The future of Taiwan

Written by Christopher Dandeker.

I am not a mandarin speaking analyst of Taiwan, nor an analyst of cross-strait relations, but I have travelled to Taiwan many times since 2005. I have an abiding affection for its people, landscape, vibrant civic culture and commitment to the principles of democracy. Mainland China is concerned to prevent any further moves – no matter how small – towards Taiwan independence and general international recognition of that status. The pressure by Beijing on the small – and diminishing – number of states that continue to recognise Taiwan is mounting, as is that on international airlines to ensure that Taiwan is placed on maps clearly and firmly as part of China.

In all of this the Communist party’s assumption is that Taiwan-China relations are an internal not an international political question.

These recent pressures are unsurprising given China’s assertive stance as a global player, especially in the South China Sea, and self-confidence rooted in its dramatic economic growth and military power. President Xi Jinping’s ‘no term limit’ on his power leads some [including me] to suppose that before he decides to step down from office – say in the next 10-15 years – he would like to celebrate the formal reincorporation of Taiwan into the People’s Republic of China and the termination of Taiwan’s status as a rogue region of China.

It would be a fitting conclusion to the process of reversing China’s humiliation at the end of the 19th century, confirm its international status as a global power and set the scene for marking the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic in 2049.

Three issues arise here: the use of different kinds of power to achieve a desired end-state, the targets of power, and the calibration of power in light of its perceived effects on the targets. Power can range from ‘hard’ military based coercion, through economic incentives and punishments, to the ‘soft’ use of information and ideas to persuade, while the targets of power can be the organs of government or the citizenry.

The current deployment of People’s Liberation Army and its assets is a clear use of coercive diplomacy, which now extends to the east as well as the west of Taiwan.

By contrast, offering the Taiwanese people economic opportunities of well-paid employment in mainland China provides a way of cementing Taiwan to China more firmly and reducing the effectiveness of policies designed to establish an independent economic trajectory for Taiwan in south and East Asia. Thirdly, continuing to emphasise the ethnic-national identity of the Chinese and using that it as the basis of an invitation to Taiwan to participate in the great adventure of global power in the 21st century provides an example of symbolic power.

China blends and calibrates the application of these instruments of power depending on the context. Just now, hard, military coercion is directed principally to the government of President Tsai, while softer economic incentives and persuasion are targeted more at the wider population by-passing the Taiwan government. To what end?

The revival of the KMT and its return to the Presidency would be an ideal outcome from the perspective of Beijing.

However, if the KMT continues to be relatively moribund electorally [not at all a certainty given the record of the current government] then the interesting question would be whether PRC would still be prepared to continue to play a long-term game to achieve a peaceful reincorporation of Taiwan. If so, a military solution is unlikely in the short term. Besides, a use of force to achieve the end state [other than in the form of of coercive diplomacy] may well provide costs and risks that Beijing does not wish to take on [for example in regard to the United States] as it has so many other questions – internally not just internationally – to deal with. It feels it can afford to wait and rely on economics and symbolic power with, to be sure, the military as a backstop, because it thinks that time is on its side. Indeed, the U.S. may grow tired of its obligation to Taiwan compared with the need to manage its long term relations with the PRC: its obligation could be converted into a bargaining chip in U.S. dealings with China.

Meanwhile, how resistant will the Taiwanese people be to this powerful blend of economics, coercion and blandishments?

Much will depend on specifics: for example, if a condition of re-incorporation was the offer of a status similar to the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong [SAR] might this become less or more attractive as time passes depending on which generation of the Taiwanese people was asked the question? How much are political and cultural independence together with civic freedoms to be valued compared with economic security and prosperity? Only time will tell.

Christopher Dandeker is an Emeritus Professor, Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Image credit: CC by Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan)/Flickr.

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