game of chess, there's a concept called "forced mate." The term refers to one
side maneuvering its pieces to guarantee victory in a set number of moves,
regardless of what the opponent does.
11, representatives of the Chinese and Taiwanese government met in the mainland
Chinese city of Nanjing. Expected to produce few, if any breakthroughs, the
symbolism of the event is still great: It is their first
formal meeting in 65 years. Since the Nationalists fled to Taiwan at the
end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, Beijing has viewed the island as a
renegade province and has made its "reunification with the motherland" a
paramount objective. Tensions have occasionally flared: As recently as the
lobbed missiles into the strait between the mainland and Taiwan, Taiwanese
politicians threatened to declare independence, and the United States moved two
aircraft carrier groups into the region.
however, the link between mainland China and the self-governing entity of 23
million people just 110 miles off its eastern coast is warmer than it's ever
been, even as Taiwan continues to insist on its rights as a self-governing body.
So if China makes the right moves, and continues to successfully and peacefully
draw Taiwan into its orbit, can it create a "forced mate" situation?
been making Taipei an offer it can't refuse: a readily accessible market of 1.3
billion people. In arguably its greatest foreign policy success over the last
decade, Beijing has been taking a patient and long-term approach toward the
island, offering sweetheart economic deals and a reduction of military rhetoric
(though China still maintains an estimated 1,600 missiles aimed
across the strait) while isolating Taiwan internationally. The 2008 election in
Taiwan of Ma Ying-jeou, the head of the Kuomintang Party, helped: Ma's party
favors closer ties with China, unlike the opposition Democratic Progressive
Party (DPP), which ran Taiwan for the previous eight years.
took power, Beijing visibly softened toward Taiwan, authorizing a series of
economic deals that were favorable to the island, like the Economic Cooperation
Framework Agreement (ECFA), which reduced tariffs. "We can give up our profits
because Taiwanese compatriots are our brothers," said then-Premier Wen Jiabao. In
June 2008, the two sides agreed
to begin direct tourist flights, and, in December of that year, they started
direct shipping traffic and mail service. Some 2.85 million Chinese nationals visited
Taiwan in 2013, up 10 percent from the year before (more than double
the number coming from Japan, the second-largest source of visitors). And in
2013, bilateral trade reached
$197.2 billion, up nearly 100 percent from when Ma was elected. Bloomberg,
citing government statistics, reported
that, today, roughly 40 percent of Taiwan's exports head to China.
analysts now see this as the endgame. "Cross-strait interdependence has been an
irreversible process, at least in economic, social and cultural terms," notes Titus
C. Chen, an associate research fellow at the National Chengchi University in
Taipei. He adds, "The prospects of Taiwan can no longer be separated from those
of China." When asked about the chess analogy, June Teufel Dreyer, an expert on
China's international relations at the University of Miami, offered a different
one instead. "There's a type of insect that a horde of ants will attack. The
ants lay their eggs in the insect, and then eat it," Dreyer says. "That's what
happening with Taiwan."
Taiwan has become closer to China, it has also grown more isolated from the
rest of the world. Only 21 nations recognize
Taiwan, the largest of which is the poor African nation of Burkina Faso, which
has a population of 15 million. The Holy See recognizes Taiwan, but it's the
only European state to do so. (Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations and
in the World Health Organization as a "separate customs territory.") Taiwan
strives, and mostly fails, to attend international summits. In September 2013,
I received an e-mail from the U.S. Taiwan Economic and Cultural Representative
Office, Taiwan's embassy-like presence in Washington, crowing that Taiwan "has
been invited to attend the 38th session of the International Civil Aviation
Organization Assembly for the first time since losing its ICAO seat in 1971."
Washington, Taiwan's most important ally, has long
said it recognizes that there is only one China, and that it hopes Beijing and
Taipei can peacefully resolve their differences. "The administration is very supportive of improved cross-strait
relations," says a senior U.S. defense official, who asked to speak on
background. The United States has sold tens of billions
of dollars of arms to Taiwan over the last few decades, though the number has
dropped recently. "The United States makes available to Taiwan defense articles
and services necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense
capability," says Jeff Pool, a Pentagon spokesman. U.S. policy toward Taiwan is
often described as "strategic ambiguity" -- not stating if America will or will not defend Taiwan if China seizes it by force.
