The future of Taiwan, its political status and relations with its powerful neighbour, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), is undoubtedly one of the most contentious issues in the East Asia, with possible global consequences. The stance on Taiwan is firmly defined by the ‘One China’ policy and Beijing does not allow any other option than Taiwan is part of the PRC as one of its provinces. The option of any other solution is strongly rejected. However, should not Zhongnanhai have a plan B for Taiwan independence, considering domestics development in Taiwan and the PRC’s broader international ambitions?
The idea of Taiwan’s de jure independence appears to be the sole domain of pro-independence Taiwanese and like-minded foreign supporters. Down-to-earth realists would argue that formal Taiwanese independence is a lost cause in the face of a growing China and that the future of Taiwan is predetermined and eventual unification is unavoidable. Yet, the option of a fully recognized independence of Taiwan deserves more than outright dismissal as much as the option of ‘predetermined unification’ deserves more scholarly examination.
Regarding the latter, the argument usually goes that China’s growing economic influence over Taiwan will make Taiwanese agree to unification before they lose any leverage to negotiate favourable conditions. Alternatively, experts argue that when it comes to military power, Taiwan is no match for a modernized People’s Liberation Army and therefore Taiwan will capitulate as soon as the first shots are fired. Let’s have a closer albeit brief look at these arguments. Firstly, the argument that China’s economic power shadowed by its military power will make Taiwanese concede their de facto sovereignty and more than two decades of democracy building is curious. There are two major schools of thought that consider the impact of economic relations on political relations and security. Liberals argue that economic interdependence decreases chance of conflict and increases mutual trust, realists argue that states always worry about their security in the first place and that economic dependence creates sense of insecurity. If liberals are right, Taiwan’s engagement in greater economic interaction removes the ultimate threat of military action. If that is not present, why should people in Taiwan agree to give up more for less? If realist are right, Taiwan will seek to diversify its trade in order to decrease risks stemming from over-reliance on the Chinese market. There is one important piece missing in this consideration and that is stance of Taiwan’s population on the issues of identity and independence/unification. Surveys show that despite increasing economic interaction, Taiwanese identity is on the rise and unification is very unpopular issue.
Aware that its efforts to win the hearts and minds of Taiwanese are failing, Beijing may indeed proceed with punitive economic measures and there is no doubt that it would hit Taiwan’s economy hard. Yet, economic sanctions have a rather poor track record of achieving their objectives (e.g. U.S. sanctions against Cuba) and Taiwan is not in the same situation as Iran or North Korea, rather it is big economy that is well integrated in the global trade network. Thus, isolating Taiwan economically and forcing it into submission would be harder than some assume. The military option deserves more detailed examination than it is possible here, however simplistic counts of tanks, planes and ships is not the best guidance. Instead, we should look more carefully into the complexities of executing an amphibious invasion, past failed and successful attempts to impose maritime blockades and past records of using air power (and missiles) in order to achieve political objectives. The record we would find is much less convincing than mere comparison of militaries on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Great powers, China included, may do what they want but they are not always successful in their efforts. In fact, failures are manifold: the Soviet Union could not hold control over its Central and East European satellites without occasional demonstrations of force and, eventually, even that was not enough to sustain Soviet empire, the U.S. failed to topple the Castro regime in Cuba despite the latter being in America’s ‘backyard’ nor was it was to prevail in the bloody Vietnam conflict. These are just some examples of great powers wanting but not getting. This is not to say that above arguments are groundless, but we ought to avoid embracing ‘inevitable’ scenarios. There has been enough said about why de iure Taiwan independence is off the table, however, the debate on inevitability of the unification lacks the same depth, becoming some sort of conventional wisdom. In other words, those who argue that unification is inevitable ought to make more serious effort to reconcile their hypothesis with available data.
The ultimate question is why would Beijing ever consider Taiwan independence as viable option? Mainly because potential benefits for Beijing are not intangible. It would only increase China’s regional and global image if Taiwan emerges as a fully independent state from the process that would involve negotiation between Beijing and Taipei where Beijing agrees to respect will of Taiwanese people. Naturally, opponents would argue that such process would only trigger secessionist tendencies in Tibet and Xinjiang and admittedly that is a risk. However, counter-argument to that is that reconciliation across the Taiwan Strait would provide better leverage for Chinese central government to find workable solution for its restive regions. Taiwan’s case notwithstanding, the recent development in Tibet and Xinjiang obligates Beijing to search for more reconciliatory solutions if it wants to avoid large-scale insurgency and ultimate radicalization of its ethnic minorities.
There is another compelling argument for the PRC. Time is not on Beijing’s side, time is uncompromising and it won’t take long before there will be no living soul remembering the Nationalists’ exodus to Taiwan. The bond between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan, so emphasized by proponents of unification, is an idea that is increasingly awkward for younger generations in Taiwan. Moreover, the argument that China cannot achieve greatness without Taiwan being a firm part of it is false. China is already one of the most important players globally and it did not need Taiwan to achieve that. Is not it the right time for Chinese citizens to ask why they need Taiwan so much?
After all, the only option left might be bloody war in the Taiwan Strait, likely with the U.S. intervention. Arguably, China’s leaders might be willing to sacrifice the lives of thousands of soldiers, taking away the only child from many families, and embark on killing ‘Taiwanese compatriots’ to pursue the dream of unification. However, risk-taking is not the same as risk-assessment and if the latter should prevail, Beijing will think twice before taking such a decision. Naturally, coming to terms with the possible independence of Taiwan will require more than just policy change. Change of mindset is required and this would be difficult to achieve under current circumstances. In the meantime, to disregard the option of Taiwan’s independence is to disregard undercurrents that silently but steadily work in the favour of such direction. What will Beijing do if the only option left is destructive war with potential to reverse all the achievements of past decades? Having a plan B seems to be right thing to do. We do not know if Chinese leaders have such plan or not, but if the latter is true, they should definitely adopt one.
This article was originally written for China Policy Institute.