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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

The future of Taiwan: unification or “silent normalisation”?

Jean-Pierre Cabestan

Texte intégral

1October 2010

2Since the election of President Ma Ying-Jeou, and the Kuomintang’s (KMT) return to power in 2008, both Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have entered a period of unprecedented detente. Official contact and meetings between the Taipei and Beijing authorities have increased; a dozen commercial and technical agreements have been signed, and in June 2010, an ambitious agreement regarding economic co-operation, the Economic Co-operation Framework Agreement (ECFA) was closed. This deepened Taiwanese economic dependence, which was already stimulated by the ever-increasing bilateral trade (worth over 120 million dollars). Tourism in Taiwan is developing very rapidly (with over a million Chinese people visiting the island since 2009), whilst a rapprochement is taking place between the Nationalist Party and the Chinese Communist Party, easing a reconciliation between the two parties that were once former arch-enemies during the Civil War and promoting its “Chineseness” again in an almost militant way, having discarded its “Taiwaneseness”; the current KMT government is becoming less and less willing to make decisions that may offend Beijing. Examples include the refusals to meet with the Dalai Lama and to issue a visa for Rebiya Kadeer. In other words, Taiwan is living more and more under the influence of the PRC.

3Nevertheless, does this change favour the peaceful reunification process that Beijing has been hoping for since 1979? Can it hasten Taiwan’s absorption or reintegration back into China?

4It is clear that many factors appear to be forcing Taiwan to take this path.

5First of all, Taiwan’s economic prosperity depends increasingly on its continued cooperation and economic integration with China. If the ECFA is fully implemented, it is estimated that by 2020, Taiwan’s sales to China will represent 62% of its exports as opposed to 41% of its exports today. The island has been and will probably remain unable to rebalance exchanges abroad, especially with South-East Asia. Between one and two million Taiwanese citizens live in China, contributing to the moderation of minnan (a south Fujian-dominated Taiwanese identity). For a growing number of young Taiwanese people and citizens, their professional futures lie in, or are developed through mainland China. Although attracted to the democracy and freedom that exist in Taiwan, Chinese tourists continue to, however, remain attached to a nationalist approach to the Chinese nation that there is only China (the PRC), and Taiwan is a sacred and inalienable part of it.

6Since 2005, the military situation in the Formosa Strait has been clearly detrimental to Taiwan. Although Taiwan continues to receive large quantities of weapons from the United States, it does not invest enough in defending itself (2.5% of the GDP is spent on defence, rather than 3% as promised by Ma). Whilst the threat of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is becoming increasingly realistic, Taiwan has decided to abolish the drafting system regarding military service, thus weakening the vital link between the army and the nation. As a consequence, the will of the Taiwanese soldiers to fight is a will that has been fading rapidly since the end of the Cold War, in a society that is profoundly hedonistic and post-modern.

7Despite the diplomatic truce desired by Ma and tacitly accepted by Beijing, the international status of the Republic of China (ROC), Taiwan’s official name, has only marginally improved, as it now has a folding seat at the Assembly of the World Health Organisation and seeks comfort from its 23 diplomatic allies, mainly microstates without much international or territorial influence.

8In other words, we are entitled to ask which side does the current detente in the Taiwan Strait stand to benefit the most? If the Chinese government has made trade concessions for Taiwan, when negotiating the ECFA in particular, then it has not budged an iota on the crucial issues. The government poses a threat to Taiwan with over 1,000 missiles, a naval fleet and an Air Force that is increasingly able to throw its weight over the Strait. Moreover, the PRC is increasingly flexing its muscles and asserting its power all over the continent, testing the US (for example, in the case of the US Impeccable incident in the South China Sea in March 2009) or Japan’s resistance to its ambitions. In Japan’s case, we can refer to the Chinese fishing boat incident in Diaoyu/Senkaku, September 2010). Under such circumstances, the ROC, Taiwan has little chance of joining the international community again, even if it just wants to get a foot in the back door.

9Nevertheless, the very limits of the detente, as well as its concrete outcomes, in terms of peace and security, may serve to strengthen Taiwan’s hold, as the island is protected by both democracy and the US. The US’ de facto support for Taiwan has helped to maintain a certain balance in the Strait.

10It is evident that the KMT and the Taiwanese business community have decided to play the economic integration card. However, this integration will continue to be tightly controlled in a number of strategic sectors that stand to benefit Taiwan. Ma Ying-Jeou’s government is very much aware of this, and the island will only progressively and selectively open up its economy to Chinese investments, in order to avoid any trace of Hong Kong’s identity in its industry or financial sector.

