China's Reunification with Taiwan Won't Happen Anytime Soon. Here's Why | Opinion

A Taiwanese protester carries a burning Chinese flag during a parade outside a hotel in Taiwan's central Taichung city on December 22, 2009 to demonstrate against a visit by China's top envoy Chen Yunlin. PATRICK LIN/AFP/Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping's January 2 speech on Taiwan triggered a new round of heated debates about China-Taiwan relations. Those who do not support Taiwan-China unification believe a democracy should not be devoured by an authoritarian regime, and remain skeptical that the Chinese government will honor the "One Country, Two Systems(一国两制)" model it has promised, citing Hong Kong's shrinking liberty as a precedent. Xi suggested that unification with Taiwan would be different, offering to develop a new model for Taiwan based on political consultations with representatives from various political parties and walks of life in Taiwan; still, many people simply do not trust the Chinese government.

Aside from Beijing's trust deficiency, there are three major obstacles blocking a Chinese unification with Taiwan. By all indications, the prospect for unification in the short term is very dim.

First, few Taiwanese identify themselves as Chinese. With Taiwan's "de-Sinonization (去中国化)" education, the Taiwanese increasingly see China as a foreign country and hostile neighbor. It's not just that the majority of Taiwanese do not like the communist government in Beijing or they do not favor "One Country, Two Systems"; they also feel that Taiwan is already an independent state, with its own government, military, territory, and population.

Various polls in Taiwan suggest that the majority, often over 80 percent of Taiwanese, prefer the status quo to either independence or unification. For most Taiwanese, the "status quo" means Taiwan is already a separate country from China despite historical and cultural links. Since Taiwan is a democracy, the Taiwanese naturally believe they can and should determine Taiwan's future by themselves. Indeed, some in Taiwan would rather turn Taiwan into the 51st state of the United States than a part of China. President Xi has said unification should be more than integration of Taiwan and the mainland; it should mean "agreement of the minds (心灵契合)"across the Taiwan Strait. He is spot on, but with Taiwanese identity clashing with Chinese nationalism, how can such a harmony exist?

Second, China lacks soft power and popular appeal, and is not ready for unification. Beijing is already preoccupied with handling numerous pressing issues at home. With daunting challenges including a slowing economy and growing ethnic tensions in Xinjiang and Tibet already on its plate, Beijing cannot afford to rush for a premature unification.

Unification may also prompt people inside China to ask: why can't Taiwan and the mainland live under "One Country, One System" or "One Country, Good System (一国良制)," and demand a better system across the strait. Since Beijing says anything can be discussed under "One China," what if Taiwan says it would join China when it becomes a democracy? Is Beijing willing to lift media censorship and guarantee freedom of speech? Or allow the existence of opposition parties? Taiwan's dynamic, sometimes boisterous democracy is the most powerful weapon it possesses. Taiwan can also refer to Dr. Sun Yat-sen's "Three Principles of the People"(三民主义)as preconditions for reunification: nationalism, democracy, and people's livelihood. Sun is revered on both sides, and it will be difficult for Beijing to say no.

Third, the United States, the most crucial external actor, will not support China-Taiwan unification out of its own national interests, and will likely do everything possible to prevent it from happening.

The United States switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. The Taiwan Relations Act passed by U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in April 1979 has regulated "unofficial" relations between the U.S. and Taiwan since. But in practice, U.S.-Taiwan relations are much stronger than America's relations with most countries. In particular, every administration since President Ronald Reagan has sold weapons to Taiwan, despite an apparent violation of the U.S. commitment to China contained in the 1982 Communiqué between the two governments. In their defense, U.S. officials have stressed there is correlation between arms sales to Taiwan and the PRC's peaceful policy toward Taiwan. Beijing's rapid military modernization has given the U.S. new impetus for arms sales to Taiwan as U.S.-China strategic rivalry intensifies.

President Donald Trump has further elevated U.S.-Taiwan relations. In 2018, Trump signed several pro-Taiwan legislations, including The Taiwan Travel Act and The Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, which reaffirm strong U.S. support for Taiwan.

The United States will continue to play the "Taiwan card" especially when relations with Beijing are strained. To keep Taiwan's unique status as a separate entity from China but not formally create "two Chinas" or "One China, One Taiwan" is probably in the best interest of the U.S.

Combined, these factors make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for China to achieve its ambitious goal of national unification in the foreseeable future.

Zhiqun Zhu, PhD, is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA.