Taiwan as a Political Factor in Sino-American Relations

Taiwan’s democracy makes the island’s future something of an existential factor in Sino-American strategic relations. From the point of view of the vast majority of Taiwan residents, there is very little appeal to unite politically with the communist-dominated mainland. From the point of view of the Communist Party of China (CPC), its revolution can never be finalized until Taiwan comes under its embrace and the Nationalist Party on Taiwan (Kuomintang, or KMT) is eliminated as a potential political rival. From the point of view of a large percentage of Americans, the people of Taiwan share common values of freedom, democracy, individual self-worth, and spiritual-based morality — shared values making Taiwan deserving of U.S. support in defending itself against possible aggression from Communist China. The fact that Taiwan is a democracy amplifies considerably the political sensitivity of the Taiwan issue in Sino-American relations, because — depending on which side of the ideological spectrum one stands — individual freedom is either a treasured human right or an inconvenience to centralized control of society.

The political sensitivity of the Taiwan issue is reflected in the domestic politics of the United States, China, and Taiwan. In the U.S., numerous resolutions in support of Taiwan are passed in most sessions of Congress, political platforms of the major parties often contain language supportive of Taiwan, administrations since the Korean War have voiced support for Taipei, and strong non-governmental relations between the American people and the people of Taiwan form a core level of support for the island that has persisted despite periodic shifts in official relations between Washington, Beijing, and Taipei. A similar level of governmental and private concern related to the Taiwan issue is reflected in both China and Taiwan. The reunification of the motherland has been fundamental PRC policy since its assumption of power on the mainland, and a strong determination to avoid absorption by Communist China has been an unassailable principle in Taiwan politics since  1949. The point to be made here is that the Taiwan issue in Sino-American relations is difficult to ignore or be fundamentally changed because each side’s position is pretty much bounded by domestic politics.

An additional and perhaps undervalued 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. Despite China being a communist party-led state, the Chinese people themselves are still evolving politically in a 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. There are several conditions under which a more democratic governance might emerge on mainland China, including: (1) the CPC may fail over time to retain the support of a large portion of the Chinese population; (2) governance in China may evolve over time away from a one-party dominant state to a political system allowing true competition between various political parties; and (3) Taiwan’s model of democracy may prove highly successful in blending Chinese and Western political values and institutions, and thus influence the system of governance on mainland China.  

In the mid-1800s, Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to America to access how its new democracy was working. In his analysis,  he noted many of the challenges facing the republic. These challenges are true of most democracies, and Taiwan as well as the United States must overcome them if their systems of democratic governance are to succeed. The challenges include: (1) a “tyranny of the majority,” with the majority believing that their numbers confirm their points of view while those lesser in number must necessarily be wrong; (2) decentralized power in which various interest groups pursue their own agendas at the expense of others and the larger national interest; (3) absence of a common allegiance to cultural values across all of these individual civic units; (4) tendencies toward extreme individualism, mediocrity, and the unpredictability of mass decisions; and (5) the lack of adequate mechanisms to correct these tendencies, such as regular elections, term limits on office holders, checks and balances woven throughout government, and a cultural tradition of uniting when faced with imminent threat.

Taiwan shares with the early American democratic experiment many of these weaknesses. And of the various challenges facing Taiwan’s democracy, perhaps the greatest is the cultural divide between the mainlanders, a minority of Taiwan residents who mostly arrived with General Chiang Kai-shek following the ROC loss of the mainland to the communists after World War II, and the Taiwanese, the majority of Taiwan resident who are mostly of Chinese ancestry but who lived on Taiwan for several generations before WWII. Most mainlanders consider themselves Chinese and desire eventual reunification of Taiwan with mainland China under a non-communist regime. Most Taiwanese consider themselves ethnically Taiwanese, not Chinese, and desire complete independence as a nation entirely separate from China. This chasm in self-identify and national goal between the residents of Taiwan means that, in the ebb and flow of political power between the KMT and the DPP, there are many instances of policies being implemented by both ruling parties that are perceived to be working against the basic interests of the opposing group. On Taiwan, there is not a common allegiance to cultural values across various civic units, and the institutions of government are sometimes used as oppressive instruments against the political party out of power. While these these characteristics are common among newer democracies, in Taiwan’s case it means that the existing Taiwan model of democracy does not offer too many positive examples for mainland China’s political development.

However, all governments evolve and many mature into better systems. Thus, the democratic experiment on Taiwan might eventually provide valuable lessons relevant to governance on China and perhaps other developing countries as well. Some of these lessons might emerge from policies based on: (1) a commitment on the part of both the KMT and DPP to put Taiwan’s national interests first, rather than giving priority to favored special interest groups; (2) the implementation of policies strengthening the common characteristics of Chinese culture shared by both mainlanders and Taiwanese, while at the same time recognizing the cultural traditions and heritage of the native Taiwanese; (3) the promotion of the value of mutual respect within society, including support to educational programs focusing on the proper balance between individual freedom and social responsibility; (4) a determination to ensure that the nation’s educational systems are based on science and fact, rather than ideology or politics; (5) foreign relations designed to protect national sovereignty while cooperating as widely as possible with other members of the international community; (6) a furtherance of people’s livelihood by strengthening the island’s production base and increasing Taiwan’s appeal as a destination for foreign investment; and (7) the establishment of international centers of excellence to study how democracy might succeed in a Chinese context. The basic aim of such policies is to instill a sense of big-mindedness in the leaders and citizens of Taiwan so that their political experiences with democracy can be successful and useful to the broader global community.

Ultimately, the importance of Taiwan as a political factor in Sino-American strategic relations is that a stable, prosperous, and well-functioning governance on the island can help maintain peace in the Taiwan Strait and further the political development of many countries worldwide.