Written by Michal Thim.

The future of Taiwan, its political status and relations with its powerful neighbour, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), is undoubtedly one of the most contentious issues in the East Asia, with possible global consequences. The stance on Taiwan is firmly defined by the ‘One China’ policy and Beijing does not allow any other option than Taiwan is part of the PRC as one of its provinces. The option of any other solution is strongly rejected. However, should not Zhongnanhai have a plan B for Taiwan independence, considering domestics development in Taiwan and the PRC’s broader international ambitions?

The idea of Taiwan’s de jure independence appears to be the sole domain of pro-independence Taiwanese and like-minded foreign supporters. Down-to-earth realists would argue that formal Taiwanese independence is a lost cause in the face of a growing China and that the future of Taiwan is predetermined and eventual unification is unavoidable. Yet, the option of a fully recognized independence of Taiwan deserves more than outright dismissal as much as the option of ‘predetermined unification’ deserves more scholarly examination.

Regarding the latter, the argument usually goes that China’s growing economic influence over Taiwan will make Taiwanese agree to unification before they lose any leverage to negotiate favourable conditions. Alternatively, experts argue that when it comes to military power, Taiwan is no match for a modernized People’s Liberation Army and therefore Taiwan will capitulate as soon as the first shots are fired. Let’s have a closer albeit brief look at these arguments. Firstly, the argument that China’s economic power shadowed by its military power will make Taiwanese concede their de facto sovereignty and more than two decades of democracy building is curious. There are two major schools of thought that consider the impact of economic relations on political relations and security. Liberals argue that economic interdependence decreases chance of conflict and increases mutual trust, realists argue that states always worry about their security in the first place and that economic dependence creates sense of insecurity. If liberals are right, Taiwan’s engagement in greater economic interaction removes the ultimate threat of military action. If that is not present, why should people in Taiwan agree to give up more for less? If realist are right, Taiwan will seek to diversify its trade in order to decrease risks stemming from over-reliance on the Chinese market. There is one important piece missing in this consideration and that is stance of Taiwan’s population on the issues of identity and independence/unification. Surveys show that despite increasing economic interaction, Taiwanese identity is on the rise and unification is very unpopular issue.

Aware that its efforts to win the hearts and minds of Taiwanese are failing, Beijing may indeed proceed with punitive economic measures and there is no doubt that it would hit Taiwan’s economy hard. Yet, economic sanctions have a rather poor track record of achieving their objectives (e.g. U.S. sanctions against Cuba) and Taiwan is not in the same situation as Iran or North Korea, rather it is big economy that is well integrated in the global trade network. Thus, isolating Taiwan economically and forcing it into submission would be harder than some assume. The military option deserves more detailed examination than it is possible here, however simplistic counts of tanks, planes and ships is not the best guidance. Instead, we should look more carefully into the complexities of executing an amphibious invasion, past failed and successful attempts to impose maritime blockades and past records of using air power (and missiles) in order to achieve political objectives. The record we would find is much less convincing than mere comparison of militaries on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Great powers, China included, may do what they want but they are not always successful in their efforts. In fact, failures are manifold: the Soviet Union could not hold control over its Central and East European satellites without occasional demonstrations of force and, eventually, even that was not enough to sustain Soviet empire, the U.S. failed to topple the Castro regime in Cuba despite the latter being in America’s ‘backyard’ nor was it was to prevail in the bloody Vietnam conflict. These are just some examples of great powers wanting but not getting. This is not to say that above arguments are groundless, but we ought to avoid embracing ‘inevitable’ scenarios. There has been enough said about why de jure Taiwan independence is off the table, however, the debate on inevitability of the unification lacks the same depth, becoming some sort of conventional wisdom. In other words, those who argue that unification is inevitable ought to make more serious effort to reconcile their hypothesis with available data.

The ultimate question is why would Beijing ever consider Taiwan independence as viable option? Mainly because potential benefits for Beijing are not intangible. It would only increase China’s regional and global image if Taiwan emerges as a fully independent state from the process that would involve negotiation between Beijing and Taipei where Beijing agrees to respect will of Taiwanese people. Naturally, opponents would argue that such process would only trigger secessionist tendencies in Tibet and Xinjiang and admittedly that is a risk. However, counter-argument to that is that reconciliation across the Taiwan Strait would provide better leverage for Chinese central government to find workable solution for its restive regions. Taiwan’s case notwithstanding, the recent development in Tibet and Xinjiang obligates Beijing to search for more reconciliatory solutions if it wants to avoid large-scale insurgency and ultimate radicalization of its ethnic minorities.

There is another compelling argument for the PRC. Time is not on Beijing’s side, time is uncompromising and it won’t take long before there will be no living soul remembering the Nationalists’ exodus to Taiwan. The bond between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan, so emphasized by proponents of unification, is an idea that is increasingly awkward for younger generations in Taiwan. Moreover, the argument that China cannot achieve greatness without Taiwan being a firm part of it is false. China is already one of the most important players globally and it did not need Taiwan to achieve that. Is not it the right time for Chinese citizens to ask why they need Taiwan so much?

After all, the only option left might be bloody war in the Taiwan Strait, likely with the U.S. intervention. Arguably, China’s leaders might be willing to sacrifice the lives of thousands of soldiers, taking away the only child from many families, and embark on killing ‘Taiwanese compatriots’ to pursue the dream of unification. However, risk-taking is not the same as risk-assessment and if the latter should prevail, Beijing will think twice before taking such a decision. Naturally, coming to terms with the possible independence of Taiwan will require more than just policy change. Change of mindset is required and this would be difficult to achieve under current circumstances. In the meantime, to disregard the option of Taiwan’s independence is to disregard undercurrents that silently but steadily work in the favour of such direction. What will Beijing do if the only option left is destructive war with potential to reverse all the achievements of past decades? Having a plan B seems to be right thing to do. We do not know if Chinese leaders have such plan or not, but if the latter is true, they should definitely adopt one.

Michal Thim is a PhD student in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham and a Research Fellow at the Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs. He also owns the blog Taiwan in Perspective and tweets @michalthim


  1. This is an interesting argument. However, it could be said that Beijing has invested so much in its stance on Taiwan that it has boxed itself into a corner. A change in mindset/ policy would be hard to sell to a generation that has been brought up with patriotic education (none of these kids can remember 1949). Having said that, elites the world over always have plan Bs and secret agendas. Who knows? The parallels with the Soviet Union are interesting: letting Taiwan go might make the US firmer in its acceptance of Chinese sovereignty over Xinjiang and Tibet since it has stuck to this position with Russia in its struggles to maintain sovereignty over Chechnya and Dagestan.

    1. Martin, thank you for your comment. I absolutely agree that China boxed itself in the corner on this issue…and not only this one, the same applies to South/East China Sea when Beijing uses words like non-negotiable and indisputable in the situation where Chinese claim is arguably very weak from legal point of view. But politicians ought to have plan B, Chinese politicians are no exemption from that.

      p.s.: sorry for late reaction

  2. Taiwanese from my view are on the surface present this foreigner friendly attitude.

    You see they would never have riots that lead to violence like the riots not so long ago in England. Their demonstrations against the government are almost like tea parties compared to the student demonstrations that occurred here when the price of student fees were proposed.

    They are afraid of losing out and getting swamped by hordes of Main Land Chinese moving in on their tiny tiny island, 7/8 of which is mountain so everyone lives on the edge of the island. I think we Brits also have this fear with large numbers of immigrants coming into Britain. So I can relate to them for sure.

    Having lived in Taiwan for over 17 yrs I always stood on the side of Taiwan and supported its independence. I was a “Zai Nan” 宅男 and always found it difficult to mix with Taiwanese so I dont pretend to know much about Taiwan or the so called Taiwanese and my views probably seen as stupid and puerile, nevertheless I would like to share with you.

    As I said I have always supported Taiwan’s independence that is until recently though. Now I think in reality there is no other option than for it to get closer and closer to China and start dropping the idea of it being independent. I was in Shanghai a few years ago and asked one local young guy about his thoughts on Taiwan and China and he replied Taiwan is too small to even be a country never mind being independent and I would have to agree. It is the one factor about living in Taiwan that I could never get used to. But besides the lack of space, roughly 13 times smaller than Britain, economically it needs to befriend China and the fears of losing control over this tiny island will just have to be faced.

