A Polemic on Taiwanese Independence and Cross-Strait Relations

by Brian Hioe

English /// 中文
Photo Credit: Bloomberg

Does the “1992 Consensus” Still Last?

WHEN CHINESE PRESIDENT Xi Jinping calls for “high vigilance” against Taiwanese independence as he has in remarks last week, he is, of course, not saying anything new. Xi Jinping has vowed the “reunification” of mainland China and Taiwan within his presidential term, which runs until 2020. But even as the changes enacted in China by Xi Jinping are wide-sweeping and game-changing, Xi being clearly the most powerful Chinese leader since at least Deng Xiaoping, Xi has not made any particularly unique changes concerning official policy towards Taiwan.         

While vowing the achievement of reunification, official Chinese and Taiwanese policy still harks back to the “1992 Consensus” which states that both China and Taiwan agree that there is “One China,” but differ on their interpretation of what China is. This, of course, leaves opaque the question of Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty but China’s continued claims of sovereignty over it.

PhotoCreditCNA Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, shaking hands with former Taiwanese vice president Lien Chan at a 2011 meeting reconfirming the “1992 Consensus.” Photo credit: CNA

Where the “1992 Consensus” continues to hold official sway, it remains questionable as to its political reality, leading to some conclusions that Xi is moving away from it. It is to be questioned if the “1992 Consensus” had any political reality. In Taiwan, only the KMT continues to acknowledge the 1992 policy, where the DPP, and the standing president of Taiwan in 1992, Lee Teng-Hui, both disavow the binding power of any actual consensus reached as part of political stances which do not acknowledge “Taiwan” as “China”, differing from the KMT. To be sure, negotiations were conducted by semiofficial bodies on both the Chinese and Taiwanese sides and, certainly, the supposed “consensus” more broadly just declares the a priori political positions of the Republic of China and People’s Republic of China rather actually having at arrived at any form of true consensus. But even when Xi Jinping inveighs of the need for “high vigilance” against Taiwanese independence in remarks before the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, he simultaneously continues to cite the importance of “1992 Consensus”.

Whether or not Xi will actually achieve that reunification of China and Taiwan or even seriously intends to do so another question entirely, but China’s official stances have certainly not shifted on the matter of Taiwan under Xi. As pointed out recently by J. Michael Cole in his article “Xi, the PLA, and the State of Perpetual Conflict”, it may be that the Chinese government merely finds itself in the position of having to continually raise the specter of Taiwanese independence as a threat. This may not necessarily in itself mean that China will actually act on its threats towards Taiwan, but the threat of Taiwanese independence, along with the threat of separatism in Xinjiang and Tibet, is continually raised in order to maintain a state of “perpetual conflict” for the Chinese regime. Or, in other words, these threats this is in order to maintain a state of “permanent crisis,” a permanent “state of emergency” in which both repressive measures to maintain internal order in China and aggressive foreign policy are justified—much as with America, for example, during the Cold War or the current War on Terror.

But it may be all bets are, in the end, off when it comes to the unprecedented rise of China. There quite simply too many unknowns when it comes to China.  Without invoking any form of Orientalist projection onto inscrutable Chineseness, it is simply that the closed nature of the CCP and the Chinese party-state forces us to speculation at times erring towards the paranoid, much in the manner of Cold War Kremlinologists.

Would the World Just Abandon Taiwan to China?

AN INVASION OF Taiwan by China would by any and all means mark the end of the current global world order—not only in regards to regional powers in the Asia-Pacific, but also in regards to between China and an American state whose interests in the Asia-Pacific are manifold. But in the face of regional conflict, behind which would loom the threat of global conflict between China and the United States, it would remain to be seen whether the community of nations would simply throw Taiwan to the wolves, in acquiescing to the annexation of Taiwan by China in return for promises of peace. Certainly, history has no shortages of territory being ceded to aggressor powers in return for promises of peace, that is, the policy of “appeasement”—but such promises are usually broken right after.

