National Identity and National Security:The Case of Taiwan*

 Cheng-Fong, SHIH

Department of Public Administration, Tamkang University, TAIWAN



     For more than half a century, national security policy has been largely understood as national defense policy, given Chinese irredentist claim over Taiwan’s sovereignty.  In the past decade, while Taiwan has mainly liberated itself from the party-state rule under the Kuomintang (literally Chinese Nationalist Party), it has yet to consolidate its new gained democracy.  Three crucial tasks have to be undertaken: forging national identity, integrating ethnic cleavages, and reconstructing political institutions.  Among the three, dubious national identity, that is, being Taiwanese or Chinese, would complicate how Taiwan may perceive its national security and make its security policy.[1]  In the past, it had been expected that while political rivalries in the home front may have made the choice of security strategy intractable, external threats from China, military and vocal, on the other hand, would actually compel all political forces in Taiwan to mend their differences and to converge their national identity.  Given the 1995-96 missile crises, this line of argument seemed to have prevailed.  However, latest Chinese economic maneuvers targeted at Taiwanese businessmen (台商) impel us to consider possible other sources of threat to security.

     In this study, we will start with the development of a conceptual framework for national security, where national identity will have recursive impacts: while one’s national identity will decide one’s perception of national security, one’s comprehension of security and threat would prompt one to reconcile one’s own national identity.  Secondly, we will endeavor to clarify the unnecessary equivalence of “national identity” with “state identity,” which in turn has made political Taiwanese [state] identity unfortunately entangled with cultural Chinese [national] identity.  Thirdly, we will how the causal link between national identity and to national security is intermediated by some other factors in the case of Taiwan. 


Conceptual Frameworks for National Security

     The development of National Security studies has generally followed that of International Relations theory, that is, the three “great debates”: idealism vs. realism, realism vs. behaviorism, and positivism vs. post-positivism (Smith, 1995: 14-15).  McSweeny (1999) thus arrive at four phases of Security Studies: political theory, political science, political economy, and sociology, with respective focus on common security, strategy, international/comprehensive security, and human security.  The last phase, starting with the early 1990s, would focus how perception would have impacts on security, and accordingly emphasize the importance of identity and security construction.

     In retrospection, we can generalize that the concept of security has developed along two dimensions: sources of threat, and subjects of security/targets of threat.  While the former would enlarge from politics, military, economy, environment, and to society, the latter would deepen from national, international, and to human.  Alternatively, we may have a third dimension of security, that is, whether it is characters or relationships.  In this fashion, security may contain both objective physical configurations and subjective mental conditions; while the former denotes being free from physical threats, the latter stands for feeling secure (Snow, 1998).  

     McSweeney (1999: 14-15) similarly classifies the concept of security into positive and negative ones.  Traditional notions of security tend to take a negative form, that is, avoiding physical threats.  In this sense, security is something tangible, observable, and measurable.  By so conceptualized, the concern of security is how to mobilize physical resources in order to counter external threats, guarantee territorial integrity, and preserve domestic institutions.  In other words, national security, at least in the short run, is tantamount to military defense.  On the other hand, positive security is conceived as relationship, which is a human construction as reflected in stable or changing collective identity.   McSweeney (1999: 17) terms it as “ontological security,” and further breaks it down into self, social capabilities, and confidence to deal with others.  In this broad definition, insecurity is threat to values or identity (Tickner, 1995: 180).  Accordingly, a long-term contemplation of national security has to take national identity into account.

     According to the state-centric conception in realism, the subject of security is the state.  Therefore, the supreme goal of security is to guarantee national security against external threats.  Since the international system is deemed as a status of anarchy, in order to uphold self-preservation, the state has to rely on military forces (Waltz, 1979).  Under such a framework, a state’s capacity of security is measured by its military capabilities relative to its opponents (Figure 1).

     Based on the tenets if neo-liberalism, Jepperson, Wendt, and Katzenstein (1996) argue that whether an event is considered as threat is contingent upon the definition of national interests, which in turn would decide what constitutes proper security policy is and what adequate actions to take.  Therefore, while the above framework may be succinct, its fails to take societal factors into account, especially those national identity and norms/culture[1] environments that may influence a state’s survival, behavior, and characters (Jepperson et al., 1996: 35-36).  Taking a constructivist approach, they take note not only that national identity would have impacts on norms/culture, bust also that culture would determine the formation of national identity (pp. 52-53).  We thus have a revised framework of security (Figure 2).

