Cross-Strait Relations: Forced Unification is Politically Unwise for China
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By Xiaolin Duan

Cross-Strait Relations: Forced Unification is Politically Unwise for China

Nov. 13, 2017  |     |  0 comments

Since Tsai Ing-wen took office as the leader of Taiwan in 2016, cross-Strait relations gradually reached a new low despite the lack of tit-for-tat militarized tensions. On one hand, Tsai tried to contain the pro-independence forces within the Democratic Progress Party (DPP) and maintain the status quo across the Strait. On the other hand, she made several subtle and controversial policies to enhance Taiwanese identity, promote cultural de-sinicization, and delegitimize the Kuomintang (KMT), the main opposition party, by launching an official investigation into the partisan assets.

What’s more, Tsai clearly refused to accept the 1992 consensus — that both Taiwan and mainland China belong to the same China, but both sides agreed to interpret the meaning of that “China” according to their own definition. This served as the political foundation of cross-Strait exchanges, particularly when Ma Ying-jeou served as the leader of Taiwan from 2008 to 2016, and also facilitated the meeting between Ma and Xi Jinping in 2015 in Singapore. Thus, Tsai’s denial of the consensus was seen as a major departure from the status quo in Beijing’s eyes. Despite Beijing’s economic and political pressure, Tsai was very unlikely to accommodate Beijing on this issue due to the lack of popular support within her own party, the DPP, and the Taiwanese society.

Under such circumstances, societal and elite pressures for a new Taiwan strategy within mainland China are becoming more evident. Beijing’s previous Taiwan strategy was defined by a gradualist approach aimed at enhancing economic, social, and political exchanges in the long term and ultimately facilitating a natural unification. In terms of implementation, Beijing particularly stressed the importance of economic engagement and integration by mostly surrendering economic benefits unilaterally to Taiwan’s entrepreneurs and individuals, hoping that economic leverage could buy popular support over the unification scheme within Taiwan.1

A new Taiwan strategy is still under debate in Chinese academia and policy analyst circles and it has not been clearly drafted so far. Their advocates believe that, despite Beijing’s economic leverage and unilateral surrender of economic benefits, it still lacks a significant pro-unification force in Taiwan; rather, more and more people in Taiwan prefer to pursue either Taiwanese independence or preserve the status quo: no unification, no independence, and no use of force. Some analysts believe that Taiwan — no matter under which leadership — is pursuing a de facto separation, and it is time to think about militarized means to force Taiwan back. Other observers may be less pessimistic, but they believe that political separation cannot be shelved in Beijing’s agenda, and it is time to make a timetable for cross-Strait negotiation and unification.2

It is unclear if Beijing officially embraces these policy beliefs. There are mixed signals from the leadership. On one hand, it seems that Xi Jinping has no intention to affect cross-Strait stability by making very proactive moves, possibly because he has enough problems in other vital issues, including Chinese-Japanese relations and the Diaoyu/Senkaku island dispute, and the South China Sea. On the other, it is also possible that Xi will try to make historical progress in achieving the Chinese dream, a significant part of which is cross-Strait unification. Although Xi may not be quick to force Taiwan back, he certainly has intentions to break the political deadlock and may set a timetable for political unification.

For advocates of forced unification, mainland China and Taiwan are merely separated by a 180-km wide strait that can be easily overcome by the People’s Liberation Army.

For the analysts who believe that it is time for Beijing to resolve the Taiwan issue, probably via militarized means, they need to rethink — in the case of forced unification — the possibilities of US intervention, the domestic costs of a tragic victory or even failure, regional countries’ anxieties about China’s aggressiveness, and even the deterioration of China’s national image in the world community. An important, albeit neglected, aspect in most analyses is whether Beijing is ready to govern.

A major focus of existing analyses is whether the Taiwanese are willing to accept Beijing’s “One Country Two Systems” (OCTS) formula. Although Beijing has promised that more privileged arrangements will be made considering Taiwan’s special situation compared with Hong Kong and Macau, — China’s two special administrative regions which used to be colonialized by the British and Portuguese respectively — Taipei, from Chiang Ching-kuo, Ma Ying-jeou, to the present leader Tsai Ing-wen, have clearly declared their objections to OCTS.

According to the DPP, any efforts to engage the mainland by pan-blue forces are a betrayal of Taiwan’s interests which undermine Taiwan’s strategic autonomy, while the pro-blue media criticize the DPP’s efforts to “Go South” and promote an arms build-up as “unrealistic” and “anti-mainland China.”

In the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Congress, Xi Jinping reassured Beijing’s commitment to the applicability of OCTS in Taiwan and Beijing’s respect for “the current social system in Taiwan and the lifestyles of the Taiwan compatriots.”3 Taipei reiterated that the fate of Taiwan should be determined by the 23 million Taiwanese. Considering that most Taiwanese find OTCS unacceptable, Taipei de facto rejects Beijing’s proposals.4

A more prominent issue is the rise of vetocracy in Taiwan. Vetocracy is a political term proposed by the political scientist Francis Fukuyama, which refers to the “dysfunctional system of governance whereby no single entity can acquire enough power to make decisions and take effective charge.”5 Economic stagnation, inter-party conflict in the legislative and administrative agencies, intra-party power struggle, rise of populism, and lack of authority to promote significant reform, have been hallmarks of a political system in disarray in Taiwan, as indicated by the series of political events since Tsai took power.

The rise of vetocracy in Taiwan firstly stems from the intensive political competition between the pan-blue and pan-green forces led by the two major political parties, the KMT and the DPP. Any political party would want to maximize its political influence and win elections. However, both parties have tried to please the popular demands regardless of the social and economic consequences. Politicians tend to exaggerate their competitors’ underperformance and policy failures, exploit their weaknesses, and shore up the popular anti-government sentiments. Their political competition and power struggles are not only intensive in times of elections, but also defines the process of routine legislative, administrative, and social issues.

In addition, party politics also gives different social groups more space to shape policy outcomes. Labour, environmental, ethnic, and other social groups tend to affiliate with political parties to advocate their values and beliefs, and maximize their influence. Social movement activists are good at increasing their exposure in the media, attracting public attention and sympathy. A large presence of social movement activism challenges the authority and efficiency of the elected government, and nongovernmental organizations have more social and political influence to block items in the government’s agenda that are unfavourable to them. Especially since the Sunflower Student Movement of 2014, university students have become more politically active, and political forces are also more inclined to increase their influence in universities, making Taiwan politics more complicated.

Under these circumstances, political polarization is becoming more and more prominent in Taiwan. More people have fixed party identification, and the number of median voters has declined, particularly in times of intense interparty competition. Ordinary voters’ political decisions are not only influenced by the candidates’ performance or policy proposals, but also by their political affiliations. Voters are more likely to tolerate the underperformance of the administrators of their party, and defend them in the next election.

Both parties’ domestic policies now seem to converge, but cross-Strait relations remain an important issue that can split Taiwan. According to the DPP, any efforts to engage the mainland by pan-blue forces are a betrayal of Taiwan’s interests which undermine Taiwan’s strategic autonomy, while the pro-blue media criticize the DPP’s efforts to “Go South” (engage Southeast Asian countries commercially) and promote an arms build-up as “unrealistic” and “anti-mainland China.” Individuals are termed as either “native Taiwanese” or “extra-provincial persons”: those who escaped from mainland China to Taiwan following the KMT regime’s failure in the Chinese civil war of 1945-49, and society has split accordingly.

All these imply the fundamental dilemmas of governing contemporary Taiwan, and make significant political and economic reforms hard to carry out. This yields significant implications for Beijing’s Taiwan policy.

It will be politically unwise for Beijing to force Taiwan back via militarized means proactively. Enforced unification — even if successfully achieved with small casualties on both sides — increases Beijing’s difficulties in governing Taiwan in the post-war period, given that most Taiwanese have gotten used to liberal democracy and self-government, and that Beijing cannot give more liberal rights than Taiwanese enjoy right now. That means, to some extent, a military-oriented unification strategy will not be a wise political option until Taiwan encounters some fundamental crisis of governance — economic or political — which leaves the majority expecting a change. From this perspective, Beijing need to think seriously about how to govern Taiwan when framing its new Taiwan strategy.


1. Huang, J., Inseparable Separation: The Making of China’s Taiwan Policy. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2010.

2. Wang, Z. (January 5, 2017). Forced unification? China will try its best to avoid using force. Global Times; Zhou, Z. (August 13, 2017). Timetable needed for unification of Taiwan. Global Times.

3. Bush, R. C. (October 19, 2017). What Xi Jinping said about Taiwan at the 19th Party Congress. Brookings.

4. Taiwan think talk poll: seventy percent of Taiwanese do not accept ‘One country two system.’ (June 30, 2017).

5. Friedman, T. L. (April 21, 2012). Down with everything. New York Times.

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