Say Goodbye to Taiwan

Time is running out for the little island coveted by its gigantic, growing neighbor.

March-April 2014

WHAT ARE the implications for Taiwan of China’s continued rise? Not today. Not next year. No, the real dilemma Taiwan will confront looms in the decades ahead, when China, whose continued economic growth seems likely although not a sure thing, is far more powerful than it is today.

Contemporary China does not possess significant military power; its military forces are inferior, and not by a small margin, to those of the United States. Beijing would be making a huge mistake to pick a fight with the American military nowadays. China, in other words, is constrained by the present global balance of power, which is clearly stacked in America’s favor.

But power is rarely static. The real question that is often overlooked is what happens in a future world in which the balance of power has shifted sharply against Taiwan and the United States, in which China controls much more relative power than it does today, and in which China is in roughly the same economic and military league as the United States. In essence: a world in which China is much less constrained than it is today. That world may seem forbidding, even ominous, but it is one that may be coming.

It is my firm conviction that the continuing rise of China will have huge consequences for Taiwan, almost all of which will be bad. Not only will China be much more powerful than it is today, but it will also remain deeply committed to making Taiwan part of China. Moreover, China will try to dominate Asia the way the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere, which means it will seek to reduce, if not eliminate, the American military presence in Asia. The United States, of course, will resist mightily, and go to great lengths to contain China’s growing power. The ensuing security competition will not be good for Taiwan, no matter how it turns out in the end. Time is not on Taiwan’s side. Herewith, a guide to what is likely to ensue between the United States, China and Taiwan.

IN AN ideal world, most Taiwanese would like their country to gain de jure independence and become a legitimate sovereign state in the international system. This outcome is especially attractive because a strong Taiwanese identity—separate from a Chinese identity—has blossomed in Taiwan over the past sixty-five years. Many of those people who identify themselves as Taiwanese would like their own nation-state, and they have little interest in being a province of mainland China.

According to National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center, in 1992, 17.6 percent of the people living in Taiwan identified as Taiwanese only. By June 2013, that number was 57.5 percent, a clear majority. Only 3.6 percent of those surveyed identified as Chinese only. Furthermore, the 2011 Taiwan National Security Survey found that if one assumes China would not attack Taiwan if it declared its independence, 80.2 percent of Taiwanese would in fact opt for independence. Another recent poll found that about 80 percent of Taiwanese view Taiwan and China as different countries.

However, Taiwan is not going to gain formal independence in the foreseeable future, mainly because China would not tolerate that outcome. In fact, China has made it clear that it would go to war against Taiwan if the island declares its independence. The antisecession law, which China passed in 2005, says explicitly that “the state shall employ nonpeaceful means and other necessary measures” if Taiwan moves toward de jure independence. It is also worth noting that the United States does not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign country, and according to President Obama, Washington “fully supports a one-China policy.”

Thus, the best situation Taiwan can hope for in the foreseeable future is maintenance of the status quo, which means de facto independence. In fact, over 90 percent of the Taiwanese surveyed this past June by the Election Study Center favored maintaining the status quo indefinitely or until some later date.

The worst possible outcome is unification with China under terms dictated by Beijing. Of course, unification could happen in a variety of ways, some of which are better than others. Probably the least bad outcome would be one in which Taiwan ended up with considerable autonomy, much like Hong Kong enjoys today. Chinese leaders refer to this solution as “one country, two systems.” Still, it has little appeal to most Taiwanese. As Yuan-kang Wang reports: “An overwhelming majority of Taiwan’s public opposes unification, even under favorable circumstances. If anything, longitudinal data reveal a decline in public support of unification.”

In short, for Taiwan, de facto independence is much preferable to becoming part of China, regardless of what the final political arrangements look like. The critical question for Taiwan, however, is whether it can avoid unification and maintain de facto independence in the face of a rising China.

WHAT ABOUT China? How does it think about Taiwan? Two different logics, one revolving around nationalism and the other around security, shape its views concerning Taiwan. Both logics, however, lead to the same endgame: the unification of China and Taiwan.


SecurityGrand StrategyGreat PowersMilitary Strategy
AsiaNortheast AsiaTaiwan