Following U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the Republic of China (hereafter Taiwan), the People’s Republic of China (PRC), irresponsibly but perhaps expectedly, responded with a show of force, encircling the island with live-fire drills, air sorties, and ballistic missile launches. As China continues to deny the existence of Taiwan as a sovereign state and to claim it as part of the Chinese state, any attempt at secession will be met by the full force of China’s firm determination to protect its territorial sovereignty.
In a previous piece by Wang Yiwei and Liao Huan in this magazine, “How China Views the Taiwan Problem,” they defended the framing and necessity of a “great reunification” and its relevance for the wider East Asian region together with Sino-American relations. However, what is the Taiwanese perspective on the China question? And more importantly, what are the incompatibilities lying at the heart of today’s cross-strait impasse?
China’s Nationalist Rendering of History
Identification with one’s own nation is a powerful force and if not adequately understood, it will challenge the peace in East Asia and have repercussions for the wider world. In other words, at the core of facilitating understanding on both sides, the Chinese government needs to understand what the Taiwanese people are thinking and, from a phenomenological standpoint, feeling. Regrettably, the recitation of two inaccurate claims has strained cross-strait relations. First, the government in Taiwan is tantamount to a separatist movement. Second, Taiwan and China are two of the same nation. To this end, as the PRC likes to claim, Taiwan is an inalienable part of the mainland and will be reunified under its political banner.
Both discourses are frequently invoked by the Chinese government and its diplomats abroad. However, the framing of Taiwan being a separatist movement comparable to that of, for instance, Catalonia in Spain, Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, or even Lombardy in Italy, suffers from an elementary mischaracterization. In all the separatist movements mentioned, those territories are currently under the jurisdiction of another state they wish to depart from—this is not the case in Taiwan. Therefore, characterizing Taiwan as a separatist movement trying to gain independence misconstrues a fundamental political reality. Crucially, Taiwan has never been under the PRC’s jurisdiction, not even for a single day. Taiwan has a separate constitution, government, election, and everything else a modern nation-state consists of. Not to mention, as a member of the international community, Taiwan has practiced its sovereignty responsibly, perfectly obliging to international norms, unlike the PRC, which has seventeen territorial disputes—some of which have seen violence—with Vietnam, India, and nearly all of Southeast Asia on both land and sea. The PRC does not seem to respect its neighbors’ territorial integrity either.
Furthermore, the notion of Taiwan and China resembling a divided nation (i.a. Vietnam, Korea, Germany) and hence requiring “reunification” fails to capture the nature of the dispute and Taiwanese public sentiment. As modern nation-states, Taiwan and China are not subordinate to one another. Consequently, there is no foundation corroborating the narrative of nations divided. Moreover, China and Taiwan have undergone radically different historical episodes resulting in fundamentally different experiences. While mainland China was soul-searching for nationhood after the Qing Empire’s collapse, the subsequent rise of modern Chinese nationalism did not include Taiwan as part of its collective imagination. That is because from the period of 1895 until 1945, Taiwan was ceded to the Japanese Empire. As a result, for the PRC to claim Taiwan through invoking history as part of its collective primordial imagination is not only ahistorical but counterfactual. In addition, even if China argues that Chinese identity existed in Taiwan at the time, which may be true, it is also true that this sense of identity is distinctly Taiwanese in that it was shared exclusively by the islanders as an anti-colonial ethos that rejected Japanese rule.
Indeed, the Kuomintang (KMT) seeking refuge in Taiwan further complicates the story. However, China must acknowledge that the evolution of identities in Taiwan has occurred within a specific historical and socio-political context. The conceptualization of Taiwan’s national identities is diverse and cannot be essentialized into a homogenous unitary form—a stark contrast to China’s policy of charging opposing voices with the crime of subverting the state. Furthermore, if the PRC sees the KMT as its only legitimate window of contact with the Taiwanese people, it would sideline more than a third of the population that voted for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the 2020 election. This would only exemplify the lack of substance to the PRC’s claim of trying to achieve peaceful reunification with the greatest efforts and sincerity.
