China: A Threat to Security, Prosperity, and Way of Life
Remarks by Olin Wethington at the Indo‐Pacific Security Dialogue
40th Anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act
I have visited Taiwan many times.
My first visit was in 1969; I lived and studied here for almost a year. I have experienced first‐hand the evolution in what is today the largest Chinese speaking democracy in the world. Taiwan’s commitment to democracy, the vibrancy of its civil society and the strength of its economy reflect the common aspirations of the human spirit.
Taiwan is a beacon for the Indo‐Pacific region and for all Chinese people.
I am confident my country, the United States, is fully aligned with Taiwan in the pursuit of these goals and in resisting external coercion, in enlarging Taiwan’s participation in the international community and in jointly seeking with Taiwan to promote good governance, the rule of law and respect for human rights throughout the Indo‐Pacific region. We have a durable partnership based on shared interests and shared values.
At the outset, I underscore the universal appeal of democracy. Respect for human rights and the desire for freedom are universal values.
I paraphrase the often‐quoted statement of American President Ronald Reagan that “respect for fundamental human rights and freedom are not the sole prerogative of a chosen few, but rather are the universal right of all God’s children.”
In this interconnected, highly mobile and porous modern world I do not believe that non‐democratic authoritarian governance is long‐term a viable organizing principle. It lacks sustaining content and is unresponsive to the innate human yearning to be free. For seven decades, free nations have been guided by common principles to advance freedom, prosperity, and security. The resulting liberal rules‐based order built on the foundation of democratic values and human dignity has improved the lives of billions of people globally.
However, today freedom and liberal democracy are under intensive attack by modern authoritarian states.
Failure to meet this challenge and with urgency will be costly. We are called upon — the United States and Taiwan, and other like‐minded countries‐‐to make the case anew for the core principles of liberal democracy and respect for human rights — and to explain more persuasively why democracy matters and to take the concrete actions needed to invigorate democratic governance. Moreover, where our vital national interests are at stake, we cannot be neutral as to the impact of government on its citizenry.
We live in a dynamic world, in a world with competing ideologies possessing vast military capabilities that can degrade life or even end life as we know it. We must be prepared ethically and intellectually to defend and to extend democratic principles‐‐pro‐actively in ways that have practical benefit and consequence.
Nonetheless, we must frankly and with self‐awareness acknowledge that at least for the past decade, and for many reasons, democracy globally, including in advanced liberal democracies, has been in retreat.
We must recognize that maintaining the quality of democracy is a continuous, never‐ending process.
Let us begin by taking care of the quality of our democracy at home. To that end, we must within our respective domestic political environment nurture a respectful civic dialogue. Such dialogue is essential for sustaining the kind of centrist consensus sufficient to undergird our belief in the rule of law and in freedom.
Turning to Taiwan in a global context, let me reference the two leading indices of freedom: the annual index of Freedom House and of the Economist Intelligence Unit.
In Freedom House’s 2019 FITW report, Taiwan was ranked #22 globally from the top out of 162 countries rated. Among Indo‐Pacific countries, only Australia, New Zealand and Japan ranked higher. Mainland China was ranked near the bottom at #144 out of 162 countries rated.
In the 2018 Economist Democracy index, Taiwan ranked #32 out of 167 countries rated; again, in the Indo‐Pacific only New Zealand, Australia and Japan ranked higher. China ranked #130 out of 167. The contrast could not be more striking and what is worth defending more self‐evident.
The global community of democracies faces many threats to our security, prosperity, and way of life, but China is the foremost state‐based challenge of our time and probably for decades to come.
China is the only country globally able to pose security and ideologically challenges to the liberal rules‐based democratic order — despite the many domestic difficulties it faces. In this regard, it remains to be seen whether China can escape the middle‐income trap and become a high‐income country while maintaining internal repression. I am doubtful, but this may take some time to become evident. In the meantime, China represents a threat to regional stability and security.
