Taiwan: no roadmap to unification
21 Nov 2018|

Amid US–China trade tensions, the international debate around China’s United Front activities and the crisis in Xinjiang, the perennial issue of Taiwan continues to simmer as a source of regional tension and as a potential flashpoint for conflict.

Beijing’s efforts to isolate Taiwan diplomatically and notable expressions of support by the US are data points signalling the current state of cross-strait relations. Writing in The Strategist, Malcolm Davis highlighted growing military asymmetry and suggested 2021, the centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, as a potential trigger for action against Taiwan.

Military action across the Taiwan Strait would be a catastrophe that would inevitably bring China and the US into direct conflict, the result of which would remake the international order as fully as the Korean War did nearly 70 years ago.

However, the focus on a cross-strait conflict is also an expression of assumptions about Taiwan’s place in the international order in which the Taiwan issue is understood as a proxy for the great-power rivalry between a rising China and a fractious US. It produces two possible outcomes for the Taiwan issue: a military conflict or a peaceful resolution which, as a metric for the way the US and China will achieve a new equilibrium, signals the viability—or otherwise—of the liberal international order built over the 20th century.

This view has proponents such as Hugh White, who argues that although it would regrettably extinguish Taiwan’s democracy, the international community should acquiesce to a PRC takeover of Taiwan to maintain peace and so validate the international order’s own liberal progress.

However, while this position may be logical in its own circular terms, it skews the policy calculus by eliding alternative perspectives of the Taiwan issue.

Military conflict over Taiwan would not just be a crisis for the international order. That it is a possibility also expresses 40 years of failed Taiwan policy from Beijing and its lack of any viable roadmap for its professed goal of ‘peaceful reunification’.

In 1979, as part of post-Mao reform, Beijing redefined the Taiwan issue away from a military conflict towards politics and economics. ‘Reunification’ was to be resolved through peaceful engagement between the party-states of the PRC under the CCP and Taiwan, or the Republic of China, under the Kuomintang.

For Beijing, the assumption was that party-to-party engagement and economic integration would lead to a socio-political convergence across the strait. The people of Taiwan would come to willingly accept PRC sovereignty under a compromise formula like ‘one country, two systems’ because their respective levels of economic development would converge and the shared commitment of the CCP and the KMT party-states to a unified China would prevail.

From wary steps in the 1980s, people, capital, culture, goods and services have indeed come to flow in vast amounts across the strait and the Taiwan and PRC economies have become deeply integrated.

However, contrary to Beijing’s objectives, as Taiwan and the PRC have become more economically engaged, opposition by the Taiwanese to any form of PRC sovereignty has grown in direct proportion. The people of Taiwan are consistently, and by a substantial majority, opposed to unification with the PRC.

Taiwan’s democratic transition in the late 1980s offers part of the explanation for resistance to authoritarian Beijing. More fully, its strength expresses more than a century of historical divergence from the mainland. The cession of Taiwan to Japan in the last years of the Qing dynasty in 1895, the changes wrought by 50 years of Japanese colonial rule to 1945, and then the anti-Chinese Nationalist uprising of 1947 are formative events. In other words, for the Taiwanese, their circumstances long predate the CCP–KMT rivalry that solidified in the Cold War after Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan in 1949.

Beijing has responded to Taiwanese political opposition to unification not with a thoroughgoing policy reassessment, but by developing a military threat that forestalls any attempt by an elected Taiwanese government to formalise Taiwan as a sovereign state in the international system.

It is in contradiction with the policy formulations since 1979 that invoke ‘peaceful reunification’ and leaves Beijing with a contradictory, unworkable, ideologically driven policy framework and no comprehensive and viable roadmap to achieve its professed goal.

The largest policy gap concerns the status of Taiwan’s military. Beijing has no serious proposal on its future in a unification scenario. The only reference to Taiwan’s military from Beijing is within a formal statement of the ‘one country, two systems’ formula, which says that it ‘may keep its military’ after unification.

On the face of it, this would leave Taiwan’s substantial US-equipped military forces under PLA command, generating cascading issues for regional security, the US military alliance system, even the global defence industry. Demilitarisation should be a necessary consideration for enduring and secure unification, but given the size and capabilities of Taiwan’s military, such a task would require international oversight and cooperation. The UN is the obvious choice to host an independent observation and verification regime, but Taiwan is not a UN member and Beijing has moved aggressively to forestall representation by Taiwan in international organisations. Beijing’s own approach has limited its capacity to cultivate the international institutional cooperation it would need to properly address this parameter of what it calls ‘peaceful reunification’.

Even if this obstacle could be overcome, Beijing offers no policy proscriptions that accommodate intense domestic political opposition by the Taiwanese in any unification scenario. Rather, Beijing’s policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang are the markers it has laid down. In a realistic assessment, Taiwan’s history of democratic protest and activism suggests that Beijing would face open-ended public opposition to its authority from within Taiwan’s public and political life. By implication, this suggests a deterioration of Taiwan’s security situation and the implementation of punitive security and policing strategies by Beijing in escalating response. That is, unification is not the end of the Taiwan issue but the start of a new era of crisis in cross-strait relations.

While Beijing undoubtedly has the capacity and political will to suppress opposition in Taiwan itself, oppression in Taiwan would simply displace resistance into the Taiwanese diaspora around the world, one with a history of mobilisation against KMT authoritarianism from the 1950s to the 1980s. Brisbane, with the world’s largest single overseas Taiwanese community, would be on the frontline in deteriorating relations between the Taiwanese and Beijing. Community tension would be exacerbated by Beijing’s own policy in recent years of intensifying United Front activity in Australia. The result would be a permanent crisis in Australia–China relations.

Beijing has been clear in its scepticism about the liberal international order. China is a great power and it is seeking to use its national strength to reshape international governance institutions in its interests. But China still operates in the international order as it is, along with smaller nations and other great powers. On Taiwan, it has become trapped by its own policy failures as it has sought to assert great-power status on its own terms. But China needs the support of the liberal international order to achieve its professed goal of ‘peaceful reunification’, and the liberal international order needs China to abide by international norms for unification to occur without tipping the region into a new era of crisis.

Until such time as Beijing accepts the need to develop a viable roadmap that recognises the interests of the international community in Taiwan’s future and the century-long political aspirations of the Taiwanese, nations around the world have a direct stake in maintaining Taiwan’s current status of de facto independence.