The recent independence referendums in Catalonia and Kurdistan, amid much controversy, have caught Taiwan’s close attention. Pro-independence forces in Taiwan were excited to see when the majority in the two territories voted for independence and hoped that Taiwan would follow suit, but then they experienced a sharp pang of disappointment after the independence movements in Catalonia and Kurdistan won little international support and were ultimately repressed.
Taiwan’s pro-independence activists, also known as the Deep Green faction — those who strongly advocate the independence of Taiwan led by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) — believe that as long as they win legislative and administrative power of Taiwan through elections, a new Republic of Taiwan will become a reality with a change in the country’s name and a revision of the constitution, and that democracies around the world will welcome an independent Taiwan into the international community.
However, these advocates undermine the importance of material factors and place an overemphasis on the fact that Taiwan is a democracy when they conclude that Taiwan deserves self-autonomous rights to determine its own fate, and that it will surely be welcomed and supported by the liberal world. The failures of the Catalonia and Kurdistan independence movements may force them to face a fact: achieving independence is easier said than done. Without sufficient self-defense forces, economic strength, a favorable international environment and foreign support, and the strong willingness to sacrifice, independence will remain a castle in the air.
Given the huge gaps between mainland China and Taiwan in terms of economic scale, military strength, and international influence, Taipei is very unlikely to defeat Beijing in a tit-for-tat military clash after claiming independence. Despite this, Taipei is still enhancing its military capacities in order to deter possible aggression from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and what’s more, hopes that — if ever it claims independence — it can hold fast until US military intervention or international mediation arrives. For instance, a Taiwan defense analyst told the New York Times:
“We (Taiwan) need to resist a Chinese military attack for two weeks and wait for help from the United States or the international community.”
This is the core of Taiwan’s defense doctrine. From this perspective, Taiwan’s successful independence depends whether its troops can hold until the arrival of external intervention.
However, the possibility of US intervention in case of Taiwanese independence is very low. The George W. Bush administration had de facto announced that Taipei should never count on Washington to help it become independent. Bush’s successors seem unlikely to fundamentally change this policy in the foreseeable future. In addition, international mediation is anticipated to be too inefficient and weak to save Taipei.
Even if the war is started by Beijing, and that Taipei is able to hold long enough for external forces to intervene, Taipei will still need to pay a price so that Beijing can back down with dignity and that the status quo can be restored in the Strait. Taipei will probably need to promise that it won’t cross the red line Beijing draws in cross-Strait issues.
Strategic Window of Opportunity?
The Deep Green campaign is waiting for a strategic window of opportunity that may fundamentally transform the regional structure and cross-Strait relations. This window may open when Beijing democratizes or collapses. In the positive scenario, it is assumed that a democratized China will understand and respect Taiwan’s self-determination rights. Mainland Chinese misunderstandings and disrespect of an independent Taiwan are deeply oriented to authoritarian rule and their ideological education. Once democratized, it is assumed that the new regime will allow Taiwan to choose its own fate. In the negative scenario, China may collapse due to structural economic problems, corruption, environmental pollution, and social instability. If such catastrophic changes occur, Beijing may be unable or unwilling to keep an eye on Taiwanese independence. In this scenario, it may even be possible for Taiwan to gain relative power advantages following the mainland’s decline. In the third scenario, if the current Sino-US competition slips into a new Cold War, Washington may make an unconditional security commitment to defend Taiwan or even directly acknowledge Taiwan as an independent nation-state.
Pro-independence politicians keep manipulating cross-Strait issues in order to win greater popular support.
These three strategic windows rely on the occurrence of small probability events. The People’s Republic of China under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party seems to very unlikely to collapse or be democratized in the medium-term future. Despite the country’s problems, most Chinese seem to be content with CCP rule and are optimistic about theirs and their nation’s future.
A US-USSR style Cold War also seems unlikely in East Asia. Unlike the Soviets, China is deeply integrated into the global economy, and shares intensive common interests with the United States. What’s more, the leadership across the two countries are trying to manage their differences, facilitate strategic dialogue, and develop new partnerships in other areas. But even if a new Cold War between China and the US were to occur, Taiwan should be clearly aware that it would be on the front line of great power rivalry, and the PLA would certainly increase military coercion and isolation strategies against Taiwan. Taiwan needs to think twice about whether this would really be good news for itself.
As these three scenarios show, Taiwan independence is inoperable and unrealistic. Except for a stubborn few, most pro-independence politicians in Taiwan have a full understanding of the insurmountable challenges ahead of them. Some have proposed freezing the independence clause within the constitution of the DPP. This could fundamentally transform the DPP into a status quo stakeholder which respects the current cross-Strait situation, rather than remain a revisionist which pursues Taiwan independence.
Some of my major concerns are: In contrast to its practical infeasibility, independence remains a key issue in Taiwan’s media, public perceptions, and elections. Even if the masses are passionate about fundamental and unrealistic change, politicians are supposed to be more rational and forward-thinking. However, that’s not the case in Taiwan now. Pro-independence politicians keep manipulating cross-Strait issues in order to win greater popular support. They appear to be politically correct by standing firm against pressure from mainland China and maintaining Taiwan’s autonomy of action. They criticize their opponents for their pragmatic mainland China policies and describe the latter as Beijing’s agents of influence. This makes independence in the pan-green campaign’s agenda a movement aimed at rallying popular political support around their flag, rather than a carefully planned and rationally calculated roadmap to build a new country. Keeping this in mind is vital for Beijing to make its Taiwan policy and for the relevant actors to maintain peace and stability in the Strait.
Huang, C. (2017, October 17). Six reasons why Catalonia is no model for Taiwan’s independence movement. South China Morning Post.
Lo, K. L. (2017, February 9). Young Chinese most optimistic about world’s future, poll suggests. South China Morning Post.
Myers, S. L., and Horton, C. (2017, November 4). Once formidable, Taiwan’s military now overshadowed by China’s. New York Times.