The China Factor in the Evolution of Cross-Strait Relations, 2024 and Onward


Image credit: MS Dan Bard, Canadian Forces Combat Camera, Canadian Armed Forces Photo


by David Curtis Wright
CGAI Fellow
March 2024


Table of Contents


In the coming decade, mainland China can be expected to continue affirming, maintaining, and strengthening its policy stance towards Taiwan, a policy that has not changed since the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. Beijing’s policy is this: Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory, Taiwan was wrested away from China by an aggressive and expansive militarist and imperialist Japan in 1895, reverted to China after Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, and will one day be reunified with mainland China, peaceably if at all possible but by military force if it proves absolutely necessary.

Beijing has never wavered in these territorial claims and likely never will. Cross-strait relations between Taiwan and the mainland have evolved, and they are today much less tense than they were during the darkest years of the Cold War, the last few years of which I experienced as a young man in Taiwan between 1980 and 1985. Taiwan and the mainland now have direct telephone connections, direct flights, direct postal service, some internet connectivity, and extensively integrated economic relations – things that would have been beyond unthinkable in, say, 1982.   

But cross-Strait relations will never evolve to the point of Beijing fully and formally accepting independence for Taiwan. Let there be no wishful thinking about this. Attitudes in mainland China are hardening and becoming more strident, and not merely in rhetoric. China is preparing for war with and over Taiwan. If China ever concludes that all hope for peaceful reunification with Taiwan has been shattered, it will attack the island, regardless of who its friends and allies are.

The longing for Taiwan to return to the Chinese motherland is by no means limited to the government of the PRC. Ordinary Chinese perhaps feel more strongly about this than even their government. I started learning and thinking about China in 1980, and since then I have met only three mainland Chinese who think Taiwan ought to become an independent country. The overwhelming majority of them feel differently, even those otherwise severely critical of the PRC government.

Perhaps nobody can better convey the deep and heartfelt emotional longing of the Chinese people for the return of Taiwan to their embrace than poet Yu Guangzhong (1928–2017). Yu was also a prominent essayist, and his 2017 obituary in the New York Times said he “came to symbolize the aching separation, displacement, and longing for cultural unity felt by many in mainland China and in the Chinese diaspora.” (Qin 2017) Born, raised, and educated in mainland China (Nanjing), he fled to Hong Kong when the mainland fell to the Chinese communists in 1949 and spent the rest of his life in exile in Hong Kong, the United States, and Taiwan. He is best known for his Chinese-language poem “Longing for Home,” which I give in my own translation here:    


Longing for Home, by Yu Guangzhong 余光中 (Yu Kwang-chung)

When I was a child,
Longing for home was but a small, small postage stamp away:
I was here,
My mother was there.

When I became a man,
Longing for home was but a narrow, narrow steamship ticket away:
I was here,
My bride was there.

Ah, but later on,
Longing for home was a short, short gravesite:
I was on the outside,
My mother was inside.

And now,
Longing for home is a shallow, shallow strait:
I am here,
The mainland is there.

The Taiwan issue must not be underestimated, downplayed, or overlooked. It is one of the most potentially volatile and dangerous hotspots in the world today.


Can China Act Rationally Regarding Taiwan?

One key assumption driving some of the more roseate assessments of the likelihood of war in the Taiwan Strait anytime soon is that China is unlikely to attack Taiwan because it would be so much against China’s own self-interest. This is a logical and rational assumption, but logic and rationality do not, ipso facto, necessarily make it valid. In her classic work The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, Barbara Tuchman observes in her chapter “Pursuit of Policy Contrary to Self-Interest” that historically, governments have frequently done just the opposite of their self-interest:  

Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity. In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense, and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be … Mao Tse-tung [Mao Zedong] may be admired for many things, but the Great Leap Forward, with a steel plant in every backyard, and the Cultural Revolution were exercises in unwisdom that greatly damaged China’s progress and stability, not to mention the Chairman’s reputation (Tuchman 1984, 4, 7).

Tuchman (1984, 4, 7) says the source of such daftness is “wooden-headedness”:

Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception, is a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts …Wooden-headedness is also the refusal to benefit from experience.

The heedlessness and solipsism inherent in wooden-headedness have led to some spectacular military miscalculations:

Throughout history cases of military folly have been innumerable … Two of the most eventful … however, both involving war with the United States, represent policy decisions at the government level. They were the German decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare in 1916 and the Japanese decision to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941. In both cases, contrary voices warned against the course taken, urgently and despairingly in Germany, discreetly but with profound doubt in Japan, unsuccessfully in both. The folly in both cases belongs to the category of self-imprisonment in the “we-have-no-alternative” argument and in the most frequent and fatal of self-delusions—underestimation of the opponent (Tuchman 1984, 26–27).

