In This Review

Taiwan in Dynamic Transition: Nation Building and Democratization
Taiwan in Dynamic Transition: Nation Building and Democratization
Edited by Ryan Dunch and Ashley Esarey
256 pp, University of Washington Press, 2020
Purchase
Difficult Choices: Taiwan’s Quest for Security and the Good Life
Difficult Choices: Taiwan’s Quest for Security and the Good Life
By Richard C. Bush
429 pp, Brookings Institution Press, 2021
Purchase

Understanding Taiwan is more important today than ever before, given rising U.S.-Chinese tensions and great-power rivalry. But Taiwan is more than an international hot spot. It is also relevant because although it has emerged from the pandemic as one of the most resilient democracies, with an effective public health system and a stellar economy, it is grappling with difficult long-term problems that are also plaguing other high-income societies. 

Dunch and Esarey’s volume features several scholars and activists and places Taiwan in a comparative, global perspective. The contributors address debates on important issues including the revision of the constitution, the death penalty, defense expenditures, conscription, and military reform. They explore the active engagement of ordinary Taiwanese in public affairs through analyses of neighborhood governance in Taipei and the 2014 Sunflower Movement, which protested forming closer economic ties with mainland China. The volume provides diverse and often impassioned perspectives, which are not often found in English-language academic or policy analyses of Taiwan. 

Bush, an authority on all things Taiwan, presents a detailed and comprehensive account of Taiwan’s transformation from a dictatorship to a wealthy democracy that needs to balance security and prosperity amidst a growing external threat. His review of Taiwan’s budget, economy, energy security, transitional justice, and defense is the most in-depth and up-to-date study available, and it sheds light on the tradeoffs involved in all of these areas. Bush assesses how Beijing and Washington see Taipei and analyzes how the Taiwanese, particularly the elites, have navigated between the superpowers. He offers sharp advice for Taiwan on how to balance domestic and external pressures as the stakes become ever higher. 

Both books will help readers understand one of the most important elements of Taiwan’s transformation: how its emerging democracy, changing national identity, and civic values inform its management of domestic and international challenges. Both books also illustrate the difficulties in building policy consensus in a democracy with a high level of public participation. As Bush argues, Taiwan must overcome its divisions on domestic issues and foreign relations if it is to continue to survive and succeed. Taken together, the two books suggest that both China and the United States need to reexamine their policies toward the island, some of which seem rooted in a past that Taiwan is increasingly leaving behind.