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A Taiwanese man watches television as Taiwan's 2020 presidential election candidate, Democratic Progressive Party's, or DPP, Tsai Ing-wen speaks during the first televised policy address in Taipei, Taiwan, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019. Taiwan will hold its general elections on Jan. 11, 2020.

Chiang Ying-ying/The Associated Press

David A. Welch is the university research chair and a professor of political science at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, University of Waterloo.

Events in Hong Kong have dominated the news recently, but roughly 700 kilometres to the east lies a much more serious problem: the smouldering geopolitical volcano that is Taiwan. On Jan. 11, voters will go to the polls and are almost certain to re-elect President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, a strong proponent of Taiwanese independence. China considers Taiwan a wayward province, and Beijing has been working feverishly behind the scenes to bolster Ms. Tsai’s chief opponent, Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang, a status-quo candidate. “All manoeuvres and tricks to split the motherland are sure to fail,” Chinese President Xi Jinping has said. “Not one inch of the territory of the great motherland can be carved off from China." On another occasion he warned: "We make no promise to abandon the use of force.”

Ever since Mao Zedong drove Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists offshore to Taiwan in 1949, the Communist Party of China has insisted that it must eventually return to the fold. But for decades, Beijing lacked the capacity to act. This is rapidly changing. Now the world’s second-largest economy, China is modernizing its military specifically to prevail in the Taiwan Strait. And for the first time, China has an impatient leader. Mao, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin never spoke of a deadline for reunification, but Mr. Xi has said that the task “cannot be passed on from generation to generation.” Many analysts believe he is keen to go down in history as the one who finally made it happen.

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The problem is that Taiwan is not going back. Not voluntarily, anyway. In 1992, more people in Taiwan saw themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese (46 per cent) than Chinese-only (26 per cent) or Taiwanese-only (18 per cent). Today an outright majority (57 per cent) identify solely as Taiwanese, and only 4 per cent solely as Chinese. This tendency is strongest among the young, indicating that the trend will continue. This is perfectly natural. Throughout history, geographic distance and self-rule have led to distinct political identities. It is for these reasons that Americans, Canadians and Australians no longer consider themselves British. Throw in the fact that the Taiwanese enjoy wealth and freedoms that Mainlanders can only dream of and it is no surprise that they have lost whatever appetite for reunification they might once have had.

Beijing insists that after reunification Taiwan can continue to enjoy its political freedoms under a “one country, two systems” formula. But the people of Taiwan have always been skeptical of this, and recent events in Hong Kong have only deepened their doubts. Even a formal treaty obligation to respect Hong Kong’s autonomy until 2047 has not prevented Beijing from vetting and disqualifying local political candidates, jailing democracy advocates, disappearing booksellers and reducing Hong Kong’s Chief Executive to a puppet. Why would Beijing treat Taiwan any differently?

China’s claim

This photo taken on November 5, 2018 shows the Taipei skyline at sunset.

DANIEL SHIH

With Taiwan as with Hong Kong, Beijing routinely blasts foreign powers for “meddling” in China’s “internal affairs” and warns them against “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” through actions that materially or symbolically violate China’s “sovereignty” over its “inherent” and “inalienable” territory. No one doubts that when leaders in Beijing make such statements, they are both impassioned and sincere. But are they also on solid ground?

There is no such thing as inalienable territory. The state is a social construct, and so are its rightful borders. States come and go, grow and shrink, split or join. China has experienced all of these. The Zhou Dynasty (circa 1046-256 BC) – the longest-lived Chinese state – was a fraction of the size of the current People’s Republic of China (PRC) and did not include Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, let alone Taiwan. The Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) also excluded Taiwan but was much bigger than modern-day China and included large swaths of what is now Siberian Russia. Established by Kublai Khan, it was arguably more Mongolian than Chinese.

For most of human history, political borders were defined vaguely if at all, advancing and retreating with the flow of peoples and the outcomes of battles. What we now think of as the sovereign state – a political unit with well-defined borders answerable to no higher or outside authority – only dates from the Peace of Westphalia at the end of the 30 Years’ War (1648), and for much of its history was largely a European thing. It swept the globe as a political form only in the wake of postwar decolonization. China began to acquire the trappings of modern Westphalian statehood late in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), but its adjustment was slow and painful, and in the process it fell prey to fully functioning states that saw it as hopelessly backward. This “century of humiliation” at the hands of European and Japanese imperialism remains an open wound today.

Which leads to the key point about modern sovereign statehood: It depends upon external recognition. Being a sovereign state is like belonging to a club. Other members must acknowledge your membership. But they may not agree with you about your borders. Ukraine and Russia are both universally recognized sovereign states, but only 17 countries recognize Moscow’s sovereignty over Crimea, while 114 do not.

What do other states look to when trying to decide which borders to recognize? Broadly speaking, there are two main considerations: history and self-determination. Authoritarian states tend to prefer the former, liberal democracies the latter – but with one very modern twist: Since the Second World War, a strong norm has developed against changing borders forcibly. Had Russia and Ukraine negotiated a transfer of sovereignty over Crimea, no other state would have objected.

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Beijing’s claim to Taiwan rests squarely on history (were it to endorse the principle of self-determination, it would have no objection to Taiwanese independence). The historical claim is plausible but not watertight – and certainly weaker than the self-determination argument. Taiwan only experienced mainland rule for slightly more than 200 years – a small fraction of China’s history. China ruled Vietnam for more than 1,000 years but asserts no similar claim to the country today. Taiwan has experienced Dutch rule, Japanese rule and self-rule. Arguably, it is now ruled by one side in an unfinished civil war – the Republic of China (ROC), which for now remains Taiwan’s official name.