There is great strategic and symbolic value to the
United States maintaining its alliance with Taiwan. But the status of Taiwan
matters far less to Washington, and to Americans, than it does to Beijing and
the Chinese. "There's
the Inevitability Theory," says Mark Stokes, the executive director of the
Project 2049 think tank, which focuses on security in Asia, and a former U.S.
defense official. "Beijing says it's inevitable [that the two sides] will
fulfill reunification on China's terms, and they actually believe it. The idea
is: If Taiwan is going to be eaten up by China anyway, why do we want to risk
Inevitable or not, Beijing still faces the
challenge of convincing Taiwan that unification is beneficial -- and convincing
its own people that patience continues to be the best strategy. For the last 20
years, most Taiwanese have favored the tenuous
status quo over declaring independence or reunifying with the mainland,
according to data from the Election Study Center at the National Chengchi
University in Taiwan. From 2012 to 2013, the number of Taiwanese wanting to
maintain the status quo but eventually move toward independence rose from 15.1
percent to 17.9 percent, while 2.1 percent wanted immediate unification. This
may be a gain for the pro-independence side, but roughly 58 percent of
Taiwanese still don't want things to change.
These numbers are far less favorable to China than
the most relevant comparison: Britain's return of Hong Kong to the mainland in
1997. In February 1993, 42 percent of Hong Kongers wanted to join China, while 25 percent wanted
independence, according to the Hong Kong Transition Project, a research
organization. In the weeks before the handover, as people adjusted to the new
reality, those numbers changed to 53 and 17 percent, respectively. But Beijing
and London agreed to return Hong Kong in 1984; the mainland had 13 years of
preparation to make it palatable.
As China and Taiwan continue to move closer
together, Beijing may feel like it lacks the luxury of time it had with Hong
Kong. "The political pressures on the Chinese government when it comes to
Taiwan are tremendous and growing. In the past, Chinese people knew that China
was weak and could not stop the United States from selling weapons to Taiwan.
Now many believe that China should no longer tolerate such insulting behavior,"
wrote Jia Qingguo, associate dean at the school of international studies at
Peking University, in the 2014 book Debating
China. "Because national unification is an important source of political
legitimacy, the [Communist Party] could face a serious domestic political
crisis if it does not handle the Taiwan issue deftly."
Xi Jinping, China's most powerful and assertive
leader in decades, may be keen on resolving the issue once and for all. In
October 2013, Xi said the
problems caused by the cross-strait issue should not be handed on from generation
to generation. "The question is, was Xi shifting away from [his predecessor] Hu Jintao's policy of
patience?" asks Alan
D. Romberg, director of the East Asia program at
the Stimson Center and a former State Department official.
Internationally, too, the timing is propitious. As
tensions increase between China and its neighbors over territorial disputes in
the East and South China Seas, "this has diverted the attention away from
Taiwan -- very few people talk about it anymore," says Stokes. (Both China and
Taiwan agree that the Diaoyu, the disputed islands that Japan administers and
calls the Senkaku, belong to Taiwan. The only marked difference between China's
and Taiwan's claim is who owns Taiwan.) There's increased pressure to make
progress before Ma -- who will likely be succeeded by a less China-friendly
politician -- leaves office in 2016.
So what will China do? Beijing's representative at
the Feb. 11 meeting, Zhang Zhijun, said
both sides should have "a little more imagination" without elaborating. The
only concrete takeaway so far is that both sides have agreed to set up
representative offices "as soon as possible," though it is unclear when.
One thing "imagination" probably does not mean is
war: It is extremely unlikely that China will invade Taiwan in the near term. The
mountainous island would have a lot of advantages in that fight. The Taiwanese
could focus on asymmetrical capabilities, good beach defenses, and smaller
units that are difficult to target. Even if the United States decided not to intervene,
a Chinese victory would not be assured.
In October 2013, Taiwan released a national defense
that Beijing would be able to mount a comprehensive cross-strait offensive by
2020. If China were to succeed in a military campaign against Taiwan, it would
create a tremendous amount of resentment, not only in Taiwan, but around the
region -- belying Beijing's assertion that China's rise will be
peaceful. Ultimately, China will win if it can convince Taiwan to give in
without a fight: through economic cooperation, technology sharing, and, if
Beijing can improve its image, a chance for Taiwan to be a part of greater
China. "The whole
point of China's policy is to try to create an environment where people in
Taiwan want to unify," said Romberg.
For Taiwan, the greatest danger is
not military attack, but that Beijing "might
exploit its growing power to 'intimidate Taiwan into submission' on China's
terms," Richard Bush, a former head of the American Institute of Taiwan, the private
corporation that manages U.S. interests on the island, said in January, according to the newspaper Taipei Times. Chen of National Chengchi
University believes "the only option -- indeed a risky one -- is to engage
China, further integrate into her economic and social systems, and change her
political and ideological architecture from within." A liberalized or democratic
China would treat Taiwan differently -- but drastic political change in Beijing
is unlikely. "Barring
an unexpected event, the prospects for continued independence in Taiwan do not
look good," Dreyer says.
continues to expand in influence, the world increasingly sees the Middle
Kingdom, rather than the United States, as the future. When large numbers of
Taiwanese begin to do the same, that's checkmate.
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images