Taiwan and Self-Determination as a Core Principle

Taiwan's self determination is at the heart of the most challenging geopolitical contest of the century. Democratic socialists need an approach which is at once peaceful, socialist, and democratic.

The International Committee (IC) of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has created many worthwhile campaigns over the years. As of writing, the IC has campaigns pertaining to Cuba, Venezuela, Ukraine, China, Okinawa, Korea, Brazil, Yemen, and the United States (US) military. Notably absent from the China campaign is direct reference to the people of Taiwan and their desires for either the status quo, for reunification with mainland China, or for de facto and de jure independence. Such self-determination must, I will argue, be at the core of DSA’s foreign policy vision, regardless of broader competition amongst large powers. To neglect the wishes of those caught in the middle of great power rivalries is to play the very game of great power competition the Left ought to fundamentally oppose. This necessarily includes the decision of Taiwanese voters as to their political future, free from coercion or threats from powers both near and far.

In this article my aim is to lay out the foundations for a potential IC campaign regarding Taiwan predicated on the principle of self-determination which, in my view, is central to any democratic outlook on world politics. To provide this foundation I will discuss what I perceive to be the primary interests of China and the US, the two most prominent great powers in the region as it regards Taiwan. From there I will detail the policy positions of the various parties in Taiwan regarding the question of reunification or independence. I will then conclude with proposals which could make up a Taiwan campaign. Given Taiwan’s importance to the most challenging geopolitical contest of the century, the IC must lay out a roadmap which is at once peaceful, socialist, and democratic.

Chinese and American State Interests

Beijing views reunification with Taipei as a core interest and has been abundantly clear in this respect. President Xi Jinping said in a 2018 speech “the people on both sides of the [Taiwan] Straits are one family with shared blood, culture, bonds, and aspirations.” Furthermore, in the same speech Xi spoke of the “shared [historical] trauma” between those in Taiwan and those on the mainland. This remark about historical trauma is deeply rooted in not only Chinese subjugation at the hands of Western powers (its “Century of Humiliation” from 1839-1949), but in the People’s Republic’s own pressures during the Cold War stemming from its varying relations with both Washington and Moscow. Additionally, the Chinese Civil War which brought the Communist Party to power in 1949 has effectively been in a stalemate as the successors of the defeated Kuomintang (KMT) retreated to Taiwan and have governed the island ever since. Reunifying mainland China with Taiwan would, almost regardless of the means, be a victory for Beijing, which would fully bring back into the fold what it sees as the rightful jurisdiction of China.

Taiwan also represents for China broader geopolitical and economic ambitions in its home region of the Asia-Pacific. Roughly a quarter of all world trade passes through the Malacca Strait which runs between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, with much of those goods either going to or coming from China. This includes sixty percent of China’s oil imports. Additionally, Beijing’s Nine-Dash Line claims nearly the entirety of the South China Sea as China’s territory, which directly conflicts with the claims made by the Philippines, Vietnam, and Brunei. While the Nine-Dash Line has been rejected by the International Court of Arbitration, China and the other claimants in the region have built and militarized artificial islands to reinforce their respective claims. Especially regarding Vietnam and the Philippines, both of which are close security partners of the US, the ongoing disputes in the South China Sea raise tensions amongst the world’s two leading economies and military powers.

By contrast, US interests stem largely from its alliance network in the Asia-Pacific and open shipping lanes in the South China Sea, and it views both as potentially threatened by a more assertive China. According to the White House’s 2022 National Security Strategy, Washington views Beijing’s efforts regionally and globally as meant to coerce and erode its own alliances, as well as to “create more permissive conditions for its own authoritarian model.” Materially speaking, the South China Sea reportedly contains 190 trillion cubic feet of liquefied natural gas and 11 billion barrels of oil, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. On the island of Taiwan itself, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company is the third largest semiconductor company worldwide and the largest manufacturer of semiconductor chips which are required for advanced technologies. China, of course, is just as aware of these material factors as the US. The contest between them boils down to who controls those resources, as well as who writes the rules in international institutions on how those resources are to be extracted and distributed.

