I remember reading years ago an article by Victor D. Cha in International Security that strongly influenced my views on the assumption of rational actors in international relations. Cha’s piece,
“Hawk Engagement and Preventive Defense on the Korean Peninsula,” argued that North Korea’s apparent irrationality vis-à-vis South Korea and the US — which in the extreme could include “preemptive/preventive action and coercive bargaining” — could be explained by Pyongyang assessing that the “status quo” in the Korean Peninsula had become unbearable. Shaking that “status quo,” therefore, was better than doing nothing, as any outcome would be preferable the status quo ante. Published in 2002, Cha’s article was visionary, as it helps explain Kim Jong-il’s brinkmanship since then, from missile launches to nuclear tests.
What I derived from this also had an impact on how I have come to assess another “status quo” in the region — that in the Taiwan Strait. For years, the “status quo” in the Strait has meant (a) no attempt by China to annex Taiwan by force, and (b) no move by Taipei to create formal independence, a balance of ambiguity that has been favored by the US, among others. While ensuring that a certain level of tension would remain, it was a non-outcome that did not have an overly negative impact for the players involved.
Ironically, however, status quos are inherently dynamic, meaning that while an impression of stasis or immobility is created, undercurrents are nevertheless shifting. One example of this is the deepening, despite the “status quo,” of Taiwanese identity and, conversely, the drop in identification as “Chinese” or “Chinese and Taiwanese” over time.
Since the election of Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to the presidency in May last year and the introduction, soon afterwards, of his China-friendly policies, the dynamics of the “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait have seen a dramatic transformation. Here again, while both sides have vowed not to push for unification or independence during Ma’s first term, accelerating economic integration — in the form of a proposed economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) and Chinese investment in various sectors of the Taiwanese economy — as well as growing party-to-party contact mean that while, on paper, the political “status quo” persists, time is now in China’s favor. The longer this integration continues, and the deeper it gets, the stronger will be the undercurrents provoking a drift toward unification.
Given this, added to the Ma administration’s apparent disregard for opposition to its China policies, the perception that the “status quo” is becoming unbearable — that is, that its continuation is having a negative impact on Taiwan — should be expected to grow within the pro-independence pan-green movement in Taiwan. Both for protectionist sentiment (among certain sectors of the Taiwanese economy that stand to lose from cross-strait economic liberalization) and political fears (loss of sovereignty), and absent regular outlets to voice apprehensions or effect change on government policy, opposition to Ma will likely become radicalized and “irrational” as oppositionists begin weighing pros and cons of radical action in a different light.
The implications are that should the “status quo” continue to drift in Beijing’s favor (and there is no indication that it won’t under the Ma administration), the negative cost of the “status quo” will increase, and with that, so will certain element’s evaluation of what is permissible to detract the “status quo” from its present course.
As North Korea demonstrated, Pyongyang’s cost-benefit analysis has been warped by the negative externalities — real or perceived — of the “status quo” in the Korean Peninsula, to such an extent that, from the outside, its actions appear to have become increasingly irrational, if not suicidal. But seen from the inside, if the “status quo” has become unbearable, any action that creates a departure from the status quo ante is better than stasis.
There is no reason why, at some point, certain elements in Taiwan would not reach a similar conclusion and adopt a course of action that departs from the norm and appears to be “irrational.” It is impossible to know what form this would take, or who it would target, but if things continue apace, and if the Ma administration remains as unresponsive to dissent as it is today, something will give eventually.