The Jamestown Foundation
Date: October 19, 2020
By:: Timothy Rich, Andi Dahmer
The ill-defined sovereignty of Taiwan, which officially continues to exist under the political identity of the Republic of China (ROC), is often presented as a tension between two possible future outcomes: either unification with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), or formal independence. This ambiguous status quo not only allows Taiwan’s competing domestic supporters of unification or independence to believe in the possibility that their desired outcome could one day be attained, but has also led PRC officials to believe that widespread latent support for unification endures in Taiwan.
Beijing maintains that Taiwan is a province of the PRC, but its insistence on eventual unification contrasts with a growing sense of distinct Taiwanese identity on the island, as well as a declining sense of Chinese identity (The Asia Dialogue, February 8, 2019; Taiwan News, February 24). At the same time, an explicit move towards formal independence is constrained by the possibility of military conflict: without a guarantee of U.S. aid, it is unlikely that Taiwan’s smaller military could prevent a PRC victory in the event that the sovereignty dispute became violent. 
With the status quo in jeopardy, two polling questions are increasingly pertinent: 1) How do Taiwanese perceive prospects for strengthening relations with either the PRC or the United States; and 2) Do Taiwanese people support unification with the PRC, or do they support an independent Taiwan? Several factors must be considered in answering the first question, which encompasses the thorny issue of Taiwan sovereignty. Improved relations with the PRC would likely yield economic benefits for Taiwan, and could also de-escalate the diplomatic fight that has taken place globally over the issue of formal recognition of Taiwan. At the same time, many Taiwan officials and citizens are concerned that greater economic integration will ultimately serve the PRC’s longer-term goal of unification.
Strengthening relations with the United States would bolster Taiwan’s security. The United States is a major supplier of weapons to Taiwan, and the country most likely to come to its aid in the event of a mainland invasion. However, closer relations with the United States could also exacerbate tensions with the PRC, thereby endangering Taiwan. In the worst case scenario, closer ties between the United States and Taiwan could convince mainland Chinese officials to act on unification sooner, rather than later—before American commitments solidify.