EDITORIAL: The cost of independence

Thu, Oct 05, 2017 - Page 8

Just as Premier William Lai’s (賴清德) comments on his personal commitment to Taiwanese independence have brought that ever-thorny issue back to the fore, independence declarations have been made elsewhere, in Iraqi Kurdistan and Spain’s Catalonia.

While there are certain similarities between Taiwan’s position and theirs, there are also huge differences.

Kurdistan is not a country: Identified by its ethnic majority, it is a region that extends over southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northwestern Iran and northern Syria. Iraqi Kurdistan is the only part where the Kurdish government has official autonomy.

On Sept. 25, the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq held an independence referendum, resulting in approximately 93 percent of votes in favor. The Iraqi government declared the results illegal, and demanded that control of airports and border points be transferred to it. It has subsequently threatened further sanctions on financial transactions.

Catalonia is an autonomous community with significantly devolved powers within a highly decentralized state. Although not specifically stated in the Spanish constitution, it is widely understood to be one of the “historical nationalities” mentioned in that constitution, meaning that the region has a strong historical, political, linguistic and cultural identity of its own.

Spain’s constitution does now allow secession from the nation. On Sunday, Catalonia held an independence vote, regardless, with more than 90 percent of voters saying yes. The central government has threatened to wrest control of the region from the local autonomous government.

Taiwan is extremely unlikely to have an independence referendum, much less declare independence, for the foreseeable future.

The first reason for this is the very real threat of war.

Catalonians were subject to violence at the hands of police, who resorted to strong-arm tactics to stop the plebiscite. Past this, any actions from the central government will be targeted not at ordinary citizens, but at the autonomous regional government.

On the other hand, China has not only promised, but legislated for military action should Taiwan ever declare independence.

The Catalonian independence referendum sets Catalonia, and Spain on the whole, at the brink of a constitutional crisis. It does not put it at the brink of war.

The Kurds are in an unstable region, and their non-state status has put them at the mercy of host states. They have long called for independence and seek to gain so much more from achieving it, even if they have to sacrifice much in the process.

On the other hand, most Taiwanese currently have it pretty good. They live in a largely stable — albeit still immature — democracy, with reasonable assurances of a good life, access to advanced healthcare and decent prospects if they work hard.

Taiwan is already an independent and sovereign state. Declaring formal independence will bring recognition in the international community and seats on organizations like the WHO and the UN. While these are certainly desirable, the nation will not be able to reap the benefits for some time, if at all, if China launches an attack.

There are no severe, long-lasting implications to Catalonia altering its relationship with Madrid.

However, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has promised to maintain the “status quo” with Beijing. Abandoning it risks incurring Beijing’s wrath and foregoing Washington’s assistance.

All three — Kurds, Catalonians and Taiwanese — face pressure not to secede, not only because of what their immediate loss might entail, but also because of the potential knock-on effect.

Turkey and Iran are concerned about Kurdish separatism within their own borders, and Spain will be worried that Catalonian independence might encourage other autonomies, such as the Basque Country, to follow suit. Beijing is also tackling independence movements in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

Catalonia and Kurdistan have their respective ethnic and cultural homogeneity holding them together. Taiwan’s cultural and ethnic mix and history are complex, but the shared experience of Taiwanese over the past few centuries has forged an identity, too, existing social and ethnic tensions notwithstanding.

While formal independence is desirable, the sacrifices it entails would be huge.