Days ahead of a referendum that could result in the loss of the southern territory of Crimea to Russia, Taiwan, which like Ukraine lives in the shadow of a great power, is watching closely to see whether Moscow’s gambit could embolden Beijing to adopt similar strategies toward the island democracy.
While Crimea serves as an imperfect analogy for Taiwan’s situation, there are enough parallels to warrant an exploration of the current crisis and its denouement to determine if they can possibly create a precedent for Chinese behavior. Key to this effort is the fact that both Moscow and Beijing have notions of the “Near Abroad”—that is, territories that, while foreign and sovereign, their governments regard as fair game.
Sunday’s referendum, which will occur under the shadow of the Russian military, only presents two options: “Are you in favor of the reunification of Crimea with Russia as a part of the Russian Federation?” and “Are you in favor of restoring the 1992 Constitution and the status of Crimea as a part of Ukraine?”—a Constitution that for all intents and purposes would give rise to an independent, albeit pro-Moscow, state within Ukraine.
The situation in Taiwan, which according to Beijing’s version of history was “stolen” from China at the conclusion of the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, is vaguely similar, though the proportion of citizens who identify as ethnically Chinese is substantially lower than that of Crimeans who identify as Russians. Support for unification with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which has dropped steadily over the years, now stands in the single digits, while desire for independence has gradually risen, with a preference for maintaining the status quo remaining the preferred option—at least as long as China threatens force should the island declare de jure independence, a not insignificant factor in poll responses.
While circumstantial, it is interesting to note that both Crimea and Taiwan are haunted by the year 1992—the “1992 Constitution” and the “1992 Consensus”—under arrangements that are meant to curtail the choices of the peoples involved (under the so-called 1992 consensus, both sides agree that there is only one China, though both agree to disagree on what “one China” means).
Ultimately, support figures on unification do not matter much to the undemocratic regimes who claim the territories. As long as there are groups within the regions that identify as ethnically Russian or Chinese—hence Beijing’s emphasis on the shared ancestry of Chinese “compatriots” across the Taiwan Strait and claims that independence supporters are a “small group of extremists”—their governments will be able to justify taking military action as a defensive, if not humanitarian, measure. As journalist Edward Lucas writes in The New Cold War, “It is always possible that the Kremlin will start provocations in Crimea or the Baltic states, and then claim the right to intervene to protect compatriots from the depredations of ‘extremists.’” This is exactly what Moscow has articulated in recent weeks, arguing that the troop deployments were in response to the Ukrainian ultranationalists who took over in Kiev following the revolution.
Western inaction is being noted by Beijing, which has sided with Russia in the present crisis. Those are issues where, bluntly put, perceived weakness invites aggression, and where a lack of self-confidence among the alliance of democratic nations is resulting in the dismemberment of free countries.
What is truly worrying when it comes to Taiwan is the fact that these developments occur at a time of intensifying Chinese pressure on Taipei, which is being compelled into signing various agreements that risk being detrimental to Taiwan’s ability to retain its sovereign status. While the détente witnessed during President Ma Ying-jeou’s first term (2008-2012) mostly touched on nonpolitical issues such as cross-Strait trade, tourism, crime-fighting, banking and so on, his second (and last) term, which coincides with the rise of Xi Jinping, has been plagued by controversy as the public grows increasingly wary of the political undertones of the next series of agreements sought by Beijing. Facing elevated opposition by legislators and civil society, the Ma administration has hardened its line with increased reliance on law enforcement to counter peaceful protesters and has frequently made a travesty of public hearings and other mechanisms associated with liberal democracies. This, in turn, has served to exacerbate frustrations within the country, with possible repercussions for social stability.
Another factor is the emergence on the political scene of gangster Chang An-le, a former head of the Bamboo Union triad who lived in exile on China for seventeen years before returning to Taiwan in June 2013. A most-wanted fugitive and evidently Beijing’s stooge, Chang, who is also known as the “White Wolf,” heads the Unification Party, which among other things sells the purported virtues of “peaceful unification” and preaches a strong Chinese identity. Since his return, Chang and his followers have already used threats and intimidation to shape the political scene, while striking alliances with like-minded and more conservative members of the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). While its chances of seeing its candidates elected in local or national elections are next to nil, Chang’s Unification Party nevertheless adds a considerable strain on the island’s tense ethnic politics and risks exacerbating social instability by sparking cycles of retributive violence.
While this remains an unlikely scenario, growing disillusionment with political institutions and heightened fears that current trends could curtail their ability to determine their destiny could eventually compel Taiwanese to take action which risks destabilizing the government. Recent incidents, such as the crashing of a thirty-five-tonne truck into the Presidential Office by a disgruntled former Air Force officer, are a sign that things are coming to a boil, with escalation all the more likely between now and 2016, when the next presidential elections are scheduled.
Should Taiwanese decide that their country’s democracy is no longer sufficient to protect their interests and adopt nonpeaceful means to resolve the matter, the resulting instability would provide Chinese with justification to intervene militarily, especially if the situation deteriorated to such a degree that Beijing judged it warranted conjuring the Anti-Secession Law, which “permits” use of force if events threaten eventual unification. As in South Ossetia and Crimea, China could call upon its surrogates in Taiwan—people like Chang—to sow instability. Using the tremendous propaganda machine at its disposal and allies on the island, Beijing could mirror Moscow’s own “defensive” rationale and argue that it was “provoked” into intervention to protect ethnic Chinese from the depredations of extremists and “in defense of its legitimate rights to security and prosperity,” as Denny Roy precisely put it in his recent book Return of the Dragon: Rising China and Regional Security.
The West’s failure to intervene over Georgia already set a dangerous precedent. Should they again neglect to fulfill their responsibilities toward weaker members of the international community, this time over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, the U.S. and its allies could find themselves confronting a similar situation, this time in East Asia, where the stakes could be much, much higher.
J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based journalist, a Senior Fellow at the China Policy Institute University of Nottingham, a graduate in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada and a former analyst at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Anton Holoborodko. CC BY-SA 3.0.