Cross-strait Crisis and Taiwan’s National Identity

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Cross-strait Crisis and Taiwan’s National Identity

Insights from Jennifer Rudolph.

Cross-strait Crisis and Taiwan’s National Identity
Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Jennifer Rudolph  ̶  professor of Asian history and international and global studies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and author of forthcoming “The China Questions 2: Critical Insights into US-China Relations” (HUP 2022) is the 335th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Analyze the impact of current cross-strait tensions on Taiwan’s identity politics.  

According to recent polls, the majority of Taiwan’s residents identify as Taiwanese rather than as Chinese. Yearly polls from National Chengchi University, for instance, ask participants to identify as Taiwanese, Taiwanese and Chinese, or Chinese. While the number who identify as solely Chinese has plummeted over the last 15 years, more recently there’s an accelerating divergence between those who identify as Taiwanese and those who identify as both Taiwanese and Chinese. And the increase in who identifies as solely Taiwanese is sharp. Perhaps most intriguing, those who associate as both Chinese and Taiwanese now constitute only 30 percent of participants. In polls that only provide two options  ̶  Taiwanese and Chinese  ̶  the disparity presents more starkly, with nearly 90 percent identifying as Taiwanese.

The implicit corollary to these poll results is support of local Taiwan systems and its democratic government. This, of course, resonates with the U.S. and irritates China. The current tensions in the Taiwan Strait exacerbate these trends, reinforcing local identity formation.

To what extent have U.S. and Chinese actions galvanized Taiwan’s national identity projection?

U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is front and center. That visit certainly helped boost the profile of Taiwan domestically and internationally, and in China, increased objections to U.S. involvement in a separate Taiwan identity.

Speaker Pelosi has a longstanding commitment to supporting democracy and a reputation for standing strong vis-à-vis China. I’m not sure her visit, though, will necessarily help the people of Taiwan in the ways she’s hoping. The long-term repercussions of her visit in terms of China’s actions could actually work against promoting and safeguarding a strong democracy in Taiwan.

But in terms of Taiwan’s identity projection, Pelosi’s visit, along with comments made by President Biden over the past number of months, have increased hopes in Taiwan that the U.S. might be shifting its policy of strategic ambiguity towards Taiwan so that it’s not quite as ambiguous regarding U.S. defense of the island in the event of Chinese aggression.

Compare and contrast how Beijing and Taipei are channeling nationalistic and patriotic fervor of their citizens to advance China and Taiwan’s respective agendas.

China’s efforts to build nationalism have borne real fruit in many arenas and precede the most current tensions in the Taiwan Strait. The CCP has cultivated nationalism from the top and encouraged its more populist forms as well, and of course the two forms are intertwined. Efforts rest on pride in China’s accomplishments and its rise as a power. Importantly, today’s Chinese youth have only known a strong China; for them, perceived remaining insults from China’s “century of humiliation,” like Taiwan remaining outside of Chinese jurisdiction, make no sense. For his part, Xi Jinping has changed how China projects itself on the world stage. Together, these are a powerful combination.

The fervent outpouring of Chinese nationalism protesting Pelosi’s visit manifests how popular sentiment demanding strong responses whips into action. [Former Japanese Prime Minister] Abe Shinzo’s recent assassination also incited popular nationalist fervor against Japan on China’s social media, prompting government efforts to tamp it down. China has cultivated populist nationalism for decades, but it can take hold in ways that both extend and work against government goals.

In Taiwan, nationalism is more a question of core identity of whether the people are Taiwanese or Chinese. We don’t see the equivalent of a government-sponsored patriotic education campaign and its corollaries channeling nationalism toward a singular government vision of strength and pride. In important ways, nationalism in Taiwan has less to do with positioning Taiwan in the international arena than it does settling local identity and establishing parameters for how  ̶  and when  ̶  the dispute over Taiwan’s identity resolves.

The external projection of identity in China over Taiwan by Beijing, as opposed to the internal development of identity within Taiwan, is a clear and significant difference between nationalism and agendas in the two places.

Examine the symbolism and substance of leadership dynamics between U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen during Pelosi’s August visit.

Speaker Pelosi is the highest-level U.S. official to travel to Taiwan in 25 years. The dynamics of the visit were notable in both the U.S. and Taiwan. In the U.S., President Biden and Speaker Pelosi belong to the same political party, but they diverged as to the wisdom of the trip, with Biden against Pelosi’s visit. Due, though, to the three-branch structure of U.S. governance and to the U.S. two-party system, he could not tell her not to go without risking attack by the Republican Party as soft on China (or, for that matter, critiques by fellow Democrats) or of Executive branch interference in Congress.

In Taiwan, in terms of the meeting itself, President Tsai Ing-wen awarded Pelosi Taiwan’s highest civilian order to mark strong, enduring friendship and support. While the order was bestowed on Pelosi as a friend to Taiwan, the symbolism extended to the U.S.-Taiwan relationship.

And this is where the opportunity and danger lie in the visit. There is increasing bipartisan belief in the U.S. that China threatens global U.S. leadership. Demonstrating support for its allies in the Asia Pacific and elsewhere is critical for U.S. maintenance of its leadership. Taiwan hopes Pelosi’s visit signals U.S. commitment to it and the region. The danger is it goes too far and emboldens calls within Taiwan for independence.

On a different level, it was refreshing to see two strong female leaders in a political triangle often dominated by male officials and politicians.

Assess Washington’s role in helping or hindering the evolution of Taiwan’s national identity and its implications for U.S.-Taiwan relations.

In many ways, this is the $100,000 question. What does the longstanding U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity mean today when the U.S. and China are redefining their relationship and vying for leadership and when Taiwan is a full-blown democracy? The policy has managed to prevent tensions in the Taiwan Strait from boiling over for decades, despite heated rhetoric and various crises. This managed stability relies on all parties  ̶  Taiwan, China, and the U.S.  ̶  not exceeding the parameters of the arrangement. But within those parameters, Taiwan’s democracy and identity as separate from China have grown.

In this way, Washington’s role is critical. If the U.S. adjusts strategic ambiguity towards China or towards Taiwan, the equation changes and impacts Taiwan’s future. It’s important to remember that current increased bipartisan support in the U.S. for Taiwan has just as much to do with U.S.-China relations as it does the U.S.-Taiwan relationship.