The World

Crimea on the Strait?

Student protesters occupy the legislature the day after  clashing with riot police at the Executive Yuan on March 24, 2014 in Taipei, Taiwan.

Photo by Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

The student protesters occupying Taiwan’s parliament have agreed to meet with President Ma Ying-jeou, just days after they were forcibly evicted by riot police from the executive building in Taipei. They are protesting a proposed trade deal with China, which would open up a number of sectors of the Taiwanese economy to mainland investment. The protesters believe this would threaten the island’s political independence by allowing Chinese influence in previously off-limits sectors like publishing and advertising.

Businessweek Hong Kong editor Bruce Einhorn notes some discomfiting parallels between the current situation and another recent crisis:

The turmoil takes place in a small country that has spent years living uncomfortably in the shadow of a major power—one with ambitions to recover territory lost during a humiliating period of weakness. The small country has a weak economy, and the government decides to push through a controversial deal to tie the small country’s prospects closer to its powerful neighbor. That move sparks outrage against the unpopular president, who has already faced criticism after the jailing of a popular opposition leader on corruption charges. The protests grow, turning violent as the embattled president orders security forces to break up the demonstrations.

Some commentators, such as the Diplomat’s James Holmes, have suggested that the parallels between the two situations are the reason why Beijing has remained noncommittal in its response to the situation in Crimea. “Russia’s intervention in Ukraine could well reinforce the precedent that big powers may manage their environs by force,” he writes. “That would provide political top cover for China should it opt to use force against Taiwan at some future time.”

The Global Times, giving voice to China’s nationalist id as it tends to do, editorializes: “Some people in Taiwan hold the misconception that Taiwan is an independent unit. Political short-sightedness has become an obstacle to the region’s economic development. … If Taiwan students are fearful of change, they will only resort to what students in Egypt and Thailand have done, in which case Taiwan’s future will be unclear.”

As is always the case, it’s worth noting the differences between the situations as well as the similarities. Taiwan has a much stronger economy and much more robust democracy than Ukraine, and Ma—whatever his faults—is no Viktor Yanukovych. As dramatic as the images of riot police clashing with students in Taipei this week were, they’re not actually hugely out of character for Taiwan’s freewheeling political culture, where protests are an almost daily occurrence.

(Interestingly, Ukraine and Taiwan do share a tradition of parliamentary brawling. A Kuomintang parliamentarian once introduced a bill on transport links with the mainland on the floor of the legislature only to have it ripped out of her hands and stuffed in her mouth by an opponent.)

But Taiwan does appear to be in a kind of geopolitical limbo that may not be sustainable in the long run. After decades of high tension, relations between Taiwan and the mainland have improved markedly under the more conciliatory Ma, who came to power in 2008 promising closer ties to Beijing. (As I noted during my China trip, this has coincided with some interesting historical revisionism on the mainland surrounding Taiwan’s founding father Chiang Kai-shek.) Beijing still pledges to use force to prevent Taiwan from declaring full independence but has backed off the more strident nationalist rhetoric.

But as much as Taiwan and China have enjoyed better relations, public opinion on the island has remained steadfastly against unification. In a 2011 poll, only 1.4 percent favored swift unification, 23 percent wanted full independence, and 60 percent wanted to maintain the status quo indefinitely. The proportion of people describing themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese has grown in the years that trade between the two sides has increased.

For now, this week’s drama aside, both sides seem to be benefiting from the current status quo—deepening economic ties while Taiwan retains its political independence. But that’s not to say that future leaders might not push for either full independence or unification. If that happens, as we’ve seen in Ukraine, things can play out in unexpected ways very quickly.