Debunking the Myth of Inevitability in the Taiwan StraitUnification between Taiwan and China is not inevitable; in fact, it is no longer an option
For decades academics and politicians have sought to find ways to untie the Gordian Knot in the Taiwan Strait. Almost every solution proposed has at its core contained some reference, howsoever worded, to “one China.” Thinkers in China, and within both the green and blue camps in Taiwan, have toyed with variations on the theme — “one China, two constitutions,” “1992 consensus,” “one China, different interpretations,” “greater one China,” “constitutional one China,” “one country, two systems,” and so on. Creativity, they hoped, would help avert war in the Taiwan Strait. The problem with all these proposals is not only that the underlying assumption of unification as an inevitable outcome is deeply flawed, but that it is a myth that was created by Chinese propagandists to limit Taiwan’s options — to lock it in, in fact.
More recently, with the prospect of a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) comeback in 2016, some intellectuals have argued that future stability in cross-strait relations will be contingent on the DPP agreeing to freeze its “independence clause.” Others have more recently opined that the party’s “Resolution on Taiwan’s Future,” which after its adoption on May 8, 1999, replaced the “independence clause,” must also go.
Tung Chen-yuan (童振源), a former vice chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council, is among those who have articulated such views from within the green camp. And like the ones that came before it, Beijing seems more than happy to help its authors broadcast their views.
According to Tung, who now teaches at National Chengchi University, the DPP shouldn’t only abandon the Resolution, but also propose a new platform for cross-strait exchanges stipulating that the party would be amenable to unification with China but only after the latter has democratized. Let’s call this the “democratic cross-strait unification” argument. Failure to do that, Tung warns us, could quickly lead to the deterioration of the cross-strait relationship.
“Using the word ‘democratic’ to modify the term ‘unification’ is in line with Taiwan’s fundamental values and interests, and it would also give China hope that unification might occur,” Tung wrote in a recent op-ed. He continues:
In addition, it could turn unification into an active force for initiating Chinese democracy. Taiwan could say it would only discuss democratic and peaceful unification with a popularly elected Chinese government. Only if Beijing implements democracy could it and Taipei form a council for democratic, peaceful unification in which they could discuss the contents of that union and methods for bringing it about.
There are many faults with Tung’s proposal, not the least if which is the fact that it appears to have been inspired by an earlier editorial in the pro-unification Want Daily. Furthermore, it regards, as have many before him, Taiwan as a means to an end, as a pathway to the democratization of China. We are to believe that having achieved this outcome (a highly uncertain one, I must add, as China has had plenty of opportunities to learn from and about democracy elsewhere, but has nevertheless moved in the opposite direction), Taiwan would then be ripe for sacrificing and ready to be subsumed into a “re-united” China. If identity and sense of nation were solely contingent on the nature of a political system, we would expect Belgians would be wholeheartedly amenable to becoming part of France, which is evidently preposterous.
Tung falls into the same trap as his predecessors: He regards unification as inevitable; politics stand in the way, and once the dispute is resolved, the path will be clear for a coming together. He even plays word games by substituting “democracy” for “unification,” a device that is unlikely to fool Beijing and that would lead to the same outcome anyway.
The even more serious flaw in his argument is that it completely ignores the will and wishes of the Taiwanese people, as if a democratic China would magically change their desire to remain masters of their own fate. In a unified China, Taiwan’s 23 million people would go from the majority in their own country to a minority within China — approximately 1/60th of the overall population of 1.4 billion. It takes a momentous leap of faith to assume that, as a small minority, Taiwanese would be able to ensure that their needs, shaped by more than a century of non-Chinese rule, are met under a unified China. In fact, we could argue that a democratic China would be less likely to meet the needs of the Taiwanese than a non-democratic one, as the latter system would conceivably make it easier for Beijing to make exceptions for Taiwan and to impose them on the population.
Ultimately, the greatest weakness in proposals such as that made by Tung is that his idea is a non-starter. The DPP would never be able to present that to its constituents and not lost its support base as a result. The problem is actually more severe: “one China” will not work for the Taiwanese, period. Unification with China, democratic or otherwise, has at most 10 percent of support among the Taiwanese population: the rest either favor independence or the “status quo,” which itself is a euphemism for independence, if only de facto.
Longstanding trends in identification, combined with events in the past year, including the Sunflower Occupation to the results of the Nov. 29 “nine-in-one” elections, point to the ongoing, and in my opinion unstoppable, consolidation of Taiwanese nationalism, despite pressure from China and the global community. The genie is out of the bottle, and however inconvenient this might be, barring a military takeover by China Taiwan will continue to exist as a distinct political entity.
So why this insistence in almost every alternative model proposed, on the inevitability of unification? I would argue that Chinese propaganda, aimed not so much at the Taiwanese but rather at the international community, is the principal cause. Undoubtedly, by creating a sense of inevitability the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) hopes to break the will of the Taiwanese. Beijing’s clear signal to Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) that he would only be allowed to visit China if he expresses support for the “1992 consensus” — a condition that Wang Kung-yi (王崑義) of Tamkang University, an ideological ally of Tung, speculates might extend to other DPP mayors wishing to travel across the Taiwan Strait — seems to support that conclusion. Agree to “one China,” or your municipality will be excluded, and you won’t reap the benefits of dealing with China, it warns.
However as we just saw, such a strategy seems to be failing; key indicators on self-identification and support for unification versus independence attest to that failure. Instead, China’s propaganda efforts are intended to isolate Taiwan internationally by narrowing the question to a choice between war and unification. By presenting the image of unification as inevitable, the CCP maintains the lie that the Taiwan “question” is nothing more than the continuation of an internal dispute between two sides of the same family rather than a deep disagreement between two distinct nations. This has important ramifications for conflict resolution, as the mechanisms that are necessary for intervention are markedly different. By continuing to mischaracterize the nature of the conflict (as “internal” rather than “between states,” which the notion of inevitably helps reinforce) we ensure that the wrong instruments will continue to be used to resolve the conflict.
We therefore face a choice: Either we change the paradigm under which we address the crisis in the Taiwan Strait, which is long overdue, or we continue to ignore the essence of the conflict and impose a stillborn solution on the Taiwanese and thereby create greater trouble for the future. Unification is not inevitable; in fact, it is no longer an option.
J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.
破解台海前途歷史必然的迷思 (Trans. by William Tsai)