      While agree with Jepperson et al. that national security is decided by collective identity, particularly when members of the state fail to agree upon the contents of national identity, Wendt (1994) and Campbell (1998), taking a similar perception approach, would underline the importance of identity, rather than norms or culture.  According to the interpretation of Ktazenstein (1996: 19-22), norms and culture are at best interpreted as contexts of security policy.  Therefore, the independent variable for security that Jepperson et al. (1996) have introduced is identity.  We thus have the revised Figure 3.


Figure 3: Revised Perception View of Security

     Challenging the conception of security by the once dominant realism, McSweeny (1999: 214) arguer that even though states, as agents, may be not in a position to change the fundamental structure of the international system, they at least possess the opportunity to decide whether to accept or to reject it.   Still, he considers it that both Wendt (1994) and Campell (1998) overstate the explanatory utility of perception, be it in the form of identity or cultural factors, and thus proposed that national interests need to be taken into account (p. 135).   On the other had, while admitting that neo-functionalism may have recognized how interests would affect how we choose our identity, he deems interests nothing but opportunity rather than “seductive enmeshment” (McSwweny, 1999: 167-72, 195).  In a nutshell, even though both perception and neo-functional approaches attempt to surpass realism, they overstate the explanatory utility of identity and interests respectively; in other words, identity and interests are mutually constructing each other, and thus in turn decide how security is perceived (pp. 123, 214).  We hence depict McSweeny’s revised view of security in Figure 4.

     While generally agreeing with McSweeny (1999: 398) that identity is the base for interests and security, we have reservations regarding how interests may have recursively affect the choice of identity.[1]  After all, the interest mechanism that the European Union has exerted on Ireland to accept peace agreement in Northern Ireland may not be universally valid.  In our view, interests are at best an intermediary variable that may exacerbate or mitigate the causal link between identity and security, rather than an independent variable (Figure 5). 

Culturally National Identity and Politically State Identity

     In English usage, as “national security” is equivalent to “state’s security,” so is “national identity” to “state’s identity.”  Nonetheless, there is no such an isomorphism in Chinese (中文)/Hanji[1] (漢字).  As a result, in the context of Taiwan, “national identity” may be translated into both “nation’s identity“ (min-chu-zen-ton, 民族認同) and “state’s identity“ (guo-chia-zen-tong, 國家認同), or “identifying with the nation” and “identifying with the state” respectively.  While nation and state are highly correlated, the two concepts obviously have different connotations. 

     For two reasons,[2] substantive and semantic, the concept of national identity in Taiwan tends to be understood as “state’s identity” detached from “nation’s identity.”  For one thing, ordinary people are distasteful of the idea of nation as it is reminiscent of the imposed official Chinese nationalism derived from Sun Yat-sun’s Three Principles of People (Sun-min-chu-i, 三民主義) in their days of high school under the KMT authoritarian rule.   Secondly, the elites tend to interpret nationalism in its illiberal, chauvinistic, and expansionist formats.  As a result, concerned scholars, contemplating to evade its pejorative denotations, have chose to use state in place of nation; and hence guo-chia-chu-i (國家主義, literally statism), instead of min-chu-chu-i (民族主義, nationalism).  Nevertheless, this seemingly ingenious evasion becomes redundant when nation-state/nation’s state (民族[]國家, min-chu-guo-chia) has to be similarly translated into state-state/state’s state (國家[]國家, guo-chia-guo-chia).  At this juncture, national/citizen has to come to the rescue; and hence guo-min-guo-chia (國民國家, nationals’ state)/gon-min-guo-chia (公民國家, citizens’ state).  In order to avoid this conceptual cloud, Ng (1998) transliterates nationalism as na-hsiong-na-li-si-bun (那想那利斯文).  Therefore, a political sense of national identity would be preferably known as state identity, statist identity, or identity of state. 

