China isn’t ready to take Taiwan by force, and its efforts to win over the Taiwanese with economic incentives have failed. Beijing’s next option is to slowly destroy the polity that stands in the way of the real estate it seeks to acquire.
Faced with a obstinate population that refuses to be annexed, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) appears to have run out of options in its quest to unify Taiwan with China. Beijing’s approach to date, an alternating mix of coercion and sweeteners, has not yielded the dividends it was hoping for. In fact, both approaches seem to have had the opposite effect and, along with other factors, have contributed to a deepening identification with Taiwan among the island-nation’s 23.5 million people. Therefore, barring an unlikely break with longstanding trends in Taiwanese society, “peaceful unification” — which is contingent on both sides agreeing on the benefits of such an arrangement — doesn’t seem feasible for the foreseeable future.
If China cannot obtain what it wants by “peaceful” means, this conceivably opens the door to the other option: use of force. While undoubtedly on the path to transforming itself into a formidable military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) isn’t yet ready to launch an amphibious assault against Taiwan and, as internal documents make clear, it won’t have the ability to do so for a while. Uncertainty over the manner in which the international community would react to an unprovoked attack on the democratic island-nation, moreover, continues to act as a deterrent against such a course of action.
The erosion card
Frustrated at every turn, what does China do? There is a third option, and it is starting to appear as the most viable for Beijing: if you cannot immediately seize the coveted piece of real estate, erode the institutions that stand in the way.
Never mind President Xi Jinping’s claims about a timeline to resolve the “Taiwan question” or the routine bluster by the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office indicating China’s impatience. As long as Taiwan doesn’t “provoke” Beijing by, for example, making a declaration of independence (which the Tsai Ing-wen administration will not do), Beijing can afford to wait and has much bigger fish to fry at the moment — fish that, should it get distracted by a major Taiwan contingency, could very well jump out of the frying pan. Among the many issues the CCP faces that require greater attention than Taiwan at the moment are instability in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang, the Christian Church question, human rights activists, a slowing economy, a rapidly ageing society, environmental issues, access to energy and potable water, territorial claims in the East and South China Sea, North Korea, and an unpredictable relationship with the U.S. under President Trump. Most, if not all of those issues, have greater potential to undermine China than a Taiwan that, though obstinately committed to preserving its way of life, isn’t, due to both economic and geographical factors, going anywhere.
So we have a standoff. China cannot act, and Taiwan’s options are limited due to circumstances and the perpetual tyranny of geography. Both sides, therefore, are buying time: Taiwan by consolidating its democracy, and China by continuing its efforts to shift the balance of comprehensive power in the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan fights for space; Beijing seeks to limit it. It quickly becomes apparent that the key to the CCP getting what it wants is to counter that which fuels Taiwan’s resilience and resistance in the first place. To do so, it must erode, with the aim of completely erasing, the state architecture of Taiwan, which confers rules, rights, protections and responsibilities upon its people. The CCP already denies the very legal existence of the Republic of China (ROC); the next step is to annihilate the very polity of Taiwan.
Beijing has already taken steps in that direction by seeking to isolate Taiwan internationally. Though the most visible form of action, the theft of official diplomatic allies of the ROC is only one component, and possibly not the most alarming one, of this strategy. As I argued in a previous article, Taiwan could arguably afford to lose every single one of its official diplomatic allies (now 20) and still continue to operate as a sovereign state. A key determinant of statehood is a polity’s ability to conduct relations with foreign states, an exercise that, in the absence of official relations, the government in Taipei does through reciprocal representative offices.
That passport is arguably a much more significant symbol of recognized nationhood/statehood than the ROC’s maintaining official diplomatic allies.
More worrying is China’s recent pressure on governments to undermine the operations of Taiwan’s representative missions abroad through relocation and renaming, and the growing frequency with which Taiwanese nationals suspected of crimes abroad have been sent back to China rather than to Taiwan, a development that threatens the very legitimacy of the passports they carry. That passport is arguably a much more significant symbol of recognized nationhood/statehood than the ROC’s maintaining official diplomatic allies. It is accepted around the world (except at UN buildings), including a very large number of states which do not have official diplomatic ties with Taiwan, and confers upon Taiwanese nationals visa-waiver benefits that are not extended to People’s Republic of China (PRC) passport holders.