Beijing’s strongest argument is that most states acknowledge the “One China” principle and have formal relations with the PRC, not the ROC. This is certainly true. Only 15 sovereign states have formal relations with Taiwan, a number that has been steadily shrinking as Beijing picks them off one by one with a combination of carrots and sticks. But it is important to reflect on the word “acknowledge.” Most countries treat Taiwan as an independent state and maintain the functional equivalent of full formal diplomatic ties. When Canada officially recognized the PRC in 1970, for instance, it carefully “took note” of Beijing’s claim to Taiwan. It did not endorse it. All of which is to say that whether Taiwan is rightfully part of the PRC depends entirely upon whether the international community says it is, and the international community is hedging. There is nothing “inherent” or “inalienable” about it.

The psychology of irredentism

Taiwan's presidential candidate from the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT) Han Kuo-yu chants slogans during his election campaign in Taipei, December 25, 2019.

SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images

And yet leaders in Beijing – and no doubt the vast majority of mainland Chinese – fervently believe that Taiwan is an integral part of the PRC. What explains both their certainty and their passion?

The answers lie in cognitive and moral psychology. Cognitive psychology seeks to help us understand how we interpret the world; moral psychology seeks to help us understand how we judge it.

Among the most powerful insights from cognitive psychology is that we form beliefs quickly, often on the basis of very little information, but once we have formed them, we resist changing them. We have, as it were, a cognitive double standard. A classic illustration is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, in which Elizabeth Bennet decides that Mr. Darcy is an odious, insufferable popinjay early in the novel on the basis of a single two-minute encounter and only changes her mind at the very end, after a mountain of discrepant information. So it is with territorial claims. Chinese citizens believe Taiwan is rightfully theirs because their textbooks and their government told them so. Small wonder that they have not changed their minds; the Great Firewall of China filters out alternative narratives.

Moral psychology teaches us that we constantly scan the world for evidence of injustice and, when we perceive it, we react with a distinctive passion that increases our stridency, inhibits our willingness to compromise, desensitizes us to reason and offers of side payments and increases our propensity to violence. Most violent crimes are crimes of passion, and in most cases, the passions are aroused by the perception that we have been wronged. But those perceptions can be incorrect.

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History is full of these dynamics in the relations between states. Czar Nicholas I, for example, led Russia into the Crimean War in defence of rights he sincerely but wrongly thought he had as a result of the hasty reading of a treaty. Argentina’s last junta led the country into a disastrous war with Britain in 1982 over sparsely populated islands in the South Atlantic that their boyhood textbooks had only recently insisted ought to be theirs. “My son is ready to die for the Malvinas,” Admiral Jorge Isaac Anaya told U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig at the time, “and it is my family’s point of view that we would be proud to know his blood had mingled with this sacred soil.” Such is the emotional power of the justice motive.

At the end of the day, it matters less whether Beijing’s claim to Taiwan is well-founded than whether it is earnest. Misperceptions of injustice are just as powerful as accurate ones. And unending patience is rare. A regime that has staked much of its legitimacy on defending China’s “core interests” in sovereignty and territorial integrity is particularly likely to lash out as the other pillar of its legitimacy – high annual GDP growth rates – begins to crumble under demographic, environmental and other pressures.

What should Canada do?

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen speaks after registering as a presidential candidate outside the Central Elections Committee in Taipei, on Nov. 19, 2019.

SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images

There is great danger that Beijing will attempt what Buenos Aires tried and failed to do in 1982. In both cases, we see in the claimant state a powerful, unquestioned belief in an unresolved historical injustice. In both cases, we see claimant state patience wearing thin. In both cases, we see that efforts to enhance economic ties not only failed to cultivate we-feeling with the target population but aroused their suspicions.

The question for Canada and other like-minded countries, quite simply, is what to do if Beijing loses patience in “recovering” Taiwan. Narrow economic interests might suggest that we should turn a blind eye – after all, Beijing is Canada’s second-largest trading partner, while Taiwan is only 19th.

But this would be to sell out every value that Canada holds dear. Canadians care deeply about self-determination. Canada has always resisted aggression. Canada has always stood up for liberal democracy. More than 100,000 Canadians have given their lives in defence of these principles. We would dishonour their memory by standing idly by.

The best course of action, obviously, is to work hard to ensure that the predicament never arises. Canada’s current policy on cross-strait relations is essentially “don’t rock the boat.” This policy made sense and worked well when Beijing had neither the capability nor the immediate intention to alter the status quo. But the capability is rapidly coming, and the intention may not be far behind. In this context, “don’t rock the boat” looks very much like weakness and irresolution. We know how that played out in Europe in 1939 and in Kuwait in 1990. Canada can do nothing alone, but in concert with like-minded countries it can begin laying the groundwork for more robust deterrence diplomatically, economically and perhaps ultimately even militarily.

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There is no guarantee that strong international signals would deter Beijing if China ran out of patience, but the consequences should clearly be put on the table. At present the international community’s studied ambiguity about the status of Taiwan is matched only by anachronistic ambiguity about how the world would react to Chinese aggression. This serves no one’s interest, least of all those who stand to suffer the most: our good friends in Taiwan.

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