voice for democracy

Opinion | The battle to protect Taiwan's democracy is already underway – The Washington Post

Americans are becoming concerned about China’s increasingly menacing military stance toward Taiwan. But the talk about whether Chinese President Xi Jinping intends to take the island by force obscures a more complex struggle. Beijing’s campaign to exert pressure and influence on the island — mostly in nonmilitary ways — is intensifying, and Taiwan needs more help from the United States and its partners to counter it.
President Biden seems to get this, but he has struggled to convey a clear and consistent message on Taiwan. On Monday, Biden and Xi took part in a virtual summit. The next day, Biden made a remark that seemed to contradict the United States’ carefully calibrated policy of “strategic ambiguity,” according to which the U.S. government avoids taking a public position on whether Taiwan is an independent country.
“It’s independent. It makes its own decisions,” the president told reporters. Biden later clarified that he was “not encouraging independence,” saying that the Taiwanese people could choose it if they wanted to. “Let them make up their mind. Period,” he said.
The White House played down the president’s comments, affirming that U.S. policy is based on the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (which Biden voted for as a senator) and repeating the long-standing talking point that “the United States strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo.”
It is possible that Biden simply misspoke, but just last month he also made comments on Taiwan in which he seemed to be saying the quiet part out loud. Asked whether the United States would defend Taiwan in the case of a Chinese attack, the president said, “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.” The White House quickly clarified again that U.S. policy hadn’t changed.
Both of these gaffes were unintentionally revealing. They showed that Biden truly believes in preserving the democracy and freedoms that Taiwan enjoys right now, enabling the island to make its own decisions about its future. Meanwhile, the Taiwanese government, led by President Tsai Ing-wen is loudly warning that the threat from China is not just military, that it is “increasing every day,” and that 23 million Taiwanese citizens are fighting to preserve liberal democracy.
“If we fail, then that means people that believe in these values would doubt whether these are values that they (should) be fighting for,” she said last month.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) led a congressional delegation to Taiwan last week and met with Tsai and other political and business leaders there. During an interview, Cornyn told me that the United States has to marshal the international community in a more comprehensive effort to bolster Taiwan’s economic resilience, and not just help Taiwan arm itself to deter a physical attack by China.
“This has been a discussion about, ‘How do we prevent an invasion of Taiwan?’ This trip convinced me, we need to open the aperture and look at other ways that we can deter China,’ he said. “The key to deterrence is to rely on the thing the [People’s Republic of China] does not have, which is our friends and allies in the region.”
The United States and its partners also have a practical incentive for defending Taiwan, Cornyn told me. The island is a critical node in the high-technology supply chains the world depends on. The deal between Taiwanese chipmaker TSMC and the Trump administration to build a semiconductor factory in Arizona is just one small example of how Taiwan has become integrated into U.S. supply chains (and vice versa). Some call this relationship a “silicon shield,” because it links Taiwan’s survival to our economic security.
Allies including Japan, India and Australia are all becoming more vocal about the fact that Taiwan’s fall would be a problem not just for Taiwan, but for the region as a whole. To its credit, the Biden administration has been cautiously moving to coordinate its Taiwan policy with these countries. But much more needs to be done.
There’s no shortage of ideas on how to increase U.S.-led international support for Taiwan, helping it to maintain its democracy without “encouraging independence.” The Biden administration could open free-trade talks with Taiwan and encourage other countries to do the same, expand government-supported cooperation in the private and nongovernment sectors, push harder for Taiwan’s inclusion in international organizations, and actively thwart Beijing’s attempts to pry away Taiwan’s last few remaining diplomatic allies.
“The long-term military threats to Taiwan are increasing,” said Russell Hsiao, executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington. “But the more immediate threats are actions taken by China that fall into the realm of hybrid warfare and political warfare aimed at subverting institutions and eroding the psychological resiliency of the people of Taiwan.”
The United States’ “strategic ambiguity” about Taiwan’s independence should not stop us from setting out clear policies on how we will help Taiwan to stay free, democratic and prosperous. This objective must be a U.S. national security priority. Deterring China from a military invasion is only one piece of that puzzle.
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