Wed, Jun 29, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Clearing the air over sovereignty

By Dennis Hickey

On May 13, Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) said that he was willing to talk to anyone or any party in the "non-sovereign" territory of Taiwan. Several days later, President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) sent word that he would be pleased to meet Hu so long as Beijing recognizes Taiwan as an "independent, sovereign" country, whose official title is the Republic of China (ROC).

Unfortunately, the two presidents have yet to overcome this obstacle to direct negotiations.

Who is correct? Is Taiwan a sovereign state or a non-sovereign territory? A brief review of two core concepts in the field of international relations -- sovereignty and the state -- might help answer these questions.

The idea of sovereignty was one of the most important intellectual developments that led to the Westphalian revolution. According to Jean Bodin (1530-1596), a French philosopher who contributed much to the development of the concept, sovereignty is the "absolute and perpetual power vested in a commonwealth."

Sovereignty is "the distinguishing mark of the sovereign that he cannot in any way be subject to the commands of another, for it is he who makes law for the subject, abrogates law already made and amends law."

Sovereignty resides in the state -- a body that exercises predominant authority within its geographic borders, possesses a relatively stable population that owes its allegiance to a government and maintains diplomatic ties with other states. Bodin's treatise was penned centuries ago, but it still influences global politics. For example, the 1933 Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States defines a sovereign state as having a permanent population, a defined territory, a government and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. According to contemporary nomenclature, a state is the equivalent of a country.

The ROC exercises predominant authority within its borders, possesses a relatively stable population that owes its allegiance to the central government in Taipei, maintains formal diplomatic ties with roughly two dozen foreign countries and strong "unnofficial" links with many others. Despite China's protestations to the contrary, it is obvious that the ROC does exist and meets all the requirements of sovereignty and statehood.

To be sure, the ROC's territory and governmental system has changed dramatically over the decades. The country has evolved from a corrupt, authoritarian dictatorship into what the US Department of State describes officially as a "multi-party democracy" that exercises jurisdiction over roughly 36,000km2. Like other states, such as the UK, people employ a variety of monikers to describe the Taiwanese government. Some prefer to call it "the ROC," while others call it "the ROC on Taiwan" and still others call it simply "Taiwan."

Irrespective of the designation, however, public opinion polls reveal that an overwhelming majority of Taiwanese consider the country an independent and sovereign state. Other arguments employed by Beijing, such as the suggestion that Taiwan is not a state because it is no longer a member of the UN, are similarly flawed. According to this logic, the People's Republic of China (PRC) has existed only since 1971 (when it gained admission to the UN) and Switzerland has only existed for a few years.

Moreover, it makes no difference whether the US or other major world powers formally recognize Taiwan as a state. The US didn't recognize the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1933 and it didn't recognize the PRC from 1949 to 1979. The US currently recognizes neither the Cuban nor the North Korean government, but few would argue that these states do not exist.

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