To give a recent example of this, both sides in the Hong Kong crisis spectacularly violated rational self-interest in China in 2019: the protesting Hong Kongers and President Xi Jinping, who overreacted to them. Thanks to the 2019 protesters who seem to have thought, quite naively, that they could beard the lion in his den without being mauled in the end, Hong Kong is now significantly less free than it was before the 2019 protests. As for Xi, his hard authoritarian crackdown in overreaction to the crisis has now shown Taiwan quite clearly that the “one country, two systems” he and his government have touted is a sham, a chimera, a farce. Now, no Taiwanese with a lick of common sense and decency sees it as any sort of viable and acceptable possibility for Taiwan. Virtually nobody in Taiwan wants their island to be another Hong Kong.  

Having constantly dinned into the ears of the Chinese public since October 1949 that Taiwan is China’s and will someday unite with China willy-nilly, Beijing can ill afford to be perceived by its own citizens as weak or irresolute regarding the island.1 The legitimacy of one-party rule (and now of one-man rule) in China is inextricably tied to firmness and ultimate resolution of the Taiwan territorial question. If Xi, with all of his dictator-for-life political power, cannot bring Taiwan to heel, he faces the real probability of ultimately losing that power, which is the sine qua non of his life. He knows well the lesson of Tiananmen in 1989: Deng Xiaoping ordered the bloody crackdown because he and his ilk in the CCP had concluded that their hold on political power was in grave danger. If Xi comes to a similar conclusion regarding Taiwan, he is capable of doing anything, rational or not, to preserve his power and that of the CCP he now dominates.    


Attitudes in Taiwan Are Hardening

Canadians need to know and understand that attitudes in Taiwan are not trending towards peaceful unification with mainland China (or annexation by it, depending on one’s perspective). The people of Taiwan cherish their newfound freedoms and democratic rights and are not about to relinquish them, and they definitely do not want Taiwan to become another Hong Kong. Since the early 1990s, ethnic self-identification in Taiwan has changed drastically (see Table 1). In 1992, the percentage of people in Taiwan identifying as Chinese only was 25.5 per cent, but by 2023 this had fallen precipitously to 2.5 per cent; the percentage identifying as both Taiwanese and Chinese was 46.4 per cent, while by 2023 it was 30.5 per cent. In 1992, 17.6 per cent thought of themselves as Taiwanese only, a percentage that rose dramatically to 62.8 per cent by 2023. (Election Study Center 2023a)2 (The remaining percentages represent non-responses.)    

A snapshot of Taiwanese opinion in 2020 is revealing (see Tables 2–5). In 2012, 58 percent of Taiwanese polled disagreed with the statement “The government of mainland China is our friend”; by 2020, 73 percent disagreed. That same year, the question was asked and broken down by age, with a majority of all age groups disagreeing with the statement. Seventy-one percent of respondents 65 years and older disagreed; 74 percent of respondents 50 to 64 disagreed; 78 percent aged 35 to 49 disagreed; and 84 percent aged 18 through 34 disagreed. Broken down by education levels, 71 percent of respondents with junior high school education or less disagreed; 73 percent with high school education disagreed; as did 79 percent with university education. Last, when broken down by party affiliation the results were 52 percent Kuomintang; 88 percent Democratic Progressive Party; 80 percent Taiwan People’s Party 台灣民眾黨; and a whopping 97 percent for the New Power Party 時代力量. (Zongghuo 2020)3

Perhaps most importantly of all, attitudes towards relations with the mainland and possible reunification with it politically have also changed significantly from 1994 to 2023 (see Table 6). The list below shows six possible outcomes for Taiwan’s relationship with the mainland:  

  • Option 1: Unification with mainland China as soon as possible.
  • Option 2: Formal declaration of independence for Taiwan as soon as possible.
  • Option 3: Maintaining the status quo for now and moving towards independence later.
  • Option 4: Maintaining the status quo for now and moving towards unification later.
  • Option 5: Maintaining the status quo indefinitely.
  • Option 6: Maintaining the status quo for now and deciding later.