On January 2, 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that China made no promise to renounce the use of force against Taiwan to compel unification. Such remarks constitute a disturbing threat to the international order and a challenge to peace in the Indo‐Pacific. This threat of force against Taiwan is part of a larger context of external aggression, witness China’s activity in the South China Sea and rising internal repression.
Although the conventional military threat from China is increasing, for Taiwan a cross‐Strait invasion is not the only immediate security concern. Rather, of grave concern are the influence operations and information warfare by China against a free society, including disinformation, efforts to inflame societal divisions, use of money to buy loyalty and to exert coercion, cyber hacking, and media manipulation to erode trust in public institutions.
In my view, China’s intention is to undermine and ultimately destroy Taiwan’s democracy.
More broadly, what China is seeking to do to Taiwan is a wake‐up call for all democracies.
Taiwan demonstrates that prosperity does not require repression.
Taiwan’s example is not tolerable for Beijing; it plays into Beijing’s deep insecurity. Beijing’s insecurity manifests itself in rising internal repression of speech, expression, and dissent and in total societal surveillance. And, Beijing is increasingly exporting its digital authoritarianism to free societies. The United States faces a similar challenge from China.
Moreover, Hong Kong trends demonstrate that “one country, two systems” has little appeal.
This brings me to allies and partnerships in the Indo‐Pacific region and the importance of joint US‐Taiwan efforts on behalf of good governance, rule of law, transparency, and respect for human rights. So, more specifically, how can Taiwan and the United States together work regionally to promote democracy and strengthen the liberal rules‐based order?
What should be part of a coordinated, collaborative diplomacy to enlarge democracy in the Indo‐Pacific? I would very briefly highlight six elements:
Good governance at home: Nothing is more important than the quality of our domestic governance (I apply this to both the United States and Taiwan): Respect for human rights at home: free press, an independent judiciary, and due process. Civic education — stronger public understanding of democratic principles: the values of decency, respect, and thoughtfulness. The verdict on freedom is still out and the world is looking for leadership from the world’s leading democracies. The world will be impressed by what it observes.
Sustainable institutional architecture in the Indo‐Pacific, including Taiwan: The democratic community in the Indo‐Pacific is twice the population of China’s authoritarian model. We have a powerful foundation of shared values around which to build a sustainable architecture of prosperity and security, including the enlargement of Taiwan’s participation in various international organizations and mechanisms. We must invest in partnerships with other democratic countries and in building durable common institutions and arrangements, including free trade arrangements, regional security understandings, intelligence‐sharing, humanitarian arrangements and programs fostering good governance and rule of law.
Coordinated and cooperative public diplomacy by the United States and Taiwan with like‐minded regional partners: emphasizing shared democratic values and respect for human rights, freedom from election interference and respect for the right of people to settle political disputes without violence, coercion or intimidation. In addition, this might involve joint regional democracy‐strengthening programs, including proactive media outreach, media literacy education and strengthening of civil society, funded by foreign assistance and focusing on countries at critical junctures.
Sunshine: Strengthening laws that guard against foreign influence by relying on transparency and disclosure. Social media companies should be required to report foreign efforts to spread online disinformation. There should also be mandatory public disclosure of ownership of media companies, directly or indirectly, and public disclosure of campaign donations and of purchase of political or policy advertising. We should also shine the light on human rights abuse; treatment of ethnic minorities in China comes immediately to mind.
Cyber defense and cybersecurity: We should enlarge the investment in systems and technologies to defend against aggressive cyber action by foreign parties and to protect databases and communications from foreign penetration, including investing in election infrastructure to guard against foreign interference in balloting. Private sector collaboration and innovation will be key to cybersecurity solutions.
Wider multilateral regulation of critical technologies that facilitate internal repression or have national security implications: This would include prohibitions on certain China‐produced equipment being deployed into core telecom networks; regulation of transfer of critical technologies to mainland Chinese entities; and review and prevention of Chinese investment in firms possessing critical technologies with national security and internal repression implications.