     Nonetheless, a cultural sense of “nation’s identity“ is here to stay.  People in Taiwan tend to embrace a primordial conception of nation based on common ascribed cultural traits,[3] which is essential and deterministic and allows no room for subjective construction in Anderson’s (1991) sense of collective imagination after common history, experience, or memory.  As nation is narrowly understood as the Han people (Han-min-chu/Han-zen, 漢民族/漢人), national identity would be confined to “naturally” identifying with the Han people.   Since most people in Taiwan would accept the official doctrine that they belong to the so-called “Chinese nation” (Chong-hua-min-chu, 中華民族), it is not surprising to discover that they tend to call themselves中國人 (Chong-guo-zen, ethnic Chinese), or more recently華人 (Hua-zen, cultural Chinese).  As a result, while the Han people in China are included as compatriots (tong-bau, 同胞), the Aboriginal Peoples (Yuan-chu-min-chu, 原住民族) in Taiwan, culturally Austronesian and racially Malayo-Polynesian, are excluded.  By so doing, national identity here is not only culturally determined but also racially defined.  However, not only ethnic Chinese bust also Han people are a cultural conglomerate constructed out of various racial stocks.  By imaging themselves as “authentic” Chinese, the Taiwanese are pursuing an oxymoron “pure hybridity.”

     According to the tenets of realism, national identity is destined and fixed.  Alternatively, proponents of constructivism would argue that national identity is formed after interactions, negotiations, learning, definitions, and construction, which is beyond the elites’ control (Katzenstein, 1996; Wendt, 1992).  Internally, national identity in Taiwan has been intertwined with ethnic identity and party identification (Shih, 2002).  As ethnic groups fail to reach consensus over formula for resource-distribution and political parties quarrel among themselves over rules of game for power-sharing, national identity (read state identity) is apt to be mobilized as pawn of political competition.  Ambiguous national identity has so far developed along ethnic/party cleavages.  While the Mainlanders/Pan-blue supporters[4] would consider themselves Chinese and Taiwanese as well (是中國人, 也是台灣人), in any, the Natives/Pan-green supporter would deem themselves Taiwanese first and Chinese second (是台灣人, 也是中國人).  Of course, there are also quite a few who consider themselves as Taiwanese only (是台灣人, 不是中國人), and few who take themselves as Chinese only (是中國人, 不是台灣人).

     It is noted that both of the terms “Chinese” and “Taiwanese” are not only vague but ambiguous also.  In everyday life, Chinese may connote racial Han people, cultural Hua-zen, or political Chong-guo-zen.   Even though it is generally recognized that political Chinese means nationals/citizens of the People’s Republic of China, the government of Taiwan, under the official state name of the “Republic of China,” would indoctrinate the Taiwanese to deem themselves as Chong-guo-zen without offering any confirming definition.[5]  It is no wonder that the passport of Taiwan only prints “Republic of China” on its cover.  While the term Taiwanese has long been intentionally relegated as a regional one, it is traditionally reserved for the Holos, the largest ethnic group, or, more inclusively, the Natives (excluding the Mainlanders).[6]  Only recently have some Mainlanders begun to call themselves Taiwanese, especially after they uncomfortably discovered that they had been treated as “Taiwanese compatriots” (Tai-bau/Tai-wan-tong-bau, 台胞/台灣同胞) by the Chinese.  In ambivalence, they seem determined to retain the identity of “Chinese from Taiwan” as the government appears satisfied with the quasi-official state name “Republic of China on Taiwan.”

     What has complicated the entanglement is the tendency that one’s ethnic identity (Natives or Mainlanders) would largely decide one’s national identity (Taiwanese or Chinese) and hence one’s attitudes toward the issue of Taiwan’s future (Independence or Unification).  Recursively, one’s ethnic identity is also composed of one’s conception of national identity and/or Taiwan’s relations with China in the future, especially for the Mainlanders (Shih, 2001).  These mutually reinforced cleavages are also conducive to disparate party identification.

     In balance, the Taiwanese, by they Natives or Mainlanders, have been engulfed in the intersection of a culturally and racially defined Chinese national identity and a politically defined Taiwanese state identity.  Externally, these dubiously interwoven national identities have led to disparate attitudes toward China, the only enemy of Taiwan in the world nowadays.


National Identity and National Security


     Leaving aside external threats from China, Taiwan has yet to face internal security threats resulting from uncertain national identity.  Without reaching a certain minimal degree of national integration, members of the state would ask: Whose security to stand guard over?  Whose state to protect?  What country to identify with?  In other words, before we can decide what national security is, we need to settle what our national identity is (McSweeny, 1999: 71-72; Tickner, 1991: 179-81).  Those who agitate for Taiwan’s unification with China would not protest China’s incorporation of Taiwan.

