Why Taiwan needs to be careful of cozying up to far-right leaders

As Taiwan welcomes Bolsonaro’s election in Brazil, the risks of endorsing such characters come into sharper focus


(By Wikimedia Commons)

KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) -- Earlier this weekend, Brazil’s Presidential election run-off saw Jair Bolsonaro elected as the new President of what is the world’s fourth-largest democratic nation, with a population of more than 208 million people.

On the face of it, this appeared to be welcome news for Taiwan. Bolsonaro visited Taiwan earlier this year and has also been openly critical of the dollar diplomacy and predatory investment strategies of Communist China.

Beijing is clearly rattled by his victory. China’s Global Times newspaper, a mouthpiece of the Communist Party, has already published a threatening editorial warning Bolsonaro of the consequences of diverging from the so-called "One China" policy.

A few optimistic voices have even been suggesting that Taiwan could score a huge diplomatic coup by enticing Brazil to switch allegiance from China during Bolsonaro's time in office.

This seems highly unlikely once the electoral dust has settled and the economic reality of such a move hits home. But there are a number of reasons why Taiwan should also approach relations with Bolsonaro’s Brazil with caution.

The background of Bolsonaro's rise

Brazil is a hugely significant economic and political nation and one which Taiwan is right to try and seek closer ties with.

But Jair Bolsonaro is not just any old President of Brazil. He is a far-right populist who won this election thanks more to the failings and corruption of Brazil’s previous administrations, than any positive vision of the country he has promoted.

The truth about Bolsonaro is that he espouses some hateful positions on social and democratic values which are far removed from what Taiwan and the governing DPP administration believe. He is openly racist and has stoked discrimination against Brazil’s black and indigenous peoples.

Speaking about communities of descendants of escaped slaves, Bolsonaro claimed they shouldn’t be eligible for state benefits, saying “They do nothing! I don’t think they even serve for reproduction.” These comments come at a time when Taiwan is working hard to protect its indigenous cultures and improve the lives and opportunities of people from these communities.

He is also proudly homophobic. In a 2011 interview with Playboy magazine, he said, “I would not be able to love a gay son. I would rather he die in an accident.” During this election campaign he added, “If I see two men kissing in the street, I will hit them.”

At a time when most people in Taiwan are pushing for marriage equality and just days after Taiwan's vibrant gay pride parade which saw thousands take to the streets of Taipei, it jars a little to see Taiwan congratulating someone who has made such comments.

But there is more. His misogynistic views against women have to be seen to be believed in the 21st century. In 2003 while in office, he assaulted a female member of Brazil's congress and then told her on camera, “I would never rape you because you do not deserve it.” Astonishingly he repeated these comments on the floor of Brazil’s congress in 2014.

He also reportedly told a campaign rally during the election that his fifth child was a girl, after four boys previously, and that he viewed this as “a weakness.”Such comments are made at a time when the #metoo campaign is full swing and Taiwan of course proudly boasts a female President.

Equally worrying are his views on democracy. He has criticized the previous military dictatorship in Brazil, but not for their myriad of crimes and human rights abuses. Instead, Bolsonaro has said they didn't go far enough. In an interview in 2016, Bolsonaro said the error of the dictatorship had been “to torture and not to kill.” He has also said on numerous occasions that he is in favor of Brazil returning to a dictatorship.

With the threat of China’s Communist dictatorship and their spurious claims to sovereignty over Taiwan hanging over everything Taiwan does; such comments should cut deep. But instead, Taiwan was one of the first countries to congratulate Bolsonaro on his election success.

The risks of Taiwan reaching out to the far-right

There are many pragmatic reasons for welcoming Bolsolaro. Like it or not, he is now the democratically elected head of state in Brazil. He has recently visited Taiwan and has appeared friendly to Taiwan in much of his foreign policy activity to date.

But Taiwan needs to tread with caution. It doesn't want to be putting its hard-earned socially liberal reputation at stake.

Taiwan is viewed throughout the world as a beacon for democracy, human rights, and equality. This reputation is a big reason why Taiwan has made the diplomatic inroads it has in the developed world, despite the best efforts of the Chinese Communist Party.

It doesn't want to risk this by associating itself too much with someone like Bolsonaro, whose views are so at odds with this position.

Then there is the issue of Bolsonaro’s far-right, often anti-democratic policies. Taiwan is a liberal democracy, a quality which drastically differentiates it from China, yet Bolsonaro is not the only right-wing or even far-right political figure to which it has grown close.

Relations with the USA have improved considerably during Donald Trump’s administration, despite some of his comments running pretty close to those of Bolsonaro at times, not to mention his regular attacks on the free press.

Close associations with such right-wing figures run the risk of Taiwan being perceived as supporting their agenda by the rest of the world.

If, as many believe, the rise of right-wing populists around the world is a short-term reactionary issue, building close ties with them could have a negative impact on Taiwan in the long term. It could tempt liberal democracies to succumb to China’s economic bullying and use these links to portray Taiwan in an unfriendly light.

Taiwan’s delicate diplomatic situation means that its government can’t afford to pick and choose its allies. But that doesn’t mean they have to jump into bed with any far-right fanatic who smiles their way either.

Taiwan's government has a responsibility to seek closer ties with such countries, but they should also not shy away from criticizing leaders like Bolsonaro over their prejudice and anti-democratic values. And while they have little choice but to work with such people, there should still be a strong focus on building relations with western countries on the basis of shared values and strong democracies.