    My own personal view is that the so called Taiwanese on the island of Taiwan are not even Taiwanese and are Mainlanders as they are really descendants of those Main Landers that ran away from China during the civil war. If anyone can be called Taiwanese it is the local aboriginal tribes that speak Taiwanese and mainly live in the mountainous areas and love to dance and drink.

    I see the situation a little like Australia, the Brits took over and claimed it for themselves. The Brits do not belong to Australia and are not Australians. But in the case of Taiwan the island has belonged to China from the 17th Century and is right next to China. So using common sense Taiwan would belong to China barring a few short changes along the way so contradicting my own argument here really even the aboriginals in some way belong to China only due to is long history. Brits never own or even knew about Australia centuries ago.

    At the end of the day as can be seen the more powerful side gets the land. The Maldives do not belong to Britain but because we are stronger we ended up with the islands. Australia the same sadly.

    Now who do you think looking at the history and who is the stronger side does Taiwan belong to? Infact the whole argument is ridiculous as even the Han Chinese that now live on Taiwan are really Main Land Chinese due to their ancestors coming from their. Now I know the so called Taiwanese would argue otherwise saying they are very different but in my experience they is little difference between them. I spoke recently to one young, university student, that she didnt even see herself as independent or separate from China that is until recently with Chen Shui Bian shouting for independence.

    Really you can take the China man out of China but you cant take China out of the China man. Chinese/ Taiwanese say they are more polite and dont shout when standing next to you talking to you but these are irrelevant shallow differences at the end of the day. They are Chinese and will gladly cheat you, trick you and lie to your face for money or to get what they want. They might not spit on the street but they in my view are very much Main Land Chinese that ran away from the Main Land to this tiny island Taiwan during the civil war, 1949.

    So should Taiwan have an independence plan I think the question is a joke. The Main Land can take Taiwan at any point and is only trying to do it peacefully and diplomatically and the Taiwanese are slowly realising that they need China economically. Ma Ying Jiou is admirably creating closer ties and making it easier for business and movement to happen between the two.

    I can understand their fear and Taiwan is an island of fear, why did they run away from China for fear of being killing and this fear I feel runs like an under current in the people whenever I tried to connect or deal with Taiwanese. Taiwanese are a polite lot but cautious, shy people. I have never met a nation of people that constantly promotes themselves as being friendly to foreigners but it is only a shallow, social grace. Yes nice but nothing more. Rather like the Japanese and their politeness. Remember also that the Chinese here in Taiwan have never managed to beat any of their invaders. So of course they wont have much outgoing nature or directness, backbone and will be fearful and wary of foreigners. I feel their fear as even though they keep on saying they are friendly towards foreigners there is a deeper underlying sense of not really being genuine and not wanting to connect.

    But they are clever for making money that I will say. For such a small island they are finding ways to keep their head above water. But with China advancing and improving in so many ways and so rapidly I would say that Taiwan is a sinking ship and the tide of the mainland is rising too quickly for them not to ease their stance on independence. It will hurt their egos for sure but there is no other way.

    As for Beijing being in a corner, as Martin Boyle says, I think that is completely the wrong thinking. From China’s side Taiwan belongs to China no argument, no discussion. It is not a matter of cornering itself or changing its view. Following Martin’s kind of argument it could be likened to suddenly saying your own right hand does not really belong to you !! It would be madness and highly illogical captain !!

    Beijing will never change it view. It has taken Tibet and is slowly destroying its culture stupidly as if it kept Tibet a left their people to themselves their culture would stay intact and would make great tourism in the future. But the way it has and is handling the Tibetans it is making a big mistake. As for Taiwan I never saw much culture except for the Bin Lan girls and pearl milk tea so I think China taking Taiwan would actually be a good thing.

    1. Jon, everyone has the right to claim its identity, so if Taiwanese think of themselves as Taiwanese, it is in my view disrespectful to call them ‘so called Taiwanese’. Whether their ancestors centuries ago lived in China, it really does not matter much. I am Czech, my ancestors could be German/Germanic, Slavic or even Celtic…so according to you, who am I? I believe I have the right to choose for myself, and so do the people living in Taiwan.

      1. Hi Michal. Great to hear your view. For the point on the “so called Taiwanese” I meant that they are really Chinese, as in from Mainland China. I was trying to get the Mainland’s view across .

