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.’