Taiwanese Independence: Identity and Diplomacy

By Gabrielle Falardeau

A year has passed since the election of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), an independence leaning party in Taiwan. At the time, these results were met with strong objections from the Chinese government because of the possible impact on the sovereignty of the island state. In Western media, coverage of the election strongly emphasised the importance of this issue in the decision to elect the DPP. Despite all of this, a year has gone by without any concrete movement towards independence.

Although a strong majority of Taiwanese agree that the country should be independent, there are varying responses when it comes to the question of whether or not this will really occur in the short or even long term. The Taiwanese recognize their nation’s small size and meagre capabilities when compared with their powerful neighbour. Many are therefore concerned that any movement towards independence would be devastating for the country’s economy and/or physical security. The previous inclination towards sovereignty for the island state in 1995 and 1996 was met by China with missile tests off the coast of Taiwan.

Concerns regarding the repercussions of a movement towards independence have certainly been a factor in discussions within the ruling party. While this issue currently stands as Article one of their charter, there have been discussions to adopt a status quo stance instead. This would however have strong consequences for the party as a whole as it has already been criticised for adopting similar stances to the opposition party, the Kuomitang (KMT), on key issues. The independence clause therefore constitutes a fundamental distinguishing element between the two main parties in Taiwan. Removing this clause could thus lead to a drop in support for the DPP in favour of smaller opposition parties.

Questions about steps towards independence inevitably lead to queries about the identity of the Taiwanese vis-à-vis the Chinese. Various polls have highlighted the sentiment of Taiwanese nationals towards the question of identity asking respondents whether they consider themselves Taiwanese, Chinese, or both. All of the polls leaned towards Taiwanese as the dominant identity (the proportion of people who chose a combination of Taiwanese and Chinese was however significant). Locals will stress their identity as Taiwanese, while recognising their shared cultural heritage with China. This acknowledgement is however followed by additional comments stressing their more “traditional” take on a shared culture and language. These differences are important for Taiwanese in asserting themselves as distinct. Such comments occur not only in everyday interactions with foreigners, but also in schools. Foreigners coming to Taiwan to learn Chinese are constantly reminded of how the Taiwanese version of Chinese with its use of traditional characters is considered more authentic. Under Mao, China underwent a simplification process of written language to enable more people to learn to read and write. In contrast, Taiwan’s retention of traditional characters is a big source of pride.

What effects would it have on Taiwan if it chose not to move towards formal independence? It is important first to highlight that Taiwan currently functions as a fully independent state and does not possess the same level of foreign interference by China as is witnessed in Hong Kong. Currently, Taiwan holds “quasi” diplomatic relations with foreign states, most of which do not officially recognize the island state. These countries conduct regular diplomatic functions in Taiwan through trade or culture offices. That being said, relations between Taiwan and foreign countries are plagued by the considerations foreign states must hold regarding any possible repercussions on their relations with China. Local offices are therefore very tight-lipped and refuse to discuss their relations with Taiwan. Within major international organisations, Taiwan is not represented, with the exception of the World Trade Organisation, where it is known as the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan. This is of course related to its lack of international status, but also to China’s adamant refusal to allow the island country to assert itself in the international space. Taiwan’s absence from international organisations remains a significant obstacle to its ability to contribute to discussions relating to issues that concern it, such as transnational crime or human trafficking.

The fact that Taiwan is not recognized internationally as an independent state also poses problems in other areas. Recently, the issue of deportation of Taiwanese citizens made headlines when 269 Taiwanese and Chinese nationals were arrested in Spain for running a telecom fraud. Despite months of negotiations, the Taiwanese nationals were deported not to Taiwan, but to China to face justice. This is not the first time that Taiwanese citizens were deported to China. In 2016, Armenia, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Kenya deported Taiwanese citizens to China.

Within China, schools actively teach that Taiwan is a part of the country and this represents the official position of the state. There has however been considerable change in recent years in the relationship between Taiwan and China. Only in 2008 did direct flights from Taiwan to China resume. In 2015, China also modified legislation to allow Taiwanese citizens to travel and even move permanently to China in what has been referred to as “quasi-citizen treatment”. That being said, Beijing has reiterated on many occasions that it will never accept any movement towards independence by Taiwan because of their shared history, as well as the island’s strategic position. Indeed, control over Taiwan is essential for China in the case of an open conflict because it would allow its military to extend its range and advance defences to protect the mainland.

Currently, China accounts for almost 30 percent of Taiwan’s trade, making it the island’s largest trading partner. A strong movement towards independence could be met by China with economic sanctions or even a blockade, producing crippling effects on Taiwan’s economy and its ability to import vital energy to power the country. In the wake of the last elections in Taiwan, many were quick to predict increasingly tense relations between China and Taiwan. Although it is important to plan for various contingencies in order to understand the possible outcomes, strong pushes towards sovereignty are not likely in the short term. The Taiwanese government, although displeased with the difficulties related with the absence of a recognised independent status, is currently benefiting from good trade relations with China. One thing is clear, China will not wait idly until Taiwanese sovereignty is a fait accompli, but rather intervene to halt burgeoning movements.


PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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