From 1994 through 2023, option 1 has always been the least favoured, with only 4.4 percent favouring it in 1994 and 1.6 percent favouring it in 2023. Almost as unpopular has been option 2, with 3.1 percent favouring it in 1994 and 4.5 percent favouring it in 2023. These two options represent extreme positions and the vast majority of Taiwanese have consistently rejected them. Option 3 has steadily risen in public favour, with 8.0 percent favouring it in 1994 to 21.4 percent favouring it in 2023 (down from a high of 25.5 per cent in 2020). Option 4 fell from 15.6 percent in 1994 to 5.8 percent in 2023. Option 5 rose from a low of 9.8 percent in 1994 to 32.1 percent by 2023. Finally, option 6 has usually been the most popular in Taiwanese public opinion, with 38.5 percent favouring it in 1994 and 28.6 percent in 2023. (Election Study Center 2023b) (The remaining percentages represent non-responses.) These statistics reveal that the overwhelming majority of Taiwanese – 87.9 percent – prefer some form of maintaining the status quo and not rocking the boat or provoking the communist behemoth across the strait. This means they will certainly not be in favour of any political union with China anytime soon, if ever.


Taiwan is a Genuine Democracy

Taiwan today is a thriving and feisty democracy, one that rates a very high score of 94/100 in Freedom House’s Global Freedom Score (Freedom House 2023), on a par with Chile, Germany, and Iceland. Taiwan’s score is higher than those of several other respectable democracies, including Austria (93), Costa Rica (91), France (89), Italy (90), South Korea (83), the United Kingdom (93), and the United States (83). (Freedom House n.d.)   

Of course, Taiwan was not always a democracy. Transitions to democracy in Asia have generally been difficult and bloody. For example, Japan, Taiwan’s former colonizer, is widely recognized today as a vibrantly democratic country with a Global Freedom Score of 96. (Freedom House 2023b) But Japan’s democratization was forced upon it after the United States defeated it in the Second World War, a war that cost approximately 2.1 million Japanese military deaths (Dower 1986, 297–99) as well as between 93,000 to 110,000 American military deaths. (Costello 2009, 675)4 No external enemy forced democracy upon South Korea, but during the Gwangju Uprising of May 18, 1980, as many as 2,000 South Koreans died. (Katsiaficas and Lee 2006, xi)5

Taiwan is an important exception to this general rule. Taiwan’s democratization movement began in the late 1980s and early 1990s and was relatively nonviolent and bloodless:

Generally, Taiwan gets high marks for its democracy. It was a poster child for the global “third wave” of democratization that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. Its transition from authoritarian rule to a representative, electoral system was gradual and peaceful … Elections are free, fair, and highly competitive. In presidential races, turnout usually exceeds 70%. (Bush 2021)6


Can Taiwan Defend Itself?

This certainly does not mean that the majority of Taiwanese will be docile and accepting of forceful unification with mainland China. It is an axiomatic commonplace that views of mainland China in Taiwan are mostly negative.7 Currently, fewer than 10 per cent of Taiwanese see China as trustworthy. (Chiang and Hsaio 2023) Interestingly enough, only 30 percent of them trust the United States. (Brar 2023) Relying on America to come to Taiwan’s rescue is a risky pipe dream, especially if Donald Trump is elected again, and it appears that he will be. Trump has no particularly strong commitment to Taiwan, and in trade negotiations with the PRC he could bargain away any American commitment, expressed or implied, to the island’s defence.8    

The Taiwanese are a peaceable not pugnacious people. Taiwan’s transition to democracy from the late 1980s through the mid 1990s was almost entirely peaceful. During that transition, Taiwanese protesters seldom went out into the streets and mixed it up physically with riot police the way South Koreans did in the late 1980s and Hong Kongers did in 2019. Taiwan’s street protests quickly morph into carnivals and street concerts as they did on the streets of Taipei in the spring of 2014 during the Sunflower Movement, which I witnessed. (Wright 2014)

So will the Taiwanese people fight to protect their island democracy? I think the large majority will, and ferociously so. Mainland China grossly underestimates Taiwan’s sincere and deeply held desire to live freely and democratically, and that might work tactically to Taiwan’s advantage. In his book The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny, Victor Davis Hanson famously argues that democracies can muster enormous resolve if they feel gravely threatened by tyranny: 

The Soul of Battle examines “the ethical nature of democracies at war” and posits an ageless spirit in warfare waged by free peoples (13). According to Hanson, democratic societies are distinctive because they “produce the most murderous armies from the most unlikely of men,” and because such armies fight “in the pursuit of something spiritual rather than the mere material” (5) (Klingenberg 2021).

If Hanson is right about this, Taiwan may well surprise the world with the tenacity and ferocity with which it wages its military struggle against an unwanted takeover and dismantling of its democratic government and way of life.


What Are the Projected Costs in Blood and Treasure?