For these reasons, China’s claim must not be taken for granted. We must be cautious in distinguishing such political projects from the cultural sphere and refuse the propensity to essentialize all people of Chinese ethnic origin as being represented by the government in Beijing. That is, reproducing and superimposing a political identity dictated by the PRC. Taiwan is a notable example, falling victim to the imposition of such a discourse in which China claims that the DNA of Chinese culture longs for reunification. Disregarding the fact that the claim is teleological and impossible to falsify, this rhetoric has had real and devastating impacts, resulting in undesirable and violent spill-overs in countries where a significant Chinese diaspora has thrived.
That is to say, people of Chinese ethnic origin overseas are often marked with tags of disloyalty and unfaithfulness. Taiwan is an excellent case in point in rectifying this narrative. It has the potential to make clear to the world that speaking the Chinese language or celebrating similar holidays does not, by default, make you a part of the PRC. No Chinese diaspora, whether in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Los Angeles, or New York, should have to reject their ethnic and cultural affiliation for fear of being associated with the PRC. We must be prudent and not conflate the political and cultural dimensions of being Chinese.
The Absence of Political Dialogue
China’s unwillingness to understand Taiwanese public sentiment has resulted in the first level of incompatibility. The second level of incompatibility contributing to the cross-strait impasse pertains to the difference and attitudes toward Taiwan’s political system.
In the mid-1990s, unlike China, Taiwan’s political system radically transformed from a one-party system into one of the most vibrant multi-party democracies in the world. The progress and achievements of the Taiwanese people have become part of their political and national identity. Taiwan has achieved a feat nobody thought was possible: becoming the first democracy in the Chinese-speaking world, dismissing the absurdity of the so-called Asian Values contention.
Yet, the PRC has ignored this achievement and undermined the agency and will of the Taiwanese people. For instance, Deng Xiaoping naively believed that if Taiwan pursues independence, it is destined to become a Japanese or American vassal. Ironically, history has shown that China seems more interested in communicating and cooperating with Washington in preference to the leadership in Taipei. It is as if Beijing believes that Taiwan’s long-term and fundamental interest in cross-strait relations are less important than that of the United States.
However, according to recent statistics from the reputable National Chengchi University Election Study Center, 56.9 percent of the Taiwanese population are inclined to maintain the status quo while another additional 25.2 percent lean toward independence. China is usually quick to retort and dismiss these numbers as the effect of the Democratic Progressive Party’s propaganda and “de-sinicization” policies, yet it refuses to reflect on the fact that the DPP was democratically elected. Secondly, China’s attitude and coercive behaviors abroad on how it approaches the Taiwanese people have been nothing but hostile. China’s suppression and exclusion of Taiwan in international organizations, such as the World Health Organization, and its claim of wanting to re-educate Taiwanese, as China’s Ambassador to France urged, have only strengthened the Taiwanese people’s resolve to remain independent and free-thinking.
The False Promise of China’s Peaceful Rise
The trilateral relationship between China, Taiwan, and the United States has been consistent overall, especially under the Hu Jintao administration, which promised that China would rise as a responsible, peaceful, and non-threatening world power. However, this is no longer the case. Xi Jinping’s China is becoming more militaristic and nationalistic both in internal and external spheres. Optimists would say China seeks internal stability and does not vie for external expansion, yet this is painfully optimistic.
In Asia, Taiwan and ASEAN countries are already threatened by China’s clear investments and hard power build-up in the South China Sea. In Europe, Africa, Latin America, South Asia, and the Middle East, China is openly engaging in an ideological struggle through its vastly influential soft and hard power arsenal.
China’s expansion and aggression will not end with Taiwan or Japan. History has taught the world that a state can never be too content with how much power it possesses. It is only a matter of time before the People’s Liberation Army will complete its modernization and become ready to take on the United States to compete for spheres of influence. Will there be a transition between the sitting superpower and the rising contender? Or will the United States remain vigilant and approach the complex question of engaging with China prudently? This will all be determined first and foremost by how the United States decides to approach its relationship with Taiwan, and whether the United States will stay committed to its ally or appease China. Euphemistically, the latter essentially means that China would “help” the United States co-govern the Asia-Pacific, but realistically this would send shocking signals to U.S. allies worldwide that China is here to replace the United States.