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MANILA — Due to mere numbers, the Taiwanese will always be the underdog in their dispute with China. Arguably, the most important advantage of the islanders in this confrontation is their domestic political order. In spite of constant partisan bickering, Taiwanese democracy may well be termed a source of political stability.

Now the government in Taipei is seriously considering the advantages the domestic political order may have in terms of foreign politics. In talks with foreigners from Western countries, Taiwanese diplomats always quote — what they call — a moral obligation of the democratic community of states to defend their country against the authoritarian rulers in Beijing. Seen through Taiwanese spectacles, it is highly unfortunate that foreign policy is all too often not guided by principles but by other — more profane — motives.

Still, in today’s world international relations are not the exclusive domain of governments. More and more, nongovernmental actors and also political parties assume an active role. The diplomatically isolated rulers in Taiwan have discovered space for outward-reaching activities. In a few weeks, the governing Democratic Progressive Party, the party of Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian will join the London-based Liberal International, an international federation of liberal parties, as a full member.

Together with the Liberal Party of the Philippines, a member of the ruling coalition of that Southeast Asian state, the Taiwanese will be the second political party from Asia to join this grouping, which has traditionally been dominated by political parties from Europe and Latin America.

“We will raise the Asian voice in the liberal family,” says a leading member of the DPP. In addition, the DPP will reportedly assume the chairmanship of a regional party grouping in Asia. As could be learned from sources close to the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, an organization of liberal and democratic parties founded in 1993 in Bangkok by Kim Dae Jung and other Asian leaders, the Taiwanese will assume the leadership of the organization next year from the Democrat Party of Thailand.

While political-party diplomacy is a new area of international relations in which the Taiwanese have a comparative advantage vis-a-vis the Chinese, the field of democracy promotion is yet another. Dozens, if not hundreds, of institutions promoting democracy and human rights are active around the world, mainly in countries in transition from authoritarianism to democracy. Some of these institutions have gained considerable political impact in the countries they operate in, as they tend to associate with politicians and other opinion leaders.

Interestingly, international democracy promotion has been — and continues to be — dominated by Western extra-regional institutions and agencies. For some time now, mainly U.S. organizations active in the field of democracy promotion have urged the more affluent democracies of Asia to become more active themselves in spreading democratic values and principles in the region. Toping the list of potential sponsors are Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

In South Korea, there have been isolated efforts in this respect since Kim came to power nearly five years ago. Unfortunately, these activities have not always found full support from the foreign ministry. Diplomats tend to perceive the field of international relations as their exclusive zone of influence, and tend to distrust all nongovernmental cross-border activities. This suspicion is the main culprit for a nearly complete lack of nongovernmental political initiatives from Japan — the richest Asian country and the oldest democracy in Northeast Asia — to promote democracy in the Asia-Pacific region.

“The Japanese foreign office sees the NGOs as a problem, not as a supportive force,” says former Japanese lawmaker Yukihisa Fujita, who together with like-minded colleagues is behind an initiative aimed at establishing democracy assistance activities in Japan.

Unlike the Japanese, the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry has no problem with supporting activities in foreign countries: “We are very much in favor of helping NGOs in promoting democracy,” says Deputy Foreign Minister Mau Ying-mao, the man behind the new Taiwanese plans to reach out in this area. Mau, a U.S.-trained political science professor, has the political support of his boss, President Chen.

Speaking to foreign scholars and members of democracy foundations in Taiwan, Chen said: “Taiwan is willing to support the development of democracy in the world in order to contribute to world peace and the security in the Asia-Pacific region.”

In the end, more will be needed than public money and the political will of leadership. If a “Taiwan Democracy Foundation,” as it has been discussed during a recent meeting in Taipei, is to have any chance at succeeding, full support of the opposition forces at home is a “sine qua non.” Without a domestic political consensus, all activities aimed at promoting democracy at home and abroad will be open to political attack — and lack credibility and legitimacy.

Apart from this domestic problem, Taiwan’s supporters of democracy are confronted with yet another challenge: Any cross-border political activity with their financial backing is bound to be viewed as camouflaged public relations activity to strengthen the island vis-a-vis China.

Thus for democracy-assistance emanating from Taiwan to be successful, no pro-Taiwan strings should be attached. Today, this self-limitation seems rather unattractive for the Taiwanese. In the long term, though, it may bear fruit and create genuine political partnerships based on common principles. Such a democratic strategy may even be more effective in shielding Taiwan from Chinese aggression than costly military programs.

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