My Say: Beijing must rethink its ideas of nation, state and sovereignty

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 10, 2017 - April 16, 2017.
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Until now, it is often said that Taiwan faces a China dilemma. Posited as the weaker party, Taiwan, it has been claimed, confronts a dilemma in dealing with mainland China, which had the upper hand in the relationship. This column argues that increasingly, it will be China and not Taiwan that will face a dilemma.

Taiwan’s China dilemma is rooted in the belief that its economic well-being is intricately tied to the mainland and that declaring independence would provoke the use of force by Beijing that could compromise the de facto independence the island enjoys. Declaring independence is thus considered a dangerous option. Both Taipei and Beijing believe this to be the case, leading to a strong preference for the status quo in Taiwan.

Assuming time is on its side, Beijing hopes economic interdependence and emotional attachment will eventually help unify and integrate Taiwan with the mainland. Although Beijing has blown hot and cold over the idea of military conquest, the use of military force remains a key element of its Taiwan policy. It is unsustainable in the long run. The worm is about to turn. Increasingly, it will be Beijing and not Taipei that will face a dilemma.

China will eventually have to accept Taiwan as a separate nation and state with which it may share some affinities. For this to happen in a peaceful manner, Chinese ideas and thinking about nation, state and sovereignty will have to undergo a change. Beijing will have to move away from the notion of one Chinese nation-state and accept that there can be more than one.

Failure to move in this direction will bring about violent change to the Chinese nation and state as it is presently constructed.


Key elements of Beijing’s Taiwan policy

Growing economic interdependence, threats to use military force and the “one country, two systems” principle are key elements in Beijing’s Taiwan policy. It assumes that growing economic interdependence will minimise cross-strait political tensions, providing Beijing with time, and eventually help integrate Taiwan. This has not been the case.

Growing economic interdependence has temporarily ameliorated political tensions across the Taiwan Strait, but it has not dampened Taiwanese aspirations for nationhood and sovereignty. On the contrary, closer economic interaction has created resentment of the mainland in Taiwan and strengthened Taiwanese aspirations.

Even the pro-mainland former president, Ma Ying-Jeou, was unable to move towards closer political dialogue with Beijing. A growing sense of a separate Taiwanese identity and a thriving democracy have set clear markers beyond which politicians of any colour dare not tread. Ma’s pro-mainland sentiments became a liability in the recent presidential election.

Further, growing economic interdependence has created apprehensions of dependence in Taiwan. Taipei is thus seeking to diversify its international economic relations. The slowdown in the mainland Chinese economy will also weaken the economic pillar of ­China’s Taiwan policy.

Likewise, the threat of military force to achieve unification is becoming an unsustainable pillar of Beijing’s Taiwan policy. It was, and is still, presumed that the threat of military force will deter Taiwanese leaders from declaring independence. That may have worked until now. However, China’s use of force carries great international and domestic risks. The use of force in its international interaction has become very high cost, with negative consequences for its international leadership aspirations, and will undermine its leadership role, especially if its efforts are unsuccessful.

Beijing cannot be certain that the use of military force against Taiwan will be successful in the light of implicit US support for Taipei. Washington cannot easily abandon Taiwan. In any case, even without US military support, Taiwan may be able to resist China. It should be noted here that the role of force in international politics is changing. It now favours defence and deterrence rather than conquest. Inconclusiveness, and worse, failure on the part of China in any military adventure in Taiwan would undermine the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This is not a risk that Beijing will take lightly.


Inadequacy of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle

If closer economic interaction and use of force are no longer tenable key elements of China’s Taiwan policy, then peaceful resolution is inevitable. However, Beijing has made peaceful resolution difficult by sticking to the “one country, two systems” principle, made worse by its heavy-handed interpretation and practice of it.

Though that principle may have been attractive in resolving the Hong Kong and Macau issues several decades ago, Beijing’s heavy-handed interpretation is now alienating democrats in Hong Kong and creating fear in Taiwan. It may also sow the seeds of animosity that could lead to the separation of Hong Kong from the mainland.

The “one country, two systems” principle is defective in dealing with the Taiwan conflict. It assumes there is only one Chinese nation (one country) and that there can only be one sovereign Chinese state. The “two systems” component falls short of accepting there can be more than one sovereign Chinese state. Hence, it is unable to cope with demands beyond autonomy.

Further, Beijing is only willing to consider the autonomy option for entities that are outside mainland China. Emphasising a unitary state conception and monopoly of power by the CCP, Beijing is unwilling to consider autonomy demands from the Tibetans, Uighurs and Mongols. It is treating such autonomy demands as a matter of security and resorting to the liberal use of force in dealing with these groups.

For Beijing to resolve the Taiwan conflict in a peaceful manner, it has to change its ideas about nation and state-making as well as sovereignty. It has to accept that there can be more than one Chinese nation and state. That approach will allow Beijing to accept Taiwan as a separate nation and sovereign state with which it shares some cultural affinities that may facilitate closer interaction.

This is not new in international politics. For example, despite their close connections to the Soviet Union, ­Belarus and Ukraine were nominally independent states. Along with the Soviet Union, they became founding members of the United Nations.

Failure to rethink the concept of nation, state and sovereignty on the part of Beijing will prolong the conflict with Taiwan and create a dilemma for Beijing. The key elements of its Taiwan policy will not be able to deliver on Beijing’s core objective of the unification of Taiwan with the mainland. It could also lead to militant struggles and violent fragmentation of China.

It should be clear that time no longer favours Beijing. The continued existence of Taiwan as a separate entity and a thriving democracy on the island, along with a growing sense of nationhood, will increase its chances of gaining international recognition as a sovereign state. Growing nationalism in China may require quick action on the part of Beijing but its present policy tools are not up to that task, creating a dilemma for that country.


Datuk Muthiah Alagappa is visiting professor at the Asia-Europe Institute of Universiti Malaya. He is also Distinguished Scholar in Residence at American University and a non-resident Senior Associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, both in Washington, DC.