The Future of Taiwan

Dan Drezner has finally met a free trade agreement he doesn’t like. The treaty in question is one that would liberalize trade between China and Taiwan, and by itself that’s fine:

The security ramifications are troubling, however. While China’s economic leverage over the United States is limited, this kind of agreement would ratchet up the asymmetric dependence of Taiwan on the Chinese economy. Maybe Taiwan has already crossed the point of no return with regard to interdependence with the mainland — but this agreement would surely guarantee crossing that threshhold.

What would China do with this leverage? I don’t know, I really don’t. If Beijing plays the long game, they would allow for the build-up of political interest groups in Taiwan with a powerful incentive to appease the People’s Republic in order to keep the economic relationship unruffled. The thing is, China has often been clumsy in its initial attempts to translate economic power into political influence, and I could easily see such a misstep occurring a few years from now.

Perhaps I’m being paranoid about this. The one thing I’m certain about, however, is that the most likely flashpoint for a great power confrontation between the United States and China is anything involving Taiwan. So I get veeeeeeerrrrrrry nervous about anything that upsets that particular apple cart.

The future of China and Taiwan is, obviously, impossible to project with even minimal clarity. But I’ve long thought that the most likely scenario starts with increased economic ties and then moves toward things like artfully worded mutual nonagression treaties, followed by limited formal diplomatic ties and then by a sort of shadow version of what Hong Kong is to mainland China today. Then, eventually, Taiwan and China are reunited. The whole process might take the better part of a century, and I figure that China can probably deal with that.

But a million things could go wrong in the meantime. And of course I might be entirely wrong about how this plays out. But if everyone stays calm, my guess is that things end with a whimper, not a bang.