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Kosovo Declares Independence, East Asia Feels the Heat

Dr. Raviprasad Narayanan was Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • March 04, 2008

    The impact of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia on February 17 is being felt on both sides of the Taiwan Straits. Apart from plunging the European Union (EU) into a crisis, Kosovo’s independence has escalated the ‘war of words’ between China and Taiwan even as the latter gears up for the March 22 presidential elections, which will also feature a referendum on the island considering membership of the United Nations under the name of 'Taiwan.'

    In a cautiously worded statement issued on February 18 that did not endorse Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence, Liu Jianchao, the spokesperson of the Chinese foreign ministry expressed China’s “grave concern” over the development. Liu added that “the resolution of the Kosovo issue bears on peace and stability of the Balkan region, the fundamental norms governing international relations as well as the authority and role of the UN Security Council. China always believes that a plan acceptable to both Serbia and Kosovo through negotiations is the best way to resolve this issue… China calls upon Serbia and Kosovo to continue negotiations for a proper resolution within the framework of the international law and work together to safeguard peace and stability of the Balkan region. The international community should create favourable conditions for that.”

    Implied in this statement is the role for the UN Security Council to deliberate and arrive at a decision regarding Kosovo. From a Chinese perspective, the divisions within the EU following Kosovo’s declaration of independence mean that the Security Council has to take a firm and principled position on this development. China in all likelihood will announce its official position on Kosovo’s declaration of independence only after the EU and Russia decide on how to tackle the current crisis. A matter of little detail here is that since 2004 China has sent four batches of peacekeepers to Kosovo under the aegis of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). If there is an unstated tilt towards Serbia in the Chinese spokesperson’s remarks, it is due to the extremely cordial ties the two countries have shared since the days of the former Yugoslavia and China’s vociferous opposition to NATO bombings on Serbia. The May 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade is an incident that still rankles policy hawks in Beijing.

    In striking contrast to the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson’s remarks were those of Phoebe Yeh, acting spokeswoman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Taiwan. On February 17 she said “we congratulate the Kosovo people on their winning independence and hope they enjoy the fruits of democracy and freedom. Democracy and self-determination are the rights endorsed by the United Nations. The Republic of China always supports sovereign countries’ seeking democracy, sovereignty and independence through peaceful means.” She added that a formal statement would be issued in a couple of days.

    For Taiwan, the declaration of independence by Kosovo presents the Chen Shui-bian administration with an opportunity to needle Beijing on the Democratic People’s Party (DPP) goal to declare Taiwan ‘independent’ through the medium of the March 22 referendum. It is another matter that the DPP government is in a minority after being routed by its rival Kuomintang (KMT) in the legislative elections held last month. The KMT has an absolute majority with eighty one seats to the DPP’s twenty seven in the 113 seat legislature.

    Taiwan also sees Kosovo’s declaration of independence as a means of establishing diplomatic relations with a European country. Currently, Taiwan is recognised by 23 countries, mostly island nations of the South Pacific and a few countries in Latin America and Africa. If Kosovo were to recognise Taiwan, it will become the only country from Europe to accept Taiwan as a country. Interestingly enough, the Vatican recognises Taiwan and not mainland China, although recently there have been enough hints in the media about a change in the Holy See’s attitude towards Beijing. In 1999, Macedonia had recognised Taiwan but switched its allegiance to China in 2001. Reflecting a strident opinion on Kosovo’s independence is Luo Jung-kuang, the Secretary General of the Taiwan United Nations Alliance (TUNA) who was quoted by the China Post as having said that “it is Kosovo people’s basic right to decide their future… If the UN refuses to accept Kosovo due to opposition from Russia, then it violates its founding principle – the right of equal participation and self determination.”

    Taiwan has been aggressive in its wooing of Kosovo. In 1999, the Lee Teng Hui administration had promised to pledge aid worth US $300 million towards ‘reconstruction efforts’ in Kosovo. After Kosovo became a protectorate under the UN, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Taiwan, with the help of non-government organisations contributed $500,000 for rehabilitation work in rebuilding the Pristina Psychiatric Hospital as also two schools in Dellovc and Semetisht.

    For the leadership in Beijing, the biggest challenge emerging from Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence is the probability of Kosovo emerging as an indistinct and undefined entity – oscillating between de facto and de jure independence with recognition from some powerful countries but ignored by a majority. It is this very probability that will give enough space for Taiwan to gain some diplomatic leverage and prestige – something Beijing frowns upon.