Explaining Cross-Strait Relations with Theories of European Integration

Written by Frédéric Krumbein.

Image credit: European Flag by Rock Cohen/Flickr, license CC BY-SA 2.0

The European Union has the densest integration region globally, whereas current trends in cross-strait relations point to a further divide between both sides. Despite noticeable significant differences between the European Union and cross-strait relations, theories of European integration provide a useful framework to analyse the past, present, and future of relations between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland. Four major theories of regional integration that were developed for or applied to the European integration process will be used to analyse cross-strait relations: neofunctionalism, historical institutionalism, liberal intergovernmentalism, and postfunctionalism. Neofunctionalism is the only theory that has already been applied in depth by other researchers.

Historical institutionalism explores how early institutional choices structure their subsequent development and how institutions, such as principles, norms, or rules, develop over time. A core concept is path dependence, in which early decisions provide incentives and constraints for actors to perpetuate institutional and policy choices inherited from the past. Historical institutionalism is at its best when it seeks to explain continuity due to path dependence.Critical junctures can explain change, often a situation of crisis, during which the structural influences, such as economic, cultural, or ideological, on political action are significantly relaxed for a short period of time.

Since its founding in 1949, the PRC claims that Taiwan is part of its “sacred territory,” as the PRC’s constitution states. The PRC’s commitment towards unification is strongly tied to the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party’s rule over China. This is due to its desire to end the Chinese Civil War, fulfil Xi Jinping’s “great rejuvenation of the Chinese people,” and cement the PRC’s status as a hegemonic power in East Asia. A critical juncture in Taiwan was its process of democratisation in the 1990s. Even if this process did not formally change Taiwan’s international status, it has made Taiwan the only Chinese democracy and based the island’s sovereignty and identity on the Taiwanese will. A peaceful change of Taiwan’s political status is thus only possible with the consent of the Taiwanese. It also leads to a strong Taiwanese identity and the de facto renouncing all Republic of China’s claims on the mainland’s territory.

In sum, historical institutionalism explains well the fundament of cross-strait relations. Potential critical junctures in the future that might lead to major changes in cross-strait relations include the democratisation of the Chinese mainland, strategic clarity towards Taiwan by the United States, or the capability by the Chinese mainland to conquer Taiwan by force and to repel any US support for Taiwan effectively.

Neofunctionalism and liberal intergovernmentalism can explain the process of economic and social integration between both sides that started in the 1980s and the modest steps towards closer political cooperation under the Ma Ying-jeou administration (KMT, 2008-2016).

Neofunctionalism claims that sub-national groups, such as businesspeople, play a crucial role in integration processes and that economic and rational interests of actors mainly drive integration. Integration usually starts in areas that are considered the least controversial, i.e., low politics. The central focus of neofunctionalism is the “spill-over effect.” Unintended effects of integration lead to periodic crises which need to be resolved. This leads to new steps of integration through the process of “spilling over” from one policy area to another.

Neofunctionalism explains how economic interdependence between Taiwan and mainland China created stakeholders in Taiwan who pushed for closer cross-strait ties, leading to spill-overs from trade and investment to 21 bilateral agreements. Besides closer contacts between the two parties KMT and CCP, starting in the 1990s, the mainland Chinese government also set up cross-strait networks. It provided economic incentives to Taiwanese local politicians, Taiwanese companies, businesspeople, and the taishang-Taiwanese businesspeople on the mainland. These actors became agents in Taiwan, promoting closer cross-strait ties. They also helped Ma Ying-jeou win the presidential elections in 2008 and 2012 on a platform that promoted closer ties over the Taiwan Strait.

President Ma’s main objectives and of his supporters in cross-strait relations were twofold: economic prosperity and peaceful relations. Consequently, cross-strait integration focused on low politics, as neofunctionalism would predict. There was a spill-over effect from informal economic exchanges and investments in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. This spill-over continued with the eventual economic and trade relationship formalisation, which resulted in the ratification of 21 cross-strait agreements under his presidency. A spill-over took place to increase people-to-people exchange, particularly tourism, and to modest police and judicial cooperation. The Taiwanese businesspeople working and living on the mainland wanted more legal protection and advocated the latter.

Liberal intergovernmentalism (LI) is a good addition to neofunctionalism in explaining bargaining and negotiating processes between states. LI’s two basic assumptions are that states are critical actors in international relations and seek to achieve goals primarily through intergovernmental negotiation and bargaining. (Economic) interdependence of states creates incentives for cooperation. The bargaining power of a state is crucial to explain whether and on which terms cooperation comes about. Asymmetrical interdependence has the most significant impact on the bargaining power of a given state. Asymmetrical interdependence refers to the fact that the benefits of a specific agreement are unevenly distributed. An actor that is least in need of an agreement – relative to the status quo – is best able to threaten others with non-cooperation. LI can well explain—through the concept of asymmetrical interdependence—why Taiwan, even if it has been less powerful than mainland China, could extract major concessions from mainland China during the negotiations for cross-strait agreements. Taiwan was relatively satisfied with the status quo, while mainland China wished for closer cross-strait integration as a precursor to unification.

However, both neofunctionalism and LI overlook the salience of identity and values. Since about 2013/2014, the role of identity took centre stage in cross-strait relations. In Taiwan, the Sunflower movement ignited a new emphasis on Taiwan’s values of democracy and human rights that need to be protected from mainland China’s authoritarianism. Whereas in mainland China, Xi Jinping has strengthened nationalistic narratives with his “Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation.” This is a narrative that includes unification with Taiwan.

Postfunctionalism as a theory of European integration explains recent trends of populist resistance against further integration in Europe. If integration processes threaten the identity and self-determination of a political community, a backlash against further integration or even disintegration, e.g., “Brexit,” might occur. The relationship between European and national identities that people might hold is often conceptualised as inclusive and exclusive. The distinction between exclusive and inclusive identity points to the fact that some Europeans identify exclusively with their nation, i.e., exclusive nationalists. Others identify with their nation and the European Union, i.e., inclusive nationalists. In the case of Taiwan, exclusive nationalists would only identity with Taiwan, while inclusive nationalists with Taiwan and China. The more exclusively an individual identifies with an in-group – in that case, Taiwan -then the less that individual is predisposed to support any jurisdiction encompassing other groups and mainland Chinese. About two-thirds of Taiwanese identify themselves exclusively as Taiwanese.

The two last presidential and parliamentary elections in Taiwan in 2016 and 2020 were dominated by Taiwan’s fear of the PRC’s dictatorship and the intensely felt necessity to protect Taiwan’s democratic identity. The protest movement in Hong Kong and the uncompromising stance of the PRC central government and the Hong Kong government have further fuelled this fear. Tsai Ing-wen won both elections from the DPP with a large majority. She vows to preserve Taiwan’s sovereignty, democracy, and human rights.

Postfunctionalism can well explain the trajectory of cross-strait relations since the ascent of Xi Jinping and Tsai Ing-wen to power in their respective countries. The question of identity has taken centre stage in mainland China and Taiwan. The exclusive identities and the respective values of both sides are moving in opposite directions, explaining the growing divide in cross-strait relations.

Frédéric Krumbein is Heinrich-Heine Visiting Professor, Tel Aviv University, Israel. E-mail: frederic.krumbein@fu-berlin.de

This article was published as part of EATS 2021: Narrating Taiwan special issue. All articles in the special issue can be found here.

One comment

Leave a Reply to Jeffrey D. Hunt @ customchairs Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s