Friday, February 22, 2008

Taiwan: the next Kosovo?

Lesson from Kosovo: recognition is the key

by Jonathan Adams
FEER Forum, Feb. 20, 2008

Kosovo’s declaration of independence has opened up a new front in the long-running diplomatic battle between China and Taiwan. It also underscores how Taiwan’s key problem is one of recognition, not whether it should formalize its de facto independence.

China opposes Kosovo’s independence, fearing it could set a dangerous precedent for separatist movements world-wide, but especially in Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan. That left Taiwan an opening to cozy up to a possible new diplomatic ally. On Wednesday, Taipei announced it had formally recognized the new European state. China’s Foreign Ministry quickly responded with predictable pique: “It is known to all that as a part of China, Taiwan has no right or eligibility to give the so-called ‘recognition’ (to Kosovo).”

So goes the latest cross-strait war of words. For decades Taiwan and China have engaged in a global diplomatic game of “go” to woo allies to their side with generous aid. Taiwan has only 23 left, mostly obscure, poor countries—down from 30 allies in 2000. Now, outspent by China, Taipei hopes to pick up a new ally in the heart of Europe. And with China refusing to recognize Kosovo, this time it can’t fight back.

But Antonio Chiang, a former member of Taiwan’s National Security Council, told me that Taiwan may not be willing to shell out big bucks to win Kosovo’s heart. That’s because last time it played that game in Eastern Europe it got burned. After Macedonia became independent in 1991 in the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, Taiwan wooed it steadily with aid. The campaign appeared to pay off in 1999, when Macedonia recognized Taiwan—only to backfire two years later when a new government ditched Taiwan and switched ties back to Beijing.

“That was a lesson for us,” said Mr. Chiang. “At that time, we were encouraged by the Americans to give aid [to Macedonia], because it was a stepping stone for us into the EU market. European banks were also involved, and it seemed reasonable. But then it failed badly.”

Still, Kosovo’s move has set a long-term precedent for Taiwan. The pro-independence party’s vice presidential candidate said on Monday the island hopes to one day follow Kosovo’s example.

Actually, Kosovo and Taiwan’s situation is already comparable. Both style themselves as sovereign and independent states. Taiwan may have stopped short of a Kosovo-style formal declaration ratified by its legislature. But it is already formally independent of the People’s Republic of China in the sense that the island governs itself under a separate Republic of China constitution that’s the foundation for a 97-year-old government structure. As the island’s pro-independence party has said time and again, there is no need to declare independence, because Taiwan is already independent.

The key difference between the two “renegade” states is recognition. In Kosovo’s case the world is more evenly divided over recognizing the self-declared state, with the U.S. and some major European powers supporting it and Russia, China and others opposed. But Taiwan lacks recognition from any major powers. Taiwan’s isolation is borne of that lack of global political support—not from a failure to formalize its independence. In fact, a formal Taiwanese declaration of independence would be unlikely to win it more recognition, though it could well spark a war with China.

The confusion is compounded by the way Taiwanese themselves talk about independence. Actually, what most Taiwanese mean by independence is the creation of a new “Republic of Taiwan,” complete with a new constitution, that would replace the current system imported from mainland China in the late 1940s. This is a dream long cherished by anti-Kuomintang democracy activists—but one that has very little public support.

If the self-governed island can’t win recognition under its current formal name, there’s no reason to think a “Republic of Taiwan” would have any more success.

Mr. Adams is a free-lance journalist based in Taipei.

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