Is Independence Always the Answer?

Unification with China will end political oppression in Taiwan and ultimately project democracy in the region.

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President Xi Jinping delivered a speech proposing a comprehensive plan for Taiwan’s integration into China on January 2. He warns that “Taiwanese independence is a dead end” and that he would be willing to “fight the bloody battle against [his] enemies” so that “not a single inch of [China’s] land” would be lost. Most news outlets responded to President Xi Jinping’s speech by accusing him of eroding democracy. Supporting calls for independence in supposedly oppressed countries have become instinctual for Americans. Promoting global liberty and democratic values has become so synonymous with the words “freedom” and “independence” that Americans often lend their support to seemingly democratic movements without considering their adverse effects. But the truth is that Taiwan’s unification with China upholds American values of democracy and preserves the stability of the international order.

Taiwan, home to nearly 23 million people, is an island off the coast of China. It has been run, for the most part, independently since 1949 and operates under a democratic government which is supported by most western nations. However, political tension between Taiwan and China is on the rise as Taiwan’s sovereignty continues to be a point of contention. President Xi Jinping even threatens to eventually annex Taiwan if its government continues to oppose unification. According to a report by the Pentagon, “Beijing’s longstanding interest to eventually compel Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland has served as the primary driver for China’s military modernization. Beijing’s anticipation that foreign forces would intervene in a Taiwan scenario led them to develop a range of systems to deter and deny foreign regional force projection.” The report details that China has continued to increase its military capabilities, including the development of “advanced fighter aircraft, ships, missile systems, and space and cyberspace capabilities,” which threaten both Taiwan and any other country that would intervene. According to the Washington Post, Taiwan has, in turn, responded with large scale military drills of its own.

It seems that conflict is inevitable, especially if the U.S. were to intervene to support Taiwanese independence. Over the past year, U.S.-China tensions have become increasingly frayed on the military and economic fronts. President Trump’s administration has imposed tariff increases of up to 25 percent on $250 billion of Chinese imports over complaints that Beijing steals or pressures companies to hand over technological property. President Xi Jinping has responded by imposing penalties on $110 billion of American goods—right now, the U.S. and China are in a trade war. Last year’s release of the U.S. National Defense Strategy only reinforces this narrative of deteriorating relations by emphasizing the importance of competition with China. According to American military analysts, China’s rapidly expanding armed forces and increasing international aggression threaten America’s military advantage around the world.

The truth of the matter is China poses no threat to Taiwan’s democracy. What people usually ignore is Beijing’s commitment to a “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement. President Xi Jinping’s speech promises that such a governmental system would respect Taiwanese people's "private assets, religions, beliefs, and legitimate rights.” What this means is that while Taiwan will be a part of China, it will retain its governmental organization and democracy. The issue of trusting China to carry this out isn’t as urgent as many may think—understand that with U.S. support, making sure that democracy is preserved wouldn’t be difficult. If China fails to do so, the U.S. can continue to back the Taiwanese separatists in order to preserve democracy. In either case, democracy will remain a priority—unification offers the bonus of avoiding trading issues with China as well as multilateral conflict.

Right now, the Chinese press is state-sponsored and heavily anti-democratic; the political repression in Taiwan leads to massive protest and political unrest. Agreeing to the “One Country, Two Systems” may be the only way of alleviating that. If anything, the incorporation of democracy in China will be the true fulfillment of the idea that Taiwan is the United States’ “beacon of democracy” and will ultimately do just that: project democracy. Taiwan held its local elections on November 24, and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of President Tsai Ing-wen lost a number of seats while the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) received an uptick in votes and seats at multiple levels of government. According to analysts in the Brookings Institute as well as the Washington Post, “it should serve as a reminder to folks on the mainland that their worst fears about Taiwan being a very progressive and kind of anti-China electorate are not justified.” Most importantly, Taiwan’s elections demonstrate a robust and stable multiparty democracy. The results show both flexibility as well as durability. When considering unification with mainland China, we can rely on the strong democratic sentiment of the Taiwanese people as well as their flexibility in regards to more conservative views.

In addition, the current political environment restricts Taiwan from any major participation in international affairs. After participating for eight straight years in the annual World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva, Taiwan has suddenly been left out. In a recent event, in fact, which occurred at the recent opening ceremony of the Kimberley Process Conference in Perth, Australia, a Chinese delegation seized the microphone and loudly protested the presence of a Taiwanese delegation in the room. Despite protests from Australian officials, the Taiwanese delegation was still forced to leave the conference. This is a direct result of the “One China” policy. Despite the presence of two governments—the People's Republic of China (mainland China) and the Republic of China (Taiwan)—neither is willing to say that there are two Chinas. Both parties forbid the international community from referring to the country as a singular country despite housing two different governments and essentially autonomous states. As a result, the international community is forced to choose one of the two parties. Since 1972, when the United Nations seated the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the government representing China, Taiwan’s participation was dampened. For 48 years, Taiwan has been excluded from all UN affairs.

The Brooking Institute finds that the unification of the two countries, especially under the One China Two Systems proposal, is the only way that Taiwan can reassert itself into international affairs. After all, it's because of Taiwan's push for independence that its recognition was restricted in the first place. The Brookings Institute outlines that the proposal of “One Country, Two Systems” was aimed toward Chinese leaders’ Taiwanese counterparts, leaders of the Nationalist Kuomintang party—the party that is now most prevalent in Taiwan as of the November election. They were Chinese nationalists who actually favored ultimate unification and had moved to the island in 1949. However, this unification would come by their own terms, with those terms being a commitment to democracy. China’s proposal of “One Country, Two Systems” was designed to meet these terms. Following unification, China’s complete exclusion of Taiwan from international affairs would no longer be necessary given that the exclusion itself was based on the principle that only one China could be represented despite there being two Chinas. A unified China is the only avenue through which the Republic of China (Taiwan) can be heard internationally. On the other hand, the result of an overt push for political and legal independence will be immediate military conflict followed by continued Chinese aggression and political turmoil around the world.

The importance of Taiwanese incorporation into China is indisputable. Unification with China will end the political and military oppression of the people of Taiwan, open it up to participation in international affairs, and ultimately project democratic values across the world.