In a speech last month, China’s new ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, tried to make a case that his country – ruled by one party for 72 years – is a democracy. If that seems odd, consider the timing. In coming days, the Biden administration plans to send out invitations for a summit of “well-established and emerging democracies.” Taiwan, a thriving multiparty democracy for decades, is expected to be invited. In all likelihood, China will not.
Simply by arranging the Dec. 9-10 Summit for Democracy, President Joe Biden may have ignited a healthy competition between China and Taiwan to extol the virtues of their governing systems – even as Beijing increases its threats to take Taiwan by force.
One of China’s governing virtues, according to Ambassador Qin, lies in the capability of Communist Party leader Xi Jinping to manage complexities and get things done. “He is loved, trusted, and supported by the people,” said Mr. Qin.
By comparison, Taiwan’s elected president, Tsai Ing-wen, admits that her island country’s free and open democracy has been imperfect. It has not always achieved consensus. Yet over time, its 23.5 million people have absorbed the values of democracy, which shapes their identity as Taiwanese.
President Tsai wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine this week that Taiwan “has an important part to play in strengthening global democracy.” Its experience with China’s threats makes it “part of the solution” for democratic countries struggling to find a balance between engaging authoritarian countries and defending democratic ideals.
The mere possibility that President Tsai might speak at the summit could be one reason China has escalated the number of fighter jets flying near the island. On Monday, a record 56 Chinese planes entered Taiwan’s air-defense zone. The aggressive action may be designed to prevent the world from recognizing Taiwan as an independent country or come to its defense.
President Biden says the U.S. will respond if Taiwan is invaded, as it would for allies Japan and South Korea. He set up the democracy summit “to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today through collective action.”
China doesn’t make a good case for being a democracy by threatening Taiwan for being a democracy that has made a choice for independence. Yet perhaps China should be invited to the summit – as an observer.
The whole world would benefit from a transparent debate over what is a democracy and how to defend it. The display of equality and freedom will be a good defense against China’s display of fighter jets.