What’s Independence for Anyway?
by Colin Cronin
This was an interesting point that I had not fully considered beforehand. But there are a few issues that must be addressed when considering this argument. First, no society is completely unified. Debate and disagreement are necessary to any functioning democracy. Now this can certainly go too far, and there are some worrisome signs in Taiwan. For example, a recent protest that was met with police force, sent one professor to the hospital and led US Circuit Judge Janice Rogers Brown to call Taiwan a “political purgatory.” But this exaggeration gives the impression that Taiwan is completely paralyzed by its political problems. There is no denying that problems exist or that the current administration has helped spur greater polarization. Yet such division has not prevented the country from functioning as a cohesive unit in the international arena nor devolved into wide-scale protests and rioting all over the country. The color clash might evoke images of Thailand’s political crisis – where the representative colors are red and yellow – but these two are incomparable to one another.
Second, even if Taiwan is weaker because of its division, there is nothing that suggests it would be stronger if it wholeheartedly pursued unification or independence. Given the intensity of some of the tensions, such a pursuit might inflame the situation even more and cause true political chaos (look at Iran now, or Thailand a few months ago). Finally, there are the consequences of defying China. There is much speculation on what exactly China would do in such a situation. But it is sensible to figure that the mainland would take some action, and there are number of options falling short of military occupation which would threaten the human security of people living in Taiwan.
To sum up here, there are a number of pertinent arguments that can be made for or against legal Taiwanese sovereignty. Any considerations about what should be done must weigh them all.
So Who Gets the Prize?
Ironically, Taiwan is a model case for independence because it is sovereign in fact. There is no question that it would succeed as a legally independent state. The same cannot be said of Tibet. While the Tibetans certainly deserve a homeland, there is little indication that the area comprising Tibet would make a viable independent state. Most of the plateau lays at a very high elevation, and the summer growing season is rather short. This makes any large-scale agricultural production very difficult. Trade must be carried over arduous land routes, and foreign investment is sparse. What about Palestine? What would an independent state look like: a fragmented range of land patches with the West Bank and Gaza Strip at two ends?
None of this is a defense or attack against any particular independence movement. It’s simply a call to be critical and not accept every claim to independence. Regardless of whether or not all groups deserve independence (a statement not beyond scrutiny), not all groups are capable of establishing and maintaining an independent state. Nor is this a defense of the status quo in such cases where an independent state is not viable. China’s development projects in the area have led to environmental and social problems. The continued Israeli-occupation of the Palestinian territories is not only a gross violation of human rights, but also a waste of time, energy, and valuable resources.
But there are often alternatives to simply declaring independence. It is important to look for options that better ensure human security while preserving the distinct nature of a cultural, ethnic, or political group. Such arrangements might look similar to Hong Kong’s economic system under China or the political composition of the United Kingdom. They may be something else completely different and novel.
The viability of an independent state is not based just off of whether a group deserves independence or not, but also on the feasibility of such a state developing successfully. This is how we should look at the Basques and Catalans in Spain; at the Polisario Front in Western Sahara; at South Ossetia and Abkhazia; at Israel and Palestine; and at Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan.
There are already too many failed states out there. It would be best not to add any more.
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