Among the conditions sufficient to impose what it calls “unification by force,” the People’s Republic of China (PRC) lists a proclamation of independence by Taiwan, formal or tacit, and the exhaustion of peaceful means of unification.
President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) recent statement of willingness to meet with her counterpart from the mainland “on an equal footing” to “achieve peace” can be interpreted by the PRC as violating the first, and the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) decision to distance itself from the unification agenda might as well signal the same for the second.
Such stances do not bode well for Taiwan’s survival when Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has secured himself a lifelong seat and the US appears to entangle itself once again in the Middle East.
Increasing numbers of military drills by the PRC, culminating in an explicit statement that such exercises are intended to threaten supporters of Taiwanese independence, show just that.
Most Taiwanese believe that the chances of an invasion by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are low, but China has historically adopted a proactive military stance when presented with an opportunity where its rival superpower is busy elsewhere.
Examples of this are the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1958 (during the Lebanon conflict involving US and Soviet support); the Sino-Indian War in 1962 (during the Cuban Missile Crisis); and the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979 (as the US was trying to protect US and Japanese interests in Southeast Asia and consolidate a recently formed alliance).
Taiwan is a matter of legitimacy for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and after concentrating power, Xi must show some results for his supporters.
China has not only the willingness, but also the capacity: By every serious account, the two possible scenarios are Taiwan being able to defend itself long enough to establish a protracted total war, or a victory by the PLA in the first hours of the conflagration.
In a situation of cross-strait war, another question arises: Would Taiwan’s allies, chiefly the US and Japan, come to its aid? As explained in a previous piece by Strobe Driver (“What war would mean for Taiwan,” May 3, page 8), this is not certain.
It becomes even more unlikely considering the possibility of the US Navy not being able to arrive in time to make a significant difference — for instance, after the PLA had already overrun Taiwan. Not only would this affect the outcome of the conflict, it would affect the very decision to enter it.
The odds for Taiwan would greatly improve if Japan, with its powerful navy, hastily helped with the mobility of US troops.
Alas, this too seems a waning reality if Japanese cooperation with China deepens, as the last trilateral summit with China, Japan and South Korea on May 9 suggested, with mutual investment being promised.
With a vibrant democracy and well-established civil rights, it seems painful to contemplate what unification with China could mean for Taiwanese.
However, what would a state of total protracted war mean for such high-regarded principles? Does a long period of martial law and a time of enduring penury for its population, in a best-case scenario, look like a future worth dying for?
It might be a sad reality, but some battles are lost even before they have begun. Hence, the best strategy seems to be one that Taiwan has fortunately mastered: maintaining the “status quo.”
“Until when?” is the question that necessarily follows.
Given that the PRC will not lose its intent to absorb Taiwan and that the cross-strait power gap will likely continue to widen, the only future in which Taiwan could maintain its democracy is if China also became one.
As idealistic as that notion might seem, democracy in other East Asian countries also took time to emerge. China, with its enormous size (by every measure), understandably would take longer to walk the same path.
For Taiwan to achieve what appear contradictory goals in the long run — preserving its democracy and surviving the PRC’s struggle to absorb it — the only way appears to be bringing democracy to Chinese civilization.
Unimaginable for any country or institution in the world, as China would consider it “interference in its internal affairs,” that regard would not apply to the Taiwanese, seen by the PRC as the Chinese across the Strait.
For now, keeping the prospect of unification alive to undo the threat of war with the Chinese, while in the long run bolstering its leadership potential with the example of its democratic accomplishments, would be the best strategy for Taiwan.
Gustavo Feddersen is a doctoral candidate in International Strategic Studies and 2018 Taiwan Fellowship Recipient.
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