It is very likely that Beijing will lean even harder on governments to limit the nature of the relations they have with Taiwan so as to undermine Taiwan’s ability to conduct foreign policy. The success of such efforts became apparent when Taiwan’s representatives abroad were powerless to prevent the deportation of Taiwanese nationals to China, or saw their offices occupied by a country’s military, as occurred recently in Nigeria, under pressure from China. The sealing of a representative office and indifference to the protestations of Taiwanese representatives seeking to ensure the rights of Taiwanese nationals abroad is a direct denial of Taipei’s ability to conduct foreign policy. Much more than the loss of official diplomatic allies, developments such as those discussed above threaten the very legitimacy of Taiwan as a separate polity.
Targeting the polity
Parallel to such efforts will be Beijing’s intensifying assault on state institutions in Taiwan and the democracy that underpins them. Through penetration, co-optation and bypassing, the CCP will seek to erode the legitimacy of the state apparatus — its government agencies, parliament, laws, regulations and practices — that are essential for statehood and which would ensure the continued existence of the nation even if Taiwan lost the totality of its official diplomatic allies. Beijing has already been bypassing state institutions by negotiating on a party-to-party basis and/or through semi-official bodies; the next step, which has already begun, is to deal directly with local officials, businesses, front organizations, CCP proxies, temples and criminal groups in Taiwan that act independently of state organs. Chinese media now operate under strict guidelines that linguistically remove all references suggesting Taiwanese statehood (as Chinese media expand worldwide, it’s only a matter of time before their content is adopted by international outlets).
If Taiwanese lose faith in their government and the democratic norms than underpin rule of law in their country, they might become more amenable to the alternative offered by Beijing; at the very least, it could increase the appeal of politicians who make the case for unification.
As it strengthens its ties with non-state actors, the CCP will also rely on a sustained propaganda and disinformation campaign to undermine belief in the viability of the state among the Taiwanese. This will involve both propaganda against the appeal of democracy and various efforts — co-optation, disinformation — to erode the normal functioning of government institutions until such a point that the Taiwanese lose faith in the ability of their elected officials to run the country. The first step in accomplishing this goal is to create a permanent state of crisis in Taiwan by fabricating controversies, unleashing a fake civil society (in parallel with legitimate activism), and using other means to exacerbate discontent, foster turmoil, and ultimately delegitimize the state apparatus. If Taiwanese lose faith in their government and the democratic norms than underpin rule of law in their country, they might become more amenable to the alternative offered by Beijing; at the very least, it could increase the appeal of politicians who make the case for unification.
As Timothy Snyder demonstrates in his excellent book Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, in almost all the territories it conquered to enlarge its “habitat” (Lebensraum) in Europe, Nazi Germany’s first move was to destroy all state institutions and create an environment of instability that it could then exploit to its advantage. We should not be surprised that those areas where the state apparatus and rule of law disappeared are also where the worst atrocities against Jews and other peoples were committed. In other words, the social engineering the Nazis had in mind (the complete destruction of Jews) first needed a habitat where state structures and rule of law no longer existed (that is why Jews in Germany, where structures still existed, had a much higher survival rate than those in occupied Europe, at least until they were deported to those areas for extermination).
If China is to succeed in socially engineering the Taiwanese, it will, like Nazi Germany, first have to destroy the state apparatus in Taiwan and enlarge its own “habitat.” While this can be accomplished by force (the Soviets and Germany made that amply clear before and during World War II), the military option is unappealing and probably too risky for now to be seriously considered by Beijing. Other means, even if this takes longer, are certainly on the list of options and are in fact already being activated.
This, therefore, makes it essential that officials in the Taiwanese government do their utmost to fulfil their functions and to maintain trust in the institutions they represent. Public servants have a responsibility to ensure good, transparent and accountable governance, not only because this is good for the country but because, under assault by the Chinese, those protect the firewall that helps defend Taiwan against annexation. Cynical use and abuse of power, corruption, underperformance, dereliction of duty, or the trivialization of the legislature thanks to circus-antics and brawls, all play into Beijing’s hands and threaten the viability of Taiwan as a polity and as a nation. More than ever, the Tsai administration must take good governance seriously and continue to consolidate rule of law, democratic accountability, an institutions of state. For their part, Taiwanese citizens must keep their faith in the system and use the right amount of pressure to propel officials in the right direction without taking such actions as would threaten the viability of the institutions they seek to protect.
In the storm that is brewing, good governance and support for existing institutions, along with greater efforts to sustain vibrant (if by necessity unofficial) relations with key states, are Taiwan’s best hopes of securing its sovereignty.
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