The price to be paid for defending Taiwan’s democracy is truly gargantuan. In late 2022 a team of scholars at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS9) gamed 24 iterations of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. While the results of all but one of them indicated the PRC’s failure to take Taiwan, the costs of this Pyrrhic victory were horrendous: the U.S. and its allies lose thousands of personnel, dozens of warships, as many as 500 warplanes, and two aircraft carriers. In addition, U.S. military bases in places like Guam and Japan are devastated. U.S. casualty levels are the highest they have been since the Second World War, with the U.S. losing around half as many troops in three weeks as it did in 20 years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. Taiwan itself is largely destroyed and its economic output decimated (Cancian et al. 2023).10  

But a CSIS study in January 2024 shows that Taiwan defence experts are generally somewhat less concerned about China’s military power than their U.S. counterparts are. Further, Taiwan experts see China as less capable of invading, quarantining, or blockading Taiwan than the majority of U.S. experts do. (Lin et al. 2024)11


How Serious is Canada about Taiwan?

Canada should very carefully consider its policy towards Taiwan. As stated in its Indo-Pacific Strategy, the Canadian government is going along with the concerns of much of the rest of the West regarding the strategic implications of China’s rise:

China’s rise as a global actor is reshaping the strategic outlook of every state in the region, including Canada. China has benefitted from the rules-based international order to grow and prosper, but it is now actively seeking to reinterpret these rules to gain greater advantage. China’s assertive pursuit of its economic and security interests, advancement of unilateral claims, foreign interference and increasingly coercive treatment of other countries and economies have significant implications in the region, in Canada and around the world. (Global Affairs Canada 2023)  

Understandably and predictably, Canada should want to stand with democracies and protect them against non-democratic authoritarian or totalitarian rule. But at what costs for Canada? How far is Canada willing to go along with the U.S. and its other allies? Is Canada prepared for the possibility of becoming embroiled in a hot war between China and the United States and its allies over the island? Is it prepared for the economic and social turmoil this would very likely create in Canada and much of the rest of the world? Is Canada prepared to see casualty rates unknown since the Second World War? Just how committed is the Canadian public to the defence of Taiwan when most Canadians know so little about the country? Is Canada as committed to the defence of Taiwan today as it was to the defence of Europe in 1939? In Canada, these and other similar questions need to be publicly taken seriously and pondered thoroughly, much more so than they have been up to now. Whatever political party or coalition creates the next government of Canada should level with the public about the stakes of protecting Taiwan and perhaps fighting for it. The federal government should look into just how committed the Canadian public is.


Should Canada Get Involved? Think Twice and Thrice 

With opinion and posturing in both Taiwan and mainland China trending away from peaceful political unification, should Canada continue its present course of defying China? If so, what if it really does come down to a fight? Will Canada be on side with other democracies in defending Taiwan? To fight or not to fight -- that is indeed the question, and Canada has been avoiding it for far too long, at least as far as engagement with the Canadian public is concerned. If in its Indo-Pacific strategy “Canada must engage as a regional security partner to protect our national interests and security,” (Global Affairs Canada 2023) is it prepared to face the potential costs, benefits, and risks of such security commitments? These questions must be robustly addressed. Let there be extensive public consultation, participation, and input. A war with China over Taiwan could potentially become a titanic, all-out, all-of-society struggle, and if Canada chooses that path, it should do so fully informed, its eyes wide open and its heart stout and steeled. Both Taiwan and Canada – and the U.S., for that matter – must never underestimate mainland China’s resolve to bring Taiwan back to China at whatever cost necessary. Caveat bellator.     


Table 1. Changes in Taiwanese/Chinese Self-identification, 19922023
Source: Election Study Center (2023a)


The_China_Factor_2.jpgTable 2. May 2020 Statement: “The Government of Mainland China is Taiwan’s Friend.” Agree or Disagree, By Year. Blue = agree, Red = disagree.
Source: Zhongguo (2020)  



Table 3. May 2020. Disagree with Statement: “The Government of Mainland China is Taiwan’s Friend.” By Generation or Age.
Source: Zhongguo (2020) 



Table 4. May 2020. Disagree With Statement: “The Government of Mainland China is Taiwan’s Friend.” By Educational Differences (junior high school and under, 71%; high school/trade school, 73%; university and above, 79%).
Source: Zhongguo (2020) 


The_China_Factor_5.jpgTable 5: May 2020. Disagree with Statement: “The Government of Mainland China is Our Friend.” By Political Party Affiliation: Kuomintang, 52%; DPP, 88%; Taiwan People’s Party, 80%; New Power Party, 97%. 
Source: Zhongguo (2020) 



Table 6: Changes in Taiwan’s Attitudes towards Independence vs. Unification, 1994–2023
Source: Election Study Center (2023b)  



Atwood, Christopher. 2004a. Encyclopedia of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire. New York: Facts on File, Inc.

