Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Status Quo: Taiwanese continue to prefer what they have

Taiwanese identification and desire for independence has increased just as cross-strait exchanges have deepened and as the Ma Administration has emphasized the Chinese roots of Taiwanese society

“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future,” a famous Danish physicist once wrote. Any attempt to forecast where a country will be 20 or 30 years down the road is an educated guess at best. Doing so for a country like Taiwan is especially onerous, as the country’s future is contingent on the vagaries of a highly complex international system, chief among them China, which claims the self-ruled, democratic island of 23 million people as a breakaway province.

Despite the observable rapprochement between Taiwan and China seen in recent years — it has accelerated since the election of the Beijing-friendly Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT) in 2008 — a majority of Taiwanese continue to prefer the “status quo” of no de jure independence and no unification.

The landmark Economic Co-operation Framework Agreement (ECFA) of 2010 and a slew of pacts notwithstanding, growing economic, cultural, and tourism exchanges have failed to translate into favourable conditions for what Beijing terms “peaceful re-unification.” In fact, as various polls have demonstrated, Taiwanese identification and desire for independence has increased just as cross-strait exchanges have deepened and as the Ma Administration has emphasized the Chinese roots of Taiwanese society.

Excluding a sudden shift in domestic trends, and barring external intervention (for example, a Chinese invasion), we can expect that Taiwan two or three decades hence will be even more assured of its identity. By then, Chinese spouses aside — and assuming that Taiwan does not open its doors to Chinese immigration — perhaps only a handful of people living in Taiwan will have been born in China, as the generation that fled Taiwan following the Communists’ defeat of the KMT in the Civil War will have died out.

The impact of this phenomenon on identity is certainly not negligible, as will be the rapid graying of its population and one of the world’s lowest birth rates, which could create incentives for further opening up to immigration.

Another impediment to unification is the difference in the political systems that exist in the two countries. China’s authoritarianism has very little appeal to Taiwanese, and represents a barrier, even to those who support eventual unification.

According to Bruce Jacobs, Director of the Taiwan Research Unit at Monash University in Melbourne, the rise of what he terms an “aggressive, authoritarian China” in recent years has given rise to a “new anti-China bloc among democratic nations and Asian countries,” which will inevitably have an impact on Taiwan. “In the coming two or three decades, the Taiwanese majority on Taiwan, working in an international anti-China environment, will finally gain their true Taiwanese nationhood,” Jacobs says.

Undoubtedly, a more liberal, if not democratic, China would be far more appealing to Taiwanese who might be amenable to a federal-type union, but even then, it is doubtful that Taiwanese would regard themselves as Chinese. One need only think of Australia and Canada vis-à-vis the UK to realize that similar political systems, traditions, and languages are insufficient, in and of themselves, to transcend nationalism.

That is not to say, however, that consolidating identification as Taiwanese will necessarily lead to unwillingness to deal with China. In fact, given the size of China’s economy, as well as linguistic and geographical proximities, Taiwanese will come to regard China as an increasingly appealing destination for work, investment, and education. Already, despite the political hurdles that continue to haunt relations between Taiwan and China, more than one million Taiwanese work and live in China on a semi-permanent basis, a number that will very likely grow over the next decades as China plays a more prominent role within the global economy.

Here, we must by necessity assume that China maintains its present course and that its rise does not dislocate the regional and international system. We must also set aside predictions of a collapse, a fate that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has so far successfully avoided, despite predictions of its imminence.

With the China variable kept constant, ties between the two sides will almost inevitably increase, especially in the economic sector, says Chao Chien-min, Distinguished Chair Professor in the Graduate Institute for Sun Yat-sen Thoughts and Mainland China Studies at Chinese Culture University in Taipei.

“We’ll see more Chinese investment in Taiwan as well as tourists. Millions of travelers will cross the Strait, making the area one of the most lively in the world.”

“The two economies will be more integrated as many financial and other economic institutions will work more closely,” he predicts, just as Taiwan’s legislature evaluates a not uncontroversial Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement that would play a major role in making that a reality. “With China as its market,” he writes, “Taiwan can be a leading country in the high-tech sector as more of its companies might gain recognition.”

Despite closer ties with China, Chao sees Taiwan by then as having become much more integrated with the outside world, especially in the economic sector.

“I think we’ll have FTAs with all major economies and will be an active member of economic integration in the East Asia region,” says an optimistic Chao, a former Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) Deputy Minister under the Ma administration. We should add that Taiwan’s ability to sign FTAs with other countries will be largely dependent on Beijing’s acquiescence and the willingness of Taiwan’s prospective agreement partners to stand up to Beijing should the latter threaten retaliatory measures.

Although a substantial amount of work needs to be done to adjust its economy, Taiwan has signaled its commitment to joining the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade bloc. Joseph Wu, a former MAC Minister in the Administration of President Chen Shui-bian of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), also sees more regional integration for Taiwan in coming decades.

“Economically, Taiwan will be transformed into a much more modern economy with more open trade relations with major economies,” says Wu, now the DPP’s Director of the Department of International Affairs and the Party’s envoy to the US.

In his view, Taiwan’s economy will also shift further away from manufacturing ICT products  the country’s mainstay in recent decades — toward the service industry. Wu, a strong proponent of a more cautious approach to economic exchanges with China, nevertheless regards future prospects in the Taiwan Strait with optimism. Like Jacobs, he contends that Taiwan’s democracy will be further consolidated, with the KMT ceasing to be a dominant political force in Taiwan.

Across the Strait, the CCP will relinquish its power to a more open political system, and, as a result, Taiwan’s relations with China will improve and tensions across the Taiwan Strait diminish, Wu says, echoing the belief, disputed by some, that a more liberal, or even democratic, China would be more “rational” on matters of territorial claims. Taiwan and China will form “special relations” with each other, he says, without elaborating.

For good or ill, Taiwan’s future is inextricably tied to what happens in China. Based on current trends, the above scenario is entirely plausible, but is greatly contingent on stability in China. A sudden collapse of the CCP, as some have long predicted, would cast much doubt on the likelihood that the situation described will obtain. Whether the CCP manages to maintain its control over the more hardline elements within the People’s Liberation Army is another important variable that will determine what Taiwan’s situation will be, two, or three decades hence.

My article appeared in the October/November issue of Asia Today International. (Photo by the author) 

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