Will Beijing push harder for unification?
Some China watchers worry that this disappointing election result could lead Beijing to conclude its “carrots and sticks policy” has failed and it’s time to drop the carrots and harden the sticks. That perspective is captured in a Los Angeles Times column by PRC foreign policy expert Oriana Skylar Mastro.
There are many reasons Beijing might take a hard line against Taiwan, including domestic political factors within the PRC, but whether its policy has failed depends on what the end goals are.
Mastro assumes the PRC’s goal for Taiwan is unification, and there’s plenty of evidence to support that assumption. The PRC has made it clear in countless ways that bringing Taiwan into a Chinese state whose seat of government is on the Chinese mainland is its ultimate objective.
If we focus on unification as the goal, then the PRC’s policy does appear to be failing. Countless public opinion surveys make it clear: Taiwanese do not want to unify with the People’s Republic of China. One reason Tsai was reelected so easily was that voters thought she would resist both the carrots and the sticks better than her opponent.
There is no question that unification is what Beijing wants …
… yet it has lived without unification for 70 years. What Beijing cannot tolerate is for Taiwan to declare independence. If that happens, Beijing’s past statements, including a 2005 Anti-Secession Law, demand a forceful response.
As long as Taiwan refrains from taking unequivocal steps toward permanent separation from the Chinese nation — issuing a declaration of independence, running up a new flag, or adopting constitutional reform that severs its connection to China, say — Beijing has discretion in how it responds. The Anti-Secession Law does authorize force in the event Taiwan resists unification indefinitely, but only independence leaves Beijing without discretion over what to do next.
If blocking independence is the goal, Beijing’s policy is working
If Beijing’s goal is to deter Taiwan from moving toward formal independence, its policy has not failed. If independence were cost-free, most Taiwanese would be happy to move in that direction, if only to settle the issue and enable broader participation in the international community. But they know it’s not cost-free, and Taiwan is farther from a declaration of independence today than in 1996, which was the first and last time a presidential candidate ran on an explicitly pro-independence platform.
The DPP adopted a resolution in 1999 stating a declaration was unnecessary, because Taiwan already was independent, under the name Republic of China. Many Taiwanese wish they could let go of the “Republic of China” designation. But the great majority — even many who yearn for independence — accept that formalizing their independence is not worth provoking China’s military response. In June, Taiwan’s Election Studies Center found 57.5 percent of Taiwanese either wanted to keep the current situation forever, or keep the current situation for now, and make a decision later. Fewer than 6 percent supported immediate independence.
Even the most committed independence advocates have learned to be pragmatic. Just before the election, I met with a spokesman for Taiwan’s Statebuilding Party, a pro-independence party. The spokesman explained that the party recognizes Taiwan is unlikely to achieve independence in the current climate. The Statebuilding Party joined the election because it thinks that keeping independence in the debate is important, both to balance the political spectrum and because, as the spokesman explained, if the possibility opens up someday in the future, “we need to be ready.”
Taiwan’s democracy fosters moderation
Beijing blames democratic politics for Taiwan’s feistiness, but it was democracy that pulled the island back from its flirtation with formal independence.
Taiwanese began debating the issue in the early 1990s when authoritarian-era restrictions on speech evaporated. In the decades since, Taiwanese politicians and voters have explored options and tested limits. Ultimately, they concluded their best option is to preserve what they have now: de facto independence, but within a framework that maintains the historical connection reflected in the Republic of China name and constitution.
The PRC’s Taiwan policymakers aren’t satisfied with this equilibrium. They worry that until Taiwan is unified, the threat of independence exists. When they hear Tsai Ing-wen say “China” to refer to the PRC, or “Taiwan” to refer to Taiwan, they believe she is chipping away at Taiwan’s connection to China in the hope of making that connection disappear altogether.
Yet even Tsai Ing-wen has changed her language. On Oct. 10, the Republic of China’s national day, Tsai declared the words “The Republic of China Taiwan” represent the consensus of Taiwan’s society. This language is important because it rejects the idea that Taiwanese must choose between ROC and Taiwan. It’s not an easy move for a DPP politician.
A peaceful Taiwan Strait isn’t impossible
Democratic deliberation informed by a sober calculation of the risks posed by a determined PRC — this is what has muted the demand for immediate, formal independence in Taiwan. There are still dreams of independence, but the mainstream conversation on Taiwan today is about how to preserve what matters most: self-government, democracy, freedom. In this election, that calculus led the voters to Tsai Ing-wen.
Mastro may be right: Beijing may respond to Taiwan’s election by tightening the screws, but PRC leaders have other options. They have convinced Taiwanese that pushing for formal independence now is not a risk worth taking. Perhaps Beijing will turn its attention to persuading Taiwanese to change their views on unification. It won’t be easy, but neither are the alternatives.
Shelley Rigger is Brown Professor of Political Science at Davidson College and the author of Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011). She is a Fulbright U.S. Scholar studying Taiwanese youth attitudes.