What Would Taiwan Actually Gain from Reunification with China?

"Can we name one thing that the Taiwanese do not enjoy at present that China could offer to them?"

With a third transition of power in Taiwan in 2016 looking increasingly likely and attendant fears that a return of the Democratic Progressive Party into office could “jeopardize” relations with an intransigent regime in Beijing, the “Taiwan Question”—and more pointedly the matter of its official status—is once again a topic of interest among Asia experts and political analysts.

Some, apprehending the high risks of maintaining security guarantees to Taiwan, have recently counseled a shift in U.S. policy aimed at striking a “grand bargain” with Beijing, ceding Taiwan in return for concessions by China on other longstanding territorial conflicts. At the heart of those lies a key question: Under which terms would Taiwan’s 23 million souls consider a political union with China as an acceptable outcome?

As I seek to demonstrate, the viable options are probably very limited and are well beyond what Beijing is currently willing to put on the table.

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It is important that we establish at the outset what Taiwan—or the Republic of China (ROC) as it is officially known—is and what it isn’t, as this will have a direct impact on the types of political union that could be possible. Despite Beijing’s official stance, Taiwan is a sovereign state in every sense of the word, meeting all the criteria for statehood (elected official, a designated territory, armed forces, a currency, and the ability to engage in diplomacy with other countries and so on). While it only has official diplomatic ties with 22 countries, Taiwan enjoys de facto relations with the remainder of the international community, whose diplomatic and commercial interactions with Taiwan are handled by diplomats in the employ of “trade offices,” “institutes” and “associations” rather than actual embassies. 

Although this may sound self evident, it is anything but. Many people around the world do believe the Chinese propaganda to the effect that Taiwan is a “province of China” awaiting “re-unification.” As a result, the perception is that Taiwan is a “breakaway” or “separatist” entity that legally exists within and is defined by the parameters of a “mother state,” in this case the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The distinction is an essential one if we are to fully comprehend the idiosyncratic situation in the Taiwan Strait and the great challenges that are associated with efforts to find a just and peaceful solution to the conflict.

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Beijing’s claims notwithstanding, Taiwan has existed as a sovereign political entity since the end of World War II, irrespective of the terms of Japan’s surrender and the arrival a few years later of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) following its defeat at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Despite the KMT’s re-sinicization policies (meant to undo 50 years of Japanese rule in Taiwan), and though Chiang Kai-shek was hoping to retake the “Mainland,” the “ROC on Taiwan” existed as an independent political entity and over the decades the contours of that state were transformed by developments both domestically and within China. Little by little, and following the establishment of official diplomatic relations with the PRC by most foreign capitals, the ROC and Taiwan became increasingly interchangeable, a process that was consolidated with the country’s liberalization and democratization in the 1980s and 1990s. Even if some ideologues in Taipei continue to maintain that the ROC has sovereignty over all of China, in reality such claims are no longer legitimate; for all its shortcomings, the CCP is a legal political institution, and the PRC cannot be willed out of existence. Therefore two states, regardless of the nomenclature used to describe them, exist side by side.

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This has far-reaching ramifications for the terms under which a political union could occur. If, as Beijing claims, Taiwan were merely part of Chinese territory, then the value of the terms offered to Taipei to resolve the dispute would hinge on the maximization of benefits for Taiwanese as a minority within a larger political entity. Special administrative regions with varying levels of autonomy are one type of arrangement that has succeeded in mitigating the contradiction within states, from ethno-linguistic differences to wealth disparities. In all instances, the aim was to lower tensions by providing advantages to minority groups contesting the center. This is the type of concession that could help resolve conflict over the Donbas region in Ukraine, which as Richard Sakwa demonstrates in his book Frontline Ukraine, has a large population of Russian speakers whose culture has suffered as a result of rising Ukrainian nationalism in Kiev and elsewhere. In other scenarios, federalism has helped resolve conflicts, as the Quebec case has demonstrated rather successfully.

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