Taiwan-China relations at Turning Point

April 5th, 2004

The outcome of Taiwan’s presidential election may turn out to have been a watershed of historic significance in the island’s relations with China and even in the wider context of international relations in the 21st century.


Above all, it has reduced almost to zero the chances of Taiwan ever being reunited with China.


Should China attempt to absorb Taiwan by force, a military showdown with the United States would then be inevitable–a scenario that could never be a realistic choice for Beijing.


China’s alternative to the actual use of force–though it can hardly be called a peaceful approach–is to use the threat of force to put economic and political and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan to opt for unification. Given the result of the March 20 presidential contest, however, the possibility of any Taiwan leader accepting such a policy has almost vanished.


No swing of the pendulum


Sitting President Chen Shui-bian won 50 percent of the vote this time, compared with 39 percent in the previous presidential race. Given the recent surge in support for a Taiwanese identity distinct from China, it seems likely that Chen’s support will rise further in the future.


If support for Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) stays at around 50 percent until Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan election in December, the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT) may find it difficult to hold onto a majority in the 221-seat legislature.


This may usher in an era of political realignment, with the debate coming down to two options–maintenance of the status quo or declaration of Taiwan’s independence. For now, the first of those options still looks likely to triumph. Even more certain is that forces pressing for unification will steadily decline until they are a negligible minority.


Under these circumstances, however hard China may try to pressure Taiwan, there will be little chance of any Taiwan administration swinging in favor of unification with Beijing.


China’s last chance


Just before the presidential election, a Chinese friend of mine asked me for my view on the poll. It was a brave thing for any Chinese to do, since he knew well what my answer was likely to be.


In reply, I said that if the KMT won the contest it would give China a final opportunity to press for unification. The opportunity would last for at most four years, or at least for eight months until the forthcoming election of Taiwan’s parliament.


I added that, while China cannot possibly miss this precious chance, China should not rush, since doing so would lead to strong anti-Chinese reactions both in and outside Taiwan. In my view, to solve this dilemma will require statesmanship comparable to that of Chu-ko Liang, a great strategist of the third century A.D.


In bringing up Liang, I implicitly wanted to suggest that the unification is already a lost cause, irrespective of the results of the presidential election.


A DPP victory, I went on to say, would certainly mean a watershed, requiring China to give up all hope of reunification. Needless to say, my views today have not changed.


Whenever I was asked by Chinese about the Taiwan problem, I made a point of noting that if China wanted to ensure the security, prosperity and well-being of the Chinese people, in addition to peace in Asia for a half a century at the very least, there could be no more advisable course of action than to abandon its ambitions for Taiwan.


Beijing’s 3 options


China today controls a territory comparable to that of the Qing dynasty, the domain of which was second only to the Mongol Empire in all of Chinese history.


Should it seek to add Taiwan to its already vast lands and suffer defeat in conflict with the United States as a result, the Chinese government would possibly be likely to end up losing control of regions such as Tibet, and the Xinjiang Uygur and Inner Mongolia autonomous regions–a loss it would never be able to recover. China should learn lessons from Japan’s history in the 1930s and 40s.


About a decade ago, I proposed “three strategies” China might take toward Taiwan.


Recognizing independence of Taiwan and concluding a Chinese-Taiwan alliance would be high policy among the three.


A decision by China to take the initiative in allowing Taiwan to join the United Nations would be the middle policy. The low policy would be to persist with China’s conventional policy on the island, and the lowest is to use armed force against Taiwan, I stated.


Imagine what might have happened had the Chinese leadership, prior to the latest presidential election of Taiwan, offered to help Taiwan become a member of the United Nations in return for Taiwan’s agreement on the “one China” principle. The offer would have split the DPP vote, making certain the victory of pro-unification forces. For Beijing, that opportunity is now gone.


Of course even China, a country under dictatorial rule by a single party, has to balance different views in its domestic political arena, making sudden shifts in policy impossible. This inflexibility itself, which made China stick to the low policy, has made Taiwan unification a lost cause.


Economics vs politics?


Worthy of note here is a theory–brought up so frequently by the Chinese that it has become a cliche–to the effect that Taiwan will sooner or later find that unification is inevitable because of its ever-growing economic dependence on China.


This is a strange proposition. There so far has been no reliable academic study of the matter, and as far as I know, no political scientist or economist has really addressed this proposition.


I put forward my own views, therefore, in the hope that they can serve as the starting point for discussion of the matter.


To begin with my conclusion, I believe that there exist no interrelations between economics and politics in this case.


To cite an example from history, Norman Angell, a British economist, predicted before World War I that war was impossible because of the increasing degree of economic interdependence between European nations. His prediction soon proved completely wrong. In fact, as war loomed, leaders in London, Paris and Berlin never gave any thought to economic interdependency.


Similarly, why did India choose independence in spite of its heavy dependence on Britain both politically and economically? Why did Japan resort to the assault on Pearl Harbor despite its dependence on the United States for strategically essential resources?


What history tells us is that the significance of economic affairs is negligibly small when independence and security are at stake. Today, it is hard to imagine that the people of Taiwan will choose to give up their freedom because they miss their investments in China.


There can be no denying, however, that political and economic matters can become intertwined at a lower level. There are numerous examples of Chinese authorities asking Taiwan companies operating in China to clarify their attitude toward the China-Taiwan relationship, with those failing to comply subject to harassment by Beijing. There also are reports of Japanese companies that have been hinted a disadvantage in bidding for public contracts in China because of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s annual visit to Yasukuni Shrine.


This sort of behavior should not come as any surprise in China, where favoritism often takes precedence over the rule of law. From a long-term point of view, however, such practices will only harm China’s own national interests. Given that China has joined the World Trade Organization, it is just a matter of time before the country will find it unavoidable to enforce the principle of equality before the law. At any rate, any prospect of China being able to use its favoritism-centered modus operandi to put pressure on Taiwan for unification has vanished after the island’s presidential election.


Changing times


Ultimately, China needs to be aware how the global political climate has changed, and how that means its current policy could now bring it to sail dangerous waters.


The 20th century is sometimes called the century of nationalism with good reasons. Given that, China’s own strident nationalism could claim a degree of legitimacy.


In the 21st century, with the United States as the world’s sole, overwhelming superpower, the values of freedom and democracy is overwhelming that of nationalism, which is, in the end, little more than regional and ethnic egoism. This has clear implications for Taiwan, and beyond.


As a person from Hong Kong said to me: “For our own sakes, we want Taiwan to succeed. China’s respect for the freedom of Hong Kong is entirely attributable to the existence of the Taiwan problem.”


He went on to say, “If China manages to absorb Taiwan, Hong Kong would then be at the mercy of Beijing.” Clearly, these words attest to the superiority of freedom and democracy over nationalism in his mind.


To ensure the well-being and prosperity of the Chinese people, and to guarantee lasting peace in Asia, I strongly urge the Chinese leadership to think again about their policy toward Taiwan.