Taiwan will take part in a virtual U.S. Summit for Democracy this week after countries like China and Russia failed to make the list of attendees in another sign of American support for the East Asian democracy.
Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the United States, and Digital Minister Audrey Tang, will represent Taiwan at the meeting on Thursday and Friday alongside representatives from more than 100 countries and global institutions.
“This democracy summit is the White House sending a signal that democratic countries should support each other and to work together to enhance the human rights, freedom and democracy,” said Wang Ting-yu, a member of Taiwan’s legislature who sits on its Foreign Affairs & National Defense Committee.
Wang said Taiwan’s invitation to the summit was a “clear signal to Beijing” that Taiwan is a close ally and should be treated as a country, although its government is only recognized by 15 countries and the Holy See.
Despite its international exclusion, Taiwan regularly tops democracy rankings and placed first in East Asia and 11th globally in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2020 Democracy Index.
The United States and Taiwan do not have formal diplomatic relations but nevertheless the U.S. has been a major ally. Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. has pledged to help Taiwan defend itself from external threats.
The recent show of U.S. support comes at a difficult time in Taiwan-China relations. In October, China ramped up air incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, prompting Taiwan’s defense minister, Chiu Kuo-cheng, to say at the time that tensions were at their worst in 40 years.
In response to this threat, the U.S. has become more vocally supportive of Taiwan, which has included a recent statement from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken that China would face "terrible consequences" if it attacked Taiwan.
Beijing regards Taiwan, a democracy of 23 million people, as a wayward province and has not ruled out the use of force to unify it with the mainland.
Events like the U.S. Summit for Democracy are also an important way for Taiwan to maintain international visibility as it is locked out of most major organizations like the United Nations, said Yao-Yuan Yeh, the chair of the Department of International Studies and Modern Languages at the University of St. Thomas in Texas.
“The U.S. is likely to invite Taiwan to sit at the table whenever it can, but before a complete decoupling with China, the U.S. would still be cautious about such moves to avoid misperceptions from China,” he said.
Since taking office in January, U.S. President Joe Biden has attempted to reverse a course set by predecessor Donald J. Trump that saw the U.S. withdraw from many of its international obligations.
Biden has shifted toward a values-based foreign policy that portrays the world as a competition between democracies and authoritarian governments – a posture that appears to have struck a nerve with Beijing’s Communist Party.
After protesting its exclusion from the talks, China hosted a parallel democracy summit over the weekend and released two reports about what it called the state of democracy in China, comparing it to the United States.
China is an authoritarian country whose government is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. However, officials argue they are implementing “socialist democracy” which they say is a core value of China’s Communist Party. Despite the claim, Beijing ranks far below liberal democracies on measure of political freedom. China ranked 151 in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2020 democracy Index, placing it on par with Bahrain, Iran and Sudan.
China's State Council white paper "China: Democracy That Works,” however, has been heavily promoted on Twitter by state media and government accounts since its release on Saturday.
A Twitter video produced by the State Council Information Office says, “China did not follow the established path of Western countries in its modernization drive. Similarly, China did not duplicate Western models of democracy, but created its own.”
As part of the messaging campaign, the state-backed Global Times newspaper shared a graphic unfavorably comparing lower voter participation rates in the United States to the claimed 90% turnout in China.
Both should be taken as part of China’s greater effort to" promote its version of democracy and in challenge of what liberal democracies put out,” said Adam Ni, who publishes the newsletter China Neican about Chinese governance issues.
“It goes into this idea well why should democracy be something that only Western countries say is a democracy (but) people take democracy to mean different things.”