China launched another round of live-military drills around Taiwan in April, following President Tsai Ing-wen’s meeting with U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California. Meanwhile, former Kuomintang (KMT) President Ma Ying-jeou completed his tour in China by emphasizing the “inseparability” between China and Taiwan. The sharp divisions between the two visits represent the current political divides in Taiwan as the country is boosting its defense to deter China’s military threats.
How do Taiwanese view China’s potential military threat? According to public opinion data (e.g., the 2022 survey by INDSR and 2022 Taiwan Foundation for Democracy), a consistent three-quarters of Taiwanese people are willing to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, regardless of gender, ethnicity, class, and education. The only differences come from survey respondents’ trust in the democratic system and national pride. In other words, one’s national identity is the most critical factor that determines one’s willingness to defend Taiwan.
However, there are also “anti-war” sentiments in Taiwan that desire closer ties with China (about 30 percent, according to academic polls). Those holding such views argue for the strategy of “dialogue” rather than deterrence. Lung Yingtai, the former culture minister in Taiwan, may exemplify the pro-China viewpoint. In an essay published in the New York Times on April 18, Lung framed willingness to take up arms to defend the country as a “troublingly common sentiment” in Taiwan. She added that “fear of conflict with China is tearing at tolerance, civility and our confidence in the democratic society.”
She also hinted that it is the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its close ties with the United States that are creating tension in the Taiwan Strait, claiming that if the KMT wins in the 2024 elections, “tension with China might ease.”
Lung’s article highlights some common rhetorical strategies from the pro-China camp. First off, they tend to conflate self-defense and “confrontation.” China’s leaders have reiterated countless times that they will never abandon the use of force as an option. For Taiwan, self-defense is the basic way to deter a potential armed conflict and resist annexation.
Admittedly, there has been no direct conflict between the two sides for several decades, but China has been flexing its muscles. For example, China flies fighter jets and sails warships around Taiwan almost every day. In 2022 alone, 1,737 Chinese fighter jets flew near Taiwan, more than quadrupling in just two years.
This “anti-war” rhetoric has been used, mostly by pro-China intellectuals and political elites, to accuse the ruling DPP of encouraging war. However, it is completely wrong to frame self-defense as “war.” The argument that “China has not yet fired any bullets so we do not have to treat them as an enemy” not only misplaces the roles of invader and defender but also ignores the fact that China has already prepared for war, as Chinese leaders explicitly state themselves.
Second, the pro-China side tends to privilege economic concerns over national security as a strategy to appear “politically neutral,” as if these were two mutually exclusive issues. Indeed, the overreliance on China’s economy is a real concern to Taiwan’s security. Surveys from the Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica, show that regarding cross-strait affairs, people’s national security concerns became higher than their economic concerns after 2018 – the first time economics and security had swapped places as the top cross-strait issue. In short, Taiwanese do care about national security in response to threats.
People who are dissatisfied with the current administration, including Lung, purposely paint a picture of a “divided Taiwan” that is unwilling to have dialogues across the political spectrum. In fact, the “division” that Lung implies is not a recent phenomenon, but a long-standing tension between a small percentage of people who primarily identify as Chinese and others.
In recent times, the confrontation reached its peak during the 2014 Sunflower Movement under Ma’s presidency, where student activists occupied Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan to reject his administration’s trade policies with China. Lung was an official in the Ma administration, and the youth-led movement she faced down was one of the largest in Taiwanese history.
While the pro-China camp praises politicians and other public leaders for reaching out to China, former President Ma’s recent grand tour did not deter China’s military drills. Ma’s passionate speeches about revitalizing the Chinese nation, in fact, seem far detached from the younger generations in Taiwan, who see China as a neighboring country rather than the “motherland.” Perhaps the most uncomfortable division that the pro-China advocates feel comes from the generational gap – which is also why Lung paints the youth in Taiwan as mostly a phone-obsessed and apathetic blob with no real opinions about their future.
This pro-China rhetoric may have profound impacts on Taiwan’s 2024 presidential elections. While some are aiming for a securitized Taiwan in the face of a Chinese invasion, others are voting for better military defense at a national level. Ultimately, the choice as to what position Taiwan adopts will be up to the Taiwanese electorate. While political divisions regarding Taiwan’s future will be a critical issue for this election, as Taiwanese people who have lived through peaceful power transitions, we will place our faith in our democratic system.