Taiwan faces a special and perhaps unique challenge in balancing democracy and security. Its only security threat is the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which has long since declared the objective of “reunification” to end Taiwan’s de facto independence and self-rule, and has refused to renounce the use of force to achieve that goal. The emergence of Taiwanese nationalism in the early 1990s, a result of democratization, complicated relations across the Taiwan Strait. Even if China did not exist and was not 90 miles away from the main island controlled by Taiwan, its democracy would still be challenged. Its economy has matured, growth has slowed, social and economic inequality has increased, and civil society activism reflects a growing disenchantment in some quarters with the performance of representative institutions.
Taiwan’s transition to democracy came after four decades under an authoritarian regime, imposed by the Kuomintang (KMT) government that assumed jurisdiction over Taiwan in 1945. Even then, movement toward popular rule was gradual and negotiated, between the KMT regime and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which had emerged as the main opposition party. Since the democratic transition was completed in 1996, there have been three transfers of power between the KMT and the DPP. What emerged was a semi-presidential system in which regular elections have allowed the public to reverse policy trends it did not like and empowered the legislature, the media, and civil society to check the executive.
However, the political system’s performance has been less than stellar. It remains fairly gridlocked and largely consumed by long-standing differences over domestic issues, such as how to maintain economic competitiveness and ensure equity, whether to end reliance on nuclear power, and so on. The current DPP administration under President Tsai Ing-wen faces a multi-pronged pressure campaign from the Chinese mainland and, more generally, political leaders have been unable (or unwilling) to formulate the tough choices surrounding Taiwan’s China challenge, much less to make those choices or articulate them to the public.