When countries have divided into two separate states along conflicting ideological lines, the democratic West has generally stood with the forces of democracy and freedom against the dictatorship on the other side of the border. West Germany was our ally against communist East Germany; South Korea is, for the open societies of the world, a friend against the world’s most repressive regime in the North. Yet today the world is abandoning the equivalent partner in the China equation, siding with the increasingly brutal and aggressive Chinese Communist Party against the beacon of democracy and freedom in the region, Taiwan. This is morally wrong, and counter-productive.
Xi Jinping’s regime is not only intensifying its repression of human rights defenders, religious minorities, bloggers and other dissidents in China, unveiling an Orwellian ‘social credit’ system that will determine its citizens’ every move according to their political reliability, expanding its surveillance capabilities, and eroding Hong Kong’s basic freedoms and autonomy, it is increasingly threatening Taiwan.
Tensions in the Taiwan Strait have risen considerably in recent months, as China’s military moves closer to Taiwan and as Beijing seeks to diplomatically isolate Taipei. Chinese bombers and jet fighters are now regularly flying circumventing missions around Taiwan, with over 1200 missiles pointed at the island, and recently China pressured 44 commercial airlines, as well as the International Air Transport Association (IATA), not to refer to Taiwan as a country. Many, including British Airways and Air Canada, complied. Only the United States and Australian governments spoke out against this blackmail.
In January, China shut down the website of the Marriott Hotel chain for a week, forcing the corporation to apologise for listing Taiwan as a separate country. The Royal Bank of Canada has joined other international corporations in editing their public information to show Taiwan as part of China. The clothing chain Gap has apologised for selling T-shirts decorated with a map of China that did not show Taiwan, and Japanese retailer Muji was fined $31,000 for selling products labelled ‘Made in Taiwan’. Even the Vatican, one of the few states still to hold formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, is being wooed by Beijing, with a potential deal over the appointment of Catholic bishops in mainland China likely to come at a cost for Taiwan. A year ago, Panama cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan, as did the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso last month. Only 18 countries now recognise Taiwan.
Perhaps even worse than the question of diplomatic recognition is Beijing’s efforts to have Taiwan excluded from international fora, particularly United Nations agencies. From 2009 until 2016 Taiwan, which has a quality public health system, sat as an observer at the World Health Organisation. Now, it has been pushed out completely.
There are signs that Taiwan is beginning to fight back. The Secretary-General of Taiwan’s National Security Council, David Lee, recently criticised Beijing’s “excessive aggressiveness” and suggested that Taiwanese citizens should boycott those international airlines that have given in to Beijing’s pressure. He also suggested Taiwan might take legal action against those airlines.
More recently, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen called on global democracies to stand together in the face of Chinese oppression. She detailed the pressure Taiwan faces from China in a speech marking the 15th anniversary of the founding of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, and she told AFP in an interview that it was in the interests of all democracies to stand together. “This is not just Taiwan’s challenge, it is a challenge for the region and the world as a whole, because today it’s Taiwan, but tomorrow it may be any other country that will have to face the expansion of China’s influence,” she said. “Their democracy, freedom and freedom to do business will one day be affected by China.”
Taiwan deserves our support in defending itself and its way of life. If we cave in to the bullying tactics of Beijing, and abandon one of the region’s few democracies, simply for the sake of profit, we will have sold our souls completely. That doesn’t mean wrecking relations with Beijing, it doesn’t mean switching diplomatic recognition from Beijing to Taipei – appealing in principle though that is. Neither of those steps are practical in a world where, like it or not, we need to engage with China as a global power. But engaging with China should not mean kowtowing to China, or surrendering our values and our friends.
At the height of the Cold War we engaged with the Soviet Union and its satellite states, while defending West Germany. Throughout the decades of tension on the Korean Peninsula we have sought ways to engage North Korea, including – for some Western countries such as Britain and Sweden – diplomatic recognition, while being clear that the democracy and economic liberalism in South Korea made Seoul, rather than Pyongyang, our natural friend. Circumstances are different with regard to China, because it is far more intertwined with the global economy than either the Soviet Union or North Korea, but the principles are the same. Taiwan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Dr Francois Wu said recently that Taiwan stands on the frontline of the battle for democracy against authoritarianism. If Taiwan stands, democracy prevails, but if it falls, democracy worldwide is in jeopardy. It is in our interests to ensure that Taiwan does not fall.