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The Case for Making Space for Taiwan

03 Jun 2018
By Thom Dixon

Qantas’ recent announcement on how it will refer to Taiwan is emblematic of China’s efforts to reduce Taiwan’s strategic space. Such efforts can also be expected to exclude Taiwan from future global agreements on emerging technologies.

Over the past few years Taiwan’s strategic space has been tightened and this trend will only continue. China has been slowly exerting diplomatic pressure on Taiwan through international organisations, ranging from shutting out Taiwan from the International Civil Aviation Organisation in 2016 to the World Health Assembly last month. Over the last two years Taiwan has been excluded from both, even as an observer. If this trend is extended across the next decade it will hinder, if not seriously cripple the Taiwanese economy.

As China’s power grows, it will reshape the international system in novel ways. It is to be expected that these ways will exclude Taiwan. Yet it is one thing to exclude Taiwan from an international organisation or a trade agreement that already exists. It is another to exclude Taiwan from international organisations and agreements that don’t currently exist.

It will be to the detriment of the global system if Taiwan is excluded. The as yet undrafted international organisations that deal with artificial intelligence, next-generation biotechnology and space exploration would all benefit from Taiwan’s involvement. However, China is likely to resist involving Taiwan in the international instruments necessary to manage these 21st century challenges.

The challenges that accompany emerging technologies all have one thing in common: they are intimately global. Transnational challenges bleed over borders and managing them requires having everyone at the table. The norms and the ethics that define emerging technology use are intrinsically related to the global contest of governance currently underway.

It is in Australia’s interest that biotechnology and artificial intelligence are used to reinforce and enable democratic governance. There is no guarantee this will be the case and both of these technologies uniquely threaten modern society in different ways. They are just two of the many areas the international system will need to evolve to accommodate in the coming years. Ensuring Taiwan is at the table on these issues would give a voice to another democracy,  a voice that is needed.

Having sufficiently flexible arrangements in the international system will incorporate Taiwan into the governance bodies for emerging industries. It will ensure Taiwan does not become a black spot within which internationally agreed rules do not apply.

The risk with Taiwan is not that the Tsai Administration will do something to which China could react, but rather that a Taiwanese lone wolf actor does. An actor that might subscribe to the ‘I am willing to defend my country from China’ sentiment. Emerging technologies enable and scale decentralised and independent actions, which could cause international incidents. Risk of international crisis from these independent actions are in part the reason international organisations exist to manage how technology is used.

The role of Taiwan’s youth

Yet Taiwan’s tomorrow hinges not just on the present state of geopolitics, but on the evolution of identity and expression in the young but quickly maturing democracy.

Earlier this year the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy released the results of a national survey. It showed 86 per cent of young people (20-39) supported democracy and 70 per cent were willing to fight to defend it in the event of a Chinese invasion. This compared to the average response of 67.7 per cent across all age demographics. Young people see themselves and their identity in a new way, and they are willing to fight for it.

When looking to the long-term prospects for Taiwan, identity is key. Taiwan has the third lowest birth rates in the world, at 1.13 births per person in 2017. This may be the greatest threat Taiwan faces. Though young people are more willing to defend the country, there are increasingly less of them to do so.

A domino effect will arise as this demographic squeeze accelerates. A greater reliance on immigration will be needed to balance out the replenishment rate. New and increased immigration will result in the evolution of a new Taiwanese identity, an identity both unique and separate from the mainland Chinese identity. Moreover, it wouldn’t be unexpected if the target immigrant demographic were entrepreneurial, ethnically Chinese youth from East and South East Asia.

Giving a voice to the emerging identity of Taiwanese young people might be the concern of the Taiwanese government, but ensuring these same young people are involved in setting the ethical guidelines and norms of emerging technologies is a concern for all. Many of these emerging technologies are inherently dual-use and excluding economies from the international organisations that manage them will only decrease international oversight.

Taiwan will be offering a regional home to youth seeking an advanced democratic economy; the questions is if Taiwan can offer an economy that participates internationally in the advanced industries of the 21st century. China seems determined that this won’t happen.

Taiwan is looking for ways to open up strategic space for itself. The Taiwanese economy’s participation, or not, in the international organisations of the future will have an impact on Taiwan and China, but also on the region. How today’s and tomorrow’s international organisations integrate or exclude Taiwan will have downstream consequences that the youth of today will have to deal with.

Thom Dixon is Vice President of AIIA NSW and a commissioning editor for Australian Outlook. He works as the research engagement and impact coordinator within the Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at Macquarie University and conducts policy research with Remi AI. He visited Taiwan as part of an AIIA Delegation in April 2018. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.