How the United States Can Support Taiwan’s Democracy

Next January, voters in Taiwan will go to the ballot box to elect their next leader. The election is consequential, coming after eight years of steady leadership by Tsai Ing-wen, who will step down as she reaches her term limit. Importantly, voters will be choosing a new leader at a time of significant cross-strait tension. Within the past month, Chinese military planes and ships have engaged in unsafe maneuvers that have put them within dangerously proximity to the U.S. military. As these events show, nowhere else in the world today has a greater risk of conflict than the Taiwan Strait.

Given the stakes, it is perhaps natural that U.S. officials and lawmakers are becoming more vocal about Taiwan’s future. For example, Congressman Michael McCaul (R-TX), the chairperson of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, recently referred to one of Taiwan’s leading presidential candidates from the Kuomintang Party as Beijing’s “installed puppet candidate.” Congressman Seth Moulton (D-MA), a former Marine Corps officer and current rising star in the Democratic Party’s foreign policy circles, mused that threatening to “blow up” Taiwan’s leading semiconductor fabrication plant, TSMC, is an “interesting idea” to potentially deter China.

While these statements are likely motivated by a sincere concern over U.S. interests, they not only weaken the United States’ long-term influence over events in the Taiwan Strait, they also undermine Taiwan’s democratic process at a time when its integrity will matter the most.

First, the United States’ overriding interest is in a healthy, resilient, and confident Taiwan. A core pillar of this is its consistent and predictable democratic process, which depends on a competitive multiparty system and most importantly, the free expression of the will of the Taiwan electorate. The people of Taiwan have agency for their own future through their democratic processes. The more that U.S. leaders elide Taiwan’s own interests, the less influence the United States will have over Taiwan’s future choices. As a foremost supporter of Taiwan’s democracy, U.S. leaders need to act with an awareness of the importance of supporting Taiwan’s competitive multiparty system as a whole and resist the temptation to favor a given party or candidate. Just as U.S. voters and electoral candidates expect foreign leaders to remain out of our domestic politics, U.S. officials should remain on the sidelines of Taiwan’s democratic process.

Second, there is no compelling evidence to support claims that the Kuomintang (KMT) serves as “Beijing’s puppet.” While it is true that members of the opposition KMT have questioned President Tsai’s efforts to build closer relations with the United States, such views are fair game in contested elections and an open, pluralistic society. The world is full of opposition parties who pursue electoral advantage by challenging the decisions of the incumbent party in power. Taiwan’s presidential candidates likely will have a spirited debate in the coming months over how best to protect Taiwan’s security. Some will argue for closer ties with the United States. Others will advocate for lowering tensions with China. The election will offer Taiwan’s voters a choice, which is theirs alone to exercise. By respecting this freedom for the people of Taiwan to select their own leaders, the United States can create a favorable contrast with China, whose efforts to influence electoral outcomes in Taiwan are well-documented.

Third, while the outcome of the election will be important in setting Taiwan’s direction for the next four years, it should not be treated as existential. Taiwan will not embrace unification with China if the KMT prevails any more than China will automatically invade Taiwan if the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party wins. Taiwan’s voters have demonstrated themselves to be consistently moderate in their preferences on cross-strait issues, and their preferences will generate demand for aspiring leaders to meet. According to the latest polling data available from the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University, the vast plurality of Taiwan’s voters favor some variation of the current status quo. Taiwan’s political parties are forced to navigate this reality, which acts as a break on the more extreme voices within the political system.

Finally, regardless of how Taiwan’s presidential election plays out, Washington will need to work closely with the newly elected leadership. This imperative demands that U.S. officials and policymakers remain strictly neutral in their positions and statements about the upcoming election. The Biden administration rightly has signaled its determination not to register a preference in Taiwan’s electoral process. Other elected leaders should embrace a similar approach.

As Beijing seeks to isolate and coerce Taiwan, it is imperative that U.S. policymakers bolster the island’s confidence, resolve, and resilience. The best strategy, then, for those looking to advance U.S. interests in the region and to support Taiwan is to cheer on a vibrant democracy’s peaceful efforts to transfer political power through a popular vote.

Jude Blanchette is the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Ryan Hass is a senior fellow and the Michael H. Armacost Chair and the Koo Chair in Taiwan Studies at the Brookings Institution.

Ryan Hass

Senior Fellow and the Michael H. Armacost Chair and the Koo Chair in Taiwan Studies, Brookings Institution