success or failure in governing China as a single dominant political party is mostly in the hands of the CPC itself, especially its leadership. A case can be made that CPC leadership could decide in the future, based on calculations of its own best interests, to allow more democratic elections due to popular sentiment or the need to placate an increasingly dissatisfied population.  Global perceptions of trends — e.g., which model is seen as being most promising for the future — is something beyond the control of any government except to the extent that such perceptions are more influenced by actual accomplishments than by ideology.

The primary means by which Taiwan might influence the evolution of China’s governance would seem to be the success or failure of Taiwan’s political model, which is really a form of democracy with Chinese characteristics. This factor rests mostly in the hands of Taiwan’s leaders, political parties, and ROC citizens. The degree of success in Taiwan’s governance has important implications for Sino-American strategic relations. A high degree of success might work in favor of influencing greater democratization on the mainland; such success would almost certainly provide a powerful incentive for the United States to continue maintaining strong ties with Taiwan and supporting its defense. Because of the importance of this political factor in Sino-American relations, we should consider how Taiwan’s democracy might best influence the system of governance on mainland China. (For the following discussion, I would like to express my appreciation to the ideas of my friend and colleague, Dr. John F. Copper, Professor Emeritus of International Studies from Rhodes College and one of the world’s greatest experts on Taiwan’s political development.)