11Although more moderate and pluralistic, the Taiwanese identity (and language) probably still has better days yet to come. The relationship between Taiwan and the democratic political entity, that is the ROC continuously feed this entity forcing all election candidates to factor this in and use it to their advantage. Taiwan’s democratic reality, if of course Taiwan’s democracy continues to gain strength, will remain on the best defences against any deal or agreement with China that might jeopardise the island’s sovereignty. In spite of their differences in how they both view their futures and the nature of their identities, the Taiwanese are united in considering their island as a nation-state, distinct and separate from the PRC as well as recognising their right to develop relations with an equal footing.

12Interestingly since 2008, the increase in contact and visits between the Taiwanese and Chinese governments, has favoured what I am tempted to call a “creeping and silent normalisation” of relations between the two Chinas. It is clear that this “normalisation” has a strong chance of remaining unassumed and incomplete, as long as continental China stays authoritative. However, is it not this profound sense of “peaceful development of relations across the Taiwan Strait”, which is dear to Hu Jintao?

13The Beijing authorities no doubt knew this pretty well, and for this reason, have decided to keep a strong military hold on the island, which is nevertheless ruled by an accommodating KMT government. It is almost as if they did not fully trust the efficiency of their own seduction strategy, implemented through dependence, or as if they mistrusted the Taiwanese electorate, an electorate that democracy has made unpredictable. The possibility of the independence-supporting Democratic Progessive Party (DPP) returning to power cannot be easily ruled out (for today, the DPP receives around 45% of the vote). It is almost as if the US’s interests were to encourage the division of China into two separate states, such as France’s interests to keep Germany divided for as long as possible.

14However, whilst Japan may nourish this hope, it is not what the US is intending to happen, as the US has remained “agnostic” about Taiwan’s future, provided that the future is not decided under duress, but instead, is fully embraced by a clear Taiwanese majority. Herein lays the heart of the problem. What exactly do the Taiwanese want? We have already suggested that they wish to be fully reintegrated into the international community, a community in their view from which they were unfairly forced to leave in 1971. This occurred when the PRC replaced the ROC at the United Nations to maintain the status quo in the Strait and to postpone any decisions regarding their relations with mainland China until times were better. Of course if China were to be democratic tomorrow, then this political upheaval would constitute a real challenge for the Taiwanese, running the risk of dividing the population and forcing them to make a choice; the choice between the KMT and the “blue camp”, which would support unification, whilst the DPP and “green camp” would opt for independence de jure.

15As we are all still waiting for this positive, but unlikely development, Taiwan will probably continue to require and receive military support from the US, and the Chinese are fully aware of this. This reality helps us to understand the PLA’s new ambitions better – to not only be able to destroy Taiwan’s key military facilities, but also, through adopting an asymmetrical strategy, to become powerful enough to neutralise any US aircraft carrier and carrier group dispatched to the area. It would be sensible to ask whether an armed conflict between the two nuclear powers is conceivable. However, we can, but observe that in both Beijing and Washington (as well as in Honolulu and Okinawa), military forces are preparing for the worst. This is in order to influence the best possible outcome more decisively, that is to say a solution achieved through negotiation.

16Is the negotiation of a settlement feasible today? An agreement to signal the end of hostility, let alone an agreement of peace between the two states which hardly acknowledge each other, seems very difficult to achieve in the foreseeable future. This is particularly so, because the Taiwanese remain divided over the boundaries of the ROC, the entire Chinese nation (the blues) or Taiwan (the greens). Thus at this stage, all that we can hope for is to put in place realistic yet discreet military measures to build up confidence and continue the pursuit of this “rampant normalisation”. This is a process that, in spite of everything, has contributed to keeping the prospect of war far away. However, it would be rather presumptuous to expect more than this from the current detente.

17Yes, Taiwan is facing constraints under China’s growing influence, and is having to accommodate this factor. However, there are still options for the future and Taiwan’s intention to follow its own democratic path must take into account interests and responsibilities of the great powers of the Asia-Pacific region. This is a region where China’s power and presence is felt more and more each day, but where the other powers, in particular Japan, Russia and India, are far from surrending. On the contrary, by asserting its power too rapidly and in a clumsy fashion at that, China has contributed not only to strengthening the US’s strategic role there, but has also encouraged most of its neighbours to join forces against it.

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