Why Australia should be celebrating Taiwan’s free elections

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The National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Wall: the island belies the view than democracy is for the West

By Professor Rory Medcalf

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has underscored that 2024 will be a year of democracy, with more elections worldwide than ever before.

For all the global angst about autocracy, the aspiration of people to pick their leaders remains strong. Nowhere is this felt more than in Taiwan, whose voters go to the polls on January 13.

This is not only an island occupying a vital strategic and economic position, but a self-ruled and democratic polity of more than 23 million people.

President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has proven formidable. Her achievements include exemplary handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and resistance of China’s military coercion.

Paul Keating has previously denigrated Taiwan’s democracy as merely “municipal”. This is odd, given that Tsai’s 8.17 million votes in 2020 look more than respectable alongside the Keating government’s zenith of 4.75 million first preferences in 1993.

But now Tsai has reached her two-term limit. Opinion surveys suggest her anointed DPP successor, Lai Ching-te, holds a slight lead (38.9 per cent) in a contest with Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang or KMT (35.8 per cent) and Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party or TPP (22.4 per cent).

The DPP is the party most associated with a distinct Taiwanese identity and profound mistrust of President Xi Jinping’s China. It was born championing democratic rights against KMT martial law in the 1980s.

A third DPP term would underscore how enduringly Xi and his suppression of Hong Kong have alienated Taiwanese people from any model of “reunification”. But any Taiwanese government will remain wary of declaring independence.

For its part, a KMT-led government would more likely resume dialogue across the strait on terms acceptable to Xi. Originally the party of the pre-communist Chinese republic, the KMT took refuge on Taiwan when Mao’s forces won a grinding civil war in 1949. It has gone from being the oppressive elite of pre-democratic Taiwan to the conservative voice in Taipei most acceptable to Beijing today.

Ko’s TPP is a recent third force, more than a protest but not an alternative government, benefiting from anti-incumbency.

How this contest resolves is the business of Taiwanese voters.

The Australian government should congratulate them on the exercise of their democratic rights – and be ready to join criticism of outside interference.

Australia’s “One China Policy” acknowledges but does not endorse Beijing’s claim that Taiwan is a province of China. The values a democratic and progressive Australia cares for – inclusion, diversity, self-determination, free expression, civil liberties, respect for First Nations – are upheld more in Taiwan than anywhere else in Asia.

Too often Taiwan is depicted as just a proxy for American power, a flashpoint in US-China tensions where devastating war could begin.

It’s sad that many otherwise politically aware Australians seem reluctant to notice this. One can only hope there is no lingering prejudice that Chinese culture is somehow unsuited to democracy.

In fact, Taiwan is a democratic model in the Chinese-speaking world. It disproves the nonsense that only Western people cherish a free society. And unlike Australia, where rights seem taken for granted, Taiwan’s democracy is the fruit of struggle and under daily siege.

President Xi has reiterated that Taiwan will “surely be reunified”. Beijing has tightened military pressure in recent years, with frequent incursions by warplanes and simulations of blockade and bombardment.

This combines with constant propaganda, influence and interference operations. The Taiwanese electoral landscape is assailed by AI-generated disinformation, including deepfake videos. It’s a laboratory in how to identify and counter next-level electoral manipulation by anyone anywhere.

Complex history

Such early warning for our own democratic resilience is just one self-interested reason to watch Taiwan. This developed economy is also Australia’s sixth-largest export market and seventh-largest partner in two-way trade. Its dominance of advanced semiconductor manufacturing makes it crucial to global technology chains.

Too often Taiwan is depicted as just a proxy for American power, a flashpoint in US-China tensions and the place devastating war could begin. Yes, the risk of conflict remains real, and Australia should work with America, Japan and others in signalling deterrence – economic as well as military. If warfare begins, business ends.

War would be an economic and human catastrophe for China and the world, with repercussions greater than Ukraine and the Middle East.

China’s achievements in wealth, power and human wellbeing have advanced for decades with no need to invade Taiwan. The tragedy is that leadership in Beijing has doubled down on an ideological fixation which mortgages the fortunes of 1.4 billion Chinese people to subduing a society that has never been part of the People’s Republic.

Taiwan’s real history is so bewildering it may be safest left in the past. For it can be read several ways.

Against the simple reunification narrative, for example, it could be provocatively argued that Beijing’s claim on Taipei is not so far from the absurd hypothetical of London wanting Dublin “back”.

Han colonisation gathered pace when the invading Manchu Qing dynasty crossed the water to eradicate exiles of their Ming predecessors in the 1600s – the era when Cromwell and William of Orange did their brutal bit for union across the Irish Sea.

Pursuit of regime consolidation and strategic depth meant island conquest and centuries of grievous consequence for indigenous populations.

Of course, the analogy is imperfect. Most Taiwanese today descend from Han migrants and the island’s history includes phases of occupation by European powers and imperial Japan. And whereas Irish independence is right and undeniable, there are overwhelming reasons to perpetuate a status quo of ambiguity about Taiwan.

But within that complexity there is more Australia can do, as academics Ben Herscovitch and Mark Harrison argue in a recent Lowy Institute report. Australia, they note, could reflect economic relations with Taiwan through regular ministerial contact.

We could follow New Zealand’s example and negotiate a free trade agreement. We could support Taiwan’s membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, a quality trade arrangement where it eminently belongs.

And perhaps there’s more to creatively consider, such as dialogue on critical infrastructure, supply chains and cybersecurity – protecting economies, statehood aside.

Stabilisation with China matters. Smart Australian statecraft can balance it with diversified interests and the values that define our own democracy.

Professor Rory Medcalf AM is Head of the ANU National Security College.
This article originally appeared in The Australian Financial Review on 6 January 2024.


Why Australia should be celebrating Taiwan’s free elections

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