Searching for Taiwan’s Plan B
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Searching for Taiwan’s Plan B

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A few months back, a small delegation from a Chinese foreign policy think tank visited a US university. Over lunch, the conversation turned (semi-jokingly) to the supposed naïveté of Americans. One of the American academics present readily admitted that he and his fellow citizens could, indeed, often be naïve. But then he added: ‘Here’s the most naïve thing you can imagine: There are many Americans who remain genuinely convinced that if Taiwan would only stop pursuing formal independence, you (China) would give up the quest for unification. They think you’d be willing to maintain the status quo indefinitely!’

The delegation leader laughed and pointed out that China has said time and again that it’s inevitable China and Taiwan will be unified.

‘Will it happen in the 2020s?’ the American asked. ‘I’ve read Chinese writers who claim that will be the decade.’

‘It could happen in the 2020s—or even sooner,’ he replied.

Why stress this exchange? Because many people still believe that expanding cross-strait exchanges (economic, social, and cultural) will create groups in the two societies that are determined to push their respective governments toward moderation. Their argument is that eventually this will result in peaceful coexistence, because interdependence naturally promotes peace. 

This argument was frequently made in the 1990s and 2000s, when many commentators criticized Taiwanese Presidents Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian for ‘pushing the envelope’ and 'trying to change the status quo' through provocation. If only Taiwan would stop being a troublemaker, the argument ran, then China would calm down and eventually accept Taiwan’s de facto independent status. Embrace the ‘one-China principle’ and Beijing might even be willing to sign a formal peace agreement with Taipei.

But this has always seemed a wildly optimistic reading of the situation. Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party’s commitment to annexing Taiwan in one form or another seems to go to the very core of the party-state’s identity. This puts Taiwan policy in a different category from policies that can truly be affected by interdependence. Identities are fundamental in international relations—they can change, but not easily. As international relations scholar Alexander Wendt puts it:

‘Identities refer to who or what actors are.  They designate social kinds or states of being.  Interests refer to what actors want.  They designate motivations that help explain behavior…Interests presuppose identities because an actor cannot know what it wants until it knows who it is, and since identities have varying degrees of cultural content, so will interests.’

Comments
31
Ges
February 14, 2012 at 13:08

Political debates, such as the one that started the Taiwan issue in the first place, will never end. However, so far it would seem that the majority have blissfully ignored one critical factor. Military. More precisely, nuclear power.

China is a known nuclear power. Taiwan, on the other hand, is not. At least publicly it is not. However, Taiwan was developing nuclear weapons decades ago until intelligence leaked and it was asked to stop. Is everyone so naive to that the Taiwanese made no advances in the past three decades? Is everyone so sure that there are no secret weapons in secret bunkers somewhere?

At the very least, they should have the capability to fully assemble a nuclear weapon within minutes of notice. That was their capability in the late 80′s and early 90′s. Imagine what have actually now, 2 more decades later.

Hwang Sze Ming
December 30, 2011 at 21:00

The problem of Taiwan was created by the US.Taiwan can only be independent if the US were to station US forces and nw on Taiwan itself.
It can be done if the US wants to dismember China. But it aint going to be easy.
It will include the immense not assured destruction of the US.
The President who starts the war with false pretences should be impeached and hanged upside down for causing millions of daeth including countless Americans.
Vietnam was a needless war and 50000GIs died while the politicians who started it lived to a ripe old age.

Jonathan
October 11, 2011 at 04:52

Those who know very little about China’s history make irrelevant comments. the separation of Taiwan from mainland China is a relic of colonialism (when Japan forcibly took Taiwan from China) and the Cold War (when Chiang Kai Shek fled to Taiwan). If it weren’t for the U.S. six fleet protecting Taiwan, it would have been liberated like other parts of China-Tibet, Sinchiang and later Hong Kong and Macao. Two nations that were separated by the Cold War were reunited. One peacefully (Germany) and the other by force of arms (Vietnam). There remains only two others that await reunification: The Koreas and Taiwan-China. Nearly the whole world (other than a few small, inconsequential countries) recognize that Taiwan is a part of China. Both Koreas wanted to be reunited. North Korea tried to do it by force of arms and failed. South Korea wants to do it by peaceful means, but North Korea’s leaders want to maintain their monopoly on power. China has offered their “One country, two systems” formula for reunification, which has proved successfully in Hong Kong and Macao. Commentators forget or are ignorant of the fact that Taiwan and South Korea were ruled under dictatorships for nearly fifty years before they became democracies. What they have shown is that democracy comes more naturally when the people’s standard of living have reached a sufficiently high level. China has not yet gotten to that level. Besides, China will never allow democracy to take place before Taiwan is reunited, because by practicing democracy, China might loose Taiwan just like the fact that Russia lost all their satellite countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union brought on Democracy in Russia.

Michal
March 15, 2011 at 07:22

Man, you really need to come here and tell this to your Taiwanese “compatriots” from A to Z. I am just not sure whether they will be laughing or crying, my guess is 50:50.