     On the spectrum of political arrangements with China, more and more Taiwanese would welcome a de jure independent Republic of Taiwan free from China’s labyrinth if China promises to hand off Taiwan.  Close to this position is former President Lee Teng-hui’s (李登輝) “Two States Discourse” (兩國論) which claims that “cross-strait relations as a state-to-state relationship or at least a special [sui generis] state-to-state relationship.”  Next to this posture is President Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) purposefully vague “New Center Line” (新中間路線).  At one occasion when speaking to a pro-independence audience through satellite transmission, the seemingly undaunted president proclaimed that there is “One State on Each Side” of the Strait of Taiwan (一邊一國論), probably to protect the base of his most staunch supporters.  However, at another point, in order to appease China, he went so far as to pledged to embark on economic and cultural integrations with China, and to seek for a framework for perpetual peace and eventual political integration across the Strait of Taiwan; and hence the so-called “Integration Discourse” (統合論).  It would be fair to state that what Chen has in mind is a kind of Chinese Commonweal made up of two “Two Chinese States” (兩個華人國家), opting for institutionalized separation.

     On the other end of the continuum, only those few true believers of Chinese irredentism would embrace outright union with China, whether under “One State-Two System formula (一國兩制, or Hong Kong model) or unitary system.  Even though federation (聯邦), confederative federation (邦聯式聯邦), and federal confederation (聯邦式邦聯) have been proposed by pro-China politicians and scholars, the nearest stand is “Two States in One Chinese Nation/Cultural China” (一個民族兩個國家/文化中國, or 一族兩國) espoused by some Chinese loyalists in the KMT.  What they envision is eventual unification between Taiwan and China, generally known as “Germany Model” (德國模式).  However, sensible policy strategists in the KMT would only venture out the idée of a confederation (邦聯) composed of the PRC and the ROC.  Finally, James Soong (宋楚瑜) of the PFP, imitating the experience of the European Union, has so far cautiously proposed a “Roof Discourse” (屋頂論) .  While literally preaching an image of two families under one roof, it is not clear whether he suggest an eventual federation, confederation, or simply commonwealth.  What they share is a desire to design certain modus operandi in order to obtain eventual association of China and Taiwan in whatever formulas.

     If military threat is too provocative and national appeal is too latent to provide Chinese any immediate satisfaction in the direction toward political association between China and Taiwan, meanwhile, a more discursive and yet effective approach has been launched lunched on Taiwanese businessmen in China, that is, “Bullying Officials with Civilians” (以民逼官), “Pressing Politicians with Businessmen” (以商逼政), and “Promoting Unification with Three Links[1]” (以通促統).

On this economic front, Idealism/Neo-Liberalism has its say on policy recommendations.  A related preference is “Westward Policy [to China]” (大膽西進) in the spirit of functionalism, understood as a ramification of the Idealism/Liberalism camp.  Inspired by the development of integration in West Europe, its proponents have preached that trade and economic cooperation with China may eventually be conducive to the ease of political rivalry and military conflict between Taiwan and its Chinese adversary.  Nonetheless, the cleavages between the two are not confined to territorial disputes only.  Underneath Chinese hostility toward Taiwan is its violent opposition toward Taiwan’s legitimate existence in the international society, which is not going to pass into oblivion because of economic exchanges.  In addition, as there exist enormous socio-economic disparities and disproportion in territorial size between Taiwan and China, disparate from those between France and Germany, any vulgar analogy is bound to shut one’s eyes to the issue of vulnerability resulting from Taiwan’s economic dependency on China. 

Diametrically different are the prescriptions offered by Realists/Neo-Realists.  Wary of economic security on Taiwan’s part, former President Lee Ten-hui (李登輝) espouses a Neo-mercantilist economic policy toward China, “Restraining Hasty Investment [in China]” (戒急用忍).  Given the fact that China the only country is the world that has openly waged military threat against Taiwan, Lee’s purposeful selection of trade restraints is understandable.  Nevertheless, the current ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which came to power in May 2001, has adjusted Taiwan’s thus far protective economic stance toward China from “Moving Westwards [to China] While Strengthening the [economic] Base [in Taiwan]” (強本西進) to “Actively Liberalizing [economic interactions with China]” (積極開放) in the name of adjustments to globalization, probably under the ceaseless pressure from Taiwanese businessmen who expect to gain from direct links with China.[2]  Some, apprehended by the conception of Neo-functionalism, have gone so far as to aspire the eventual goal of political unification with China as a result of deepened economic integration.   



Figure 7: Three Dimensions of Security

     So far, China has waged threats to Taiwan’s national security in three dimensions: while deploying offensive missiles across the strait of Taiwan at an alarming rate to coerce Taiwan into accepting its “One China Precondition” (一個中國原則) after the Hong Kong Model, it has painstakingly enlisted national sentiments to court those Taiwanese who share some racial-cultural ethnic Chinese identity, and, at the same time, untiringly attracted Taiwanese businessmen to move their plants to China with cheaper labor and land.

     Anxious to enter into a peace with China, President Chen appears confident to deepen Taiwan’s economic interdependence, if not dependence, with China.  In his optimistic calculation, economic integration seems to promise pacifism as the case of European Union has testified to the amicable relations between Germany and France.  Self-styled as “Taiwan’s Nixon,” he anticipates that his native-son identity would make his immune from the accusation of Taiwanese traitor (台奸, Dai-gan).  Having this essential conception of national identity in mind, it is not surprised that he should ridicule the KMT candidate of Taipei mayoral election Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) contaminated with “Honk Kong Feet” (香港腳, athletic feet), implying this Hong Kong born Mainlander is expecting to become governor of Taiwan under China’s rule (特首).  By capitalizing the coterminous relationship between ethnic identity and national identity, he was unmistakably playing ethnic mobilization clothed in rhetoric of national identity.  By alienating the Mainlanders, international or not, the DPP government is jeopardizing Taiwan’s societal security.

     Recalling that how a I-lan (宜蘭) born military defector Lin Yi-fu (林義夫), who had received a Ph.D. from University of Chicago and is now teaching at Beijing University, had almost been acclaimed as a successful native Taiwanese residing China before the Ministry of National Defense pledged to charge him with high treason, we have witnessed how regional attachment is still playing a major part in identity-formation among the Taiwanese.   As the armed forces are grumbling over for whom to fight, Taiwan cannot secure its military security without reconciling its national identity.

     Last year, the DPP government finally lifted its ban on investment in China’s semiconductor industry by Taiwanese companies.  While it is true that two of the largest semiconductor companied which have energetically lobbied for legalizing the already-made investment are run by Mainlanders, we must not neglect the fact that two of the most enthusiastic promoters of direct links with China are owned by native Taiwanese, who, somewhat naively, believe that economy can be separated from politics and that security is the responsibility of the government.  It may be exaggeration to state that these businessmen have not motherland.  In the age of globalization, the phenomenon of diaspora has unleashed unlimited imagination of national identity.  Nonetheless, it would be unfair to charge the former as traitors while forgiving the latter’s banal ignorance.  In time, economic interests have to be attuned with national security as defined by national identity.

     In the end, a quick test of Taiwanese identity is whether how the Taiwanese deem China, to borrow the words of Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮), enemy, fried, or motherland, which in turn will determine how national security is contemplated in opposition to China.




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[1] The so-called “Three Links” mean direct post (通郵), direct trade (通商), and direct transport (通航), which have been frozen in the days of martial law when Chiang Kai-shek (將介石) and Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) reigned.  However, two and half links have been effectively liberalized in the past decade, leaving direct flight the last defensive stand.  Chartered flights were inaugurated in the last Lunar New Year Festival mainly owing to mounting pressure from the KMT legislators, particularly the junior Chiang’s illegitimate son John Chang (章孝嚴).

[2] Former President Lee Ten-hui harshly criticized that President Chen’s decision to defreeze direct links between Taiwan and China had been made as a result of pressure from Taiwanese conglomerates Evergreen and Taiwan Plastics.

[1] This is pronounced in Holo Taiwanese.

[2] For detailed investigations, see Shih (2000).

[3] See Smith (1986) for general treatments of this perspective.

[4] Pan-blue (泛藍) supporters mean those who vote for the KMT and the People First Party; Pan-green (泛綠) supporters designate those who vote for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party and Taiwan Solidarity Union. 

[5] See Shih (2003) for his analysis of social sciences textbooks in primary schools.

[6] It is generally recognized that there are four major ethnic groups in Taiwan: Mainlanders (13%), Aboriginal Peoples (2%), Hakkas (15%), and Holos (70%).  See Shih (1998). 

[1] See Wendt (1994: 385) on the recursive relations between identity and interets.

[1] For the definitions of norm and culture, see Katzenstein (1996: 5-6).