The unintended consequences of Taiwan standing up to China

Noah Millman

A popular parable attributed to Taoism by Alan Watts goes something like this:

A farmer's horse runs away. His neighbor commiserates at his loss, but the farmer demurs: "who knows if it is good or bad?" The neighbor leaves, puzzled how there could be any question.

The next day, the horse returns with a new wild horse as its mate. The neighbor congratulates the farmer on his good fortune that a second horse had come into his possession. But the farmer demurs again: "who knows if it is good or bad?"

Sure enough, the next day, the farmer's son is thrown from the saddle while breaking the wild horse, and breaks his leg. The neighbor commiserates again on his son's injury, but as expected, the farmer demurs: "who knows if it is good or bad?"

And of course, the next day the army marches through to draft all the able-bodied men to go off to war, and the farmer's son is only spared because of his injury.

You can take the story for as many turns as you want: any apparently bad news can lead to good fortune, and any apparently good news can lead to bad consequences.

I've been thinking about that story apropos of the Taiwanese election.

President Tsai Ing-wen's landslide re-election seems like unequivocally good news. Voting took place in the shadow of increasingly overt attempts at intimidation by Beijing, and the months of protesting in Hong Kong that demonstrated as clearly as possible that "one country, two systems" was a hollow promise — particularly when Chinese President Xi Jinping explicitly suggested Hong Kong as the model for Taiwan's future. Xi deserved a strong rebuke to his bullying, and he got one.

But that doesn't mean the message will be received as intended. It's all but certain that Beijing will never willingly change their view that Taiwan is a renegade province that must be incorporated into China proper. What is harder to tell is whether Xi's increasingly personalized dictatorship is capable of softening its approach and biding its time, which is the only plausible path to peaceful unification.

What are the other possibilities? First, China could redouble its efforts to isolate Taiwan diplomatically and pressure it economically. Taiwan has become quite integrated with the Chinese market over the past two decades, and one of Tsai's main priorities has been to seek alternatives to China for their supply chain. But Beijing could get more aggressive about trying to stymie those efforts, while also forcing Taiwanese firms that continue to do business with the mainland to side with China in America's ongoing trade war.

How would Taiwan react to a further tightening of the screws? It's possible that they would reverse course and try to accommodate Beijing — but it's far more likely that they would redouble their own efforts to break out of that isolation. In the context of the great unwinding of America's relationship with China, Taiwan may find opportunities with the United States (and Japan). It's not hard to imagine, though, how China would view such moves, even if they were not accompanied by anything as provocative as a declaration of independence.

Finally, there is the threat of war. At present, any military threats Beijing might make are largely idle; it is not clear that they have the capacity to subdue the island militarily. But as China's modernization proceeds, their confidence that they could achieve their military objectives will increase. In the context of deteriorating relations and an ever-stronger independent national identity on the island, it might eventually make sense for Taiwan to risk war while they still have a chance of winning.

Ten years ago, it was possible to look at the Taiwanese situation and predict that China would eventually prevail through patience and the sheer preponderance of power. That is harder to believe today, as China has become increasingly threatening, and as its economic miracle has grown increasingly brittle. Ten years ago, it was also possible to look at Sino-American competition as part of a classic power transition, with the challenge being how America would manage China becoming the dominant power of the western Pacific without war. That is also much harder to believe today. As explicit great power competition has re-emerged, Taiwan has become a fault-line state, a place China cannot afford to relinquish lest its own regime lose legitimacy, but that America cannot afford to abandon lest its own position in Asia collapse.

Today, we should celebrate Tsai's election as a triumph for democracy in a time when democracy could use some triumphs. But tomorrow, we should remember the many ways in which happy news can turn sour, and far more quickly than we might imagine.

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