Michael Mazza, longtime commentator and observer on things Taiwan, argues in Foreign Policy that in 2013 Taiwan independence could be an issue that rocks the world, with three other similar "surprise" issues:
.......But while Taiwan's businesspeople enjoy closer ties with China, the average Taiwanese voter continues to move toward independence. Over the last 20 years, the portion of citizens of Taiwan identifying as "Taiwanese" has increased from 17.6 percent of those polled in 1992 to a whopping 53.7 percent today; those identifying as "Chinese" has declined over the same period from 25.5 percent to just 3.1 percent today. Support for independence has nearly doubled over the last two decades, from 11.1 percent to 19.6 percent. Support for immediate or eventual unification, meanwhile, has more than halved, from 20 percent in 1992 to 9.8 percent in 2012.
Economic integration is apparently failing to halt what Beijing sees as a troubling trend. With a cross-strait trade agreement and a slew of other, easier deals already on the books, Beijing now expects Ma to discuss political issues. But Ma doesn't have the domestic political support to pursue political talks -- in March 2012, two months after his reelection, 45 percent of those polled said the pace of cross-strait exchanges was "just right," but the share of respondents answering "too fast" had increased to 32.6 percent, from 25.7 percent before the election. Any Chinese shift toward a more strident Taiwan policy could portend a new crisis in the Taiwan Strait sooner than many expect, as a lack of progress on these issues may buttress hawks in the new Xi Jinping administration. And America would surely be dragged in: Even low-level coercive measures against Taiwan -- a top 10 U.S. trading partner and security ally -- could throw U.S.-China relations into a tailspin.
Taiwan independence makes a sexy title component, but the real issue is that Beijing wants to annex Taiwan. Mazza here correctly if subtly identifies the problem: Beijing may well get impatient with the lack of progress toward annexation under the Ma government, and take some kind of more militant position.
Mazza's numbers for support of Taiwan independence are too low. Other polls show it at 70% or more (for example).
The interesting thing for me here is the Ma Ying-jeou factor. During the Chen Shui-bian Administration Beijing pursued the tactic of declaring Chen "provocative" and accusing him of disturbing Taiwan-China relations. One purpose of this was to discredit Chen internationally. Sadly, the international media gleefully piled on. But another purpose of that tactic was to transfer the tension in the Beijing-Taipei relationship to the Washington-Taipei relationship, enabling Beijing to manage Washington using the policy of "anger".
But...it can't do that with Ma Ying-jeou. Because Ma is ostensibly Beijing's ally and chosen one, they can't attack him the way they attacked Chen Shui-bian. Ma actually constrains Beijing's freedom of action on Taiwan even when he is cooperating with it (though as we have seen, he permits Beijing to ramp up tensions elsewhere since it has Taiwan well in hand). Ma also highlights the continuing problem Taiwan's democracy poses for the CCP: he has little public support, let alone public support for political talks. Moreover, the flow of opinion polls and other data is open and public, meaning that no one can fool themselves or others as to the extent of Ma's weakness.
Taiwan's democratic politics thus restrains Ma in two key ways. First, it prevents him from taking public action to annex Taiwan to China. Second, Beijing no doubt hoped that Ma would do something about Taiwan's democracy. Suppressing Taiwan's democracy, a daily reminder that people in the Chinese cultural sphere are as capable of democracy as any people, is surely a key policy goal. If Taiwan were taken into the Chinese empire, Beijing would have to make all kinds of tough decisions. Two systems? Then its other territorial holdings would clamor for democracy (why should Taiwan be different?). Yet, as the experience of Ma for the last few years has shown, Taiwan's democracy, however imperfect, is often robust and capable of defending itself. Ma is thus limited internationally and domestically.
Be careful what you wish for...
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