It would be very tempting to see a decision by the UN’s top court on Thursday recognizing the legality of Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia as a sign that global support for Taiwanese independence could follow.
In reality, however, Kosovo is a false analogy for Taiwan, one that could encourage some to go down a potentially ruinous path.
For one, Kosovo seceded from a sovereign state, Serbia, something that Taiwan could not achieve, because it is already sovereign. A body cannot engage in “separatism” if it is not part of another entity. The political conflict in the Taiwan Strait is better characterized as irredentism — efforts to “recover” a territory that is culturally or historically related to one’s nation, but that is now run by a separate government. While both situations involve the “separation” of two or more entities, the dynamics and means of resolving the problem are entirely different.
This raises the question of legality. While it may be difficult to ascertain how legal the breaking away of a territory, such as Kosovo, might be, there is no doubt in international law that efforts to take over a sovereign state — by force if necessary — are illegal. What this tells us is that if legality was the determinant factor in a territory’s ability to be recognized as a legal political entity, Taiwan’s status would have been resolved years ago. That it hasn’t been demonstrates that the UN’s decision on Kosovo notwithstanding, other variables are more important in determining which nations are able to create their own country and which aren’t.
One crucial element is the power — political, economic and ideational — of the body from which the breakaway entity seeks to exist independently and the level of external support for the would-be “separatist.”
In Kosovo’s case, Serbia was a relatively poor Balkan state with a less than formidable military. Its only patron was Russia, which had yet to get back on its feet less than a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union. As for Kosovars, they managed to secure the backing of the world’s most formidable military, along with the largest military alliance, NATO, when the situation turned violent.
For obvious reasons, the odds facing Taiwan are far more challenging, given China’s might and the lack of international political support for a dream that, however legal, would risk undermining regional, if not global, stability.
As such, while the US and NATO could go to war over Kosovo in 1999 at relatively little cost to them, doing so on Taiwan’s behalf would be far more costly, both in human terms and in the severity of the resulting destabilization.
We should also not forget that Thursday’s decision finds its roots in the blood of tens of thousands of innocent people. While NATO came to Kosovars’ assistance to save them from a campaign of ethnic cleansing orchestrated by former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic and his cronies, it was the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) that first used violence, with the aim of inviting disproportionate retaliation by the Serb military and paramilitary forces against KLA militants and civilians, thus gaining international support.
Some people, now that a mere 11 years later Kosovo is a country, may be tempted to conclude that violence is the key to sovereignty. However, one should not apply the idiosyncratic Kosovo template to a situation like Taiwan. In addition, we should not lose sight of the fact that this sovereignty came with a very heavy human cost and gave birth to a nation that remains riddled by instability and the threat of future conflict.