When Taiwan proudly displayed its second tranche of US-made Apache attack helicopters, its leader Tsai Ing-wen sent a clear a message to Beijing when she called the assertive display “an important milestone” in the island’s defences.

The message struck a tone in stark contrast to the atmospherics around a high-profile meeting in Beijing just days before between the representatives of two organisations which spent much of the last century at each other’s throats: the Communist Party and the Kuomintang.

Lien Chan, former vice-chair of the Kuomintang on Taiwan is no stranger to the Chinese capital. But his invitation to talk to President Xi Jinping hinted at the mainland cooling down the temperature over an issue that has been the subject of frequent hawkish comment in Chinese circles in recent months: the “resolution” of the Taiwan question of unification, whether consensually or otherwise.

Noises about the urgency of reunifying Taiwan have been catching the ears of China analysts around the world. In recent discussions in China and in the West, I’ve heard a growing sense from Chinese observers and policymakers that the reunification can’t be avoided forever.

One senior academic pointed out that a military solution was always possible, while a well-informed journalist, with some mordancy, suggested the issue might be resolved in Xi’s “third term” (strictly speaking, the president hasn’t actually asked for an extra term, just changed the constitution so that he could have one).

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Certainly China’s media and broader public sphere has been keener to raise the issue in recent months. Some of the hawkish talk has been fuelled by frustration with Tsai being elected president in 2016. Although she has been cautious about fuelling talk of Taiwan independence, some in Beijing’s policy circles have felt frustrated at the loss of the more mainland-friendly Kuomintang under Ma Ying-jeou, which extended business, education and aviation connections between the mainland and Taiwan in the early part of this decade.

Tsai has declined to endorse Beijing’s definition of the “1992 consensus”, a series of discussions between mainland and Taiwan representatives, interpreted as a belief in one-China policy on the mainland, but read more ambiguously by successive politicians both of the Kuomintang and Tsai’s independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DDP).

Beijing, meanwhile, has shown its displeasure with Tsai since her election, encouraging mainland tourists not to visit Taiwan, and influencing foreign companies such as Qantas airlines and Marriott Hotels not to refer to “Taiwan” as a separate territory on their websites, but instead list it as part of China.

There have also been more positive appeals to Taiwan’s population, including measures last March to allow more economic and commercial opportunities for Taiwan residents in the mainland.

A history of tension

The current bumpiness across the strait is part of a longer story. Few have ever been in doubt about China’s desire to reunify the renegade island, but Taiwan has waxed and waned as an issue in Beijing’s mind over the decades.

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Since 1895, when Taiwan was handed over to Japan as a colony after the first Sino-Japanese war, the island has only been unified under the rule of one state for four years, 1945-49, between the end of the second world war and the decision by Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists to flee to Taiwan when they were defeated by the communists in the China’s civil war. In 1958, Mao Zedong stimulated a crisis in the Taiwan Strait, bombing the islands of Jinmen and Mazu, as much to defy the US and challenge his ambivalent Soviet allies as with any real desire to take the island back. However, the island then disappeared as a major subject of contention for some two decades.

In 1971, the nationalist government lost its seat representing “China” in the United Nations. By 1979, the United States was ready to open diplomatic relations with China and the island was left with the Taiwan Relations Act, a commitment to support the island’s “self-defence”, which has never been tested to the point of conflict – leaving the fear in Taiwan that the United States might not come to Taiwan’s assistance in practice.

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Arms have been important in creating some sense of security for Taiwan. But in some senses, its best protective shield has come not from arms but an idea: democracy. Oddly enough, the easiest time for a reunification might have been the early 1980s. At that point, China’s authoritarian state was liberalising under leaders such as Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. Chiang Kai-shek had died in 1975 and his son Chiang Ching-kuo was broadening the public sphere cautiously, but Taiwan was still a dictatorship.

A reunification between two mildly liberalising authoritarian states developing their globalised market status was a possible outcome, particularly as the US was still relatively friendly toward China at that time. However, the two states soon went in very different directions, sowing the seeds of the division that marks them today. Under Chiang Ching-kuo, dissident movements, including many which advocated separation for Taiwan, were given legal status and helped to form the island’s contemporary multi-party structure and liberal civil society.

Taiwan’s democratisation has given China its biggest headache in terms of the narrative of reunification. In the cold war, the West used the rhetoric of “freedom” to describe countries allied to the US – Taiwan was known in those years as “Free China”.

But in Asia, with the exception of Japan, most of the “free” countries were pretty brutal places. South Vietnam was a political and economic basket case and there was relatively little sympathy in the West when it was taken over by its socialist northern neighbour in 1975.

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South Korea was a relatively mild regime in comparison with the baroque brutality of Kim Il-sung’s North, but the regime run by Park Chung-hee in Seoul was hardly a gentle one, and as late as 1980, his successor Chun Doo-hwan was responsible for the brutal killings in the Gwangju massacre. If the north had succeeded in occupying the south in Korea, it would hardly have been a defeat for liberal values. Similarly, a merger between Taiwan and China in the early 1980s would have been a shift geopolitically, but ideologically, not a major change in domestic politics.

Democracy spreads

A decade later, this was no longer the case. The democratisation that begun under Chiang Ching-kuo put Taiwan at the heart of a wave of democratisation that had passed China by in 1989, but was transforming Eastern Europe as well as large parts of Asia (the Philippines democratised in 1986 and South Korea in 1987). China expressed its anger at what it regarded as the pro-independence sentiment of Taiwan’s first democratically elected president, Lee Teng-hui, but there was no doubt that the island was turning into a genuine, raucous and pluralist multi-party state with a free media and a vocal public sphere – which included a party, the DPP, which strongly advocated the permanent separation of the island from the mainland.