Situated at the epicenter of this contest over material resources, ideological contestation, and institutional governance are the Taiwanese people. Beijing advocates the “One China Principle,” which holds there exists only one China, Taiwan included, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is the sole government of all of China. By contrast, Washington promotes the “One China Policy,” which agrees with the PRC view there is one China with the PRC as its the sole legitimate government. The US, however, only acknowledges the PRC’s position that Taiwan is part of China, while neither endorsing this position nor promoting Taiwanese independence. The aim of Beijing’s position, therefore, is reunification with Taipei, while Washington’s is maintaining the status quo of de facto Taiwanese independence. This US position serves to reinforce the belief in China, as Wang Jisi noted in 2021, “that the United States is driven by fear and envy to contain China in every possible way.”

Washington’s approach of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan—refusing to state directly whether the US would militarily defend the island in the event of an invasion from the mainland—aims to maintain a status quo that is becoming increasingly less tenable. During the Cold War, strategic ambiguity regarding Taiwan was a means of checking the spread of communism in Asia. Bringing the KMT back to power on the mainland was an impractical goal, so the US arrived at a policy that, as US Secretary of State Dean Acheson wrote in 1949, “would avert civil war but nevertheless preserve and even increase the influence of the National (Taiwan) Government.” This policy of maintaining the status quo worked so long as Beijing’s power was no match for Washington’s. While this may still be the case in terms of sheer military expenditure and gross domestic product, Washington is limited by its global spread of military installations whereas Beijing’s forces are concentrated precisely in the area of dispute. This relative equilibrium of forces in the western Asia-Pacific thus makes for a more dangerous situation.

Domestic Taiwanese Politics

Inside Taiwan the question of independence, status quo, or reunification is not clear-cut. According to the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University in Taipei, a majority of Taiwanese support one of the following three options: maintain the status quo and decide on either independence or reunification at a later date, maintain the status quo indefinitely, or move toward independence over time. The two largest political parties, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the KMT have directly opposing views on the question, complicating the matter further. The ruling Pan-Green Coalition headed by the DPP favors either the status quo or Taiwanese statehood. In 2021 Taiwan’s President and then DPP leader Tsai Ing-Wen wrote “Taiwan, by virtue of its very existence and its continued prosperity, represents at once an affront to the narrative and an impediment to the regional ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party.” Tsai insisted Taiwan would not pursue “adventurist” policies, but it would also “not bend to pressure.”

The KMT, the same Nationalists who fought against the Communists in the civil war, favor reunification with the mainland. The occasion for Xi’s speech referenced earlier was a visit by Lien Chan, an honorary chairman of the KMT. Relations between Beijing and Taipei, therefore, are often contoured by the internal political balance of power on Taiwan. Although the survey just mentioned suggests Taiwanese favor the status quo above any sudden change in status, the results of the 2022 election of city mayors delivered a loss for the DPP, with the KMT picking up the most seats. The DPP’s showing was so bad, in fact, that President Tsai resigned her position as party leader, though not as president. 2024 will mark the next presidential election for Taiwanese voters. Given their seeming preference for the status quo, the increasing shakiness of that status quo with respect to the Sino-American rivalry, and the recent win by the KMT, 2024 could become a flashpoint that erupts into a true catastrophe.

A Taiwan Campaign

The centrality of Taiwan’s status in what is likely to be the most consequential geopolitical contest of the century demands a detailed response from DSA’s IC and the broader Left around the world. As democratic socialists, the two defining terms of that label ought to mean something in how a Taiwan campaign is constructed as well as to the goals it pursues. Self-determination, as Lenin wrote in 1914, “means [at least under capitalism] the political separation of these nations from alien national bodies, and the formation of an independent national state.” Ultimately self-determination means the ability to act autonomously without fear of outside compulsion. It seems wholly reasonable, then, to equate self-determination with democracy. As such, an IC campaign on Taiwan should promote the ability of Taiwanese to choose their political future for themselves without threats or pressure from either China or the US.

Unfortunately, anti-capitalism does not currently have much staying power in Taiwan. While the ruling Pan-Green Coalition is made up of mostly social democratic parties, the only outwardly socialist party is the Labor Party (LP), which has minimal influence. Worse still, the LP’s position on the status of Taiwan is reunification under the auspices of the “one country, two systems” principle that previously applied to Hong Kong, something Taiwanese do not, at least at present, support. A Taiwan campaign ought to be centered on the struggle against both imperialism and global capital, which necessitates reaching out and working with those with similar ideals, with democracy and socialism at the core of their politics. Reaching out the LP and the various social democratic parties alongside supporting the Taiwanese labor movement would, therefore, create a space for an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist coalition to form and challenge the now dominant parties. As Ming-sho Ho noted, the Taiwanese labor movement has gained ground within the neoliberal order by garnering support from wider social movements, and the IC ought to play a similar role in its outreach to the island.

The biggest difficulty with this approach is that the Taiwanese voting public seems to hold a position similar to that of the US, even if they do so for different reasons. What makes matters worse is the Washington consensus on China, as Senator Bernie Sanders wrote of in 2021, “views the U.S.-Chinese relationship as a zero-sum economic and military struggle.” Voters in Taiwan and decision makers in Washington appear to desire what US China policy experts Jude Blanchette and Ryan Hass have described as kicking “the can down the road.” This strategy, though, is likely to back Beijing into a corner, the very thing Blanchette and Hass said should be avoided, as any increase in the capability of Taipei to defend itself in the meantime will be seen in Beijing as undermining its core interests. Should this course be taken, which is substantively no different than the current American course of strategic ambiguity, decision makers in Beijing will believe their counterparts in Washington are trying to preserve what G. John Ikenberry referred to as “‘The Real Liberal Bet’” with regard to the latter’s policy of engagement with China since the end of the Cold War: “The far more important goal was to build a liberal-oriented international order dominated by the United States and its allies” (emphasis added). This statement begs the question as to whether China could ever hope to become one of America’s allies in such an order. If not, China would be in a perpetual state of subordination, perhaps relegated to the semi-periphery for decades. Even if there could have been a Sino-American alliance, it remains doubtful whether it would be an alliance of equals.

Given Washington’s recent efforts at containing China’s technological advancements in chip technologies and more, combined with Beijing’s recent diplomatic success in bringing Riyadh and Tehran to normalize relations along with its proposed peace plan to end the Russo-Ukrainian War, political momentum seems to be swinging away from the former and toward the latter. This provides an opportunity to push back against US hegemony, but it also presents a risk as Beijing, has its own ambitions regarding the future of Taiwan, irrespective of what Taiwanese may desire.

I wrote previously any Leftist international cause should have at its core a democratized and empowered United Nations and reject the increasing trend of multipolarity. As polarity is generally understood in international relations to mean the distribution of power centered on states or “poles,” it inherently carries connotations of a lack of self-determination. Rather than center a Taiwan campaign around any specific outcome (independence, unification, or the status quo) such that would only inflame the trend of multipolar competition between Beijing and Washington, it should emphasize the process of democracy, both in the political as well as the economic sphere. Producing videos on the history of Taiwan, the US and China competition in the region, and the importance of self-determination to any socialist cause could be one part of such a campaign. Another part could be reaching out to all the Left-leaning parties, labor organizations, and other social movements in Taiwan as a means of building a democratic and anti-capitalist coalition which could refocus the debate on Taiwan’s status to one more consistent with democratic socialist values. Though Lenin noted the centrality of nation-states in the abovementioned quote, there is no reason we must do the same. Self-determination of Taiwan need not mean allegiance to any national flag and its institutions, but could mean adherence to the values of anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism through a process of collective decision-making.