        The percentage of Mainlanders that makes up the population in Taiwan is irrelevant really. China wants it all. I was only trying to express the view of the Chinese government. They want it all. Aboriginals, Chinese that moved over, everyone. They see it as theirs. I can take the view of the Taiwanese also and start shouting independence.

        China would never give up on claiming the island or backing down in some way and they certainly don’t see it as having boxed themselves in.

        If Taiwan is reclaimed then fine. At the end of the day I don’t really care what they are called or who “owns Taiwan” even that idea is ridiculous. My few Taiwanese friends there will still be my friends whether you call them this or that, or if the island becomes part of China.

        I think at the end of the day what you call yourself is not so important but what you do in your life. You can call yourself a priest but if you go and abuse little boys then it doesn’t really mean much.

        I think the best they could wish for is to have some form of independence and also that they don’t get swamped by Mainlanders. As for Tibet/ QingHai area this is too late. China has ruined and is ruining these areas. Slowly breaking down their way of living.

        If you see the name “so called Taiwanese” as disrespectful then that is great ! Should be like that. But I think that is how the Mainlanders see Taiwanese and China’s government sees Taiwanese.

        I think the attitude of China towards the Chinese on Taiwan is the most important issue , if the Chinese government could loosen its desire on having total control then that would be best. Chance of that happening,,??

        Anyway the Chinese government will not let go, budge in anyway. The point made to me that Taiwan is too small to be a country of course is not a valid argument and comparing it to the Vatican City ( the smallest country in the world) it would seem huge.

        I think there is a bit of misunderstanding here. The Mainland guy who said to me its too small to be a country I thought was reacting emotionally to me bringing up the discussion of Taiwan. I totally agree with you theoretically any bit of land can be named as a country.

        Ultimately all these names cause prisons. Changing one prison’s name to another or making one prison join another is not freedom. We first create the prison and then we must have passports to go from one prison to another.

        Humanity runs on fear, greed and the “them and us” outlook. There is no acceptance or trust where a different way could be allowed by the Chinese government. Infact the more they try to get a tighter grip on everything the worse they make it.

        They have ruined the Tibetan culture and made the Tibetan’s lives miserable I truly hope this doesn’t happen to Taiwan, not that they have much of a culture. I hope as Andy does, and I think yourself, that in some way Taiwan can be given much more freedom but “officially” be owned by the Mainland. Officially owned as they will have to feel some kind of satisfaction in some way – They got what they think is theirs.

    2. few more points, Jon

      you say ” was in Shanghai a few years ago and asked one local young guy about his thoughts on Taiwan and China and he replied Taiwan is too small to even be a country never mind being independent and I would have to agree.”

      with all due respect, this is clearly nonsensical argument. Area-wise, Taiwan is 136th and that means there are plenty other states smaller than Taiwan, including Belgium, Israel, Jamaica or Slovenia. Population-wise, Taiwan is 50th most populous state. It is also approximately 20th biggest World’s economy.

      “My own personal view is that the so called Taiwanese on the island of Taiwan are not even Taiwanese and are Mainlanders as they are really descendants of those Main Landers that ran away from China during the civil war. If anyone can be called Taiwanese it is the local aboriginal tribes that speak Taiwanese and mainly live in the mountainous areas and love to dance and drink.”

      Are yo aware that Mainlanders that came to Taiwan make less than 15% of the current population? I have difficulties to understand your claim here, really. Aboriginals can indeed be called Taiwanese as they are the original poplation but they certainly do not speak Taiwanese (Hoklo) bt each tribe speak its own separate language.

      1. I’m strongly agree with you. Everyone has his right to claim his identity. I’m a Taiwanese and part of my ancestors came from China but does it mean I’m Chinese? Absolutely not! Think about USA. Their ancestors mainly came from UK but they still are recognised as American rather than British. By the way, according to a http://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E6%9E%97%E5%AA%BD%E5%88%A9etic research

        genetic research, Han Taiwanese are actually mixed with Taiwanese plain aboriginal gene so we are quite different from Chinese even with we were educated to be a Chinese when Qing ruled Taiwan.

  3. Taiwanese culture is better than those in China and the failure of Hongkong autonomy showcase shows that unification is a deadly way. Taiwan was a Japanese colony under USA military occupation but occupied by the run-away ROC. I wholeheartedly wish Taiwan could b an independent state and not to go the same way as Hongkong did.

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