The textbook example of appeasement is, of course, the 1938 Munich Pact, which agreed to the ceding of the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany. The pact was negotiated by Great Britain, France and Italy and not Czechoslovakia, of which the Sudetenland was the territory of, in order to stave off the rising tide of Nazi Germany. The Nazi German claim to the Sudetenland was made on the basis of the high German population in Sudetenland and the need to defend their interests. As we saw recently in the case of Crimea, for a powerful nation to annex the territory of a smaller power, it is still required to have some rationale within the relations of global diplomacy as to why such an annexation would be desired by the people in that territory, or why such an annexation is done for the purposes of defending the interests of one’s national people.

In the case of Taiwan, of course, the rationale would be the essential claims of ethnic blood ties and ahistorical nationhood between Taiwan and a transhistorical Chinese empire—never mind that Taiwan and China today as ROC or PRC are both fundamentally modern states which came into being in the 20th century. But in the case of the Munich Pact, this did not forestall Nazi aggression but only encouraged it, even as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain famously came back from Munich Pact negotiations declaring that he had secured “peace for our times.” Would this also be the case with Taiwan?

In the case of China, it remains a question as to what extent China desires to expand its frontiers. China, after all, views Taiwan as not as territory to be annexed, per se, but a part of its preexistent territory in rebellion—an insurgent, rebel province. China’s land grabs in the South China Sea are conducted under the claim that they, too, are part of its preexistent territory. But it is foolish to think that Chinese expansionism would most likely not occur under the rationale that China was only defending its preexistent territory. Considering all the cases of expansion during modern history that have occurred under the claim of merely defending one’s territory, somehow there are still those purported “China experts” in academia or popular commentary who seem to take seriously China’s claims that it is not interested in expanding its frontiers, but rather just defending its frontiers. Namely, “China experts” seem to have difficulty parsing out that China’s claims to be defending its frontiers and nothing else are precisely the rationale by which Chinese expansionism is legitimized.

Though some commentators point towards the immensity of China’s population, economy, powerful international political clout, and the size of its military—as compared to Taiwan’s small population and small geography—it seems somewhat unlikely that Taiwan would simply dissolve, Atlantis-like, into this sea of Chinese vastness. Apart from geography, Taiwan is, after all, by the numbers is actually quite large—it is only in comparison to the enormousness of China that Taiwan seems small. Taiwan has the 21st largest economy in the world, and is the 52nd most populated country in the world out of the world’s 200 or so nation-states—having a population larger than that of Australia.

Taiwan’s Overseas Presence

THE ANNEXATION OF Taiwan would send shockwaves through the world, not only in regards to the economic disruption which would ensue, but also that Taiwan’s large overseas population would be able to raise the plight of Taiwan. For example, where all the world knows the plight of Tibet as part of the efforts of the Tibetan exile community to spread awareness of the plight of Tibet can provide a case study of how overseas community can be instrumental in advocating on behalf of its own country or territory. But the current amount of overseas Taiwanese is much higher in population than the Tibetan exile community. A report published by the Planning Commission of the Central Tibetan Administration accounts for 127,935 Tibetans living outside Tibet in 2009, including in exile communities in India and elsewhere. Whereas statistics report 342,000 Taiwanese living in just America itself, never mind that there are actually 170,000 Taiwanese living in China, and Taiwanese in other parts of the world. This should, in theory, translate into a significant amount of soft power for Taiwan in the present, but has largely not done so in the present even after the Sunflower Movement—on the other hand, following an earthshaking crisis for Taiwan that goes beyond the Sunflower Movement to become a wholly existential threat to Taiwan, that might become a possibility.

Likewise, without venturing into military speculations of which I am no real expert, a recent ranking has Taiwan’s military at 15th strongest in the world—and despite a large amount of bragging about its size as one of the world’s largest militaries, China would seem to be lacking on the technological side of warfare as a result of underdevelopment in such a manner that would limit its ability to conduct naval war. For all the panic about China’s first, one, and only, aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, one must remember that the Liaoning was converted from a former Soviet Union vessel which, before its acquisition by China, was due to be converted into a floating casino. One also suspects at times that the threat of a rising Chinese military is perpetually raised in order to justify expanding American interests in the Asia-Pacific. But the dictates of common sense cast doubt upon the narrative of China’s unsurpassed military strength.

Second Cold War in Asia?

NEVERTHELESS IF WE proceed under the premise that the world community would, in fact, be willing to throw Taiwan to the wolves for the sake preserving some semblance of peace, regional stability in East Asia after an invasion of Taiwan would never be the same after that. Countries in the Asia-Pacific would forever be wary of China after an invasion of Taiwan and the potential for regional conflict would just be that much higher. As recently evidenced in that the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War having been an opportunity to fan anew old tensions, tensions between China and other Asian-Pacific nation-states persists. Relative to Taiwan, particularly important to account for is Japan, as Japan’s ties to Taiwan are closest of any Asian nation-states, Japan’s historical enmity towards China is particularly strong, and Japan is the strongest power in the Asia-Pacific region outside of China—although more work remains to be done about that South Korea also has strong historical enmity towards China and is a power in the region which might play a critical role in future conflict.

Where we find ourselves in the position of broadly speculating about China political leaders’ views of potential conflict with Japan, apart from occasional outbursts of anti-Japanese sentiment from individual politicians or military leaders, the political attitudes of the Chinese people can point towards a consensus. A 2014 poll conducted by 10th Japan-China Public Opinion Poll, a yearly cooperative effort between Japanese NGO, Genron NCO, and the People’s Daily of China, revealed that 53.4% of Chinese expect war between China and Japan by 2020.

Photo Credit-CRS report RL33821US treaty allies in the Asia Pacific region. Photo credit: CRS Report RL33821

And on the Japanese side, though lower, with 29% of those surveyed saying that they expect conflict with China, this is on the increase compared to 23.7% in 2013. Japan has in recent years also seen a resurgent far-right Japanese nationalism with a strong anti-Chinese racial element, as championed by heavyweight politicians as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, and former Osaka governor Toru Hashimoto. Japan also no longer has the Article 9 of its constitution, restricting the waging of warfare by Japan’s “Self-Defense Force”, legally not a military until very recently, despite being one of the strongest militaries in the world.

If Taiwan were to be annexed by China, would that just push regional tensions to a breaking point? It would be hard to say whether Taiwan’s annexation itself would provoke any outbreak of tensions, as, again, the issue of Taiwan might just be smoothed over in order to maintain peace. But Taiwan’s annexation would be a sign that regional order is about to fracture and that it likely would sometime in the immediate vicinity thereafter—regardless of what stopgap measures are taken as condemning Taiwan to Chinese annexation, as would be through policies of appeasement. The larger question at hand would be to what extent conflict between China and regional nation-states in East Asia would involve a conflict between the United States and China. Though the US maintains a large military presence across the Asia-Pacific region, it is a question as to direct US intervention. But where Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and other East Asian nation-states are client states of the US, this might more likely be a proxy war fought between the US through its proxy states and China. And it would seem that this would mark something like a new Cold War between the US and some purported socialist power fought largely through proxy wars—fought between the US and China across the terrain of the Asia-Pacific through American client states.

Whether or not China annexes Taiwan, the broader constellation of circumstances in the Asia-Pacific points towards conditions reminiscent of the Cold War—the specter of which has never faded from global geopolitics—even as the the master narrative for the past fifteen years since 9/11 has shifted to the struggle against terrorism, replacing the struggle against communism before it. We may be quite inevitably heading for something like a new Cold War. The question of whether Taiwanese annexation by China is a possibility is one intimately bound up with global geopolitics. But where the question raises itself, it would be foolish to think that tensions between Taiwan and China occur in a vacuum, whereby China could devour Taiwan without consequences, this being necessarily the harbinger of incipient territorial crisis in the Asia-Pacific region if it were to happen. Yet too much of analyses of Taiwan-China relations have failed to take into account that behind Taiwan looms the United States, of which Taiwan is the client state and in some sense proxy of America’s intervention in China.

Between China and America

COMMENTATORS HAVE popularly taken Xi’s recent comments to be in relation to upcoming Taiwanese 2016 elections. Namely, the DPP is expected to win in wake of the changed political atmosphere of Taiwan following the beating the KMT took in nine-in-one elections and that Taiwanese identification is at a record high. It would appear that Xi is warning Taiwanese not to vote DPP, but to vote KMT, where China is friendlier with the KMT and more willing to conduct exchanges with the KMT so far as China and the KMT share the claim that there is only one China—where the DPP originates out of the history of the Taiwanese independence movement. But in questioning whether China would actually act to annex Taiwan during Xi’s administration, per his political claims, it may be that Xi is merely attempting to push for a political regime in Taiwan more amenable to himself. Recent trends would seem to indicate that China is more interested in accomplishing the integration of Taiwan to itself through economic and not military means, after all, since that would prove less upsetting to regional stability.

No doubt Xi’s speech is aimed at ensuring the maintenance of a KMT government in which economic negotiations toward unification are possible.  What Xi is attempting to do is to draw upon the mercuriality of the Taiwanese voter electorate, whereby candidates emphasizing Taiwanese identity might be voted for but Taiwanese independence itself proves a far more controversial topic—where the concern is often less with Taiwan’s independence considering that Taiwan has long since been a de facto independent country from China, but because pro-independence candidates are seen as rocking the boat where relations with China are concerned. When pro-independence politicians provoke too much, they lose Taiwanese public favor, as in the case of ex-President Chen Shui-Bian’s fall from grace.

And caught as it is between Great Powers as China and America, Great Powers have a way of acting to check moves by Taiwan which might bring it outside of the hegemony—such as a DPP victory. Xi’s latest speech finds parallel in the fact that an anonymous senior official from the White House informed the Financial Times in 2008 that America did not have faith in Tsai Ing-Wen’s strength of character to stand up to China, though sources previously claimed that this anonymous official was from the state department. This was, of course, sabotaging of and a blow to Tsai’s 2008 presidential campaign where it is a crucial condition for the Taiwanese voter electorate to pick a political leader for Taiwan that they be able to deal with China—and enjoy continued, under the table, American support of Taiwan. If we point to China’s attempt to influence Taiwanese elections with wariness, so, too, must we beware of American attempt to influence—even sabotage—Taiwan in order to keep Taiwan from upsetting the order of American regional policy in the Asia-Pacific. When Taiwan rocks the boat too much, it can still be thrown under the bus by its purported American allies.

But would China really be hostile towards a DPP government? Other commentators have pointed towards that China may have accepted the inevitability of a DPP government, but still we might note that DPP politicians have in recent years made moves towards friendlier relations with China. The DPP has in part accepted the inevitability that Taiwan will need to have some form of conducting exchanges with China in light of the political and economic rise of China, but also in part to counteract the image of the DPP being unnecessarily provocative in regards to cross-strait relations in the eyes of the Taiwanese public. This is very often a pivot issue that leads to voting favor for the KMT when they are otherwise in disagreement with the KMT on most other issues. The Taiwanese voter electorate more often drifts towards maintaining the current status quo of ambiguous relations with China, rather than tipping the balance in such a manner which they perceive as threatening the fundamental existence of Taiwan as an independent nation-state that will not suffer Chinese invasion or incursions on its sovereignty. But the irony of this, of course, is that this is not a product of identification with China, but also another form of maintaining “Taiwanese independence”—albeit an independence maintained through yielding to the complacent belief that if Taiwan’s current state of de facto independence can be maintained in the present, it can continue to be maintained without taking action to preserve independence.

A Time for “High Vigilance” Against Taiwanese Independence? Or High Time for Taiwanese Independence?

BUT CAN TAIWAN’S current ambiguous state of independence last forever? Oftentimes foreign commentators on global politics have said no, pointing towards the reality of economic integration with China or China’s military might relative to Taiwan. In such cases, it is to be questioned whether economic reality or military might trumps all other forms of political considerations in reductionist manner. When it comes to foreign commentators regarding Taiwan, one is oftentimes struck that the claim that Taiwan’s absorption by China is inevitable oftentimes belies their own underlying desire that Taiwan’s absorption to China will go smoothly, inevitably, and not lead to regional instability.

And where news of Taiwan does not attract much in the way of global attention, foreign commentators are often working on outdated information, oftentimes failing to account for recent developments and then seeking to account for developments post-facto in reductionist manner. So it is that the shifts in Taiwan since the Sunflower Movement are only now beginning to be accounted for after the triumph of Ko Wen-Je during nine-in-one elections and, even then, somehow Ko Wen-Je’s victory becomes attributed to Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement rather than the Sunflower Movement far closer to home. Despite the fact that the Sunflower Movement was clearly the most significant set of political protests since the end of Taiwan’s authoritarian period, the Sunflower Movement largely went unregistered by the global public because of Taiwan’s international obscurity.

In the end, rather befitting the present set of conditions reminiscent of the Cold War, it may be something like a question of game theory. Does China really seek to annex Taiwan? Will this be an existential threat to Taiwan? Only time can tell. But is the safest move to not rock the boat where Taiwanese independence is concerned? Is the only winning move not to play? Even if it may mean playing a dangerous game of chicken with China through declaring independence?

PhotoCreditBrianHioeTaiwanese independence activists from the Alliance of Referendum for Taiwan on May 1st, 2014. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

These are the questions that Taiwanese need to deliberate carefully upon in the present. But, in truth, the conditions for declaring Taiwanese independence now may be better than ever before—and there may be no other opportunity in the future. Under Xi Jinping, China is in the throes of the largest transformation in its history since the reintroduction of the capitalist free market under the Deng period. Xi is compared in power as a statesman not to predecessors Hu Jintao or Jiang Zemin, but to Deng and even Mao himself. Where China’s internal contradictions were for the past twenty years largely passed under the radar because the rest of the world was thrown into shock, awe, and worship by its economic growth, now China’s economic, political, and environmental instabilities are more evident than ever before—and so it may not seem so desirable for another nation to become become part of China now. While evaluations of Xi Jinping at the beginning of his wide reaching anti-corruption campaign largely swung towards the positive, Xi being seen as as hard-hitting and pragmatic reformer, evaluations of Xi from the international world now swing towards seeing him as a despot and autocrat in the Maoist mold.     

And even as the Sunflower Movement failed to be noticed by the world, Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement in the months after seized the world’s attention—in fact, maybe leading to more articles on the relation of Taiwan to Hong Kong than I saw articles about Taiwan during the Sunflower Movement itself—but this primes the situation that now be the time in which awareness of Taiwan takes the world by storm. If separatism in Tibet and Xinjiang just continues to grow stronger in the face of China’s contradictions, this may be the time when Taiwan can make its plight known to the world—and finally attain the status of de jure independence in addition to its current de facto independence and where its lack of de jure independence threatens its continued independence. Perhaps this is where a Sunflower 2.0 can come in, where calls for a second Sunflower Movement began almost immediately after the first one ended.

But all this depends on the decision of the Taiwanese people. Independence or no independence?  Do we dare to win or is it best not to play? Is it as Xi Jinping says, a time for “high vigilance” against Taiwanese independence? Or is it now that it is high time for Taiwanese independence? That is what remains to be decided.

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