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[Ana Palacio] The good news from Taiwan

Feb. 1, 2024 - 05:30 By Korea Herald

International media are brimming with pronouncements that the West is in decline. The institutions that have formed the foundation of the rules-based international order since World War II are on the brink of collapse, we are warned, and the principles that underpin our open societies have been eroded.

These claims are not baseless, and there is plenty of reason to pay attention to them. But it is too soon to write off the West, let alone democracy. At the very least, we should wait to see what happens over the course of this year, when elections will be held in countries representing half the global population.

Of the elections that have taken place so far, Taiwan’s recent presidential and legislative polls are the most significant. Given the island’s role in the US-China rivalry -- which can be understood as a contest between democracy and autocracy -- the vote may turn out to be a kind of bellwether.

That would be good news. Though the Democratic Progressive Party lost its parliamentary majority to the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT), Taiwanese voters chose the DPP candidate, Lai Ching-te (also known as William Lai), as their next president. Voters showed that they prefer continued democratic governance and greater engagement with the world, not least the West, to subservience to China (and, ultimately, reunification).

Not surprisingly, China’s government has not exactly welcomed Lai’s victory. Last year, when then-Vice President Lai visited the US, the Chinese Foreign Ministry called him a “troublemaker through and through” who “stubbornly adheres to the separatist position of Taiwan independence.” Since the election, Chinese officials have warned that, as president, Lai would put cross-strait relations in “severe danger.”

Equally ominous, while the DPP described the elections as pitting democracy against autocracy, the KMT framed the choice as one of war or peace. And the day before the vote, a Chinese defense ministry spokesman pledged to take “all necessary measures” to “smash” separatist plots “in any form.” This has raised fears that China will pursue reunification – which Chinese President Xi Jinping considers a “historical inevitability” – more forcefully in the wake of Lai’s victory, possibly even launching a military invasion of the island.

China’s current economic troubles -- including slowing growth, soaring youth unemployment, falling foreign investment, declining exports, property-market turmoil, and deflationary pressure -- might make such action more likely. As Russian President Vladimir Putin and others have shown, nothing distracts people’s attention from declining living standards quite like a nationalist crusade.

Reunification by force would have far-reaching consequences. For starters, it would upend the fragile balance in the US-China rivalry. The US has long maintained a policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan, but were China to invade the island, the US would finally have to decide: let China take what it wants or defend Taiwan from Chinese forces, resulting in a dangerous clash between the world’s two biggest military powers.

Then there are the economic implications. The Taiwan Strait is central to global maritime trade: last year, 88 percent of the world’s large container ships passed through it. Moreover, Taiwan produces more than 60 percent of the world’s semiconductors, and over 90 percent of the most advanced chips. With this in mind, Bloomberg estimates that a war over Taiwan would cost the world about $10 trillion, or 10 percent of GDP -- far more than the 2008 global financial crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, or the Ukraine war.

Fortunately, there is little reason to think that Lai’s electoral victory will trigger an immediate Chinese invasion. In fact, Xi’s response to the vote has so far been muted. Perhaps he has decided to limit his saber-rattling over Taiwan in the run-up to the US presidential election, for fear that it would give a boost to the likely Republican nominee, Donald Trump, who made confrontation with China a central theme of his first term in office.

Western leaders have walked a fine line in their responses to the Taiwanese election. While US Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated the island’s people for “demonstrating the strength of their robust democratic system and electoral process,” US President Joe Biden reiterated that the US does not support independence.

Similarly, the German Foreign Office released a statement noting “how much (Taiwanese) voters aspire to democratic values” and expressing a desire to expand its relations with the island – but only “within the framework” of the one-China policy. The French Foreign Ministry noted that the “free elections” showed “how firmly democracy is rooted in Taiwan,” but did not mention Lai by name.

But even these tactful responses may get under China’s skin. After all, the Communist Party of China has long claimed that liberal democracy is incompatible with Chinese culture. In this sense, a prosperous, democratic Taiwan is the CPC’s worst nightmare. And as Western leaders have highlighted, a prosperous, democratic Taiwan is precisely what we have today.

Taiwan’s democracy is all the more impressive for being so young: The island’s first presidential election was held only in 1996, after four decades of martial law under the KMT. Today, Taiwan is considered one of only three consolidated democracies in Asia, along with Japan and South Korea.

The recent Taiwanese elections re-affirmed the liberal-democratic values that are under attack in much of the world -- and unequivocally rejected the alternative. As Lai put it in his victory speech, Taiwan “will continue to walk side by side with democracies around the world.” If elections elsewhere this year yield similar results, the island will continue to have plenty of companions.

Ana Palacio

Ana Palacio, a former foreign minister of Spain and former senior vice president and general counsel of the World Bank Group, is a visiting lecturer at Georgetown University. -- Ed.

(Project Syndicate)