The sustainability of Taiwanese autonomy

I had an op-ed in the New York Times this week in which I argued that the prospects for Taiwan’s continued autonomy in the mid-long term are not good. I had in mind the squeeze that China is putting on across the board, the KMT’s manoeuvring to prosper from a hypothetical change in Taiwan’s status (as it did prior to democratization), and the DPP’s inability to provide a coherent alternative vision (I accept that the party is in a very difficult position, but it doesn’t help itself). The only effective deterrent to stealthy absorption, inexorable annexation, or however you want to frame it, is popular opinion, which is unequivocal in its opposition to unification. Against a determined, implacable and increasingly powerful China, with the spectre of the dominant political player in Taiwan (KMT) colluding to ensure it retains whatever power Beijing will permit, and an impotent and conflicted DPP, multiplied by economic and military trends, can popular opinion alone resist all of these pressures in the mid to long term? And despite the assurances that any changes of a political nature must be put to the vote, I am pessimistic about the long term influence of Chinese money and KMT machinations and machinery on the integrity of Taiwan’s political process. I’ll be very happy to be proven wrong.

I notice today that John Mearsheimer delivered a talk/paper at a conference in December in Taipei entitled “Taiwan in the Shadow of a Rising China”. He argues that Taiwan’s autonomy will not continue beyond a certain point where the military balance is such that it is unfeasible that the US would come to Taiwan’s aid (“Taiwan is not Japan or even South Korea”-ouch) because to do so would require use of non-conventional (nuclear) force. Currently, argues Mearsheimer, the US’ military primacy constrains Beijing’s actions, and underpins Taiwan’s resolve to hold out. But iff China’s economy continues to grow and the PLA continues to modernize and enhance its capacities, it will be less constrained. At that point Taiwan should strive for as much autonomy as possible within the parameters of the political solution Beijing is offering. The conundrum is that the more powerful China becomes, the less room for manoeuvre Taiwan will have and the less incentive Beijing will have to make concessions. Taipei should, following Mearsheimer’s logic, begin negotiations sooner rather than later, on the basis that it can secure a better deal and extract more concessions while Beijing is relatively weak and constrained. But of course there is no public support, or mainstream political will, to do so. (Ben Goren has written a reply to Mearsheimer, subtitled “Fatalism, Appeasement, & Capitulation”)

Talking with the deputy director of the TAO in 2012, he dismissed the point I raised about ‘one country two systems’ being unsellable to the Taiwanese electorate, saying that a demonstration of “sincerity” (code for Taiwan accepting Chinese sovereignty) would open the door to numerous different solutions. He went on to pledge that in terms of its functional autonomy, Beijing would seek a solution that would “hardly make a difference” to everyday life in Taiwan, including maintenance of  the democratic system. One can debate the sincerity or otherwise of such statements, but the point is that the attitude of Beijing in 2012 will, if current trends continue, appear conciliatory next to the Beijing of 2022. Of course there is no guarantee that a hypothetical solution agreed at a time of relative weakness would not be reneged on at a later time of relative strength (ask Hong Kongers about that). And there is no guarantee that Chinese revisionism would stop at gaining Taiwan. In short there are good reasons for Taiwan to hold out as long as possible. But Taiwan’s autonomy is precarious, and for those who would preserve it, it doesn’t do any good to pretend otherwise.