The new book “Taiwan: A Contested Democracy Under Threat” presents a weighing up of the impasse that Taiwan finds itself in vis-a-vis China. Amid a series of recommendations about how to maintain a wobbling status quo, the lasting impression this short account leaves is murky pessimism about the future.
For the most part, the book acts as a kind of catch-up session for anyone in an international audience who feels like they’ve joined the conversation halfway through. Authors Lev Nachman, an assistant professor at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, and Jonathan Sullivan, an associate professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, offer a run through of all the major history in Taiwan-China relations at a time when they note: “broader U.S.-China relations are in flux, if not at an inflection point.”
Within this effort, rather than a central thesis, various sides of arguments within Taiwan, across the Taiwan Strait, and between Taiwan, the U.S. and China are explained. For instance, pro-Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and pro-Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) views of the White Terror period, during which it’s estimated more than 140,000 people were imprisoned and 3,000 to 4,000 were executed for alleged anti-KMT crimes, are offered without moral judgements on the rights and wrongs. In a similar fashion, during its passage on the legal interpretation of Taiwan’s status, the book cautiously describes ambiguity around whether Japan “returned Taiwan to China” after World War II or only renounced sovereignty as a “source of confusion,” rather than taking a definitive view.
This approach ultimately means that when opinions are more boldly stated, they stand out.
The book takes the position that any formalization of Taiwanese independence would be reckless and endorses current Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s positioning. It prescribes that whoever follows on from Tsai will “need to assure crucial allies like the U.S. that Taiwan will continue to adhere to Tsai’s pragmatism” in leaning away from bold declarations of Taiwanese independence and into the idea that Taiwan already acts independently as a new, democratic version of the already existing Republic of China. At the same time, it says that China’s “flattening” of all DPP politicians into “separatists” represents “a missed opportunity to engage in dialogue with DPP moderates like [Tsai].” Its key insight is thus that in recent years China has been “seemingly stretching the definition of independence to include the exercise of the [Republic of China’s] existing autonomy,” and this has ultimately closed the room for maneuver in a way that is becoming dangerous.
Listing potential catalysts for conflict across the Taiwan Strait, the book is sanguine about many of them. It’s confident that the Chinese Communist Party’s regime is stable and an imminent declaration of independence from Taiwan isn’t forthcoming. It doesn’t flag up particular concern about the likelihood of the U.S. seeking to sell or install offensive weapons on Taiwan or proposing to station troops or naval ships in Taiwanese ports, though at various points it does chastise the U.S. for problematic gestures toward Taiwanese independence that offer little substantive benefit and various negative consequences for Taiwan.
However, the idea that rejection of unification is becoming — or has become — equated with Taiwanese independence in the eyes of the Chinese government is placed in a separate category. This new potential grounds for military action is seen as particularly dangerous because “the [People’s Republic of China] has not explicitly indicated what kind of Taiwanese action, or non-action, would lead to this assessment.”
In a book advocating holding the status quo together, that ambiguous position is considered most dangerous, because it does not require any grand gesture or power shift to generate conflict. Alone, the incremental drift of Taiwanese opinion and policy, in the very much the same direction as it has already turned — with no current presidential candidate committed to unification — could at one point be enough to see China attempt military action.
Other currents do run within the book. It makes sure to state that “Despite current trajectories, there is still room for both cross-[s]trait and U.S.-China relations to return to their former equilibrium.” It notes that in recent years the “U.S. [has] increased acts of deterrence and decreased acts of reassurance, thus threatening the delicate equilibrium.” As a basic guide to Taiwanese history and politics, Nachman and Sullivan’s book is undoubtedly useful, too. However, the impression that Taiwan’s current, democratically decided, carefully coordinated positioning — neither boldly independent nor heading for unification — is already fundamentally unacceptable to the Chinese government, and could with no dramatic incident lead to conflict, leaves readers with a gloomy picture.
Photo: AFP Photo/Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense