Written by Jonathan Sullivan.

An academic colleague in the US working on a book about future Asian scenarios asked me to comment on China-Taiwan relations in 2050. The brief Q&A below is by way of stimulating further discussion, either in comments or via a piece (get in touch in the usual way). I’m interested to read your (politely couched) thoughts!

  1. Do you think Taiwan/China unification is inevitable? Roughly when?

Nothing is inevitable—in fact the “inevitability of unification” is very much a PRC narrative. Economic forces are formidable, and are unequivocally drawing the two sides together. At the same time Taiwanese public opinion is moving away from unification as a potential future option. It is inconceivable that Taiwanese would vote any time soon (in a referendum currently promised by both main Taiwanese parties) for unification. It is also hard to see how a decision on unification could be made without a vote. But, such is the economic pull, the absolute intractability of the PRC claim, the changing military balance, the marginalization of Taiwan internationally and the presence in Taiwan of a small but powerful elite that wants (or would materially benefit from) unification, that it could conceivably be forced through without a vote. If conditions in Taiwan changed dramatically, in terms of the economy or the parameters of political competition, perhaps public opinion will also change. My guess is that unification will continue to be unviable electorally in Taiwan and the “political will” will continue to be “keep functional autonomy and avoid talking political solutions for as long as possible”. The Chinese side will get impatient at some point and it has enormous leverage over Taiwan’s economy, internationally and in some sectors of Taiwanese society. Can Taiwan stall indefinitely? Can it stall long enough for China to democratize or for the party-state to collapse? That will be difficult with current trajectories. By 2050, I can imagine some kind of union, certainly not one country two systems (which the PRC recognizes it can’t sell to Taiwan), but perhaps something like a Commonwealth or EU type arrangement. There are so many unknowns at this point, particularly the preference of the US and the future strength of the CCP, which could affect the outcome.

  1. Will Taiwan submit willingly, or kicking and screaming? What factors will propel it in that direction—economic necessity? Cultural connection? Fear?

I can’t see a majority of Taiwanese ever voting for unification, but the possibility exists that it will be taken out their hands. The idea of a referendum on Taiwan’s future status is not a constitutional requirement, although amending the current ROC constitution to reflect unification would require (at least) passing the legislature. I can imagine-not now but in the distant future-political elites with material interest in unification seizing political power via various means (vote buying, channelling favours), working in concert with PRC agents and resources, to push through an agreement. If unification were to be forced on the Taiwanese, I can’t imagine that it would not be messy (possibly bloody) for a time. Depending on how things pan out in China (eg Party losing its grip, long economic downturn), Beijing would probably be willing to accept this “collateral damage”.

  1. What impact did the Ma-Xi summit have on cross-strait relations, specifically with regard to unification?

In Taiwan, none. The reaction was apathy or anger. The optics of “the handshake” were great for Xi’s domestic agenda, for Ma’s “legacy scrapbook” and for showing a particular image of cross-Strait relations to international society. But in Taiwan, it didn’t change anything. Partly this is due to Ma’s alienation, but also the timing was not right at all (it played as a desperate and plainly instrumental election ploy in Taiwan, and reminded people of the long held fear that the KMT would do a deal with the CCP). The longer term impact I think is important though. It establishes a certain narrative in the global imagination and set a precedent for leaders to meet; if the two sides are to move toward unification they will need to talk much more than they have been, at the highest level, and this is a building block. The problem is that the PRC will only talk to the KMT, which cannot (and never will be able to) claim to represent the entire spectrum of Taiwanese public opinion. This is problematic for anyone who respects what democracy stands for since a large slice of Taiwanese opinion can never be represented in these talks.

  1. Taiwanese people, while staunchly against unification, also overwhelmingly support the 1992 consensus rather than total independence. That strikes me as a cop-out. Isn’t the “status quo” more akin to unification than to independence?

It is not accurate to say that there is overwhelming, or even majority, support for the “1992 consensus” (which is a misnomer anyway, being neither a consensus (China ignores the qualifier) nor agreed in 1992 (it was a post hoc bit of finesse adopted much later)). There is overwhelming support for the continuation of Taiwan’s functional autonomy and the view that Taiwan (or the ROC) is a discrete, functionally independent, liberal democracy that is not China. Taiwanese are well aware, after many years of hearing Beijing’s message that “independence = war”, that formal independence is not currently a realistic option. Survey work shows that Taiwanese could accept a range of different scenarios contingent on the reactions of China and the US. For example, in a hypothetical world where a declaration of independence would not incur Chinese military repercussions the level of support for independence is very high. Conversely, unification with an economically developed democratic China would be acceptable to many times more people than support unification with China as it is today. The overwhelming support is for the status quo—the divergence in public opinion comes when you add qualifiers, ‘status quo forever’, ‘status quo leading to independence’, ‘status quo leading to unification’. I don’t think we can censure Taiwanese for their realistic pragmatism—most people know Taiwan has been dealt a difficult hand and the odds are not in their favour.

  1. How should the Western democracies treat Taiwan?

Western democracies should treat Taiwan in a way that is commensurate with its status as a major global economy and a polity and society that is committed to liberal democracy and shares many values and norms. They should support Taiwan’s endeavours to deepening democratic reforms and contribute to international society and not bow down to pressures to marginalize it. The imperative of doing business and being on good terms with China make it a difficult balancing act, but western democracies’ bottom line position should be that Taiwan’s future is decided voluntarily by the Taiwanese people and any actions to coerce or impose an unwanted solution should be rejected. That is the normative position. In reality, western democracies’ ability to support Taiwan is highly circumscribed, and the majority are also in a holding pattern where the status quo (peaceful relations, economic links, functional autonomy) is the best option. This is compatible with the one China policy that most countries adopt. The test will come when Beijing tires of waiting and seeks to press Taiwan. At that point, I am not overly optimistic that western democracies will have the resolve to defend Taiwan’s interest purely on the basis of it being a fellow democracy. The US and Japan are exceptional among western democracies, but the vagaries and balance of Sino-US and Sino-Japan relations do not make their continuing support a foregone conclusion. Ultimately, international society will follow the lead of the major power—in a 35 year time-frame, whether that continues to be the US, or China, is hard to predict.

Jonathan Sullivan is Director of Research in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham.