Taiwan Insight

Catalonia, Taiwan, and the Centralising State (part II)

Written by Ben Goren.

In the first part of this article, I briefly explored the wider historical contexts of current rising claims to independence in Catalonia and Taiwan. Where we come from very much shapes where we are and where we’re heading, be it peace, an uneasy stalemate, or outright conflict. In “Catalonia: How Can Taiwan Draw Lessons?” Inkster concludes that a “possible compromise between two obvious extremes” is available, one perhaps less confrontational and violent than fixing nations in legalistic and juridicial terms only.  What is not clear is how a people can gain, or maintain, their independence utilising constitutional tools that were ultimately designed to prevent such challenges for greater autonomy and independence.

Although Taiwan enjoys in practice a much greater autonomy and de facto national independence than Catalonia, it has far less room for manoeuvre and thus this ‘federal model’ would simply neither work nor be acceptable to most Taiwanese, at least for as long as China remains an autocratic one-party State.

Catalonian politicians arguably instituted the referendum and declaration of independence because Madrid had used a confluence of constitutional and legislative politics to delay and then constrict the true extent of Catalan autonomy previously agreed.  Although this movement appears superficially to be as much about money, specifically the greater taxes paid by Catalonia, as about identity and independence, at the root of the conflict is a long dormant periphery nation exploited by a distant and often brutal centre (have we forgotten Spain was a dictatorship as recently as 1973?).

Therein lies a problem. Taiwan cannot amend its constitution too far or it will touch on issues of territory, sovereignty, and the formal relationship of the nation in regards to China. The 1947 ROC constitution and its amendments are a deliberate, if accidental, fudge that maintains a ‘middle path’ of strategic ambiguity. The cost of this fudge is a phantom nationality and no participation or recognition in the United Nations. President Tsai Ing-wen has recently suggested constitutional reform and, although at a very early stage, her ideas suggest an approach of ‘feathering the birdcage whilst escape is currently impractical’, a deft approach that includes strengthening democracy and subtle links between the constitution and the Taiwanese people. In contrast Catalonia has been denied any constitutional settlement by the Kingdom of Spain, which has now regressively decided to all but abolish Catalan autonomy altogether. Taiwan has the ability to redesign its own constitution and declare itself independent, but this comes at the risk of war with the PRC.

In the search for solutions, many analysts focus largely on the legalistic or juridical methodology of a route to independence. Others seek to define whether a community is a nation or not as a litmus test of the legitimacy of their claims to independence, an exercise that is too often still dependent upon assumptions about statehood and identity established by 18th and 19th century European supremacists. There is also still a tendency to blame the periphery for upsetting the centre and causing tensions, as if those tensions weren’t already there. A standard media trope in reporting of relations between Taiwan and China in the last thirty years posits Taiwan as subtly provoking China whilst all but absenting China’s clear declaration of intent to violently annex the nation if it deems it necessary.  Instead, the first step to finding solutions is to accept the role of the creaking centre in subsuming the periphery as the ‘original sin’, and to recognise the periphery as its own legitimate centre.  Secondly, there are different forms and levels of independence inside and outside of national and supra-national structures, as membership of the European Union demonstrates.

Ironically, although Taiwan enjoys in practice a much greater autonomy and de facto national independence than Catalonia, it has far less room for manoeuvre and thus this ‘federal model’ would simply neither work nor be acceptable to most Taiwanese, at least for as long as China remains an autocratic one-party State. For China, its solution to its ‘Taiwan problem’ is easy but requires a paradigm shift from its institutionalised mythology and propaganda regarding its territory. China’s ‘Once Country Two Systems’ is already creaking in Hong Kong with every step it takes to gradually turn the ‘two’ into ‘one’. China could instead recognise Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan (as well as Tibet and East Turkestan) as fully independent states and support UN recognition of them as nations on condition they join a ‘Federation of Greater China’ united around free trade, free movement, and a treaty of mutual military defence as the US currently has with Japan and the Philippines. It could be a ‘NATO/WTO/EU’ hybrid with Chinese characteristics that could potentially even incorporate Singapore.

Not only would this better win trust with the people of Taiwan and Hong Kong in particular, it would also more easily and less bloodily manifest the CCP’s goal of Asian-Pacific military-economic hegemony, especially in the China Seas, and it would break the island chain and breach what the CCP regards as unfair US and Japanese containment. Of course that would require China to officially forego its claim on Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Tibet, and East Turkestan, currently a political impossibility for as long as the CCP ties its authority and legitimacy to efforts to recreate the territorial control and sphere of influence of the Qing and Yuan Dynasties. It’s obsession with how much of the map is painted red, and where, and with control, territory, and security, is the reason it creaks as a nation-state and will experience early failure as an Empire.

Therein perhaps lies what Inkster calls a solution between the extremes. Paradoxically, to gain what it desires, the centre must give the periphery what it wants and needs. The unitary top down nation-state is burdened by its own violent history and  the vast challenges posed to security in the information age. To survive, it must find the foresight and courage to reimagine itself as a bottom-up co-operative federation of fully autonomous states. An old Chinese idiom finds that the State periodically splits and unifies. To break this vicious and destructive cycle of growth and collapse the State needs to proactively split itself to maintain a unification acceptable to all it wishes to include. A nation can manifest in numerous ways but legal or militaristic bludgeoning to repress its emergence only sows the seeds of resentment and conflict in the future. Now is precisely the time to revisit our creaking models and definitions of the nation-state and update them for a more peaceful 21st Century. The large centralising state must give way.

Ben Goren is a contributing essayist on Taiwanese, UK, and Middle Eastern politics and culture for a number of online publications. He tweets at @BanGaoRen. Image credit:  CC by Office of the President of the Republic of China (Taiwan)/Flickr.