The Ticking Taiwan Time Bomb

April 20, 2011 Topic: Security Region: ChinaUnited StatesTaiwan Blog Brand: The Skeptics

The Ticking Taiwan Time Bomb

China and Taiwan may be quiet now—but it's the calm before the storm.

Since the election of Ma Ying-jeou as Taiwan’s president in 2008, tensions between Taiwan and mainland China have faded dramatically. Long gone is the crisis atmosphere that marked the presidencies of Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian. Instead of searching for ways to assert the island’s de facto independence—and perhaps move toward making that independence official—initiatives that occurred repeatedly under Chen, Ma has sought to reduce tensions with Beijing in multiple ways.

Over the past three years, the two governments have signed agreements establishing regularly scheduled commercial airline routes, improving procedures for tourist visits from the mainland, and most significant, creating the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement. The last measure establishes the basis for a Taiwan-mainland free trade community.

In addition to these important economic measures, a political dialogue that had been on hold since the late 1990s has resumed. Beijing also no longer seeks to entice the handful of countries that have diplomatic relations with Taipei to sever those relations. The Chinese government even agreed to let Taiwan have observer status in the World Health Assembly.

Washington welcomes the easing of tensions and is relieved about Ma’s conciliatory approach to dealing with the mainland. From the standpoint of U.S. officials, the current status quo is nearly ideal. Taiwan maintains its de facto independence, thus keeping Beijing from controlling the island and being able to project its military power out into the Pacific, but avoids engaging in the kinds of provocations that characterized the Lee and Chen years. Provocations greatly increase the risk of a military confrontation that would likely involve the United States.

Washington’s sense of relief is understandable and to some extent justified. However, the temporary easing of tensions between Taipei and Beijing needs to be seen as just that: temporary. The underlying, fundamental dispute has not gone away, nor is it likely to. Beijing still insists that Taiwan someday accept political reunification with the mainland. But the overwhelming majority of Taiwanese have no wish to see their self-governing island come under Beijing’s control. Ma’s accommodating posture merely postpones the day of reckoning.

When the United States invaded Iraq, General David Petraeus famously posed the question: “Tell me how this ends.” A similar question ought to be asked about the Taiwan issue: “Tell me how this ends peacefully.”

The various scenarios for a peaceful outcome do not inspire optimism. One theoretical possibility is that Beijing ultimately accepts Taiwan’s right to self-determination, even if Taiwanese voters choose independence. But the chances of that development are infinitesimally small. Both because of nationalist emotions and strategic calculations (Taiwan’s crucial geographic location within easy striking distance of the major sea lanes in the Western Pacific), no Chinese government is ever likely to accept the island’s legal separation from the mainland.

Another scenario is that the status quo (de facto but conciliatory independence) goes on indefinitely. Washington would certainly prefer that outcome, and it is the course the majority of Taiwanese endorse. Public opinion polls over the past two decades consistently show about 50 to 60 percent in favor of the status quo, compared to about 30 percent who want to push for formal independence and a mere 10 to 15 percent who advocate reunion with the mainland.

But however much U.S. leaders and the Taiwanese people might want the status quo to go on forever, that position is not acceptable to Beijing. As China’s military and economic clout grows, the timetable regarding a willingness to tolerate this ambiguous situation is shrinking. The status quo might continue for another decade, perhaps even two decades, but at some point the Chinese government is going to insist on substantive moves toward reunification.

Which brings us to the third scenario for a peaceful resolution: Taiwan capitulates to Beijing’s demands and negotiates a deal based on a version of the Hong Kong model—extensive autonomy but with full acceptance of Beijing’s sovereignty. That is the most likely of the three scenarios, but it is still a long-shot. As noted, few Taiwanese favor reunification. The growing economic ties between Taiwan and the mainland might increase that total modestly, but probably not more than that. A transformation of the mainland’s political system to a democracy would likely boost the percentage still more, but there is little likelihood of such a transformation in the foreseeable future. Moreover, even if China did become democratic, there are still sizable economic and cultural differences that would make most Taiwanese reluctant to embrace reunification.

Those troubling realizations should temper our sense of relief that the Taiwan issue is not a crisis at the moment. The issue is merely slumbering. None of the scenarios for a peaceful outcome is likely over the long term. And given Washington’s implicit security guarantee to Taiwan, contained in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, that prospect should cause more than a little unease. The Taiwan issue is a ticking time bomb that at some point is almost certain to lead to a confrontation with China, unless the United States rescinds its risky commitment to defend the island.