Is Peaceful Reunification Possible?

In 2020, the prospects for peaceful unification of mainland China and Taiwan seemed unlikely, barring some fundamental change in the overall environment determining future relations between China and Taiwan. There are several factors contributing to this assessment.

First, the governments of the PRC and Taiwan have policies on unification which are polar opposites to each other. The PRC considers Taiwan’s rejoining the motherland of mainland China to be an historical necessity about which there can be no compromise. Taiwan is leaning increasingly in the direction of de facto if not de jure independence from China on a permanent basis. The KMT on Taiwan used to be a voice arguing for the possibility of one China, but the KMT is but a shell of its former self as ruling party and appears to be losing all influence on the reunification issue. Political forces in Beijing are gravitating towards a less patient approach to China’s unification, and the PRC is constructing sufficient military and security capabilities to back up its more aggressive stand on compliance to Beijing’s political authority over autonomous regions such as Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Second, it is well known that Taiwan cannot defend itself against an attack from China, because of the immense differences in the quantity and — in some cases — qualitative superiority of the PLA over Taiwan’s armed forces. This makes Taiwan’s dependence on U.S. intervention even more essential. However, American forces, while overall superior to China’s, are facing increasingly more difficult challenges in overwhelming determined PRC aggression in the more restricted water, air, and ground space defining the operational environment of Taiwan. This means that Taiwan’s defense may depend only on an expanded major war between the U.S. and the PRC, something that entails huge costs to both the American and Chinese sides. This cost acts as a mutual deterrent on Washington and Beijing and begs the question as to which side values Taiwan more. I would argue that Taiwan is more important to China than to the U.S., although there are larger geopolitical and geostrategic considerations that make this calculation highly speculative at this point.

Third, the ideological element of conflicting interests between the U.S. and China over Taiwan is always a wild card. The future of Taiwan is clearly a point of conflict between freedom and excessive governmental control, between democracy and authoritarianism. Depending upon who is the leader in Washington and Beijing at the time of crisis, he or she may be more or less inclined to support and defend the ideological principles upon which their government and society are based. The military balance, definitions of national interests, and risk tolerance are perhaps the most critical factors in determining U.S. and PRC response to a cross-Strait crisis; however, the ideological factor could tip the policy decision in one direction or another in terms of how hard the respective governments are willing to press the issue.

Fourth, the national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing in mid-2020 effectively nullifies much of the one-country, two-systems model China had developed to enable territories such as Taiwan and Hong Kong to preserve most of their autonomy from the PRC’s socialist system. Beijing took this action largely in response to protests in Hong Kong over political controls being imposed by China on Hong Kong, which were seen as restricting too much of Hong Kong’s freedom and autonomy. This action demonstrates the priority Beijing places on political control over its citizens, most especially denying free speech and assembly supporting greater democratization. There is almost certain probability that a similar national security law will be imposed on Taiwan should it elect to join the mainland under a one-country, two-systems model, primarily because Taiwan’s territory and population are much larger than that of Hong Kong and the Taiwan people have tasted and clearly support freedom and democracy for their island. In other words, the moderate approach Beijing offered for its governance of Taiwan appears now to be a non-starter, or at least a proposal unlikely to be considered credible. This means that China’s and Taiwan’s options for unification are severely limited so that a peaceful resolution becomes more difficult to come by.