New Thinking about the Taiwan Issue: Theoretical Insights into Its Origins, Dynamics, and Prospects

New Thinking about the Taiwan Issue

Author(s): Jean-Marc F. Blanchard and Dennis V. Hickey

ISBN:          978-0-415-68453-8

Publisher: Routledge

Year:          2012

Price:         $125.00

Reviewed by Winifred Chang, Ph.D. in the Department of History, University of California, Los Angeles, USA.

The territorial dispute between Taiwan and China stemming from the Chinese Civil War that ended with the Kuomintang fleeing to Taiwan from the Communist Party in China continues into the 21st Century. The so-called “Taiwan Issue” has been intractable, even as both China and Taiwan have seen different top-level political leadership, and as academic scholars have become increasingly sensitive to new ways of discussing Taiwan-China engagement. After Ma Ying-jeou was elected president of Taiwan in 2008, he began a series of conciliatory economic and political policies toward China that have stimulated new waves of interest in the cross-Strait relationship.

New Thinking about the Taiwan Issue is a collection of eight substantive chapters that attempt to revamp and qualify some of the older international relations theories to discover novel interpretations on the origins and envision possible outcomes of the dispute between China and Taiwan. This is an excellent starting point, since any potential military conflict between Taiwan and China would most likely implicate major players in East Asia as well as the United States. In the Introduction, editors Jean-Marc Blanchard and Dennis Hickey ­provide an overview of Taiwan-China relations as well as American policy and a brief review of past literature. They conclude in expressing their hope that the volume will contribute to “an eventual peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue.” (p. 19)

In “Normative convergence and cross-Strait divergence: Westphalian sovereignty as an ideational source of the Taiwan conflict,” Chengxin Pan argues that despite identity and cultural differences between Taiwan and China, the heart of the problem is actually a similarity: the dominance of the Westphalian sovereignty as a paradigm, which has trapped Taiwan and China in a discursive conflict from their competing claims over territory. He discusses how both sides have focused on the Westphalian model in their claims The author advises “compromise of sovereignty” in the style of Hong Kong and the European Union in order to preserve peace, but does not offer specific or concrete ways in which this might be achieved between Taiwan and China.

In “Useful adversaries: how to understand the political economy of cross-Strait security,”Ching-chang Chen presents a two-fold argument; the first part is that Taiwanese restrictions to trade and economic policies were not effective, and the second part is that these ineffectual policies helped to reflect Taiwanese vulnerability, which was in turn conducive to augmenting a national Taiwanese identity. Chen believes that since US military influence counterbalances China’s rise in Asia and that Taiwan is not being hollowed out by commerce with China, the purpose of Taiwanese restrictions is to produce boundaries between Taiwan and China, thereby carving out distinctions from which national identity can be reinforced. As such, these restrictions must be conceived of as political in nature.

“Ethnic peace in the Taiwan Strait” by Shiping Zheng is highly flawed and its inclusion detracts from the book’s value. He attributes the lack of war between Taiwan and China to ethnicity and “ethnic peace,” assuming incorrectly that there is consensus about one common ethnicity for people who live in Taiwan and China. In fact, both Taiwan and China are internally multiethnic. However, the essay assumes the official PRC position by stating, “We argue that peace exists in the Taiwan Strait in recent decades because the mainland Chinese government has never really intended to use military force against another group of ethnic Chinese and destroy another claimed territory of China” and that there is an “emerging salience of the Chinese ethnic identity” (p. 80) with inherent peacekeeping features. Furthermore, Zheng claims that since China is the one capable of making war, “ethnic peace” is based on “not how many people in Taiwan identify themselves as Chinese but how much the mainland Chinese identify the people in Taiwan as Chinese.” (p. 83) Zheng’s “Policy Implications” section is no more than a rehashing of the PRC position, which strips Taiwan and Taiwanese people of their fundamental agency. At a time when China does not shy from using violence to silence domestic dissenters regardless of their ethnicity, Zheng provides no convincing evidence for his view that, in contradiction to China’s public rhetoric, it does not actually intend to retake Taiwan by force. Finally, Zheng suggestively states that, “Pitching a Taiwanese identity against a Chinese one not only invites resentment from ethnic Chinese all over the world, but also diminishes Taiwan’s contributions to Chinese civilization” (p. 87) and that Taiwan should become “more Chinese” to ensure its own security. Zheng’s essay contributes to scholarship by bringing recent PRC rhetoric and ideology precisely to the fore.

In “Unbalanced threat or rising integration? Explaining relations across the Taiwan Strait,” Steve Chan emphasizes the growing influence of corporate relationships in the private sector as being central to the improvement of cross-Strait relations. He provides a detailed overview of literature on the “balance of power” theory in international relations, then discusses its weaknesses as applied to Taiwan. Rather than attempt to balance with China, Taiwan has been drawn toward it in recent years; Chan believes that the source of attraction is the economy. This attraction also challenges the traditional realist notion that for states, military security should be more important than economic development. He concludes by describing cross-Strait as a process of gradual integration, which has been engendered by Taiwan’s growing civil society. Throughout this essay, Chen points to various relevant comparisons, with states in East Asia as well as elsewhere in the world, while bringing them into dialogue with domestic Taiwanese developments.

