Why Chinese Intimidation Unites South Korea but Divides Taiwan

This analysis draws on Dr. Christopher Carothers’ recent article, “Does External Threat Unify? Chinese Pressure and Domestic Politics in Taiwan and South Korea,” in the peer-reviewed journal Foreign Policy Analysis, accessible here. Carothers is an associated scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Contemporary China. His personal website can be found here.

The majority of citizens in both South Korea and Taiwan believe that China poses a major security challenge to their country. Yet, while South Koreans are largely unified on China policy, Taiwan’s two main political camps remain at odds, even as Taiwan faces a far greater threat in the possibility of coercive unification with China. What explains this puzzling difference?

My recent article, ‘Does External Threat Unify? Chinese Pressure and Domestic Politics in Taiwan and South Korea’, in the peer-reviewed journal Foreign Policy Analysis addresses this question through an analysis of hundreds of official statements relating to China policy by the main conservative and progressive parties in South Korea and Taiwan. I argue that a country is less likely to unify against a foreign threat if a ‘formative rift’ in its history divides political groups over national identity issues and causes them to perceive the threat differently, as is the case for Taiwan but not South Korea. Understanding how national identity shapes foreign policy in East Asian democracies is critical for U.S. policymakers, who should calibrate expectations and manage alliances accordingly.

China’s Geopolitical Assertiveness

In recent years, China’s growing geopolitical assertiveness has led to increased tensions with many countries, especially in East and Southeast Asia. Although not all the blame for these conflicts can be laid on China, Beijing has triggered or exacerbated tensions with many of its neighbors by taking uncompromising stances on disputed water, land, and airspace, using economic coercion to advance its strategic interests, and engaging in confrontational ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy.

In 2016, China imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions on both South Korea and Taiwan—on South Korea because of its deployment of the U.S. missile defense system THAAD, and on Taiwan because of the election of President Tsai Ying-wen, who Beijing accuses of supporting Taiwanese independence. Although Beijing and Seoul were able to come to an agreement and re-normalize relations by late 2017, China’s pressure campaign against Taiwan continues.

It is often assumed that facing a foreign threat increases a country’s domestic unity. This commonsense theory finds support in academic scholarship on bipartisanship in foreign policy, ‘internal balancing’ against military threats, the ‘rally-round-the-flag effect after terrorist attacks, and how national identity is often constructed in opposition to an external power (Ukraine in 2022 provides a dramatic example: Russia’s brutal invasion has catalyzed the consolidation of a separate Ukrainian identity and created support across the political spectrum for President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government).

Yet, while Beijing’s bullying has driven a rise in negative views of China in both South Korea and Taiwan, only in South Korea are conservatives and progressives largely united on China policy.

South Koreans United, Taiwanese Divided

Seoul’s July 2016 announcement that there would be a joint U.S.–South Korean deployment of the advanced Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system dealt a major blow to Sino-South Korean relations. Beijing demanded that the Park Geun-hye administration stop the deployment and launched a harsh (yet unacknowledged) campaign of sanctions and diplomatic pressure. Beijing orchestrated anti-Korean protests, boycotts of Korean goods, and a sharp reduction in tourist visits to South Korea. The tourism boycott alone is estimated to have cost South Korean businesses some $15.6 billion in revenue.

Political rhetoric from South Korean conservatives and progressives suggests that they are divided on how to respond to this new, more assertive China. Since the THAAD controversy, for example, conservatives have consistently accused progressives of being ‘submissive’ to Beijing. One theme of President Yoon Suk-yeol’s campaign was attacking his liberal predecessor Moon Jae-in as ‘pro-China’.

However, South Koreans are in fact in broad agreement on policy, believing that Chinese bullying should be resisted and South Korea should—without provoking China—strengthen its alliance with the United States. The Moon administration ultimately joined conservatives in supporting full THAAD deployment, in part because of the historic shift in public opinion against China that took place across the political spectrum after Beijing imposed sanctions. China’s approval rating among South Koreans has even sunk below that of Japan. Yoon portrays his pursuit of closer U.S.-South Korea relations as a policy shift, but his actions actually build on steps Moon took to strengthen the alliance.

In Taiwan, after a decade of relatively amicable cross-strait relations, Beijing responded with anger to Tsai’s election and launched a series of retaliatory measures. Beijing suspended both tourism and high-level diplomatic contact with Taiwan, restarted its campaign to ‘flip’ countries that recognize Taiwan, and increased military actions near Taiwan, including repeatedly violating Taiwan’s airspace. Moreover, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has taken a noticeably tougher rhetorical stance on the need to ‘unify with’ (absorb) Taiwan to achieve the great dream of ‘national rejuvenation’.

Although Taiwanese public opinion on China has, like South Korea’s, grown more negative since 2016, Taiwan’s progressives and conservatives remain deeply divided over cross-strait policy. The Tsai administration has taken a firm stance against Beijing’s actions while the conservative Kuomintang (KMT) has generally advocated a more accommodationist stance. At the heart of the two parties’ disagreement is the 1992 ‘One China’ Consensus—the alleged consensus between Beijing and Taipei, negotiated by the KMT, stating that there is only one China but that the two sides (Beijing and Taipei) have differing interpretations of what that means. The KMT sees the 1992 Consensus as essential to good relations with China, whereas Tsai and the DPP reject it.

Formative Rifts and National Identity

So why are Taiwanese more divided than South Koreans on China issues?