———. 2004b. “1990 Democratic Revolution.” Encyclopedia of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire. New York: Facts on File, Inc.: 142–45.

Brar, Aadil. 2023. “Seven in 10 People in Taiwan Don’t Trust America – Poll.” Newsweek. November 21, 2023. Accessed January 15, 2004.

Bush, Richard C. 2021. “Taiwan’s Democracy and the China Challenge.” Brookings Institution. January 22. Accessed February 4, 2024.

Cancian, Mark F. et al. 2023. “The First Battle of the Next War: Wargaming a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan.” Report of the CSIS International Security Program. Center for Strategic and International Studies. January. Accessed February 5, 2024.

Carter, Ash. 2019. “Donald Trump’s Betrayal of the Kurds is a Blow to America’s Credibility.” The Economist. October 19. Accessed January 15, 2024.

Chiang, Chin-yeh, and Bernadette Hsiao. 2023. “Under 10% of Taiwanese See China as Trustworthy: Survey.” Focus Taiwan. Accessed January 15, 2024.

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———. 2023b. “Taiwan Independence vs. Unification with the Mainland (1994/12 – 2023/06.” July 12. Accessed January 29, 2024.

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———. 2023b. “Freedom in the World: Japan 96/100.” Accessed February 4, 2024.

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End Notes

1 This is why the collision on February 14, 2024, of Chinese and Taiwanese vessels, a news story inexplicably neglected by Western news media, is unnerving to acute observers of tensions in the Taiwan Strait. As of March 2024, there has been great concern in East Asia about it and its potential to trigger larger military confrontations. See Hioe (2024). 

2 A Pew Research Center study in 2020 also noted that 66 per cent of people in Taiwan across all age groups saw themselves as Taiwanese only. The figure was even higher for people ages 19 to 29 at 83 per cent. Only 28 per cent saw themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese. See: Devlin and Huang (2020).

3 Tables 2–5 respectively.  

4 These are death statistics for the Pacific theatre only; total U.S. military fatalities during the Second World War in all theatres total around 405,000. See: Statista (2024).  

5 The statement in Lee (2010, 168–69) that “Korea’s democracy movement is marked by relative nonviolence” is thus untenable. 

6 Also note that Mongolia had its own democratic revolution in 1990, one that was likewise nonviolent: “The 1990 democratic revolution bloodlessly overthrew 70 years of one-party rule and ideological conformity and created a new political system based on pluralism, respect for human rights, and competitive multiparty elections” (Atwood 2004a, 142). 

7 For just one example of public opinion research corroborating this observation, see Devlin and Huang (2020). 

8 In this case, Trump would be abandoning Taiwan the way he did the Kurds in 2019. On his betrayal of the Kurds see, among others, Carter (2019) and Miller and Soikolsky (2019). Then he might say that Taiwan has never been a true friend of America’s because during the Second World War it sided with the wrong side: Japan. I would not put this beyond the man. 

9 This is not the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (also CSIS).

10 The report can be found at CSIS video summaries of it include (2:10) and (20:10). (All accessed February 5, 2024).

11 The study also notes that virtually all U.S. experts are confident that the United States would intervene militarily in the Taiwan Strait in the event of actual conflict, while Taiwanese experts are in general less confident that the U.S. would do so.


About the Author

David Curtis Wright (Department of History, University of Calgary) earned his PhD from Princeton University in East Asian Studies. His research and writing interests include imperial Chinese history, the Mongol conquest of China, Taiwan under Qing and Nationalist Chinese rule, and China’s interests in the Arctic. He is co-founder and co-editor of the Journal of Chinese Military History, and a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.  


Canadian Global Affairs Institute 

The Canadian Global Affairs Institute focuses on the entire range of Canada’s international relations in all its forms including trade investment and international capacity building. Successor to the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI, which was established in 2001), the Institute works to inform Canadians about the importance of having a respected and influential voice in those parts of the globe where Canada has significant interests due to trade and investment, origins of Canada’s population, geographic security (and especially security of North America in conjunction with the United States), social development, or the peace and freedom of allied nations. The Institute aims to demonstrate to Canadians the importance of comprehensive foreign, defence and trade policies which both express our values and represent our interests.

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  • Randolph Mank
    commented 2024-03-15 12:31:37 -0400
    Excellent work! Canadians are no more or less informed than their American counterparts about the consequences of a war over Taiwan. This is why strenuous diplomacy must be undertaken now, if only to avoid another Ukraine. We need a companion article that looks at a range of diplomatic efforts that might lead to a peaceful resolution of the dispute.
  • Cgai Staff
    published this page in Policy Perspectives 2024-03-13 17:46:53 -0400

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