The Cold War is long over, yet the world still feels many of its repercussions. Two states in Asia remain divided: China and Korea. While both North Korea and South Korea still evince some intention of reunification, the cross-strait relationship between China and Taiwan is drastically different. Rather than unification, the alternative of remaining separate has become the dominant policy in Taiwan.
Since the 1970s, the cross-straits relationship has swung drastically in China’s favor. Not only has the Chinese economy boomed since the opening of its markets, but the United States has started to abandon Taiwan militarily as well. Now inferior in both economic and military strength, Taiwan can only hope for continued de-facto independence. At present, the hopes for remaining separate are dwindling. With China gaining prominence in Asia and the global stage, Taiwan may not have a choice in the matter.
Cultural differences present the greatest challenge to the Chinese assimilation of Taiwan. The distinctiveness of Taiwanese culture has already become quite evident since the Kuomintang escaped to the island decades ago. During his presidency, Chen Shui-bian argued frequently that the Taiwanese culture had evolved to be ethnically different and that, in consequence, Taiwan deserves independence. While this argument is unlikely to hold in China at the present, as time passes, it will inevitably become reality.
However, the current Chinese strategy almost completely ignores this barrier. China is preparing Taiwanese society for assimilation.
Economically, the Chinese are promoting an increase in Taiwanese investment and trade. By offering a profitable economic future, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is luring Taiwanese businessmen and entrepreneurs to the mainland. This has led to integration of some Taiwanese into Chinese society. Not only does this change the Chinese perception of Taiwan, but it also affects the Taiwanese perception of China. Opening the two societies to each other makes reunification easier and the Chinese hope to eventually reach a point where unification is smooth for both sides.
Economic leverage on politics is also powerful. The strength of Chinese influence and intervention in Taiwanese politics increases substantially from this economic integration. While it is possible for the reverse to happen, where Taiwanese influence is exerted on the Chinese political apparatus, the fact that China has a fairly closed, one-party government makes this rather unlikely. On the contrary, the Taiwanese government is much more prone to lobbying, and, as a result, can be subject to more leverage from mainland China. This completely lopsided trade relationship can, and likely will, be used to China’s favor.
Yet despite the potential political and economic connections, the social differences between China and Taiwan may simply be too drastic to reconcile. Taiwan’s democratic way of government is something that the Taiwanese people hold on to rather dearly. It is high unlikely, if not impossible, for the Taiwanese to give that up, even in the event of an all-out military conflict. The Chinese solution to this problem may be one that is not a new concept in the country and would call for a “one state, two systems” approach. Currently in the PRC, both Hong Kong and Macau are Special Administrative Regions with local rule, differing judicial systems, and influential local governments. Inner Mongolia goes further as an autonomous region of China granted a greater degree of self-rule. This “two systems” doctrine has fallen out of favor in Taiwan recently due to opposition of its current implementation in China, but also represents a potential path to unification.
All this begs the question of what would occur if Taiwan were to refuse China’s call for unification. Many Taiwanese believe that their rejection of reunification, by a possible declaration of independence, would trigger Chinese military aggression across the Taiwan Strait. The military hostility between both countries is not new. Throughout the conflict, Taiwan has relied on its own military, as well as that of the United States, as a deterrent to Chinese aggression. On the other hand, China has used its military might to ward off any declarations of independence on the part of Taiwan. This impasse has changed as of late since the current pact between the United States and Taiwan does not commit the United States to defend Taiwan. One would assume that in the event of military aggression, the United States would hesitate to entering a military conflict with a fellow nuclear power. Recent technological investments in the Chinese military only heighten the stakes of the conflict and make Taiwanese-Mainland reunification a certainty in China, with the only uncertainty being the question of whether military conflict will prove necessary to the realization of this goal.
If China continues to push for unification, unification will most likely occur. Taiwanese resistance is weak without foreign assistance and Taiwan is overpowered economically and militarily. Foreign intervention is fickle and varies with each US administration, public support, and other international factors, thus making both US intervention and Taiwanese independence highly unlikely.