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Should Washington be concerned about whether Taiwan will declare Independence?

By Russell Hsiao

As Tsai Ing-wen finishes the remaining two years of her second and final consecutive term as president of Taiwan, there are some concerns being voiced in Washington that the people of the island nation may elect a pro-independence president who could upset the fraught yet delicate balance in the Taiwan Strait. Specifically, there are growing worries that the next president, who may not be as much of a “steady hand” as President Tsai, would take moves that could radically push Taiwan—officially known as the Republic of China (ROC)—towards de jure “independence” and provoke a military conflict in the Taiwan Strait.

The question of whether or not Taiwan will declare its independence or move towards unification with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is perhaps the most hotly debated and poorly understood issue in Washington, Taipei, and Beijing. While public opinion surveys in the country have gauged the people’s preference for either independence, unification, or the “status quo” – and clearly indicated that an overwhelming majority on the island clearly prefers the “status quo” – what is less clear from such polling data is what exactly the “status quo” of Taiwan’s national independence means to the people who would ultimately make that decision: the people of Taiwan.

De Facto, De Jure, and the Status Quo

In January 2022, the Green-leaning My Formosa E-Newsletter (美麗島電子報) released the results of a series of surveys evaluating the Taiwanese people’s views on this very question of national independence, and their expectations for the next president. The survey, the “January 2022 National Political Poll” (2022年1月國政民調), asked respondents: “Some people say that only when a new constitution is enacted to establish the Republic of Taiwan, is Taiwan truly independent, but some people say that our country is already sovereign and independent, maintaining the status quo is independence, so there is no need to change the country name. Which one do you prefer?”

According to the survey results, 75.9 percent of respondents believed that maintaining the status quo meant independence, so there is no need to change the country’s name. This was described as “de facto independence” (事實獨立). By contrast, 14.4 percent think that only the creation of a new constitution would allow Taiwan to truly be considered independent. This is described as “de jure Taiwan independence” (法理台獨). These results suggest that there is a high degree of consensus among the people, with more than three-quarters of respondents across the political spectrum believing that the country is already sovereign and independent.

Unlike many other critical issues concerning national policy in which a partisan divide exists, there appears to be a bipartisan consensus when it comes to national independence. In terms of the breakdown of responses according to political affiliation, more than 80 percent of respondents who identified as centrist or pan-Blue believed that maintaining the status quo entailed de facto independence, meaning that there is no need to change the name of the country; while 69.4 percent of respondents who identified as pan-Green also hold this view (whereas 23.7 percent of pan-Green respondents believe that only the establishment of a new constitution would lead to true independence). Furthermore, 70 percent of the people who trust President Tsai hold the same view, with only 20.5 percent of those people believing that a new constitution is necessary.

To put a finer point on the respondents’ views on Taiwan’s official name, the survey also asked the question: “The British media once asked President Tsai whether she would formally declare independence under the name of Taiwan. President Tsai publicly stated that Taiwan, the Republic of China, is already an independent country, and there is no need to declare itself an independent country again. Do you find President Tsai’s statement acceptable?” According to the survey results, 72.8 percent of the public said that they accept the statement (with 22.1 percent finding it very acceptable and 50.7 percent finding it fairly acceptable), 21.2 percent found it unacceptable (9.7 percent very unacceptable and 11.5 percent somewhat unacceptable), while 6 percent did not answer clearly.

For context, in the BBC interview cited in the survey, the exact words of President Tsai were: “…the idea is that we don’t have a need to declare ourselves an independent state. We are an independent country already and we call ourselves the Republic of China (Taiwan), and we have our own system of running the country, and we do have a government and we have a military, and we have elections, like the presidential elections that you have witnessed.”

A “Taiwan Consensus” and the next president

To be sure, a common definition of the “status quo” has been elusive in Washington, Taipei, and Beijing – much less within Taipei itself. Beijing has its definition, while Taipei has historically swung between two polar extremes – presidents on both sides of the aisle have skirted around the edges, with Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) advocating movements towards de jure independence between 2000-2008 and Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) arguing for greater alignment with Beijing between 2008-2016. Yet, as the My Formosa E-Newsletter may indicate, public opinion within Taiwan may be coalescing around a definition and a “Taiwan consensus.”

The 2022 survey result is also broadly consistent with public opinion polls on the topic conducted in 2015, just prior to the Tsai Administration. In one such survey, 65.8 percent supported the statement that “Taiwan is the Republic of China, the Republic of China is Taiwan,” whereas 22.6 percent did not support the statement, while 11.8 percent did not provide a clear answer. For those who agreed with the statement, 74.6 percent also believed that there is not a need to change the name of the country to become a new country, while 14.4 percent stated that it was necessary, and 10.9 percent did not provide a clear response.

So, what then do the respondents hope the next president of Taiwan will emphasize on the matter of national independence? According to the 2022 My Formosa E-Newsletter survey, 70.9 percent want the next president to maintain the status quo, 10.7 percent want a new constitution and the establishment of a Republic of Taiwan, 10.1 percent want the president to pursue the “1992 consensus; One China, different interpretation,” and only 1.8 percent expect the president to pursue cross-Strait unification.

Should Washington be concerned?

During a Congressional hearing held in April 2021, the Biden administration’s Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told the Senate Armed Services Committee: “I would say that already Taiwan is hardening to some extent towards independence as they’re watching, essentially, what happened in Hong Kong, and I think that is an increasing challenge.”

While public opinion in Taiwan does indeed appear to be hardening towards independence, the My Formosa E-Newsletter survey also shows that this does not mean that the people are rushing towards de jure independence. Quite the contrary, as the overwhelming majority prefers the status quo, which to them means that the country—the Republic of China (Taiwan)—is already sovereign and independent, negating the need for a change of name or a declaration of de jure independence.

Although the agency of the presidency certainly matters for the policy orientation of any new government, there are a multitude of factors that will shape their policies. Despite the pro-independence and pro-unification instincts of Chen Shui-bian and Ma Ying-jeou, respectively, neither were able to move the country fundamentally towards either goal.

Structural factors, as well as the constraints of public opinion in a robust democratic system, have had a moderating effect on both presidencies. Voters ultimately voted Chen and the Democratic Progressive Party (民進黨) out of office in 2008, while popular protests in 2014 turned public support away from the Kuomintang (國民黨), leading to Tsai’s victory in 2016. Such constraints will also help determine who would ultimately be electable in 2024, as well as the extent to which any presidential candidates’ individual initiatives would elicit popular support. With the likely inclusion of a strong third-party candidate like Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) in the 2024 race, capturing the middle will become even harder, and will perhaps be an even more important factor in winning.

In November 2021, President Joe Biden stated: “We have made very clear we support the Taiwan Act, and that’s it. It’s independent. It makes its own decisions.” In a clarifying response, the American president added: “we are not encouraging [Taiwan] independence, we’re encouraging that they [the people on Taiwan] do exactly what the Taiwan Act requires, and that’s what we’re doing. Let them make up their mind. Period.” 

It appears that the majority of people in Taiwan agree with president Biden.

The main point: According to a recent poll, around 75 percent of Taiwan people believed that maintaining the status quo meant independence and there is no need to change the country’s name. This should mitigate concerns that a future president of Taiwan will have demand signals to pursue de jure independence.

Russell Hsiao is the executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute (GTI) and editor-in-chief of the Global Taiwan Brief.



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