Debunking the Myth of Inevitability in the Taiwan Strait

Unification between Taiwan and China is not inevitable; in fact, it is no longer an option
J. Michael Cole

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)
















9 Responses to “Debunking the Myth of Inevitability in the Taiwan Strait”

January 27, 2015 at 6:47 am, sofuank said:

I think there is still a lot of uncertainty in the 2016 election. All these talks about the prospect of the Democratic Progressive Party winning is premature. What I also mean is that the pressure on the DPP to clarify its China policy is uncalled for.

In the last election in 2012, the DPP candidate ran on the platform that Taiwan and the Republic of China are mutually interchangeable (at that time a Taiwan consensus). This proposal was nothing new and the same as the party’s basic platform since 1999. It was not a surprise to everyone and any DPP candidate would have said the same. However US vetoed this idea, hinting to the Taiwanese that the two are not the same. The Taiwanese taking the cue and dismiss this idea. This is rather unfortunate because at that time I thought the idea was reasonable and predictable.

My suggestion to the DPP candidate in 2016 is actually say Nothing and clarify Nothing. I would bet that the 3 largest powers bordering Taiwan, all 3 of them, publicly would want DPP to “clarify” to show their “concern”(meaning, their influence, their weight, and that they have a finally say) But honestly though, what do these 3 powers really want deep in their hearts? They want the DPP to say Absolutely Nothing.


April 16, 2015 at 10:39 pm, taibazi said:

[deleted] Taiwanese would think they can resist the power and pull from China?
What a joke.

Unification is the only option, NO choice, either by military taking-over or slow and peaceful economic integration

Face reality, tai-ba-zi, this is your destiny.


April 17, 2015 at 7:54 am, Quentin Bonaventure said:

I really don’t get why historical arguments should be so meaningful. Especially when it is noticed in another article from the same author that a lot if not most of Taiwanese people are “dumb about their history”… History only is what people what people want to make out of it. One may claim everything and its opposite using historical facts, I am even more lost when it come about “time” : it is even more easy to find “good arguments” when using how long it has been like this compared to how long it is not anymore. Some people claim a 50 years old fact is more important than one that spans couple centuries, others will claim that the longer the meaningful. Following this, I may claim aboriginal only should have an auto-determination right : they spent thousands years in this island, before being colonized by Chinese immigrants who are now making 97% of the population ! Or maybe we may have fun redrawing everything in the Old Continent, since our history has always been made of unification and war ! Why should Portugal be independent ? why is Scotland not ? Why Germany reunited but not Czechoslovakia ? Why Yugoslavia exploded while we go against Russia’s claim over Ukraine ? How about Macedonia ? Provence ? Sicilia ? Switzerland ? Belgium ? Alsace ? Moldavia ? Why is Algeria not anymore part of France while Savoie is, despite the last became part of it decades after Algeria ? Is that cultural and istorical differences ? But c’mon, we used to share a common history with North Africa, as far as the Roman Empire and Carthage. It is “OUR SEA”, the one in the middle of us, why should later Arabian invasion cut off our cultural and historical links to the so-called Maghreb ? Oh well, it may depends if we consider the Roman Empire has something to do with France history too…

What is the “extent” to which Czechoslovakia can be consider as one but not Taiwan and China ? That’s totally subjective and dishonest ! Being subjective and dishonest, I may argue that the ROC is older than the PRC, so… Greater China ought to be ruled by ROC, especially since the ROC constitution states it for more than a century ! Why should 23 million people forbid 1 600 millions people to reach their fate as ROC citizens ? Is that because the CCP kicked the KMT out ? Well, if considering war is a good argument, then Beijing has the strongest arguments about military solutions over Taiwan ! China uses historical facts to serve its claims, if that is so wrong, why to go the same way ? Is that trying to use the same weapon to fight back ? So it should recognized as such, honestly !

It is as superficial as Lee Teng-hui talking about Austronesian genes inside Taiwanese people DNA in order to create a Taiwanese nation, and then criticizing Ma Ying-jeou for emphasizing blood ties with mainland Chinese in his book. Is that good arguments ? All I see is dirty and dangerous political arguments to serve their own goals. Researchers should never take part of that… In this article comments, Hal made some good points to which I agree, but he also felt into this awkward “blood” argument, that is even more “ridiculous”…

The most important point is future, nobody cares of past. What will become Taiwan if reunited with nowadays China in the middle of nowadays world ? Putting in simpler words : what are the goods and bads of reunification for Taiwanese people (and those citizens only) ? That is the only question ! Should China become a democratic, peaceful and wealthy country, well, certainly Taiwan ought to be part of it without even thinking… If global power countries such as the USA don’t think it is a bad things for them and try convincing Taiwan not to reunite with China but reinforce cross-Atlantic ties to counter China’s power… Or if Taiwanese people cherish their own liberty than wealth, and that’s the main reason why the reunification question will always haunt everybody : we know that people may easily give up liberty if it means an increase of wealth or security. No matter “thinkers” hate that fact, China rulers are smart enough to know that and how to put it in work. It is easy to claim your thoughts are directed to the “people” and their well-being, but if doing so, it should start from what those people say, not “teaching” them what they should be or think… Especially when not being a citizen !

Oh, and I don’t think reunification is a good deal for Taiwan today, but I may change my mind tomorrow, especially if Taiwanese people feel like it is the way to go. As I always say : “Taiwan is more Chinese than the PRC, but the PRC is China, and China will always be more Chinese than any other countries”, this sentence alone set most arguments, either pro-independent or not, to a null value. It includes every historical or cultural or whatever arguments one may make.


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