Earlier this year, Taiwanese Anti-China Sentiment has dramatically increased following China’s claims for reunification with the island nation. This sentiment has materialized into protests organized by those who are against possible reunification of Taiwan with Beijing. Thousands gathered outside of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) office in Taipei, the capital city of Taiwan, to protest the claims made by Premier of the State Council of the People’s Republic in China, Li Keqiang. He called for “A beautiful future of national rejuvenation” between the two states.
China and Taiwan have separated from each other following the civil war of 1949, which has complicated relations between both powers ever since. However, China has placed considerable pressure on Taiwan through continued antagonism and threats towards the island state to force a reconciliation between them. Not only has China threatened military reprisals should Taiwan refuse to acknowledge itself as part of China, but it has also persuaded global firms to recognize Taiwan as a part of mainland China. The second issue was important for the Chinese government to tackle because such big companies as Delta Airlines and Marriot Hotel chain referred to Taiwan as its own country on its websites. The combination of hostile actions from China and President Tsai Ing-wen’s attempts to maintain the status quo has led to the protests across Taiwan calling for a referendum. Local Police have estimated that the protests brought around 10,000 people. However, protest organizers claim that around 100,000 have attended,
Yet, it is important to note that President Tsai Ing-Wen’s desire to maintain the status quo is understandable. Taiwan has been facing increased pressure from Beijing that is trying to ensure that Taiwan doesn’t become independent. As such, Taiwan is extremely vulnerable to reprisal from Mainland China should it choose to go through a referendum. Moreover, China has considerable resources at its disposal should it choose to retaliate, but Taiwan lacks the same national and international resources that it could use. As such, not wanting to “change the status quo of Taiwan’s independent sovereignty” is an understandable desire of the current leadership considering the pressure it is under.
However, the outcry that the DPP has received from its own citizens about the actions that were undertaken by China and the lack of national and international responses is something that can’t be ignored. The estimated number of individuals that campaigned to bring independence to Taiwan is substantial. That indicates that there is already great dissatisfaction among the population about the degree of power that China is capable of wielding over Taiwan. Especially given that Taiwan not only has its own currency that differs from Chinese currency but it also has its own legal processes and systems of governing that are independent of China. These are the factors that matter the most for those who call for the independence of Taiwan. Fan Yun, a member of the local Social Democratic Party, spoke of his desire to see a referendum held when interviewed by Al-Jazeera stating, “A referendum is a democratic way to tell China and to tell the whole world that, actually, we want to be an independent country.” The leader of the Formosa Alliance, Kuo Pei-Horng, corroborated this sentiment by saying, “We want to tell China to stop bullying Taiwan[…] Taiwanese people want to be their own masters.” The call for a referendum is backed by former Taiwanese presidents, Huang Kuo-chang and Lee Teng-hui, as well as the DPP’s own party members. As such, it is clear that there is discontentment among the populace that needs to be addressed.
While China is against the independence of Taiwan, to completely suppress any possibility of a referendum is not a reliable way to appease the Taiwanese nation. Even though, the president has his reasons for wishing to avoid any declarations that could be potentially damaging to the already tenuous relationship with China, ignoring such declarations will only increase discontentment among Taiwanese populace. It will be viewed by many as depriving Taiwanese nation of making its own decisions. If the country is truly to be “the master of its own destiny”, it must decide if it wishes to be an independent entity capable of operating within the international system or if it wants to continue to be closely tied to China. One of the easiest ways to do this without potentially raising the ire of China is to host another public survey to see if the nation is in favour of complete independence. While the most recent surveys that were conducted indicate that 36.2% are in favour of independence and 26.1% are not, the most recent protests may call for another survey to finalize the opinions before proceeding with any further course of action. From there, the nation can use the data as justification to host a referendum to finally put the debate to rest. A referendum does not mean that the fate of Taiwan will be decided on the spot, rather it means that the power to dictate the course of action is placed in the hands of Taiwanese people.
It is true, that a referendum might still be viewed as an aggressive action by China. Especially given that the recent decision of the United Kingdom to withdraw from The European Union has made many nervous about potential changes to regional stability. Regardless, Taiwan should make sure it is prepared for all outcomes and take lessons from what has occurred with the United Kingdom when it decided to withdraw from the European Union. While Taiwan isn’t operating on the same scale nor is it as heavily involved in the international system as the United Kingdom was with its European counterparts, Taiwan still needs a substantial amount of planning on its part before it takes serious action.
The final issue to resolve is to ensure that the escalation of hostility between China and Taiwan won’t happen, and one way to do so is through the use of trade. While Taiwan is seeking its independence as an internationally recognized state, which is putting it in cultural conflict with its mainland cousin, it is important to note that both states do enjoy strong trade relations with one another. In 2016 alone, the value of Cross-strait bilateral trade was estimated to be $117.9 Billion U.S. dollars which makes it a substantial source of value for both countries. Making China view Taiwan as a neighbor and trade-partner would help smooth over the transition should Taiwan go independent. While it will not eliminate the significance China places on the shared history between the two countries, ensuring that the trade and travel will not suffer or be discontinued will no doubt make China more susceptible to the idea of letting Taiwan operate as it’s own independent entity.
Ultimately though, a referendum is not a guarantee of independence as a vote could still come back as a “no”. However, the ability to make the choice to host one is something that Taiwan shouldn’t be threatened into avoiding as it will only breed future resentment.
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