“Information and nonofficial interactions in the new start of cross-Strait relations: the case of Taiwanese businessmen” by Jorge Tavares Da Silva can be read as a companion to Chan’s chapter, in that it emphasizes the role of private, unofficial agents who have utilized peaceful means to interact across the Taiwan Strait. Outside of the traditional semiofficial agencies in Taiwan and China, there has been an increase in economic, social, and cultural exchange by individuals, or “citizen diplomats.” The increased influence of new diplomacy has paved the way for friendlier relations, but by contrast shows that traditional official diplomacy is ineffective. Globalization has led to the formation of many transnational regional organizations, and as their roles expand in general, they are also being given more voice and power to conduct cross-Strait affairs. Taiwanese businessmen and investment in China also play an important role in maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait as many top-level executives have been able to affect politics by arranging meetings or by representing Taiwan at international summits.

In “Structural realism and liberal pluralism: an assessment of Ma Ying-Jeou’s cross-Strait policy,” authors T. Y. Wang, Su-feng Cheng, Ching-hsin Yu, and Lu-huei Chen differs from previous essays in an important way – by presenting the Taiwanese people themselves as a key in the cross-Strait dispute. The authors use the perspectives of structural realism (the state’s primary concern is security) and liberal pluralism (non-state actors amplify the importance of social and economic issues) to establish the central disagreement between national security and economic rationality in the Taiwan Strait. Through opinion polls, the authors find that Taiwanese citizens are most concerned with the issues of security, prosperity, and sovereignty, which largely conform to political party preferences in Taiwan. In conclusion, the authors advocate pragmatism on both sides – Taiwan should not make excessive demands to China, and China’s “one-China” principle should be applied with flexibility and creativity.“Envisioning a China-Taiwan peace agreement” by Phillip Saunders and Scott Kastner begin with the premise that it is now the right time to forge a peace agreement between Taiwan and China. The authors use different possibilities on separate sliding scales for potential parties to an agreement and form of an agreement (specificity, duration, and scope/side payments involved) to consider the wide range of possibilities such an agreement might entail. Taking into account the political differences between the two sides, the authors believe that a peace agreement would have uncertain efficacy as is, but would still produce benefits such as international and domestic audience costs, institutional constraints for both sides domestically, reduced uncertainty, and further positive points such as economic benefits, confidence-building measures, and identity goods. The authors also offer measured analysis of possible obstacles to the peace agreement and possible reasons for withdrawal. This is an important essay that identifies possible factors for and elements in a China-Taiwan peace agreement, and should be considered by scholars and policymakers alike.In “‘Democratic peace’ or ‘economic peace’? Theoretical debate and practical implications in new cross-Strait relations,” Yuchao Zhu presents the democratic peace and economic peace theories and then discusses why they are both invalid for the complex Taiwan-China situation. While both theories are made out to be straw man arguments, Zhu successfully contextualizes the precisely how they fail to apply to Taiwan, providing us with sufficient nuance in elucidating his conclusion that the major issues in cross-Strait relations are democracy, economy, and sovereignty require realistic and pragmatic treatment in order to find peaceful solutions.The concluding chapter by Scott Kastner emphasizes the value of international relations theory in considering cross-Strait relations, but advises that it must be applied cautiously. He states that IR theory is useful for a wide range of purposes, such as identifying research questions, providing a framework for analysis, and being a foundation for considering possible future scenarios. Kastner then constructs three scenarios for war and peace in the Taiwan Strait, finally arriving at the conclusion that IR theory must be used with sufficiently nuanced understanding of the key issues in the Taiwan Strait.

In general, the essays direct themselves against the rationalist/realist view in international relations, but it is generally well-known that these perspectives need refinement when applied to specific scenarios. The authors themselves disagree on a few important points, such as whether Taiwan is being economically “hollowed out” by China. It is valuable to have conflicting opinions in a collection, but it also invites the question of whether future scholars might resolve these inconsistencies by looking at a broader range of sources or economic indicators.Ultimately, the chapters in this book achieve varying success at grappling with a difficult and charged issue. However, it overlooks the fact that reference to “the Taiwan issue” already belies the position that Taiwan is what needs resolution, which further implies that China has control without international accountability. A minor editorial error in the Introduction states, “The greatest progress is seen in the literature that focuses on the politicoeconomy of relations between the mainland and China,” (p. 15) which we might read as an unintentional exclusion of the agency of Taiwan and its people from the table.

Suggested citation:

Winifred Chang (2013). Review of “New Thinking about the Taiwan Issue: Theoretical Insights into Its Origins, Dynamics, and Prospects” edited by Jean-Marc F. Blanchard and Dennis V. Hickey, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 6, no. 4, Internet file: