Sunflower Movement Questions Future Direction of Cross-Strait Relations

Interview with John W. Garver
June 18, 2014

Following the signing of the controversial Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, John W. Garver (Georgia Institute of Technology) discusses the immediate challenges facing cross-strait relations and assesses whether a more harmonious or confrontational relationship between the two countries is on the horizon.

An Interview with John W. Garver

By Andrew Windsor
June 18, 2014

Despite a significant warming of economic relations between the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) during Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou’s first term, this trend in cross-strait relations has recently been tested by a series of agreements meant to help bridge relations between the opposing sides of the Taiwan Strait. On March 18, with the signing of the controversial Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA), domestic objection in Taiwan surged, taking the form of what would be called the Sunflower Movement and resulting in the occupation of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan by protesters. The protests formally ended on April 10, days after Taiwan’s legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng made verbal concessions to postpone review of the CSSTA and introduce monitoring legislation for future cross-strait agreements.

The Sunflower Movement illustrates the political and economic significance of the CSSTA for both the current state and future direction of cross-strait relations, as well as the potential political and economic implications for Taiwan and China. The National Bureau of Asian Research spoke with John W. Garver, Professor of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, to better understand the immediate challenges facing cross-strait relations and assess whether a more harmonious or confrontational relationship between the two countries is on the horizon.

What would you say are the major factors in Taiwan’s emerging uncertainty and hesitation over cross-strait relations during the CSSTA deliberation?

There is both a broader and a more proximate aspect. The broader factor is growing unease with the speed and breadth of expanding cross-strait economic relations under the Ma Ying-jeou administration. Taiwan has moved very far, and very fast, in expanding cross-strait economic cooperation, trade ties, cultural ties, and so forth, with the PRC. This has led to a growing apprehension about the direction and uncertainty of cross-strait relations.

The proximate factor would be the attempt by the Ma administration to push the CSSTA through the Legislative Yuan without a process of open and broad consultation with the concerned public. The frustration of trying to get things passed through the legislative system is understandable, but President Ma tried to push it through without adequate consultation. The Democratic Progressive Party of course seized on this for both national security reasons and partisan considerations.

With an issue of this gravity in terms of the economy, cross-strait relations, and Taiwan’s future, there has to be a more deliberative and consultative process put in place; you cannot force something like the CSSTA through—well, you can, but the results, as we have seen, will not be satisfactory.

Is the extent of cross-strait integration and relations becoming a hazard for domestic instability in Taiwan?

Overall, the protests were conducted peacefully. Breaking into the Legislative Assembly I am sure violated laws, but, on the other hand, the protests were remarkably nonviolent. They went on for weeks without large amounts of physical violence or bloodshed. This struck me as an affirmation of Taiwan’s vibrant democracy—maybe rocky at times, but still vibrant. Some laws were broken, but there was not widespread killing or assault. It was not a case of one group going into another part of town and massacring another group; it was not that type of disorder. Instead, I would say that this was a standard act of civil disobedience, a deliberate breaking of laws, but in a nonviolent fashion in pursuit of some higher moral objective. This does not belittle the Sunflower Movement’s importance as an indication of widespread domestic concern, nor should the movement be read as a herald of larger domestic unrest in Taiwan.

Will the perceived direction of future cross-strait engagement have any implications for the upcoming local and 2016 national elections in Taiwan?

Let me answer that question this way: both sides of this argument have legitimate concerns. President Ma is right on the mark about the need for Taiwan to expand cross-strait economic relations. Taiwan is greatly handicapped in signing economic agreements, whereas South Korea, ASEAN countries, and other nations are moving forward with free trade agreements, both regionally and with China. Taiwan is in danger of being disadvantaged in an era of increasing regional and global economic integration. Taiwan enjoys the freedom of democracy, the ability to rule itself, and all the substance of independence, but it does not possess independence in its de jure form. This complicates conducting bilateral and regional political and economic agreements. That’s a bitter pill, but the people and political leaders of Taiwan have become educated in that reality. Of course, the fate of Chen Shui-bian was another chapter in that education process, and it was a bitter class.

Examining the policies undertaken by the Ma administration as a whole, they are a major step toward the full integration of the two economies, which could eventually resemble something of a cross-strait NAFTA. Ma is correct to build a good niche in the emerging global economy in an effort to promote and recover economic growth.

On the other hand, there are real security concerns that Taiwan needs to take seriously. Witnessing what has happened to Ukraine, especially in Crimea, I am absolutely confident that if Beijing ever decides to move against Taiwan, it will initiate the emergence of local groups that call for Chinese involvement. This will cause cleavages and fissures within Taiwan that will resemble what is happening internally in the Ukraine. President Ma needs to build a consensus within Taiwan about this new era in cross-strait relations. If you compare Chen with Ma, and where each has taken relations with the mainland, the speed and breadth of the development of cross-strait relations under Ma’s policies are impressive. However, Ma has not established an adequate consensus-building process because of the political difficulty in doing so. Taiwan needs to consider this very seriously within the rubric of internal security. Chinese involvement with Taiwan’s airline industry, telecommunications industry, and other strategic sectors has considerable national security implications.

How are volatile events in Taiwan, such as the Sunflower Movement, portrayed in mainland China?

A major theme of the treatment of Taiwanese politics is the chaos of Taiwan’s democracy. When there are fistfights among legislators, strikes and demonstrations that block the streets, or the opposition seizes the podium and fights to maintain control over the Legislative Yuan, these are covered on Chinese news and television at great length. Chinese media relishes the opportunity to cover these events and to present the inadequacy of Taiwan’s democratic system.

Paradoxically, such incidents are staples of a democracy. It may look like a chaotic mess, but in fact the result is more profoundly stable than a political system without the turmoil. A political system that cannot have demonstrations may appear nice and orderly, but there is a large amount of pent-up anger below the surface that could erupt. My overall take is that the protests over the CSSTA were a powerful confirmation of the substantive reality of Taiwan’s democracy.

China spins this to try to inoculate the people of the mainland from being attracted to Taiwan’s political system—its democracy. This is also paradoxical, however, because there are opinion surveys of people in the mainland about whether they want a liberal democracy or fundamental reform of the Chinese political system. These surveys find little support in China for the process of democratization. Nonetheless, the Communist Party is afraid to death of some type of democratic movement. Lessons were taken from what happened with the Arab Spring and the revolutions in Central Asia. The Chinese leadership’s treatment of Taiwan’s protests are a function of broader concerns with regime survival and reflect an awareness of the profoundly subversive impact of modern information and communications technology.

Are there strategic benefits for Taiwan from closer economic ties and integration with China in terms of the right to participate in international organizations?

If Beijing is smart, it would be lavishing these types of opportunities on Taiwan and would go much further in granting the island expanded international living space. The PRC will not get a more pro-Chinese leader of Taiwan than Ma. It should be rewarding his efforts and giving him reasons to reassure the Taiwanese people that closer cross-strait integration is to their advantage. Beijing has not been more forthcoming likely because that would make the regime appear weak, especially in the eyes of the People’s Liberation Army, which believes that such a generous approach of diplomatic peace would not be appropriate given China’s growing international power.

Beijing has not played the one card that would really have some impact in Taipei, and that is allowing Taiwan membership in the UN General Assembly. China’s argument is that the German or Korean model of division, where both countries entered the UN, does not apply to this situation. But in fact this is the one gesture Beijing could make to really foster pro-Chinese opinion in Taiwan. Taiwan’s participation in the General Assembly would not in any way constitute an obstacle to a peaceful unification of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, if or when the people of Taiwan decide that this outcome is what they want.

Andrew Windsor is a Political and Security Affairs Intern at NBR.