Fired up: supporters of Taiwan's opposition party (Kuomintang) attend a rally on 7 January 2024. Image: SOPA Images / Alamy
With tensions across the Taiwan Strait ratcheting up in recent years in the context of growing US–China rivalry, will Taiwan’s forthcoming elections prove to be a turning point?
As the citizens of the Republic of China (Taiwan) go to the polls this weekend, over on the mainland, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials insist their vote is a choice between war and peace. Even the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) candidate accuses his opponent of risking war with China. Why the bellicose rhetoric? Beijing has allowed a situation to develop where unification of Taiwan with mainland China under the CCP has become so unattractive that the only way it could happen is by force, and even that looks very risky. As this policy failure cannot be acknowledged, shame is turning to anger.
The awkward fact for advocates of ‘unification’ is that so many of the people who have moved to Taiwan – before and since 1949 – have come to identify as Taiwanese. According to a recent poll, today fewer than 3% of Taiwanese people identify as only Chinese. About 30% identify as both Chinese and Taiwanese, and more than 60% say that they are only Taiwanese. This creates a profound problem for the Communist Party, which insists that the ‘reunification’ of China – de facto the absorption of Taiwan into the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – is a ‘historical inevitability’. It is bad enough trying to realise ‘one China’ under party rule when your ‘compatriots’ reject communism. It is even worse when so few of them even want to be Chinese.
This identity factor has come out in every election since the end of Martial Law in 1987 (this will be the eighth democratic presidential election). The first president to be elected was Lee Teng-hui, who was born in Taiwan and served as an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second World War. Then came Chen Shui-bian, who entitled his first autobiography The Son of Taiwan and held a referendum in 2008 on pursuing UN membership under the name Taiwan, rather than the Republic of China. Ma Ying-jeou won the next election. Although he was from the KMT, he was born not in the PRC, but in what was then British Hong Kong. The outgoing president from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Tsai Ing-wen, was born in Taipei.
This tendency may have been encouraged by a ‘De-cinicisation’ policy in education, downplaying Chinese culture and emphasising local identity. But the identify shift away from ‘one China’ shows no signs of slowing, and if the DPP wins yet another election, that will confirm this trend. The DPP party constitution states that ‘Taiwan is a sovereign state. It is a historical fact and a de facto status quo that Taiwan is not a part of the People's Republic of China nor does her sovereignty encompass Mainland China’.
It is not just the US that has reconsidered its posture on a Taiwan conflict; others in the region appear more ready to offer some kind of support in case the US decides to fight
The Communists find the status quo described in the DPP constitution – that Taiwan is for all intents and purposes a sovereign state – intolerable, for at least two reasons. First, as an example of a politically free China, Taiwan calls into question the legitimacy of the PRC’s monopoly of power on the mainland. President Xi Jinping has expressed his concern that the kind of ‘colour revolutions’ that overthrew dictatorships in Europe could threaten the position of the party. Taiwan experienced its own version of civil disruption to politics in the form of the March 2014 ‘sunflower movement’, when a group of students took over the national legislature as a demonstration against a free trade deal with the PRC. Their sit-in evolved into a 24-day confrontation. These events gain salience in light of the ‘Maidan’ protests, which Russia cast as a ‘coup’ in its narrative legitimating the 2014 seizure of Crimea.
Perhaps more importantly, the persistence of an independent Taiwan not only contradicts Beijing’s grand narrative on national destiny; to the extent that China’s leadership has become convinced the US is determined to foil its destiny, Taiwanese independence is also seen as presenting opportunities for the PRC’s enemies. China’s August 2022 white paper on Taiwan recognises that ‘some external forces have tried to exploit Taiwan to contain China, prevent the Chinese nation from achieving complete reunification, and halt the process of national rejuvenation’.
For its part, the US might argue its moves to enhance Taiwan’s powers of deterrence are the minimum necessary to redress the balance against the build-up of the People’s Liberation Army and its more aggressive moves. The presence of US military trainers on Taiwan that recently came to light apparently goes back to the Trump era, but President Joe Biden broke with convention when he promised that the US would defend Taiwan if it is attacked. Theoretically, Taiwan’s de facto independence could be preserved by force, but as the PRC military continues to modernise, it is far from clear that the US would be able to project enough of it to convince Beijing that an invasion cannot succeed. It is not just the US that has reconsidered its posture on a Taiwan conflict; others in the region appear more ready to offer some kind of support in case the US decides to fight. Just to the south, the Philippines has opened locations for US basing. Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine contributed to this shift in thinking. Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has warned not to let Ukraine today become East Asia tomorrow, pushing defence reforms including elements that appear designed to enable Japan to support a US defence of Taiwan.
US policy towards Taiwan has become more reliant on the military balance as a means of achieving deterrence. This is the theme of a report by Bonnie S Glaser, Jessica Chen Weiss and Thomas J Christensen entitled ‘Taiwan and the True Sources of Deterrence’, which argues that the only way to make sure deterrence has the desired effect is to balance threats with reassurance. Theoretically, the person who hears ‘take one more step and I shoot’ has to believe not just that the shot will come, but also that they will be safe if they don’t move. And this is the biggest source of danger over Taiwan today: both sides are arming up, and though neither is eager to shoot, a lack of reassurance means they don’t feel safe standing still either.
If the Taiwanese think they are going to be ‘united’ by force and ruled from Beijing anyway, they have nothing to lose by taking actions that might previously have been deemed too ‘provocative’
The Biden administration has not repeated earlier assurances that it supports an outcome that has the support of those on both sides of the strait (that is, that it would accept unification by non-coercive means), nor has it reiterated encouragement of cross-strait dialogue. Listening to the testimony of Ely Ratner, assistant secretary of defence for Indo-Pacific affairs, before the Senate on what makes Taiwan so important to the US, it becomes harder to imagine Washington letting Taiwan go its own way: ‘Taiwan is located at a critical node within the first island chain, anchoring a network of US allies and partners – stretching from the Japanese archipelago down to the Philippines and into the South China Sea – that is critical to the region’s security and critical to the defense of vital US interests in the Indo-Pacific’. The Communist leadership could be forgiven for wondering if the ROC’s foreign supporters would accept unification based on genuine self-determination, or if even a consensual and peaceful unification might be deemed – for strategic reasons – intolerable?
Beijing is also guilty of neglecting reassurance. There was some comfort in the assumption that China would not use force so long as Taiwan did not make any moves towards independence, but in 2005, Beijing codified into domestic law its right to use force against Taiwan if it judges that the possibilities for peaceful reunification have been completely exhausted. The CCP takes the position that ‘peaceful reunification’ is its preferred option, but as seen by its use of military exercises, live fires and surveillance balloons, its definition of ‘peaceful’ includes coercive acts short of all-out war. Beijing has previously held out the prospect of autonomy in Taiwan’s governance after unification, and the 2022 white paper still talks of accepting the continuation of Taiwan’s social system after unification. But in a speech in January 2019, Xi backtracked from past policy on what aspects of Taiwan’s current system (the army, political institutions) would be preserved after unification. The application of the ‘two systems’ principle in Hong Kong demonstrates how much plurality the PRC is willing to accept. As Beijing’s commitment to a specific end-state becomes more and more prescribed and contains less and less actual autonomy for Taiwan, the principle of settling the issue by negotiation becomes meaningless. What is there to talk about? If the Taiwanese think they are going to be ‘united’ by force and ruled from Beijing anyway, they have nothing to lose by taking actions that might previously have been deemed too ‘provocative’.
The evolution of Taiwanese identity, the contextualisation of the Taiwan issue within the logic of US–China rivalry, and the CCP’s zealous pursuit of its national ‘rejuvenation’ ideology have eliminated space for reassurance to play a role in sustaining the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. As long as neither Beijing nor Washington feels safe standing still, further military escalation is likely. Therefore, the issue to watch for in the outcome of these elections is less which party wins, but more whether Taipei can produce policies that recreate space for reassurance to play a role alongside defensive military capability. Will the victor of these elections use his inaugural address to reaffirm commitments (made by the DPP’s Tsai in her inaugural speech in 2016) to conduct cross-strait affairs in accordance with the ROC constitution and the 1992 act governing relations with the mainland? Will the US take the opportunity of a new leadership on the island to reassure everyone that great power competition comes second to the genuine preferences of the populations on both sides of the strait? The CCP seems to have painted itself into a corner, but it remains difficult to see what would persuade Xi that it is safe to stand still.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Philip Shetler-Jones
Senior Research Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security