Supporting democracy abroad: Lessons learned in Taiwan

Learn more about Igor Khrestin .
Igor Khrestin
Bradford M. Freeman Managing Director, Global Policy
George W. Bush Institute

This week, I completed a successful visit to Taiwan with a high-level delegation led by the Global Taiwan Institute. The delegation met with Taiwan’s top leaders, including President Tsai Ing-wen, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, Digital Minister Audrey Tang, prominent think tanks, and the de facto U.S. Embassy, the American Institute in Taiwan. 
Several personal observations: 
1) Taiwan’s democracy is thriving and is an example to the region and the world. The January elections were a testament to the strength and durability of Taiwan’s democratic governance and the free will of the Taiwanese people. However individual nations choose to interpret the “one China policy,” it is clear from any visit here that Taiwan does not want to – and should never be considered – a part of authoritarian China. The U.S. and our democratic allies should treat Taiwan as a fellow democracy, with full autonomy and corresponding global privileges and opportunities. Taiwan’s leaders seek peace, stability, and democratic development. They do not seek to change the status quo. We should fully support them in this endeavor, and it is fully consistent with U.S. policy. 
As part of this policy, and as called for under U.S. law, the U.S. should demonstrate public support for Taiwan through high-level unofficial and official visits to the island. Unlike the Obama and Trump administrations who sent U.S. cabinet officials to Taipei, it appears that the current – and possibly future – Biden Administration will not do so. This is regrettable and does not go unnoticed in Taiwan. 
2) Taiwan is taking the threat from China seriously and is acting prudently. In our meetings with both defense and foreign policy officials, Taipei is laser-focused on both Beijing’s ongoing provocations in Taiwan’s territorial waters and its air defense identification zone (ADIZ), various other “gray zone” tactics, as well as the most-discussed, but less imminent, threat of a full-scale invasion. To prepare, Taiwan is increasing defense spending, contingency planning, and reserve mobilization. But Taiwan’s policy remains the same: to prevent escalation and to preserve peace in the Taiwan Strait. It is Beijing that continues to undermine it, not Taipei. 
Russia’s war against Ukraine has greatly sharpened Taipei’s focus. Taiwan understands that like Ukraine, it will have to defend itself fiercely, at least in the initial stages before any U.S.-backed cavalry arrives. That is if it arrives and in what form, because like Ukraine, Taiwan is not a treaty-backed U.S. ally. Then, as with Ukraine, Taiwan will be concerned with the depth and sustainability of U.S. support, and whether the political winds of change will not suddenly blow in the other direction. 
This is why Taiwan visibly, publicly, and vocally supports Ukraine. They know a Ukrainian victory is more likely to deter President Xi Jinping. Taiwan knows the good guys should stick together because the bad guys certainly do.