The potential hazards of a hostile occupation—Taiwanese protesters dying under PLA fire, freedom fighters waging guerrilla campaigns from house to house, and the international backlash that these images would set off—would very likely restrain Beijing from moving its threats beyond words. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) derided the foreign adventurism that landed the U.S. in Iraq, gleefully denoting the event as a milestone on America’s decline. It is unlikely to risk its own quagmire, especially while development and stability at home remains fragile.
A strong Taiwanese identity thus allows the country’s leadership to call China’s bluff. It is an electoral leaven—an insurance policy, if you will—against China’s inevitable military and economic dominance, one that will also strengthen Taiwan’s hand at the bargaining table. Political scientist Robert Putnam famously argued states involved in international negotiations play a “two-level game,” whereby they must simultaneously negotiate with international partners and domestic constituencies. Here democratically elected leaders have the notable advantage of being able to use domestic constraints to extract international concessions. That is, they can creditably claim at the negotiation table that “their hands are tied”—and have poll data to back it up—helping them win concessions where they otherwise could not. A fickle electorate, like an independent-minded Taiwanese public, thus can yield important benefits.
To be sure, a few textbook revisions and an ode to the Yellow Emperor will not reverse the Taiwanese public’s already strong sense of nationhood. But the KMT’s effort to chip away at Taiwan’s vibrant independent identity is much like throwing away your best cards.
Of course the KMT is not acting according to strategic sensibility, rather it is acting out of political paranoia. For it rightfully fears that its ability to mobilize the electorate towards its pro-business agenda of rapprochement through economic and trade cooperation is quickly slipping away. Indeed, President Ma Ying-jeou, whose approval rating lingers in the single-digits these day, is reeling from voter backlash over signature cross-straight engagement from his first term and stalled progress on future plans. One recent surveyindicates more than half of the public feels recent bilateral agreements with the mainland are unequally benefiting China.
The economic woes that have accumulated over the years—stagnant unemployment and rising income inequality—are surely fueling voters’ ire, but at its core is a signal distrust of relinquishing the type of agency that allows a country to determine its future. Sixty years as an independent polity has had the predictable effect of creating an independent sense of shared destiny. Soon nearly all of the Taiwanese public will have been born on the island, and with the exception of Taiwanese businessmen who shuttle to and fro none will share an immediate connections to the mainland. This is the natural trajectory of most overseas settler colonies—a lineage that includes the United States during the 18th century and the Latin American republics during the 19th, and of which Taiwan is merely a peculiar 21st century case.
Without reinventing itself, the KMT’s only option is to contrive and propagate to the public a renewed sense of common belonging with the mainland. It will not likely succeed—though it may very well drone the public into submission. Unlike previous breakaway republics, Taiwan’s former imperial homeland looms near and will powerfully shape Taiwan’s future by sheer force of its size. How Taiwan manages relations with the mainland will be central to the island’s future. The KMT’s strategy of priming the population for reintegration is one approach. But if the KMT does succeed in neutralizing the island’s independent spirit, it will also surrender Taiwan’s most valuable bargaining chip.
Lorand C. Laskai is a freelance writer and recent graduate of Swarthmore College. He lives in Tainan, Taiwan. READ MORE at The Diplomat