RJ
March 10, 2011 at 01:51

The Communist Party should consider carefully what reunification would bring to China. Taiwan is full of millions of Chinese who know there is no contradiction between development and multiparty democracy. Millions of Chinese who know that democracy is not a “white man’s” system but a system that the Chinese have proven that they are perfectly capable of operating as well. A system that the greatness of Chinese civilization will eventually demand.

Annexing Taiwan would make its people free to move about China, spreading the democracy idea. Taiwan is like a huge virus for democracy, and annexation would spread this infection throughout the Middle Kingdom. Just look at how Poland’s democratic tradition eventually brought down the Soviet empire. Taiwan would be a far stronger virus, as mainlanders would see them as the same people, and wonder why Taiwanese could have democracy while the mainlanders can’t.

In fact, the best strategy for Taiwan would be to express a desire for REUNIFICATION COMBINED WITH DEMOCRATIC REFORM on the mainland. They would have the world’s sympathy and the ear of the average Chinese mainlander. The Communist party would have a new rival, the Koumintang, whose credentials on both economic growth and multiparty democracy far exceed the Communists.

Given the penchant for control that the Communist party has, they might reconsider whether the current ambiguous relationship is better for their rule than infecting the entire Chinese nation with the values of democracy. Is Taiwan really worth it?

Athor
March 5, 2011 at 09:53

To Johnny – you overestimate the power of the Federal Reserve. US households currently hold over $40 trillion in assets, all denominated in USD. This includes your house, car, stocks, etc. It’s true that the US government can cost China around $1T+ by devaluing the USD drastically, but they will then knock US households over the head to the tune of $40 T. It’s also true that China can start the devaluation process first by dumping USD. If you want to take an antagonistic view towards this, they can spend $1T to take out $40T.

In terms of having each other by the balls, that’s true as far as it goes. The US will hurt more.

Note: I say $1T and not $3T because the other 2T of chinese reserves are not in USD.

Athor
March 5, 2011 at 09:46

China didn’t/won’t attack Taiwan militarily not because they’re “chokers”, as some on this forum are suggesting. They didn’t do it because they’re trying to avoid bloodshed. Period. I really don’t see what’s wrong with that.

I rather have a ‘choker’ who doesn’t go to war on a whim rather than Don Quixte tilting at windmills in central asia and the middle east, and bankrupting their country back home.

ikale tahi
March 5, 2011 at 00:21

Has anyone thought about what the Taiwanese people want?? It seems to be a key component of any outcome. Something called “Self Determination” , John Chan you might have heard of that term. In case not here is a link to wiki entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-determination
Also might want to try http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Representative_democracy
As each day passes Taiwan grows stronger with self identity. Very soon all people of Taiwan will be Taiwanese as very few will be left who part of the KMT army that took over in 49.
That is all for now. You all may want visit Taiwan one day, it might open your eyes.

guest
March 4, 2011 at 23:36

im not sure why all of you are political science majors, and seem to know more than anyone about international politics, yet you are commenting from your laptop while watching youtube videos. china has no reason to invade taiwan or press the issue, if anything is working in china’s advantage, its time. the longer they wait, the stronger they become to a certain extent. the idea that china would defeat america in a war, or that a potential world war 3 would start over a chinese invasion of taiwan is absurd. U.S navy is by far largest in world. despite chinas anti ship balistic missles, they cant destroy supercarriers and america’s string of naval bases located throughout pacific. but simply put, a war will never happen. america and china are each others largest trade partners. both benefit enourmously from one another, there is no advantage for either one. Yes china has large amounts of us reserves, but how many us dollars are invested in china for their cheap labour? billion upon billions. and while america enjoys military supremacy, (and trust me its simple facts they are THE superpower) they would never start a war over taiwan. if a war ever came, what would happen to all american companies in china? theyd all come back to america, leading to a massive manufacturing economic boom to support the war. honestly just understand this, the world is run by a small select group of elite, they will not risk their personal fortunes. just as in orwell’s 1984, even though there were 3 superpowers, it was simply a system to control the masses. the idea that there are competing economic or political ideas is simply used to divide people and keep them from speaking with a common voice

guest
March 1, 2011 at 02:06

On the contrary, the fact that Beijing missed such an idea opportunity to attack suggest that Beijing doesn’t have the stomach for a real war. Instead they are driven (ironically) by public pressure to do something about Taiwan. They have wisely chosen these least bloody path.

thomas
February 28, 2011 at 03:03

Really?! One more guy’s living in Alice-in-Wonderland!! That long-range conventional ballistic missile was not launched from an American advanced Trident sub off California coast (Trident Sea-Launched Ballistic Missile capability) as a show-of -force before Obama’s trip to Asia?! And it was just from a Chinese ‘ making-too-much-noise’ nuclear submarine?!!Wow!Until the greenback is not a global currency reserve any more( instead, the Yuan be!) then China ‘can do anything it wants’?!

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