In 2020, then-Presidential candidate Joseph Biden warned that “democracies—paralyzed by hyper-partisanship, hobbled by corruption, weighed down by extreme inequality—are having a harder time delivering for their people. Trust in democratic institutions is down.” In response to this challenge, he announced that “during [his] first year in office, the United States will organize and host a global Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world. It will bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda. The Summit for Democracy will also include civil society organizations from around the world that stand on the frontlines in defense of democracy.”
Upon taking office in 2021, President Biden thus convened the Summit, with the participation of 100 governments as well as civil society organizations (CSO). The event provided a platform for leaders to announce both individual and collective commitments, reforms, and initiatives to defend democracy and human rights at home and abroad. The United States then worked with a number of governments from different regions of the world, including Korea, to co-host a second Summit in March 2023 and follow up on the commitments made. In the wake of the recent crises in Ukraine and the Middle East, Biden warned again that “the world faces an inflection point, where the choices we make will determine the direction of our future for generations to come.” He called on “allies and partners to stand up to aggressors and make progress toward a brighter, more peaceful future.”
Underscoring the President’s message, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan wrote that “strategic competition has intensified and now touches almost every aspect of international politics, not just the military domain” and emphasized the urgent need for the United States to “adjust to the main challenge it faces: competition in an age of interdependence.” As evidence of the pressing nature of this challenge, he argued that “This task was brought into stark relief by Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, as well as by China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea and across the Taiwan Strait.” He further stated that “the United States’ alliances and partnerships with other democracies have been its greatest international advantage. They helped create a freer and more stable world. They helped deter aggression or reverse it.” The Summit for Democracy, he pointed out, “has created an institutional basis for deepening democracy and advancing governance, anticorruption, and human rights—and getting fellow democracies to own the agenda alongside Washington.”
Expanding US-Taiwan Cooperation
Despite Beijing’s strong objections, President Biden invited Taiwan to participate in the Summit for Democracy, where Taiwan developed its own statement outlining broad commitments to advance democratic principles and practices at home and abroad. Under the “Summit Pillar: Defending Against Authoritarianism,” Taiwan specifically committed to work with other democracies “to foster a more open and enabling environment for international civil society organizations to act as a regional hub for international civil society.” In pursuit of this objective, Taiwan has facilitated the establishment of regional offices in Taiwan by several major international human rights-focused non-governmental organizations (NGO), including the Europe-based Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders and the US-based Freedom House, National Democratic Institute (NDI), and International Republican Institute (IRI).
At the same time, Taiwan and the United States have also expanded their cooperation under the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF), established by the Obama Administration in 2015. This platform has allowed partner nations and observers to benefit from Taiwan’s expertise to provide training and address global issues of mutual concern for officials and experts, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. Since its inception, the GCTF has held over 60 regional and international workshops across a broad range of subjects, including public health, law enforcement, e-commerce, energy efficiency, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and capacity building in areas such as anti-corruption, women’s empowerment, and combating disinformation. Japan and Australia were invited and joined as full partners of the GCTF in 2019 and 2021, respectively, while many other countries have also cohosted workshops. Recognizing its vital role, the US Congress has significantly increased funding for GCTF in recent years, with appropriation reaching USD $4 million in 2023.
Launching the Taiwan NGO Fellowship Program
In October 2023, the Taiwan Alliance in International Development (Taiwan AID) organized and hosted a month-long NGO Fellowship Program, funded by the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) and Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA, 中華民國外交部). The goal of this program was to provide training for young NGO professionals from South and Southeast Asia in order to enable regional NGOs to more effectively tackle problems of inequality and human rights in their own countries. During the first week of the program, Taiwan AID—a coalition of more than 30 Taiwan NGOs with operations at home and abroad—held a workshop that invited experts and leaders from major Taiwan NGO co-organizers to speak on subjects such as project management, fundraising, and advocacy. Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation (TAEF, 台灣亞洲交流基金會) Chairman Hsin-huang Michael Hsiao (蕭新煌) began the workshop by providing a historical overview of how the growth of NGOs and civil society had contributed to Taiwan’s remarkable democratic transformation over the past few decades. At the end of the workshop, the regional fellows joined other Taiwan NGO professionals in a roundtable to share their own experiences and exchange views on different ways to advance NGO goals.
Following this workshop, the fellows were then placed in different Taiwan NGOs according to their specific professional backgrounds in order to engage directly with their Taiwan counterparts in daily operations for another three weeks. As part of this year’s pilot program, the 10 Fellows (selected from a list of 172 applicants) hailed from NGOs in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Nepal (South Asia) and Myanmar, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam (Southeast Asia). The focuses of their various NGOs ranged from assisting remote villages in developing sustainable agricultural systems, drinking water supplies, and educational facilities to providing vocational training for persons with disabilities, menstrual hygiene management training for adolescent girls, as well as advocacy work for the rights of women and those suffering from HIV/AIDS. Many of these fellows had founded their own NGOs.
Through this program, these regional NGO fellows have derived valuable lessons from Taiwan NGOs and their operations that should help them advance their own work in improving conditions for disadvantaged populations in their own countries. This is critical in underscoring that, apart from offering direct foreign assistance, Taiwan is enabling regional NGOs to serve their own communities. As in the case of Taiwan, the work of these NGOs will thus build up and strengthen civil societies, which can in turn help sustain and spur the growth of democracies. More broadly, this program has also facilitated connections among regional NGO activists that will help create a support network among civil societies in Asia. Finally, these fellows have also come to learn more about Taiwan society and its history, while establishing close personal ties with Taiwan NGO professionals that they can continue to maintain after they return home. By building a regional NGO hub in Taiwan, this program also contributes to the positive expansion of Taiwan’s international space among like-minded civil societies and democracies in the region.
Forging a Values-Based Partnership
In response to President Biden’s key foreign policy initiative, the United States and Taiwan have thus moved forward with concrete actions through the Summit for Democracy, the GCTF, and the NGO Fellowship Program to begin forging a values-based partnership to combat corruption, advance good governance, and bolster civil societies “that stand on the frontlines in defense of democracy.” Nonetheless, as Sullivan noted, the challenges facing democracies in Asia remain very serious, especially given China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea and across the Taiwan Strait. At the same time, Beijing has become increasingly authoritarian at home—including in Hong Kong—while also supporting and enabling autocrats across the region.
Hence, it is critical at this “inflection point” that Taiwan and the United States redouble their efforts to work together to strengthen and expand these programs. In particular, they need to commit to continue and increase funding for the pilot NGO Fellowship Program, given the strong demand among NGOs in the region, and eventually establish a permanent, regional NGO center in Taiwan. As Sullivan pointed out, “the United States’ alliances and partnerships with other democracies have been its greatest international advantage. They helped create a freer and more stable world. They helped deter aggression or reverse it.” For Taiwan, facing increasing cross-Strait tensions, it is even more critical at this stage to forge a values-based partnership with the United States, demonstrating that bilateral ties go beyond strategic defense and economic interests. In doing so, Washington and Taipei can build trust and confidence in their mutual commitments as like-minded democracies.
The main point: Taiwan and the United States are increasing cooperation under the umbrella of the Summit for Democracy, the Global Cooperation and Training Framework, and the recently initiated NGO Fellowship Program, to help bolster democracies in Asia. It is important that they continue to expand these programs at this critical juncture to enhance this values-based partnership and strengthen trust in mutual commitments as like-minded democracies.
The author would like to thank Taiwan AID for the opportunity to participate in the NGO Fellowship Program workshop in October 2023.