China and Taiwan in 2030: Conflict not Inevitable

Originally published: 12 October 2009

Prediction is an inherently hazardous business but by virtue of the fact that history is so often key to understanding China and its actions, prediction is also perhaps a lot easier in the case of matters related to China.

The China-Taiwan issue at its very basic, is still a matter between two sets of Chinese, an ‘internal’ affair. This is all the more true with the return of the Guomindang (KMT) to power in Taiwan in 2008. However, the eight-year rule of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) before that did reflect the reality that certain new aspirations had emerged among the people of Taiwan. Indeed, the KMT has itself been transformed by such aspirations and can no longer talk glibly about ‘reunification.’ That said however, the overwhelming majority of Taiwanese also do not want to engage in a military conflict with China over the issue. This too, the KMT understands, and it is the acknowledgement of these twin realities that brought the KMT back to power – Taiwan is different from China but Taiwan is also closely linked to and dependant on China. There is evidence that the DPP, too, is beginning to understand the need to acknowledge the latter fact. As the island’s two major political formations veer around to occupying the same centre on relations with China, the possibility of conflict – with causes originating in Taiwan – is reduced and the matter becomes essentially a political one. Meanwhile, given its rise in the international system and the consequent expectations of it in the world order, China too, is unlikely to engage in armed action, even if it is unwilling to discount the possibility in official statements.

As a political issue, the Sino-Taiwanese question takes on a different pace. Both Beijing and Taipei, have the opportunity to discuss each issue at length, to look for breakthroughs where possible, and to postpone resolution or prolong discussions on contentious issues. Both sides can avoid resorting to armed conflict and each side can believe that the situation might turn to its advantage over time.

This waiting game is, however, premised differently for each of the parties involved. For China, the belief is that it is too big and too crucial to Taiwan’s fortunes, for the latter to ignore it. Taiwan must eventually come around to rejoining the ‘motherland,’ given the size of its economy, armed forces and population and the steady loss of its diplomatic allies. From Taiwan’s perspective, it is not as if these realities were not evident before, but the waiting game has suited the island just as much and can only further improve the terms of ‘reunification’ – if that is indeed, the future. As far as the Taiwanese are concerned, communist China has certainly ‘progressed’ from its original avatar in 1949, to the extent that today the economic systems of the two entities are increasingly in sync with each other. It only remains for China to move into greater political sync with Taiwan, and of this too, there is increasing evidence, as communist China tries to separate the functions of the Party from those of the state and to increase accountability and transparency within the political system by resort to the rule of law, rather than to rule by diktat.

The military/security complications that arise from the China-Taiwan question may have international repercussions, but this aspect while at the forefront of Western understandings of the dispute, is by no means considered central by the affected parties themselves. In other words and to put it bluntly, the possibility of war or armed conflict of any kind between China and Taiwan in the future can be ruled out because that is not what either party desires. Even if American arms sales to Taiwan were to carry on and Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan were to increase in number, these are essentially tactics to improve the respective bargaining positions at the negotiating table.

This does not however, rule out the possibility of conflict arising out of a mistake or because one side overplays its hand. An accidental conflict is always possible simply because of the huge numbers of weaponry involved or lack of proper oversight but this is true of countries anywhere in the world that are in a state of cold peace. If anything, the fact that the two sides are talking to each other, only reduces the chances of such accidental conflict.

There is also the possibility of one side overplaying its hand because of a political miscalculation or overt external influence. In the case of Taiwan, it is unlikely that it could overplay its hand, knowing full well that it does not have the capacity to outlast China in a military conflict. One possibility is that Taipei is egged on by the United States or possibly even Japan, and that it believes it can rely on sustained support from these external actors. However, this is an extremely unlikely scenario.

From the Chinese point of view, meanwhile, its growing military prowess and a rising nationalist tone in its politics could move it in the direction of precipitate action vis-à-vis Taiwan. This action could conceivably originate at the level of the political leadership but is more likely to originate from the Chinese military itself. The evolution of the nature and influence of the PLA in the Chinese political system, therefore, bears close watching for the future.

Meanwhile, ‘reunification’ or some similar future reality is very likely, even if it might not come to fruition by 2030. However, ‘reunification’ in the future, might not necessarily mean the same thing as it does today. Certainly, it will not hold as much fear for the Taiwanese as it once did, if China continues down its present path of greater economic liberalization and if the signs are to be believed that political reforms and opening up of some sort on the mainland too, are slowly but surely underway. In this understated Taiwanese confidence, also lies the way forward for the rest of the world to deal with China-Taiwan relations.

Original Article: “China and Taiwan in 2030: Conflict not Inevitable,” IDSA Opinion, Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (New Delhi) 12 October 2009.

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