That dynamic has continued to operate in the past few decades. The Kuomintang is clearly closer to the mainland, as Lien’s visits to Beijing and Ma Ying-jeou’s meeting with Xi in Singapore in 2015 show. But there is no chance that the party would step back from its commitment to pluralist democracy, and no reorientation towards the mainland that could allow a compromise on such an issue (not least since any reunification would probably have to be settled by a referendum – people would be unlikely to vote to lessen their democratic rights). There are also longer-term shifts in Taiwan’s politics that do not help Beijing’s cause. The Kuomintang appeals to an older demographic and younger Taiwanese increasingly identify with the independence-leaning DPP and the idea of Taiwan as a separate society.

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Sabre-rattling by Beijing clearly alienates many of these young voters, but in an unfortunate ratchet effect, China’s harsh rhetoric has intensified as the mainland fears a smooth path to unification may be slipping out of its grasp.

‘More autonomy than Hong Kong’

In response, Beijing points out that it has issued frequent white papers declaring that a reunified Taiwan would retain its autonomy on its political and social system. One liberal-minded Chinese foreign official recently told me that a reunification would be designed to have as little effect on the island as possible, although there would have to be changes to terms such as “president” for the territory’s leader. Another foreign policy intellectual assured said Taiwan would certainly have much more autonomy than even Hong Kong.

Yet the Hong Kong comparison worries many on Taiwan more than it did a decade ago. For many years, China held up the “one country, two systems” approach as an example of what could be done for a reunified Taiwan. And the aftermath of the Occupy protests was perceived in Taiwan as a sign that, when confronted, Beijing would stress order over liberal values and democratic voices in government or the media would be pressured into staying silent. This week, the Hong Kong government prepared to ban a small political party that police labelled an “imminent threat” to national security. Hong Kong no longer provides as attractive a showcase for the wooing of Taiwan.

The Hong Kong model also fails to answer a crucial question to which I have rarely received any kind of detailed answer: what would a reunified Taiwan look like, and how would it affect the mainland?

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Chinese thinkers have spoken of “federal” models that would acknowledge Taiwan’s very different way of life.

However, the incorporation of a lively, fully democratic polity of some 23 million people, which would send its own representatives to Beijing, would surely provide a challenge to a system in the mainland which is self-declaredly becoming less, not more liberal. There would always be a large proportion of the population which would continue to advocate a separate status from the mainland.

In Hong Kong, moves are under way to make it illegal to declare independence, based on provisions in the Basic Law. But in Taiwan, it is hard to imagine a fully democratic government being able to persuade its people to support any such constraint on freedom of speech. What would happen if a reunified Taiwan chose freely to elect a leader who advocated more distance, or even separation, from China? Genuine freedom of speech and unconstrained media would necessarily be part of any agreement so there could hardly be “anti-subversion” laws on the island to prevent such a result – but it would also place Beijing in an immensely difficult position as to how to respond.

The Chinese government would have to do something that is essentially unprecedented: peacefully incorporate a large, well-populated and highly liberal state within an larger authoritarian one. The question is not just about how Beijing would affect Taiwan, but how a reunified Taiwan would change Beijing.

Use of force bad for optics

There is, of course, the alternative scenario of the reunification of Taiwan by force, which the mainland has never ruled out. But again, the effects of a military occupation are hard to imagine. Many analysts would suggest that if it wanted to, the mainland could retake the island by force. But what would happen the day, month or year after? It is easier to occupy an island than a territory with land borders. But even then, forcible control of an island whose inhabitants have decades of experience of a free, liberal society would be costly, and possibly bloody, to maintain.

A forcible reunification would also do immense damage to the slow progress China has made in improving its image in the region. China would argue that Taiwan is a special case and that reunifying the island by force is in a different category from an assault on a separate country. But the use of arms against civilians (or soldiers) would do little to improve China’s weak “soft power” in the region.

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Xi is no doubt aware of the implications of reunification, which might be a reason for his relatively moderate words to Lien this week. Beijing’s strategy towards Taiwan in part reflects the changing nature of Chinese diplomacy in Asia. In general, China has been trying to raise the reputation of its diplomacy in the past few years. It has repaired relations with North and South Korea, and warmed the temperature of its relationship with Japan. To that extent, seeking to relieve the pressure on Taiwan is part of a wider attempt to create a warmer feeling about China in the region, particularly as US President Donald Trump’s unpredictable outbursts make many countries in the region increasingly uncertain about the US’s role in Asia.

Yet even if Xi is seeking to calm down the hawks in Beijing, it’s unlikely that a newly assertive China will let the Taiwan question go. A more considered view of what “unification” would actually mean, for China as well as Taiwan, is urgently overdue.

The status quo is geopolitically anomalous, but has kept the peace for decades. The phrase “rien ne dure comme le provisoire” (nothing lasts like the temporary) may have been a product of French diplomacy, expressing that sometimes an unsatisfactory status quo may be the best solution. Translating it into Chinese doesn’t make it less true.

Rana Mitter is Director of the University China Centre at the University of Oxford and author of ‘A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World’ and ‘China’s War with Japan, 1937-45: The Struggle for Survival’

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