The Question That Is Never Asked: What Do the Taiwanese Want?


Disclosure: The author is an employee of the Thinking Taiwan Foundation, a think tank launched by Tsai Ing-wen in 2012. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the institutions with which he is affiliated.

With about eight months left before the presidential and legislative elections in Taiwan, in which the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is widely regarded as the favorite, political watchers are once again, after an eight-year interregnum, forecasting possible trouble in the Taiwan Strait. Fearing a return to old tensions, some analysts have been proposing creative ways to resolve the “Taiwan question” once and for all, and by so doing prevent the island-nation from dragging the U.S. into a catastrophic conflict with China. Call it appeasement or a “grand bargain,” the theory is that Taiwan is neither defensible nor worth defending, and that longstanding security guarantees should therefore be retracted and Taiwan left to fend for itself.

In recent weeks, and ostensibly expecting a return to more contentious relations between Taipei and Beijing, academics such as Hugh White and Charles Glaser have articulated the view that helping Taiwan isn’t worth major economic disruptions or the risk of nuclear war with China, and that accommodation is the only solution. Meanwhile Lyle Goldstein, an associate professor in the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College, dedicates an entire chapter in his book Meeting China Halfway: How to Defuse the Emerging US-China Rivalry to a step-by-step program to gradually wean Taiwan off U.S. arms sales in return for Beijing abandoning the possibility of using force against the island, with a “peace agreement” and political union as the climax. In Goldstein’s somewhat rosy view, Taiwanese have nothing to worry about because China’s “allegedly heavy-handed approach to the former British colony has long been overhyped in the West,” and Taiwan’s democracy could continue to exist “within a confederation between the Mainland and Taiwan.” While admitting that 2016 could complicate matters a little, Goldstein is able to make his projection because of his view that since 2008, “peace is breaking out” across the Taiwan Strait, a view that fails to take several key factors into consideration, to which we shall return later.

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The gentlemen above should be commended for exploring ways to resolve the “impasse” of cross-strait relations. New, creative thinking is often needed to fix complex problems, and I have no doubt that their intentions are unassailable. De-escalation and conflict resolution are indeed in everyone’s interest, including China and Taiwan’s.

The main problem with the “grand bargain” theory—besides the risks that appeasement might not yield the expected reciprocity from Beijing—is that in every instance, the decisions are solely the remit of the Great Powers. Taiwan simply has no agency and is treated as a mere commodity, to be bargained over and traded for promises on other matters (e.g., China abandoning its territorial claims in the South China Sea or agreeing to the continued presence of U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific). Not once do these fine gentlemen bother to ask what the Taiwanese think of their proposals. Not once is it proposed that such a “grand bargain,” which would have a real and direct impact on the lives of 23 million people, should be put to a referendum in Taiwan.

Of course if we believe, as Goldstein does, that “peace is breaking out” in the Taiwan Strait, it might then be tempting to assume that a referendum isn’t necessary, as the majority of Taiwanese are in favor of unification with the People’s Republic of China. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, Beijing is unprepared to make the kind of offer to Taiwan that would come anywhere close to the confederation proposed by Goldstein. It might not even be able to do so, given that highly preferential treatment for Taiwan could justifiably spark demands for similar conditions in other parts of China, which could quickly lead to instability (see J. Michael Cole, “National Consolidation or Poison Pill? Taiwan and China’s Quest for ‘Re-Unification’” in China and International Security: History, Strategy, and 21st-century Policy). As President Xi Jinping has made clear, China’s offer to Taiwan is the “one country, two systems” formula, which is totally unacceptable to the Taiwanese.

By design or omission, the notion that Taiwanese should have a say in the matter doesn’t figure. This is rather ironic, given that (and I say this with a high level of confidence) if the question were put to a referendum, the answer would be an overwhelming “No.” And on so fundamental an issue, the question couldn’t be left to the politicians to answer. It would have to be put to a national referendum.

To understand why “No” would be the likely answer requires a modicum of local knowledge and the ability to look beyond the newspaper headlines and government rhetoric. Notwithstanding the political divide in Taiwan between the DPP and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), there is a surprising—and rarely acknowledged—level of convergence between the two camps when it comes to protecting Taiwan’s democracy and way of life. True, there are some elements within the KMT that support unification, but they are a minority and one that is gradually becoming extinct. For the rest of them, Taiwan (or the Republic of China) is the baseline, and more often than not what seems like dangerous concessions to China is in reality little more than an attempt by the KMT to gain the advantage over its opponent during elections. This is something that many Taiwanese from the green camp continue to dispute, but there is no doubt to me that the KMT has “Taiwanized” and that it will continue to do so, especially in the wake of the Sunflower Movement crisis in 2014, which has created a split within the KMT that will serve to weed out the more conservative (and less accountable) elements within the party.

Time and again on political talk shows, and as happened recently following KMT Chairman Eric Chu’s visit to China, KMT legislators have sounded oddly like their DPP opponents in calling attention to the need for government accountability, and how failing to abide by democratic rules would undermine their ability to get re-elected. All that brouhaha over Chu’s remarks on “one China” should be properly construed as the shadow boxing that Taiwanese leaders must engage in when in China. (A few years ago during rising tensions between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyutais, I asked a senior KMT official to explain why not a single KMT member had participated in a small rally in downtown Taipei calling for cooperation with China in defending the islets. “We wouldn’t be caught dead with those pro-unification crazies” was his response.) Even more fascinating—and telling—are the shouting matches that occur on occasion between “deep blue” legislators from the “pro-unification” People First Party (PFP) and truly pro-unification individuals such as Chang An-le (“White Wolf”) or Tung Shu-chen, ataishang who during Chu’s visit counseled that the views of ordinary Taiwanese should be ignored for the sake of economic development. The ideological chasm that exists between KMT and even PFP members and their counterparts in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is wide and it has not narrowed, not even during the past eight years of “rapprochement,” however contradictory this may sound. The refusal to unite with China includes a much wider segment of Taiwanese society than the “pro-independence” DPP; under present conditions, it is almost universal, regardless of one’s identification in terms of culture and language.

However convenient it might be to ignore the voice of the Taiwanese, the fact is that “blue” or “green” they are serious about protecting the way of life that makes Taiwan a distinct political entity, a deeply anchored form of resilience that goes well beyond the country’s ability to defend itself militarily.

Strategists may think that they have found the perfect solution to the “Taiwan question” in the form of some “grand bargain.” But what good is all this if the principal characters—the people who stand to be affected the most—refuse to play along, not because they are stubborn or against “peace,” but because it is their right, because the “choice” that is given them is a rotten one? The consensus within Taiwanese society favoring independence (including the idea of the “status quo”) is such that a “solution” imposed externally which does not take the views of the Taiwanese into account would spark major unrest and likely lead to the very hostilities that the academics mentioned above are hoping to avert.

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