Left: President-Elect Dr. Tsai Ing-wen and her team holding their first press conference.
I have just returned from Taiwan where I served as an International Election Observer. The result of the election was a historic victory for the opposition which has won the Presidency of the country and, for the first time since democracy came to Taiwan, captured control of the Taiwan parliament ( which is called the Legislative Yuan).
In light of the landslide and significant change of power, it is important to consider Taiwan’s future in the region, and more broadly in the unfolding geopolitical competition between China and the United States. Above all, we should look at the implications for the balance of power in the region and the defense needs of Taiwan.
The winning party is known as the Democratic Progressive Party or DPP. While it is a green party, strongly focused on domestic issues, it is also a pro-independence party. It is not soft on national security -to the contrary, it has a feisty regard for safeguarding Taiwan’s democracy and its social, intellectual, economic and political independence. One symbol of this independence could be heard at the victory rally as the election results rolled in: more than 70% of the speakers spoke in the Taiwanese language, and not in Mandarin Chinese. Hugely excited, the crowd cheered, “We are Taiwan” to the sound of drumbeats.
The message to China is loud and clear, and there is no way that China can miss the new Taiwan’s leadership direction. Immediately China clamped down on Internet reporting of the Taiwan election, so the Chinese people are now deprived of one of the fruits of democracy, the ability to change leaders or, as Americans like to say, the ability to throw the bums out. The bums rule in China with an iron fist.
Indeed, it is the iron fist that in the long run will kill China, slowly for now, more rapidly in future, certainly inexorably. The old idea, propagated by Chinese leaders, that democracy is incompatible with Chinese values, not only has been proven demonstrably false, but it also demeans China’s people and people elsewhere who have been closely watching what has taken place in Taiwan. Whether we mean mainland China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia or Singapore, the message is clear: a democratic self-government is the future, meaning too that democracy must function in a free and fair environment where the rule of law prevails and where threats and thuggery are thwarted.
It is not surprising that some Chinese cities, Hong Kong of course, but also Shanghai sent delegations to Taiwan to learn from Taiwan’s democratic process. There were others, even in our delegation, from well-established democracies such as Japan to less certain partially democratic countries such as Malaysia, who also could see for themselves. And when we know that some 5 million mainland Chinese are visiting Taiwan each year there is a lesson in that: that don’t come just to see Taiwan’s cities and towns: many are not as glorious and modern as some in China. What is remarkable about Taiwan are not monuments or great industries: it is the people who are what tourists from China encounter and learn from.
There is no shyness or reluctance on the island to celebrate free expression. Debate is lively. And new factors have entered the political scene both inside the DPP party and in a new, dynamic small party made up almost entirely of youth, even a hard rock heavy metal star who beat a competent and well established KMT party politician in the heart of what used to be KMT’s power base in the city of Taipei.
In fact, the youth in Taiwan are concerned, of course, with a range of social issues including good jobs and fair pay. But many are also troubled by too much dependence on China. Young businessmen and women do not want to be too dependent on China for trade, which is now accounting for 40% of Taiwan’s exports to the mainland. Not only are they subject to China’s business demands, but they see that dependence as a national security issue. Taiwanese investment in China is over the top, in the billions, but it does not yield security and only makes Taiwan more vulnerable to manipulation.
Above all the region is changing as Chinese military power grows and threatens its neighbors. Ironically, Taiwan, the most ostracized of countries, is considered an outcast by China and sometimes frowned on even by US officials and by bought-out “intellectuals” and academics, ironically is leading all of them with its high-flying democracy and obstinate independent outlook. As China becomes stronger, the nations on its periphery must unite and create a strategic and build better strategic ties.
Also, all of China’s littoral and near littoral countries need to beef up their defense -Taiwan especially.
For some time, Taiwan’s defenses have weakened, partly because the US administration has slow-rolled Taiwan’s defense requests and partly due to the outgoing Ma administration that was anxious not to provoke China. As a result, as China introduces new technology into its military in the form of accurate missiles, stealthy aircraft, and advanced submarines, Taiwan has been left treading water.
Taiwan’s defense strategy has to be built around the following axioms: a defense system capable of turning back any military invasion of Taiwan or its outlying properties; a military capable of inflicting severe costs on China if it attempts to use force to intimidate Taiwan; its own military forces that are qualitatively equal or superior to China’s; and a robust ability to survive any preemptive attack aimed at a knockout blow against Taiwan. One of the reasons submarines are so important to Taiwan’s security is that they are stealthy and almost certainly can survive a preemptive strike, and continue the fight if China preempts.
For the last 18 years, the US has not delivered on Taiwan’s requests for submarines, a reasonable request which successive administrations have said they support, but instead have run the Taiwanese around in circles, either demanding billions of dollars to deliver a solution or trying to shift the blame onto Taiwan. Taiwan, in fact, has dithered because it was unprepared to shoulder the huge price the US wanted to extract and because Taiwan lacked confidence that the price tag was indeed the final bill. Cost inflation is an increasing domestic issue in America: Taiwan’s leaders know it and resent being fleeced.
It is in the interest of the United States to assist Taiwan in being able to face down a Chinese threat, or survive one if it is launched. I led a high-level delegation to Taiwan in 1996 when China threatened to annihilate the island with missiles. It took two weeks before the Clinton administration finally got up enough gumption to move a carrier task force near Taiwan. That deployment turned the Chinese threat around and stood it on its head. Since then American administrations have let China throw its weight around without much of a counter. This worries serious national security experts in Taiwan, as it should.
Overall, the US has to reappraise its strategic posture and its “pivot” to Asia. Right now, the pivot looks too ephemeral; it needs flesh and bones. Some of that come from military coordination, early warning systems, hotlines and whatever also is needed to bring together the friendly military assets in the region, Taiwan included not pushed off to the side. Above all, the US cannot, and likely will not, be able to pivot to Asia without a much higher level of defense coordination and mutual support at the military level than now exists. A new policy from Washington is sorely needed. Leaders in the United States need to step up.
When American power is weaker than ever, and China is rising. We need to harness all available resources to weather the coming storm. Taiwan’s amazing election helps pave the way for change.