When one is as immersed in the fascinating world of politics of identity and sovereignty in Taiwan as I am (which probably applies to many readers), the seemingly careless manner in which academics and the media use of words to characterize relations across the Taiwan Strait can be frustrating. Seen through this lens, terminology such as “Mainland,” “island” and “one China” take on a special meaning.
Three terms that are bandied about as if they were interchangeable are deserving of special consideration, as their meaning is in fact quite divergent: reunification, unification, and annexation.
Reunification is often used, though not exclusively, by the regime in Beijing, which continues to claim that Taiwan is part of China. Aside from historical documentation supporting the fact that Taiwan never was part of China and that it was not “returned” to China after the end of World War II, it would be an even more grievous fallacy to claim that Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic of China.
Unification, meanwhile, implies that the two sides are in favor of a union and that both are proactively pursuing that objective. While both the regime in Beijing and Chinese in general agree to that goal, poll after poll in Taiwan has shown that the great majority of people in Taiwan (90 percent) support the “status quo” rather than a union with China. As such, when one side favors an outcome that is not sought by the other, the term unification is inapplicable.
Which brings us to the third term, annexation, which is a far better description of the situation in the Taiwan Strait. Annexation involves the appendage of a small entity to a larger one, and though it does not do so explicitly, it also implies a force imbalance in the relationship, meaning that the union is sought against the will of the smaller entity. As we have seen, despite the cross-strait rapprochement launched by the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration and growing cross-strait exchanges in the economic, social and political spheres, the desire for a union with China does not exist at the moment (in fact, support for the “status quo” has grown in inverse proportion to cross-strait integration over the past 20 years). Annexation would gain special meaning if Ma’s policies engendered such dependence on China as to put Taiwan in a straightjacket.
Three words, all used as if they meant the same thing; but in fact, they are laden with implications regarding history, dynamics, and will. For readers who are acquainted with the history of Taiwan’s relations with China, it is easy to tell which words are closer to approximating the truth. But for readers abroad, who may not know much about the situation — but whose support could be key one day — misuse of the terms could create false impressions and mislead them as they make decisions.