Rome, March 17, 2015—China has laid claim to several rocks sticking out of the Pacific Ocean, but of course the big one they want is Taiwan. And Beijing seems to think reunification will happened no matter what the Taiwanese public may think.

A 1979 Chinese poster shows a simulated assault on Taiwan’s Jinmen and Matsu islands

But a youth drive sprouted in Taiwan that stands in the way. It’s called the Sunflower Movement, which made its mark last spring by protesting a deal between that governments of Taiwan and China to more closely tie the island to the mainland. The deal favored big businesses, where favors from China trump concerns over possible unification. Sunflower wants to diversify trading partners so as not to be smothered by the embrace of the mainland.

Last spring, Sunflower activists took over Taiwan’s legislative building, abandoning the site only when the agreement was suspended. Unlike its sister pro-democracy “Umbrella Movement” in Hong Kong, which has none into eclipse after protests last fall, Sunflower has remained vigorous. In November, Taiwanese opposition parties swept legislative and a collection of new parties plan to run in upcoming national elections.

Since instituting democracy in 1996, two parties have dominated Taiwan politics: the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang), whose leaders fled to Taiwan in 1948 after losing China’s 20th Century civil war to the Communists; and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the indigenous, independence-minded party. The Sunflower movement believes the Kuomintang, which currently rules, is willing to sell out Taiwan in return for business concessions. Riding the coattails of the Sunflower protests, the DPP made big gains in local elections last November and may win presidential and legislative elections next year.

But the DPP has a reputation for corruption and Sunflower’s boldness has encouraged an array of new parties to emerge. “People in Taiwan understandably have to be more cautious than ever in watching out that their liberties aren’t eroded and that Chinese business does not buy up Taiwan business and become more influential,” Jerome Cohen, a senior fellow of the NY-based Council on Foreign Relations, told Reuters.

Theoretically, under the rubric “one country, two systems,” Taiwan can keep its institutions under mainland rule. Several factors have led many Taiwanese to consider that formula unworkable. First, the deals between the Kuomintang that governs Taiwan and the Communist rulers of China fed fears that popular concerns were being ignored. China’s decision to hand-pick candidates to run Hong Kong forewarned Taiwan of autonomy’s limits.

And Taiwan has reason to fear China’s commitment to peace given the aggressive military moves by China to requisition little islands and reefs off Vietnam, The Philippines and Japan. In recent weeks, tensions over Taiwan issues intensified. China unilaterally tried to test new commercial air routes near Taiwan, but shifted the itinerary closer to the mainland after Taiwanese protests. Recently, Chinese officials repeated their contention that, if Beijing considers the peaceful road blocked, China can use force to recover Taiwan.

China efforts to regain Taiwan face the problem that democracy on the island has taken root. Talk about a political “consensus” that commits Taiwan to unification doesn’t wash in a free-wheeling, true democracy. The Sunflower Movement and its offspring are evidence of that democratic energy.

The fact of Taiwanese democracy also presents the United States with a dilemma. The Americans and its navy have long been protectors of the western Pacific. But Washington has also bought into the one-China formula. In the case of conflict, would the US actually defend Taiwan and offend a burgeoning economic and military rival? Or will it abandon the island to a control-minded Beijing? The answer for now, as common to many Obama administration policies, seems to be hope– in this case that the status quo will hold.

This is Reuters on the Sunflower Movement.

The Economist on China’s warnings to Taiwan.

And a military, geopolitical view in Foreign Affairs.

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