Taiwan issue underscores limits of power for the US and China – and the calcification of international policymaking
Since the 1940s, after Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China and the defeated Kuomintang retreated to Taipei, the Taiwan Strait has remained among the most intractable issues in international relations and a potential site for conflict in Asia. A brief phone call between the US President- elect Donald Trump and Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen was a startling intervention in what’s become a warily balanced array of power relations sustained by arcane diplomatic formalisms.
The response from China, which maintains territorial claim to the island as sovereign territory, was relatively muted with more annoyance directed toward Taiwan. Immediate reaction elsewhere to the phone call included concerns about an escalation of the conflict for the entire region and the United States.
The call came at a time when cross-strait relations had already entered a challenging period. After some years of rapprochement between Taipei and Beijing under the government of Ma Ying-jeou, in power from 2008 to 2016, this year Taiwanese voters elected President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party. The new government is less sympathetic to Beijing’s interests, and Beijing has responded accordingly.
The call also highlighted the gap between Taiwan’s place in the broad strokes of international policymaking and the complexity of Taiwan’s circumstances.
The Taiwan issue emerged from the many ruptures in China’s modern history. Taiwan has an indigenous people, members of the great civilization that stretches across the islands of the Pacific. It was briefly a Dutch colonial outpost in the 17th century, then an exiled Ming loyalist kingdom, before being incorporated into the Qing Empire in 1662. Near the end of the Qing period, in 1895, Taiwan was ceded to Japan as a colonial territory.
On the mainland, the Chinese Nationalists, or KMT, overthrew the Qing and founded the Republic of China, ROC, in 1912. The Chinese Communist Party was established in 1921, and the two began the long civil war.
At the end of World War II, Taiwan passed from Japan to the authority of the ROC under the KMT. The result was disastrous. The Taiwanese rose up against KMT rule in 1947, and the uprising was crushed with the loss of tens of thousands of lives. From the violence emerged a Taiwanese nationalist movement, building on political activism from the colonial period. Then, in 1949, the KMT lost the civil war against the communists on the mainland and relocated the national ROC government to Taipei.
Through the 1950s, Taiwan became the exemplar of an Asian Tiger, focusing on development and a booming export-oriented economy, under a brutal military dictatorship.
In this period, Taiwan found a place at the intersection of state ideologies of the People’s Republic of China, the ROC and the United States. For the nationalism shared by both the PRC and the ROC, Taiwan’s former colonial history symbolized China’s humiliation at the hands of foreign powers during the last decades of imperial rule. The standoff between Taiwan and mainland China from the 1950s to 1980s, with both claiming to be the legitimate government for all of China, expressed the notion of a nation divided by civil war. Taiwan also served as a key expression of US global power, as “Free China,” during the Cold War.
This alignment of ideologies, contemporary and post-imperial, carried the idea that the direction of Taiwan’s history with mainland China was towards unification as a single nation-state, either the ROC or the PRC. Unification would represent the end-point of the conflict: A shared identity as Chinese would bring the two sides together, China’s late-imperial territorial losses would be exculpated, and Cold War ideological differences would dissolve.
However, in the 1980s, Taiwan began the political and institutional process of democratization. The first free and fair elections for the president of the ROC took place in 1996. Democracy also set free the ideals and ideology of Taiwanese identity and nationalism, the seeds of which were sown in the Japanese colonial era, hardening after the 1947 uprising.
In the years since democratization, even as Taiwan’s economic relationship with the mainland grew to more than US$200 billion of annual cross-strait trade, Taiwanese identity politics have found institutional political expression in the Democratic Progressive Party and cultural and social expression in art, literature, museums, education and media.
During these political changes, Beijing presented the concept of One Country Two Systems as a model for unification. Ultimately applied to Hong Kong, the model would have allowed Taiwan to maintain its capitalist economy and administrative autonomy as part of the People’s Republic of China. One Country Two Systems largely disappeared as a policy position by the mid-2000s, replaced by a policy of economic integration backed by military threat and the formula known as the 1992 Consensus, holding that each side agrees that there is one China and that Taiwan is part of China while setting aside respective definitions of the meaning of China.
However, the reality of Taiwan’s contemporary political and cultural life is that a majority of Taiwanese do not want unification. After nearly a century of political struggle for self-determination under Japan and then KMT authoritarianism, Taiwanese identity is galvanized by activist politics. Any attempt by Beijing to exercise governance over Taiwan would be met with intense resistance.
Setting aside the disastrous possibility of invasion and military occupation of Taiwan by the People’s Liberation Army, even through a non-military negotiated process, Taiwanese resistance to Beijing governance could only mean the start of instability, with no resolution of the Taiwan issue.
The long history of the democracy struggle and civic resistance from a Taiwanese majority would be a challenge for the most sophisticated and accommodating political institutions to manage. However, as Hong Kong has shown in recent years, Beijing’s responses to opposition in Taiwan are unlikely to be subtle or obliging. As a result, Taiwan within the PRC would threaten not only the cross-strait balance, but also destabilize Beijing and the region.
There is any number of scenarios of post-unification instability. Beijing could decide to implement patriotic education in Taiwanese schools, as it has done in Hong Kong. The Taiwanese, already bitterly divided, would erupt in protests intense and prolonged enough to create leadership splits between hardliners and moderates in Beijing over how to respond. Protests would test loyalty of local law enforcement while overseas Taiwanese communities would mobilize in the United States, Australia and elsewhere. If Beijing were to send its own law enforcement from the mainland to restore order, the echo of the 1947 uprising would be strong enough for cross-strait relations to be unrecoverable.
The inevitable destabilization of relations in a post-unification scenario raises crucial consideration of the status of Taiwan’s military force. China spends almost 15 times as much on its military as Taiwan, but Taiwan has advanced combat systems supplied by the US, including recent deliveries of advanced missile technologies.
Yet for any prospect of peace after unification, a precondition would require demilitarization for Taiwan. Such an unprecedented task, vast in scale and complexity, would require independent oversight and full commitment of the international community.
The question of Taiwan’s demilitarization suggests that there is no serious proposal for negotiated unification in play from Beijing. Needless to say, as Beijing no doubt understands, the act of making a proposal public would generate a counter-reaction from Taiwan’s polity only highlighting the difficult path forward.
Far from China’s economic and military power allowing a resolution of the Taiwan issue on Beijing’s terms, Taiwan illustrates the limits of China’s power and the importance of maintaining the current status quo. Extensive international involvement and cooperation would be required for Beijing to achieve its aims without destabilizing China and throwing the region into chaos.
In this context, Trump was right to take a call from Taiwanese President Tsai. It was an appropriate acknowledgement of a democratically elected leader and also illustrated the calcification of international policymaking on the Taiwan Strait, something Beijing has long relied on in its goals. But having disrupted policy norms, the incoming Trump administration is now tasked with leading the international community towards a meaningful understanding of the Taiwan issue that shows a path towards continuing peace and prosperity in the region.
About the Author
Mark Harrison, PhD, is senior lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Tasmania and faculty affiliate of the Asia Institute Tasmania.