Foreign Policy /

OPINION: Taiwan Should Be Admired—And Defended—By The World

If Taiwan, a model of freedom, prosperity, and human rights is not worth defending, what is?

Taiwan successfully transitioned from a single-party dictatorship to a democracy and grew a powerful economy in the 1980s. Today, Taiwan stands out as a modern democracy with civil and economic liberties.  They accomplished this with informal support from the U.S. and the international community, with no Western-led “nation building” necessary. The Taiwanese semiconductor industry developed a strong enough product that much of the world has become dependent on Taiwan. All this progress is on the verge of being destroyed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-led People’s Republic of China (PRC), the world’s most powerful dictatorship.

Taiwan’s evolution teaches how a transition from a military regime to a representative republic can be done properly — and is not worth sacrificing to appease the world’s most powerful dictatorship. In a rare showing of bipartisan solidarity of sorts in the ever-polarized United States, Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a trip to Taiwan with some support from her Republican colleagues, but notably lacking the approval of the Biden administration. A Congressional delegation visited Taiwan amid a looming threat from Communist China. Following Pelosi’s visit, the PRC’s military conducted war games around Taiwan, which were renewed after the subsequent visit of the U.S. Congressional delegation. As a CCP invasion of Taiwan could be on the horizon, the Biden presidency’s historic weakness, exhibited through the withdrawal of Afghanistan and inability to resolve the Russia-Ukraine conflict, would be ill-equipped to deal with yet another international crisis.

There are global economic ramifications to the health and well-being of Taiwan. Worldwide industries are dependent upon Taiwanese semiconductors. For instance, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a supply chain crisis, which further complicated American auto manufacturers’ reliance on the Taiwanese semiconductor industry, has created a shortage of new vehicles for the present and upcoming model years. In a global landscape in which Taiwan can serve as a model for other countries to follow, the stakes of Taiwan’s survival couldn’t be higher.

Modern History of Taiwan

Taiwan has had a complicated international status following the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. CCP Chairman Mao Zedong ultimately triumphed over Kuomintang (Nationalist) Generalissimo Chang Kai-shek. Chiang’s government, officially known as the Republic of China (ROC), became isolated to the island of Taiwan. The ROC enjoyed Western recognition as the official government of China until the 1970s, serving as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council between 1949 and 1971. In 1971, UN General Assembly Resolution 2758 was enacted, placing the CCP regime on the UN Security Council. The ROC-led Taiwan was essentially a single-party dictatorship led by Chiang. After his death in 1975, his son Chiang Ching-kuo assumed leadership of the Kuomintang Party and became president in 1978 following a three-year caretaker presidency. Taiwan-U.S. relations changed when U.S. President Jimmy Carter recognized the CCP as the government of China in 1979. The Taiwan Relations Act passed in Congress and signed by President Carter that same year allowed for informal relations.

While Chiang Kai-shek never committed atrocities on the scale of Mao’s Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution, the government operating in Taiwan was intolerant of dissent. During his tenure as President of the Republic of China, Chiang Ching-kuo took steps toward a democratizing process in the 1980s.

It was during this time that Taiwan also became renowned for its economic growth and development. Along with three other countries (South Korea, Singapore, and the then-autonomous province of Hong Kong), Taiwan was described by economists as one of the “Four Tigers,” “Asian Tigers,” or “Tiger Economies.” All four countries used import-substitution-industrialization in which the government in charge gave support to developing their own industries to create capital and eschew dependency on imported goods. These economies were successful in utilizing this strategy because they specialized in a particular product. In Taiwan’s case, the product was semiconductors. 

Democracy, Prosperity At Stake

Four decades later, the West is coming to realize the significance of manufacturing its own goods amid the unique economic threat of a CCP takeover of Taiwan. Partially awakened by the COVID-19 pandemic experience, the U.S. in particular has become painfully aware of an over-reliance upon questionable countries. As the recent strife and COVID-influenced economic contraction in now-CCP controlled Hong Kong illustrates, a CCP-run Taiwan would lose its civic freedoms and capacity for success. Hedging its bets regarding Taiwan’s uncertain future, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company began its development of a semiconductor factory in Arizona that was originally announced in 2020, breaking ground a year later in 2021.

Taiwan and South Korea have strengths beyond their status as “tiger economies.” Both are bastions of anti-communist democratic government facing a brutal communist power to their north (China and North Korea respectively). They also developed their industry during a dictatorship phase with state-directed development and successfully transitioned to democracy. Both of these countries illustrate how this can be accomplished. In 2018, South Korea’s status as an economic powerhouse was further solidified as its GDP surpassed that of Japan. While Eastern European countries such as Poland are also examples of countries that transitioned from authoritarianism or totalitarianism to democracy after the fall of Communism between 1989 and 1991, both the democracies of South Korea and Taiwan have attained greater economic success than the post-communist Eastern European democracies. As of 2022, according to the International Monetary Fund, South Korea’s GDP by purchasing power parity (PPP) ranking reached 14th in the world overall while Taiwan (at 19th in the world) ranked one place above Poland (at 20th in the world) — the highest ranking democracy that was part of the Warsaw Pact. 

Both Taiwan’s transition to democracy-led by the son of a longstanding dictator — and its economic success spurred by specialization — are two accomplishments to admire. It can’t be understated what a tragedy it is to have Taiwan — a relative “shining country on an island” in terms of democratic and capitalism-based economic prosperity and civic freedom — be dismantled by the CCP. If this occurs, the United States and democracies in the Pacific will lose an important ally. If Taiwan, a model of freedom, prosperity, and human rights is not worth defending, what is?

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