“America will always believe Taiwan’s embrace of democracy shows a better path for all the Chinese people,” declared Vice President Mike Pence as he stood at the podium at the Hudson Institute on October 5. Against the backdrop of broader US-China friction and concerns, the vice president not only touted Taiwan’s democracy, but he chided China for how it is dealing with Taiwan’s diplomatic allies and foreign companies that work with Taiwan. In essence, the vice president’s comments broadcasted how Taiwan is setting a good example through its liberal constitutional democracy, rule of law, and political self-determination, even while its diplomatic partnerships and international space are shrinking.
While the response to the vice president’s speech was relatively muted within US domestic politics, it was amplified in the Asia Pacific, particularly between the United States and China, and in Taiwan’s cross-Strait relations. The vice president’s speech that day is officially titled: “Remarks on the Administration’s Policy Towards China.” As such, it was inherently focused on foreign policy and international politics. However, the speech made a relatively little splash in mainstream US domestic political discussion since it happened ahead of US midterm elections and amidst the controversy surrounding Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing. Nevertheless, it made a bigger impact on the global stage. Weeks after the speech, officials in China were still poring over it and harshly reacting to it. In international media, the speech has been compared to Winston Churchill’s landmark “Iron Curtain” speech in 1946, marking the start of the Cold War. During his 40-minute talk, the vice president explicitly mentioned Taiwan four times.
Re-emphasizing foundations of US-Taiwan relations
To place Vice President Pence’s quote about Taiwan’s “embrace of democracy” in context, he said (with italics added for emphasis), “while our administration will continue to respect our “One-China” Policy, as reflected in the three joint communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act, America will always believe Taiwan’s embrace of democracy shows a better path for all the Chinese people.”
In his opening points on Taiwan, the vice president explains that the foundation of US-Taiwan relations is built on existing US policies and laws. The three joint communiqués between the United States and China are the official policies that both sides set starting in the 1970s by Nixon, Kissinger, Mao, and Zhou. They deal with various aspects of the bilateral US-China relationship, but also US-Taiwan relations. Specifically, the Shanghai Communiqué mentions the US’ “one China policy,” which is: “[t]he United States acknowledges that Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.” (For more information regarding the “One-China Policy” read this Brookings’ paper by Richard C. Bush.)
Pence also referred to the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which is US law. It is specifically Public Law 96-8 of the 96th Congress, which says that the act was necessary to help “maintain peace, security, and stability in the Western Pacific,” and authorize, “the continuation of commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people of Taiwan.”
Rule of law and political self-determination
On this foundation of policies and laws, Pence highlighted how Taiwan has blossomed into a liberal constitutional democracy with free and fair elections in the four decades since the communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act. Taiwan held its first competitive election in 1996 leading to the election of President Lee Teng-hui, a member of the incumbent Kuomintang (KMT) party. Four years later in 2000, Taiwan held its second election and had its first political transition of power from the KMT to the opposition Democracy People’s Party (DPP) when President Chen Shui-bian was elected. There was another political turnover in 2008 which saw the KMT back into power, and again another political turnover in 2016 with the election of the current President, Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP party.
Through this process of democratization and political turnover, Taiwan has become governed by the rule of law, and not ruled by law. The difference between ‘rule of law’ versus ‘rule by law’ is that government officials and the people of Taiwan must follow the law under the rule of law. In a liberal constitutional democracy, the people formulate laws through their elected legislative representatives. The Taiwan government is constrained to follow laws through checks and balances between the various “yuan”–which is what it calls its branches of government. On the contrary, rule by law is when leaders–especially those in authoritarian and totalitarian regimes—use laws to justify their own preferences and power politics rather than reflect the collective will of the people through elected representatives in free and fair elections.
When Pence mentions Taiwan’s democracy, he is also speaking about how the people of Taiwan enjoy political self-determination. Taiwan is no longer a one-party government today, due to competitive elections over the past two and a half decades. The people vote to choose their own leaders, and can vote them in or out of office. Elected leaders in the executive and legislative branches are therefore sensitive to public opinion when making decisions. In this way, the people in a liberal constitutional democracy determine their own political futures.
Pence is explaining how Taiwan’s democracy is different from non-liberal, non-constitutional claims of democracy. North Korea is a totalitarian country and clearly not a democracy as Americans, Europeans, Japanese, South Koreans would know it, yet North Korea’s official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Furthermore, article one of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China states (with emphasis added): “The People’s Republic of China is a socialist state under the people’s democratic dictatorship led by the working class and based on the alliance of workers and peasants.” It juxtaposes “socialist,” “democratic,” dictatorship” all in the same sentence. Despite claims of democracy, when a country does not have rule of law, and does not have political self-determination, then it is not a liberal constitutional democracy.
Pence mentions Taiwan losing diplomatic allies
Secondly, Vice President Pence chided China for poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic allies by saying in his Hudson Institute speech, “since last year, the Chinese Communist Party has convinced three Latin American nations to sever ties with Taipei and recognize Beijing. These actions threaten the stability of the Taiwan Strait—and the United States of America condemns these actions.”
Pence is explaining how Taiwan has been losing its diplomatic allies to China at a high rate, especially over the past year. Taiwan lost one ally—Panama—in all of 2017, but it has already lost the Dominican Republic, Burkina Faso, and El Salvador in 2018. The US government is determined to take action to try to prevent this from happening in the future. In September, the United States recalled its ambassadors to the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Panama back to the United States over those countries’ decisions to no longer recognize Taiwan.
Reiterating “Orwellian nonsense”
Thirdly, Vice President Pence repeated the US government’s concern that China is pressuring US companies due to cross-Strait politics. He stated, “Chinese authorities have also threatened US companies that depict Taiwan as a distinct geographic entity, or that stray from Chinese policy on Tibet. Beijing compelled Delta Airlines to publicly apologize for not calling Taiwan a ‘province of China’ on its website.”
Five months before Pence’s October speech, the White House condemned exactly those same actions by China by calling them “Orwellian nonsense.” At that time, the White House made a statement that President Trump “will stand up for Americans resisting efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to impose Chinese political correctness on American companies and citizens.” In that same statement, the White House called China’s activities “Orwellian nonsense,” in reference to George Orwell’s classic book 1984 about a dystopian future where critical thought is suppressed under a totalitarian regime. Essentially, the US government is saying that China forcing its form of political correctness on foreign companies hearkens to a dystopian future where critical thought is bent toward its will.
As expected, China’s pundits and officials reacted vigorously to Pence’s speech. Chinese scholars said that the US and China are at a “serious tipping point.” The Chinese media called it “illogical and absurd.” Moreover, China’s foreign minister said the speech had “damaged our mutual trust.” As mentioned earlier, the international media has compared Pence’s speech to Winston Churchill’s landmark “Iron Curtain” speech in 1946.
In his Hudson Institute speech last month, Vice President Pence said that Taiwan’s embrace of democracy sets a good example for China. In addition, he said that China should refrain from poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, and China should not impose its form of political correctness on US and other foreign companies when it comes to Taiwan matters. Indeed, Taiwan is not only a good model for China, but for the entire region through its vibrant democracy, impressive rule of law, and political self-determination.
The main point: Vice President Pence’s speech on the Administration’s policy towards China explicitly mentioned that, “Taiwan’s embrace of democracy shows a better path for all the Chinese people.” Indeed, Taiwan is setting a good example for the whole region through its liberal constitutional democracy, rule of law, and political self-determination even while its diplomatic and international space is shrinking.