Taiwan’s interests are being lost in the current debate
28 Feb 2019|

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s comments in early January on reunification with Taiwan, which he categorised as unavoidable, certainly prompted vigorous discussion. Much of it has focused on the value of the strategic ambiguity surrounding the US’s likely response to Chinese military action against Taiwan. There has also been scrutiny of the specific military calculations that would inform a response by the US and its allies in the event of Chinese military action against Taiwan.

To date, the analysis has largely skirted over several critical elements that sit at the heart of the Taiwan conundrum. It hasn’t duly consider the Taiwanese public’s views on unification with China and the related question of Taiwanese identity. It has also ignored the prospect that Taiwan’s evolving democratic system may have already taken Taipei across a threshold that makes Chinese military action inevitable.

A December 2018 survey of Taiwanese views on the long-debated 1992 Consensus on ‘one China’ indicated that more than 80% of Taiwanese don’t accept the ‘one country, two systems’ formula for unification espoused by Beijing. This survey followed a separate poll conducted in October 2018 which also indicated that a significant majority of the Taiwanese public—70% –oppose the idea that both sides of the strait belong to ‘one China’.

Polling of public opinion on unification by the Election Studies Centre of the National Chengchi University since 1994 reveals some interesting trends. Overall, there has been a general trend towards greater support for either maintaining the status quo indefinitely (24% in 2018, up from 10% in 1992) or moving towards independence at some point in the future (15%, up from 8%). Fewer respondents (16%, down from 20%) are supportive of unification now or in the future.

Importantly, it appears that public sentiment on unification is increasingly influencing policy positions across the political spectrum in Taipei. A day after Xi’s statement, the Kuomintang Party, historically supportive of unification, said in a statement that the ‘one country, two systems’ framework was unacceptable for democratically run Taiwan because it lacked public support.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen also noted that Taiwan had never accepted Beijing’s definition of the 1992 Consensus that includes Taiwan as part of China. Following her statement, Tsai’s previously dire approval rating surged, suggesting that her stance on the issue resonated strongly with the Taiwanese public at a time when Beijing’s position on unification is hardening.

Of perhaps greater long-term consequence is the changing nature of how Taiwanese see themselves. Since 1992, the Election Studies Centre has also mapped identity in Taiwan by asking respondents to comment on their ethnicity. Over the period, the proportion of respondents who saw themselves as exclusively Taiwanese increased from 17% to 54%. The proportion of respondents who saw themselves in terms of a dual identity, as both Taiwanese and Chinese, decreased from 46% to 38%. Crucially, over the same period, the proportion of respondents who saw themselves as Chinese (with no reference to a Taiwanese identity) decreased from 26% to 4%.

It’s not clear how this strengthening of a specific Taiwanese identity will impact on Taipei’s broader posture towards Beijing. Of potential relevance is the increase in Taiwan’s defence budget in recent years. Taipei increased its defence budget by just under 2% in 2018, and Tsai has sought a further increase of 5.6% for the 2019 defence budget. This boost in defence spending is occurring in the context of increased pressure from Beijing, but Taipei’s sharper focus on homegrown defence systems suggests that it’s trying to be less reliant on Washington for its military capability.

Nevertheless, the warfighting capability of the Taiwanese defence forces, which has been clearly overtaken by Chinese military advances in recent years, remains unclear. The Taiwanese military itself assesses that it could only hold off an invading Chinese force for two weeks. The Taiwanese public is also pessimistic about Taipei’s ability to counter a Chinese invasion. An early 2018 survey indicated that over 65% of respondents have no confidence that Taiwanese forces could repel an attack by Beijing. Interestingly, 41% of respondents also doubted that the US would intervene in the event of a Chinese attack.

These figures tell only part of the complex story that is Taiwanese identity and Taiwanese perceptions of the relationship with China. What they do illustrate is the emergence of a distinct Taiwanese identity detached from a broader pan-Chinese identity over a period which has also seen democracy take root and flourish in Taipei’s political culture. Nevertheless, on the question of independence versus unification, most Taiwanese appear to favour the status quo.

As noted by Rod Lyon and Michael Shoebridge, any discussion that seeks to shed light on the strategic ambiguity of the US position and the question of whether the US would respond to Chinese military action makes it difficult for Taiwan to maintain the status quo.

But Beijing may ultimately prove unwilling to countenance a continuation of the status quo. Taiwan’s evolving democratic political culture and independent national identity represent direct threats to Beijing not because they potentially presage a future declaration of independence, but because they challenge Beijing’s authoritarian model of governance.

By demonstrating that a state with ‘Chinese origins’ can successfully evolve from an authoritarian system into something more representative and based on the principle of political succession, Taipei is showing the people of China that there may be alternatives to Beijing’s increasingly pervasive authoritarian surveillance state.

Unfortunately, there’s also another issue at play on the Taiwan question—Taiwan is a de facto sovereign state that deserves to be treated as such, yet its future is being determined largely by third parties. Given the current challenges facing the rules-based global order of sovereign states—particularly the problems created by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its undeclared war in eastern Ukraine—it’s unlikely that the global order will survive a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, regardless of whether the US or others act to support Taipei.