Is Taiwan the next Crimea?

Like Crimea, Taiwan has a powerful nation at it doorstep itching to make claims on its territory. As China grows ever stronger, what options does Taiwan really have left?

Graph for Is Taiwan the next Crimea?

Riot police stand on guard outside Taiwan parliament in Taipei, Taiwan, 20 March 2014, as students' occupation of the parliament entered the third day. EPA/HENRY LIN

Taiwanese are watching what’s happening in Crimea with apprehension. Some see the Crimean referendum to secede from Ukraine as a tantalising precedent to follow. Others are worried about Putin’s ability to annex the sovereign territory of a state with such impunity and the weak response from the West.

Opinion is also divided in China about what the Crimean situation means for its own separatist groups in Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan. Though Beijing is sympathetic to Moscow’s more aggressive foreign policy stance, it cannot support it officially for fear of creating a precedent for other independence movements.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea also raises an important question about the future of Taiwan. The current status quo across the Taiwan straits cannot continue forever, as an ascendant China will eventually want to have it back, either forcibly or through a political settlement.

John Mearsheimer, a renowned American foreign policy expert known for his hawkish views, penned a provocative article titled “Say Goodbye to Taiwan” in The National Interest, a conservative magazine that argues Taiwan’s days as a de facto independent nation are numbered.

His argument is simple and straightforward. It will be impossible for Taiwan to maintain its de facto independence in the decades to come as China becomes a more formidable economic as well as military power.

The United States’ current defence commitment to Taiwan will become more and more questionable over time as China becomes stronger. “There are good reasons to think that with the passage of time the benefits of maintaining close ties with Taiwan will be outweighed by the potential costs, which are likely to be huge,” he says.

His verdict is provocative and devastating at the same time. “If China continues its impressive rise, Taiwan appears destined to become part of China.” The analysis of Mearsheimer, who is no panda-hugger, carries a lot of weight.

The balance of power, short of a calamitous implosion of China’s economy, is gradually shifting in China’s favour. The country will become the world’s largest economy within this decade and economic resources translate into greater military capability. China’s military spending has been rising by double digits for the past decade.

It’s also worth noting how seriously China treats the issue of re-unification with Taiwan. The ruling communist party’s legitimacy is bound up with making Taiwan part of China. No Chinese leader can ever afford to show any weakness on this issue and the rising tide of nationalism in China will only reinforce Beijing’s uncompromising stance.

Beijing even passed anti-secessionist legislation in 2005, which explicitly states that it will use military means to seize Taiwan if it declares de jure independence.

So what are the choices for Taiwan in the face of a rising superpower right at its doorstep? Mearsheimer outlines three options and he rules out two of them quite quickly.

The first one is for Taiwan to go nuclear. In fact, Taiwan pursued this option in the 1970s until Washington intervened. In short, Americans hate the idea that an ally can start a nuclear war that might involve the United States. So this option is out.

The second one is to build up Taiwan’s conventional deterrence against China. The idea is to make a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan as costly as possible so in the end it becomes a Pyrrhic victory for Beijing. This is another false choice; Taiwan will be devastated in the event of an all-out war with China. Simple maths will tell you this option will look less and less realistic over time.

So this leaves us with the final and only plausible option in his analysis: Taiwan concedes to China and accepts an arrangement similar to Hong Kong, which enjoys a high degree of autonomy but will be formally integrated into China.

In fact, there is a more appealing fourth option -- but it’s almost a non-starter in today’s Taiwanese domestic environment. Taiwan can initiate a unification strategy with China on its own terms and conditions while it still has some bargaining chips and the protection of the United States.

It is an unthinkable option, but Taiwanese leaders need to contemplate the unthinkable in light of the fast changing geopolitical situation in the region. Taipei can lay down the terms of unification such as democratisation in China, lifting bans on the formation of opposition parties and allowing Taiwanese political parties to contest in provincial elections.

Taiwan can ask for a slow process of political liberalisation, say initially opening up 20 per cent of seats in provincial people’s congress for free election and then increasing the proportion over time.

Taiwan can and should return to its old policy of representing itself as the “Free China”, a policy pursued by the ruling Nationalist Party for the better half of the twentieth century until more pro-independence forces took over.

This way, Taiwan can turn its current defensive position into an offensive initiative. Better still, it can play an instrumental role in the democratisation of China, which will be good for both sides of Taiwan straits. In fact, it is still the official constitutional goal of the Republic of China, Taiwan’s official name.

The sad thing is that no one dares to talk about it because it is political suicide. But eventually Taiwan needs to start thinking about the unthinkable.