Based on existing scholarship, one theory suggests that the nature of these countries’ economic ties with China are at the heart of the story. Certainly, Taiwan and South Korea both have extensive economic ties with China. At the same time, it is unclear why this would lead to domestic division or unity. It is not the case, for example, that pro-business conservatives are more accommodating to China; the KMT is, but South Korean conservatives are not.

Another theory might draw from the scholarship on political polarization. If Taiwan were more polarized than South Korea, then this might explain greater polarization on China. However, this is far from clearly the case. Both quantitative and qualitative studies comparing the two democracies suggest that they are comparably polarized, or that South Korea is even more polarized.

Instead, my research suggests that the answer has to do with Taiwan’s deep-rooted divisions over China’s place in its national identity.

Formative rifts, the political scientists Murat Somer and Jennifer McCoy explain, are ‘long-standing and deep-cutting divisions that either emerged or could not be resolved during the formation of nation-states, or, sometimes during fundamental re-formations of states’ such as after civil wars. Such rifts often underly especially pernicious cases of polarization. For example, the United States can be said to have a formative rift over the legacy of slavery and unequal citizenship rights conferred to different racial groups.

When formative rifts center on questions of national identity—questions about a nation’s ultimate purpose and who belongs to it—this often leads to differing perceptions of the threat posed by another state. As many studies have shown, shared identity with an external group (or foreign power) is likely to reduce threat perception. Formative rifts over national identity can lead to differing levels of identification with a foreign power, whether for historical/cultural, ethnic, or religious reasons.

For example, formative rifts over religious identity and its proper role in the national identity are highly salient in some Middle Eastern countries. In Iraq, the rift between the Sunni and Shiite populations has had major political effects since the US-led invasion in 2003, including shaping how the influence of Iran—as a Shiite power—is perceived in the country.

Taiwan’s Formative Rift

Taiwan has a formative rift over its relationship with China that dates back to the division between recently arrived mainlanders and local Taiwanese after the Chinese Civil War. The KMT imposed a mainlander-led regime that carried out violent repression against the local population and identified itself as part of China in a way that most Taiwanese did not.

Even after Taiwan became more inclusive and democratized, the rift continued in the form of a left-right division about China’s position in Taiwan’s national narrative. Unsurprisingly then, cross-strait policy has consistently been the main axis of polarization in Taiwan since democratization in the 1990s, according to existing research.

This formative rift makes it difficult for Taiwan’s political parties to unify against Beijing’s aggressive actions because the KMT still has a greater attachment to China (although not to the Chinese Communist Party) and is unwilling to abandon the 1992 Consensus. As KMT chairperson Wu Den-yih articulated in a speech in 2018, ‘once we embark on the path of independence, it means cutting ourselves off from the Chinese nation, no longer being disciples of Chinese culture’.

Rather than seeing Beijing as an unprovoked aggressor, the KMT places some blame on the DPP for provoking China by rejecting the 1992 Consensus and (allegedly) seeking formal Taiwanese independence. ‘President Tsai not accepting the 1992 Consensus…has already changed the fundamental state of cross-strait relations; this is the root of the relationship’s gradual deterioration’, the KMT argued in a typical statement after Tsai’s election. ‘Whether [Tsai] supports secret Taiwanese independence or out-in-the-open Taiwanese independence, swift or slow independence, she is always an independence activist’, read another typical KMT statement in 2019.

Progressives, for their part, have been exasperated at the KMT’s intransigence. ‘The KMT is unwilling to face that the Chinese Communist Party has already unilaterally denied the 1992 Consensus. . .the KMT’s statements are completely ignorant of reality’, the DPP argued in a statement in 2019, expressing a common sentiment.

In contrast to Taiwan, South Korea does not have a comparable formative rift over China. During the Cold War, South Korean conservatives were concerned that progressives were communists and therefore possibly pro-Beijing, but views on China were not themselves a deep-cutting division in society and of course did not raise fundamental issues of national identity.

Since democratization in 1987, successive conservative and progressive administrations have had similar China policies based on a desire for robust economic ties balanced with security cooperation with the United States. As a result, Beijing’s pressure campaign could serve as a unifying threat and overcome initial divisions on THAAD. In the South Korean case, we can observe the conventional logic of foreign threat leading to increased domestic unity.

Policy Implications

As great power competition intensifies after several decades of post–Cold War geopolitical quiet, it is once again critical to understand how countries will respond to great power assertiveness and why. China’s expanding economic and political power has given debates over China policy new urgency, especially in East and Southeast Asia. In Europe, Russia’s aggressive efforts to restore its sphere of influence and push back against what it perceives as Western intrusions raise many of the same issues for Central and Eastern European nations caught in the middle. Will polarized democracies unify in response to foreign threats, or will they remain divided? This study cautions us not to assume that achieving consensus in the face of external challenges will be automatic or easy. How countries respond may be shaped by deep-rooted divisions, especially formative rifts over questions of national identity.

With respect to East Asia in particular, this study points to the importance of U.S. policymakers understanding the politics of national identity that shape how East Asian democracies engage with security challenges in the region. South Korea may not have a formative rift over China, but it does have one over North Korea. As I have argued elsewhere, this helps explain why South Korean progressives and conservatives are as divided over how to engage with North Korea as Taiwanese are over China. Japan’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party and the opposition left are also deeply divided over how to address regional security challenges, although not because of an attachment to a foreign state. Instead, the left and the right are divided over postwar Japan’s US-imposed identity as a pacifist nation; while many on the left embrace pacifism as a core national value, many on the right believe that excessive emphasis on pacifism has prevented Japan from becoming a ‘normal nation’.