For decades, Taiwan has functioned as an independent country in all but name. Although Beijing continues to assert that the island is rightfully part of China, the People’s Republic, formally established in 1949, has never controlled that territory. Today, most of the international community, including the United States, continues to adhere to a convenient fiction, perpetuating a status quo that seems to serve the best interests of all parties. Most countries have only established diplomatic relations with Beijing and refuse to entertain such ties with the Republic of China, which is the Taiwanese government’s official name. However, most of those same countries also have robust economic relations with Taiwan.
It is increasingly uncertain, though, how long that delicate fiction can continue. Until now, worries have focused on Beijing’s possible actions towards Taiwan. Now a new worry has arisen—that hardline, pro-independence militants on Taiwan may create a political and military crisis. That fear is well-founded, because those factions are pushing for a referendum on Taiwan officially becoming an independent country. It is hard to imagine any Chinese government tolerating such a move.
Even before this latest development, Beijing and Taipei were on a possible collision course. The PRC’s patience regarding Taiwan’s de facto independence was showing signs of wearing thin. Chinese leaders no longer seemed content, as they did during Deng Xiaoping’s time, of letting the ambiguous situation regarding the island’s status go on indefinitely. After the election of the conciliatory Ma Ying-jeou as Taiwan’s leader in 2008, Beijing pursued a strategy of developing extensive cross-strait economic ties with the expectation that those links would gradually make the Taiwanese people receptive to political unification with the mainland.
That strategy failed dramatically. Most Taiwanese were in favor of the new, beneficial economic agreements with Beijing, but they were simultaneously determined to maintain their de facto political independence. That point was demonstrated starkly in the 2016 elections, when voters overwhelmingly chose the Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai Ing-wen as president, and for the first time in the island’s history gave the DPP control of the legislature.
Since the DPP’s platform endorses official independence for Taiwan, that outcome infuriated the authorities in Beijing. Even though Tsai has governed with relative caution and de-emphasized the party’s commitment to independence, the Chinese government has adopted increasingly hardline policies on multiple fronts. Not only has Beijing aggressively poached the handful of nations that still maintain diplomatic relations with Taipei, Chinese air and naval forces have dramatically boosted their exercises in the Taiwan Strait.
If Taiwan holds a referendum on independence, that action could easily push matters over the edge. Yet hardline groups in the DPP, such as the Formosa Alliance, are moving forward with that agenda. Those “deep green” (staunchly pro-independence) forces regard Tsai as insufficiently committed to that goal, and they are attempting to replace her with a more militant nominee in Taiwan’s presidential election later this year.
Zealous pro-independence activists are risking a catastrophe. Although it is increasingly uncertain whether the status quo of Taiwan’s de facto independence can be sustained over the long-term, prudent political actors would at least try to perpetuate that situation as long as possible. Just buying time can be useful. Among other developments, there could be beneficial changes, including democratization, that take place on the mainland. Such a shift might make the Chinese government willing to tolerate an officially independent Taiwan—albeit with the type of constraints that Finland had to endure in its relations with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Alternatively, a majority of Taiwanese might come to accept unification with a democratic mainland.
In the meantime, Taiwan enjoys a wide range of benefits from its status of de facto independence, despite the frustration of not having official international recognition. The Taiwanese people have built an economic powerhouse, and the island is a viable liberal democracy with respect for individual rights.
An independence referendum would put all of those benefits in danger. Even J. Michael Cole, senior non-resident fellow with the Global Taiwan Institute and a reliable propagandist for the DPP over the years, warns against taking that step. His position indicates that Tsai and other pragmatists in the DPP are very worried.
They have good reason for concern. Societies that provoke more powerful entities usually do not fare well. Beginning in the early 1990s, Iraqi Kurds gradually established a prosperous, self-governing region in northern Iraq that became an independent country in all but name. In 2017, however, they rejected warnings from the United States and other countries against holding a referendum on declaring independence. The measure passed overwhelmingly, but Baghdad and the governments of Turkey and Iran made good on their threats to impose economic sanctions and curtail travel and commerce to the Kurdish region. The Iraqi government followed up by seizing the disputed city of Kirkuk, which had been under Kurdish control, and deploying the national army to invade Iraqi Kurdistan itself. The Kurdish regional authorities had to overcome an ignominious retreat, and the Kurds lost many of the political gains they had made over the previous two-and-a-half decades. Their aggressive strategy was a case of overreach that backfired badly. Taiwanese pro-independence militants are courting the same danger.
From Washington’s standpoint, though, there is one very important difference between the Taiwan and Kurdistan situations. Kurdish military units in both Iraq and Syria had assisted the United States, especially in the fight against ISIS, and U.S. officials regarded them as valuable allies. But Washington never made even an implied commitment to defend Kurdistan’s de facto independence. Indeed, U.S. leaders had warned the Kurdish regional government not to hold the referendum. When Baghdad moved to coerce the Kurds, Washington took no action.
But the United States does have an implied commitment to defend Taiwan. Even the language of the Taiwan Relations Act, which Congress passed when Jimmy Carter’s administration decided to switch diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, suggests that the United States would not stand by idly if the PRC sought to coerce the island. And U.S. officials since the passage of the TRA have repeatedly implied—or even stated outright--that there is a security commitment to Taiwan.
If the Taiwanese hold a referendum on independence, it would place America in a very awkward and dangerous position. Such an ostentatious defiance of Beijing’s position, that Taiwan is an integral part of China, would be an extreme provocation. It is possible that the PRC might simply dismiss the gesture with contempt—as long as all significant countries refused to recognize such a proclamation of Taiwanese independence. But it is more likely that Beijing would mount a display of force to threaten and intimidate the island. Worse, Chinese leaders might decide that Taiwan was irrevocably slipping away from any prospect of eventual PRC control and there was no choice but to take decisive military action to prevent that outcome, despite the danger of a clash with the United States.
The Trump administration should make it emphatically clear to Taiwan that pushing the envelope on independence with a provocative referendum will negate any implied U.S. commitment to the island’s defense. Although Taiwan is a friendly fellow democracy and a valued economic partner, smart great powers do not risk a catastrophic war to defend small allies—especially those who choose to take reckless actions.