Build it, and they may come

Can political integration work without a shared identity? Today, as Taiwan discusses whether or not to commence political talks with Beijing, and European integration is confronted by the biggest strains ever, it is a good time to ponder this question.

Six years ago, I published an article that debated the relationship between economic (structural) and political (institutional) integration. I argued that Taiwan represented an interesting anomaly of integrating its economic structures deeply with Mainland China, while taking no steps whatsoever in the direction of political integration. German unification represented the opposite case with political integration driving the process, while European integration lay somewhere in between.

Which of these models would ultimately prove to be the most enduring way to integrate, and was Taiwan’s awkward situation sustainable over time? Were both economic dependence and shared identity needed for lasting political integration to come about, or would either one of these suffice?

Events following the 2008 change of ruling party in Taiwan seemed to corroborate what my paper had anticipated: that extensive integration of economic structures would eventually lead to moves towards building some kind of an institutional framework for it. Indeed, the KMT government quickly opened direct travel and transport links and initiated several rounds of talks on economic issues, resulting in a series of agreements, culminating in the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA).

These actions went some way towards ‘normalizing’ Cross-Strait economic relations. However, it is a big leap from instituting preferential trade agreements to taking concrete steps towards political integration. In terms of pushing forward political integration, economic integration has probably already run its course and something else is now needed.

A security community of some sort has commonly been seen as necessary for political integration, ever since Karl W. Deutsch et al. published their classic work in 1957. In a security community, there is a high level of trust and war is no longer seen as possible between the political entities. The Nordic countries are a classical example. Contrast this to Taiwan, where even commencing talks on an eventual peace treaty recently proved highly contentious.

European integration has, in terms of its initial goal of maintaining and expanding peace on the European continent, been tremendously successful. For an elite-driven EU, the question is now whether actual political union can be created in a top-down way, without popular identification with the eventual goal.

Historical examples show that pluralistic security communities do not necessarily lead to political union. Deutsch argued that forming new political units from previously separated ones is much more demanding and historically rare than pluralistic security communities. Gradually integrating in a pluralistic security community of shared identity, common values and extensive interactions, is a longer but safer road than premature political union. For an example of how wrong political unions without an underlying security community can go, think of Yugoslavia.

Despite what the international media lets on, Taiwanese election campaigns have usually skirted around these existential issues. However, with Ma Ying-jeou raising the peace treaty idea, the 2012 joint presidential and parliamentary election may become the first election where the issue is tackled head-on. Yet, the issue is as dangerous for the KMT as it is for the CCP. It is not easy even for the DPP.

This debate may form the beginning of a consensus on how to deal with Mainland China. It may also end up exacerbating already acrimonious political divisions. Confronting this divisive issue may even be detrimental to more slow-moving integration processes of building a Cross-Strait security community.

Dr Mikael Mattlin is a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. His recently published book on Taiwanese politics is titled Politicized Society: The Long Shadow of Taiwan’s One-Party Legacy (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2011).