A central question related to the effectiveness of Taiwan’s ability to resist the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) efforts to coerce or at best strongly influence Taiwan back into Beijing’s political sphere is the resiliency of the Taiwan population. In my last essay for the Global Taiwan Brief I discussed the various ways Beijing is attempting to strongly persuade Taiwan to integrate with the PRC. These include a range of activities that include economic incentives to entice Taiwan into developing closer ties between the two sides and veiled threats involving China’s military in order to deter Taiwan from declaring a legal separation in the relationship. The main point made by that essay was that the ability of Taiwan to resist these kinds of activities came down to political will, which ultimately rested on psychological factors. This brief examines the question of resiliency: how resilient is the Taiwan population, and how resistant is it to these kinds of coercive efforts?
The first analytical question that must be addressed is the obvious one: how does the Taiwan population largely sees itself? If it is the case that a large segment of Taiwan’s population has grown to see themselves as Chinese and will continue to do so over time, then the ultimate objective is to tie their fate to the PRC in the long-run, with the hope that China’s political system ultimately evolves or reforms itself to such an extent that eventual political integration is possible or that the Chinese system collapses, leaving Taipei as the only legitimate government of the Chinese people. Resilience in this case comes in the form of resistance to Beijing’s efforts to quickly integrate Taiwan and to ensure Taiwan’s freedom of action and autonomy are robust enough to prevent integration should the Chinese political system not evolve in a favorable manner. Resiliency would come in the form of hard bargaining and a “buying time” strategy while Taiwan continues expanding ties, economic or otherwise, with the mainland.
If, on the other hand, the population increasingly sees itself as Taiwanese, then resiliency must be defined differently. The Taiwan population must be prepared for heightened coercive actions leveled against it, and therefore resiliency in this case must be measured by the Taiwan population’s capacity to resist through willingness to fight for its freedom. Of course in the case of the Taiwan population seeing itself as Chinese, there is still a need for a strong military and a will to resist Beijing’s provocations, but resiliency in the military sphere takes on a particularly urgent note if the Taiwan population increasingly sees its future independent of China. Nonetheless, in both cases resiliency is tied to the population’s willingness to create and sustain a strong military.
Recent polling indicates that the Taiwan population is increasingly seeing itself less as “Chinese” and more as “Taiwanese.” Polls from National Chengchi University, Taiwan Brain Trust, and Academia Sinica have been consistent on this point. While these polls also show that the Taiwan population does not want confrontation with China and is not eager for outright war over independence, large segments of the population, when given the choice between unification and independence, pick the latter. When polls give those surveyed more nuanced choices such as: “depending on how events develop in the future,” “permanent status quo,” “eventual unification,” and “eventual independence,” a large segment of Taiwan’s population chooses a wait-and-see approach. With this said, what else can we infer about Taiwan resiliency?
While Taiwan’s population sees itself as increasingly Taiwanese, and not Chinese, its youth do not appear to be putting any “skin in the game.” Recent reports on enlistment and reenlistment rates, as well as reports on the Republic of China (Taiwan) military’s ability to meet manpower requirements have characterized this issue as disappointing. The ROC Ministry of National Defense (MND) has postponed movement to an all-volunteer force twice since 2015. A large part of this problem comes down to pocket book issues—the MND currently lacks the budget to provide generous recruitment and reenlistment packages—but it also comes down to the fact that the military is not necessarily seen as providing a glamorous career path.
Other forms of resiliency
While willingness to serve in the military is an important indicator of resiliency, it is not the only indicator. There are other measures to determine how resilient a population might be. Taiwan, for example, ranks high in the UN “ World Happiness Report,” a collection of United Nations data on how satisfied populations are with their societies, political systems, governance, and economy. Taiwan ranked #33 of a total of 151 nations surveyed, which is a ranking higher than Spain, Japan, and Italy. The “happiness” indicator also measures how happy or satisfied a population is over time. Taiwan’s “happiness measure” has improved over time. Its current ranking is an improvement over its ranking during the 2005-2007 survey period (#47), which is not bad, given its larger political-strategic context.
Another measure of Taiwan resiliency is the faith that its business community has in the economy of Taiwan. In this regard, Taiwan seems to measure well. According to data from Taiwan’s Investment Commission of the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Taiwan’s level of direct investment in its own economy has increased steadily between 2013 and 2017. This may be the result of recognition that Taiwan needs to fold investment back into its own economy given the rocky road ahead with mainland China. But all of the increased investment cannot be attributed to that fact; at least some of it may be explained by the overall perspective of Taiwan’s business community that the Taiwan economy is viable, with sound businesses, good business models and a reliable work force. At the same time that this is good news economically for the island, a related but troubling data point is that Taiwan’s younger entrepreneurs are risk averse and reluctant to invest in Taiwan.
Finally, resiliency is also measured in the effectiveness of the management of Taiwan’s political system. Taiwan has now enjoyed over 20 years of democratic governance, highlighted by three instances of political power being transferred from one political party to another and then back again. As is the case with the United States’ 2016 election, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) victory in January 2016, after which power was transferred from the KMT, is an indication that Taiwan’s political and legal institutions are maturing over time and have become resilient enough to withstand the rough and tumble of electoral politics numerous times.
The resiliency of the Taiwan population is mixed. On the one hand Taiwan’s youth do not appear to have answered the call to military service, which is affecting enlistment and recruitment rates for the Taiwan military. This is a major problem. The MND will need to address this manpower shortage either through better recruitment packages (e.g. more money) or improved public relations campaign to highlight the importance of serving, or a combination of both. At the same time, there are positive measures of Taiwan’s resiliency including its high ranking in the “happiness measure” of the United Nations, its business community’s increased investment in the Taiwan economy itself, and the demonstrated sustainability of its political system and institutions.
The Main Point: Problems for resiliency in Taiwan appear to center around the resiliency of Taiwan’s youth. If future Blue or Green governments decide to focus on the issue of Taiwan’s resiliency, it would be wise to focus resources on promoting resiliency in this demographic. These include providing more funds for the defense budget to improve recruitment and retention packages for military personnel, and providing seed money or incentives to encourage young entrepreneurs to invest in Taiwan itself.