The term endgame was originally applied to the final stages of a multifaceted matching of minds in the likes of chess or bridge. The term has also been widely used in politics to introduce and debate outcome investigations, as in, the Cold War endgame, the globalisation endgame and the Ukraine War endgame. This article considers the two primary perspectives, that of China and Taiwan, on the basic shape of Taiwan endgame alternatives.
China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing Dynasty, was established by the Manchus, who invaded from the north. By 1644 they had established control of Beijing – and China – after successfully toppling the Han Chinese, Ming Dynasty. The new Manchu rulers essentially retained the Chinese imperial ruling system but they also notably expanded the geographical reach of China during their rule, which lasted for over 250 years until 1912, when the Republic of China (ROC) was established. Taiwan was annexed by the Qing Dynasty in 1684. After the comprehensive defeat of China in the first Sino-Japanese war, Taiwan was ceded to Japan in 1895. Just on 50 years later it was returned to China after the defeat of Japan in 1945 in World War II.
Taiwan has, thus, been part of China since well before the French Revolution and the creation of the US and long before Australia was first settled by Europeans.
Following the defeat of the Kuomintang (KMT) military by the Communist Party of China (CPC) forces in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the KMT retreated to Taiwan, which became the much-minimised home of the ROC. The CPC meanwhile established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with its capital in Beijing. Although the CPC and KMT vehemently disagreed about who should rule China, both were in close agreement that there was One China, which included Taiwan. They each openly confirmed their commitment to this One China policy (or principle).
In 1971, the UN General Assembly resolved that the PRC was, the only legitimate representative of China to the United Nations. Beijing took over China’s seat in the United Nations (from the ROC) which included a veto-wielding position on the UN Security Council.
After the end of Martial Law in 1987, Taiwan began shifting away from one party rule (under the KMT) towards competitive democratic elections. In 2000, the first non-KMT government was elected. Chen, Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) became President. The DPP did not share the ready agreement of the KMT and CPC on the fundamentals of the One China policy. Chen Shui-bian made this clear during his premiership from 2000 to 2008 in an often unruly manner, which disconcerted the then US leadership.
The Beijing Perspective
The PRC was adamant from the outset that Taiwan was part of China and on this pivotal matter they were in firm agreement with the KMT, their Civil War foes. Today, the Beijing position is even more emphatically stressed. Since the DPP recovered the Presidency in Taiwan (under Tsai Ing-wen) in 2016, it has adopted, with increasing Washington support, a more antagonistic, independence-tilted stance towards Beijing.
Beijing has emphasised for decades that what they seek, above all, is a peaceful reunification of Taiwan with Mainland China. Beijing does not want to use force – but has made it clear that it will, under certain, stipulated circumstances do so to secure reunification. This position was repeated at the recent 20th National Congress of the CPC held in October, 2022. Most of the Western media chose to emphasise the possibility of force being used, thus recasting the primary emphasis on peaceful resolution as a subordinate option. This approach fits the dominant China Threat narrative which is now so actively advanced as a key component within the huge US-led project to contain China.
Still, China has maintained its customary, steady impulse control with respect to Taiwan. This has endured for over seven decades as Beijing has worked on both persuasion and developing its capacity to apply serious, military-backed pressure – if ultimately required.
The extraordinary rise of China has underpinned the persuasion aspect. Official figures from Taiwan tell us that in the 10 years to 2021, Taiwanese enterprises invested close to US$200 billion in the PRC and the value of cross-strait trade in 2020 was US$166 billion. Moreover, close to 6% of Taiwan’s total working age population, or about one million Taiwanese, work in the PRC. Taiwan’s long-term, positive economic linkages with the Mainland China match or exceed those of Hong Kong and Australia by certain measures.
The rise of China has also underwritten the rapidly growing scope of China’s military capacity. This is still far less than the colossal firepower deployed around the world by the US but, as the historian Niall Fergusson once pointed out, China has just a single, paramount offshore territorial concern, reunification with Taiwan, whereas the US (and its allies) are persistently involved in military alliance-building, forceful persuasion and major and minor warfare around the entire globe, decade after decade.
Thus, for China the endgame has always been brightly clear: reunification. This is not just the view of the CPC. For the vast majority of Chinese (including a small but steady minority on Taiwan) thinking of China without including Taiwan is as inconceivable (and unacceptable) as Canberra consenting to an Australia minus Tasmania.
But this is a long-term endgame. As John Copper recently noted, China has confirmed its strategic patience by setting such an extended deadline (2049 – the centenary of the creation of the PRC) to resolve Taiwan’s “unacceptable separation”. Moreover, President Xi Jinping said nothing during the recent CPC 20th National Congress to bring this deadline forward. See: “Why the US is provoking war with China in Taiwan”
The Taipei Perspective
The current DPP leadership in Taiwan knows that moving firmly towards any sort of independence declaration (for example, by organising an independence referendum) is a Beijing redline, which could trigger a move towards enforced reunification with the PRC. But this same leadership refuses to endorse the One China principle and it keeps testing how far it can push a pro-independence stance short of moving audaciously in that direction. This is combined with much mutual cross-strait political glaring – even as the economic coupling continues to deliver outstanding reciprocal benefits, year after year.
The ROC on Taiwan was internationally recognised as “China” within the UN until 1971 and it has enjoyed a substantial form of operational independence since then. The shorthand for this unusual arrangement is the “status quo”. Various opinion polls tell us that most Taiwanese: do not favour reunification; and they do not favour any sort of independence declaration. Clear, recurring majorities favour the continuation of this multi-decade status quo.
But what does this all mean in terms an endgame?
Within Taiwan, for the majority, the bottom line appears to be that this current arrangement is a “deferring-endgame”, which avoids talking about more concrete endgame options. Securing enduring adherence to retention of the status quo, across both sides of the Taiwan Strait and beyond, inhibits: (A) the outbreak of harsh economic warfare; and (B) more important, still, the outbreak of a highly destructive shooting war. Meanwhile, time is created for some sort of yet to be resolved, substantial endgame resolution to emerge. China also favours supporting the status quo, pro-tempore, but Beijing has consistently maintained a lucid understanding of its preferred endgame outcome.
For the DPP this wished-for, war-free outcome includes eventual steps towards Taiwan independence. For the DPP, also, retaining the status quo, while creating the time-space for this ultimately preferred outcome to materialise, requires significant military backing from the US to ensure that any attempt at forceful reunification by Beijing can be deterred, by making it as costly as possible.
The US is now regularly oscillating between openly saying it is ready to direct American forces to defend Taiwan – and saying its observance of the One China policy, agreed to in the 1972, joint Sino-US, Shanghai Communique, and the policy of strategic ambiguity both remain in place. As John Copper notes, the US, above all, sees major strategic advantages today in using Taiwan as a means both to contain China and to provoke Beijing repeatedly.
Discussion about Taiwan has intensified significantly since the monumental, US-led, Sino-containment project began in earnest over five years ago. That conversation addresses what Taiwan’s future may be and who could shape this. However, that future is largely rendered, in the West, in fairly abstract terms, such as maintaining democracy. Adding meaning to what may be the alternative endgames for Taiwan benefits from paying enhanced attention to specific aspects of some key alternative outcomes that Taiwan may face.
Washington’s paramount concern with respect to Taiwan is the US national interest in advancing its project to suppress the rise of China. The interests of Taiwan are secondary. The fluctuating, almost erratic, propositions related to US military backing are a consequence of this American geopolitical thinking, which now appears to value mystifying Washington’s true intentions as much as possible.
Next, the Taiwanese economy – and its First World living standards – are intimately dependent on the PRC economy and the rise of China. That same rise is, year by year, strengthening Beijing’s capacity to fashion the outcome of the Taiwan question by direct force, as a last resort. Then there is the fact is that, of the 193 UN member countries, 181 recognise the One China principle – and maintain diplomatic relations with Beijing. How Taiwan could ever become independent in a manner recognised internationally without Beijing’s agreement is extremely difficult to envisage. And securing that agreement is even harder to imagine.
Taiwan’s ultimate outcome-aspirations are, frankly, not well grounded, which is one important reason why they are not discussed, openly, in detail. Beijing’s aspirations are plainly stated and set out within a clear, extended time-line. Moreover, using an historical measure, one can see that they are robustly grounded.