Written by Ben Goren.

In his recent piece, “Catalonia: How Can Taiwan Draw Lessons?”, Ian Inkster makes a number of astute observations regarding growing movements for independence in Catalonia and Taiwan.

As he rightly points out seeking comparators in such diverse and differentiated geo-political and historical contexts is an exercise fraught with intellectual traps, such as the dangers of projecting one’s own preferred narratives of identity onto past, present, and future locations, communities, and peoples. Whilst Inkster concisely and correctly observes that “the heart of the stable nation does lie in its language, its culture and its sense of a coherent, continuous past in some recognisably geographical area” and that “trying to do the opposite, to fix nations and their borders and identities in juridical terms only will do no-one good”, he only briefly touches on one broad common element that Catalans and Taiwanese all share – becoming annexed or absorbed by the contemporary (post-19th century) nation-state and suffering a loss of sovereignty during an ensuring process of political and economic peripheralisation.

Presidents Lee and Chen talked about ‘New Era Taiwanese’ as a more inclusive extension of a concept that already long existed in practice. Once the censorship and violent suppression of that practice ended, Taiwanese finally felt secure enough to express themselves much like other national peoples.

As we witness resurgent nationalism or ‘localism’ in Catalonia, at the same time we see  clear indicators that Taiwanese identity and sense of nationhood is neither temporary nor any more ‘artificially constructed’ that any other national or local identity.  They are far from alone in seeking greater autonomy and independence, a common historical context shared with other peoples and places being a legacy of colonialism and its institutionalised inequities.

The Kurds are attempting to (re)create their own state, the Palestinians are fighting both occupation and the ongoing ‘kettling’, ghettoisation, and ‘cantonisation’ of their fledgling Authority Government, the people of East Timor still struggle with the legacy of the Indonesian annexation and invasion of 1975 despite having (re)gained independence in 1999. The Quebecois failed to pass independence referendums twice but secured ‘recognition’ of their status as a ‘nation’ within ‘a united Canada’ in 2005, and indigenous peoples worldwide routinely see their concepts of nation and sovereignty overridden, ignored, or confined to ‘paper tiger’ laws despite UN recognition of their rights. The list goes on; Greenland seeking independence from Denmark, at least twelve groups within Myanmar, Kashmir from India, and the Baloch people from both Pakistan and Iran.

Historically, large states have existed with continuous borders for less time than the arrangement of smaller states which have preceded and replaced them. Whilst the centralising process of the nation-state, as an ‘Empire’ uniting linguistically and culturally disparate regions, has usually conferred rapid military and economic advantages for most ruling authorities, these economies of scale have always eventually reached an apex of efficiency, security, and stability, often as militarily secured borders expanded too far to be managed effectively, or as a result of institutional and procedural decay in the Capital. If there is anything predictable about an Empire, however it is run or appears to manifest on the world stage, it is that it will come to an end, whether this is an implosion sparked by infighting and collapse at the centre or a bloody revolt of peoples in and on a periphery that has been exploited and neglected. Underlying tensions created by the manner of a state’s establishment and its administration act as a weakest link when its normal operation is no longer able to generate sufficient benefits for peripheral peoples in return for accepting losses in autonomy, sovereignty, and identity.

Colonisation and occupation are inherently violent whether that violence appears as a policy to eradicate a language and culture (for example in East Turkestan) or whether it involves direct physical subjugation and ethnic cleansing, as we see in Palestine. Inkster rightly points out that the technical administrative components of constructing the nation-state are relatively easy to implement, but the language and culture attributes are much more firmly rooted in geography and time. Attempts by largely western regimes to draw artificial borders across swathes of globe have resulted in almost continuous conflict across much of the world, and especially in Africa and West Asia, the Sykes-Picot Agreement a perfect and notorious example.  Sykes-Picot was, much like the Balfour Declaration, a crude attempt by European powers to map its own institutional methodology of a nation-state political-economy onto territories and peoples it neither understood nor cared to understand, to cynically serve their own geo-political and economic interests.

After hundreds of years of conquest, expansion and infighting, by the late 19th century European regions had coalesced into the modern nation-states we recognise today, many of them at the same time also Empires or Empire-aspiring entities.  In the process of the founding of these Empire-states, peripheral and less developed nations  Catalonia were absorbed by their hegemonic neighbours; Catalonia by monarchal decree of Philip V of Spain in 1714, following the French model of unified legislation and administration. Not coincidentally Louis XIV, arguably the founder of modern France, died in 1715 but had already laid the ideological, administrative, and military basis for the later Empire-state which Napoleon built upon to seize much of Europe from Madrid to Moscow.  Ultimately, with at least three active and competing centres of Empire in Europe and a vacuum created by the decay of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, Europe descended into bloody world-wide warfare twice before it was agreed that forming some kind of semi-democratic union of nation-states would be much more sustainable and profitable for business, and better to maintain peace between co-dependent parties.

As the American Empire rose and duelled with the Soviet block for global influence, Europe saw advantage in creating a ‘supra-State’, recognising a federalisation of shared values and will.  How modern Europe was formed, specifically the centre-periphery tensions buried by this formation, were largely forgotten. There was more concern about how to expand the European Union to include new states to the east whilst maintaining fiscal integrity of the project than about how the institution could and would react if a member-state left or saw one of its regions become independent. The Brexit referendum and the question of a possible future Scottish independence raised awareness of this blind spot, and events in Catalonia have analysts scrambling to ascertain appropriate responses and relevant rules and procedures for all possible eventualities. The European Union has been caught asleep at the wheel.

In Taiwan, a people that had lived with four hundred years of conquest, colonisation, and occupation found themselves released at the end of WWII from one regime’s responsibility only to be brutally subjugated by another, all while being constantly threatened by a third. For the next fifty odd years, there could be no talk of Taiwan being occupied unless it referred to the Japanese era. Despite numerous and breathless articles which have recently ‘discovered’ the Taiwanese identity as a nation, it did not emerge brand new post-democratisation but had been there in one form or another since at least 1895. Presidents Lee and Chen talked about ‘New Era Taiwanese’ as a more inclusive extension of a concept that already long existed in practice. Once the censorship and violent suppression of that practice ended, Taiwanese finally felt secure enough to express themselves much like other national peoples. They have done this despite being involuntarily shackled to what Chai Boon Kheng precisely describes as “a de jure statelessness with a phantom nationality”.

It is currently commonly accepted that Taiwan is a de facto independent nation under the legacy constitutional title and polity of the Republic of China in Exile. Inkster is wrong therefore to say that Taiwan hasn’t the attributes of nationhood in international law and governance structures as it plainly meets all of the conditions laid down by the Montevideo Convention. A rose by any other name would be recognised immediately as a coherent functional polity. The hundred mile wide Taiwan Strait helps clarify matters here.  In contrast, Catalonia shares a land border with administrations that have actually governed them, to varying degrees of neglect and condescension, for over three hundred years.

This is starkly different to ROC and PRC claims on Taiwan, both engaging in sleights of historical revisionism to disingenuously fabricate a claim in the present to create a beguiling but entirely ahistorical ethnic and administrative ‘continuity’ from the past. What the Catalans, and Taiwanese do share however is a sense of nationhood and an identity as such, separate and distinct from the centralised, hegemonic national identity they have been forced to accept. The power of that force is now arguably abating and the nation-state structures it has supported are creaking as they struggle to contain a rising challenge to their legitimacy and authority.  In part two of this article, I explore differentiated pathways which could deliver recognition of these national identities without necessitating a fundamental schism that could potentially unravel the nation-state project entirely.

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.



  1. Placing Taiwan:
    This is really useful Ben, and I thank you for it. I am especially concerned with the extension of the argument for reasonable comparison, as at present I am interested in the possibilities of any diplomacy at all in the present global environ (just imagine being a diplomat in the White House right now!) in almost any place or forum (see Brexit), as well as the propsepcts for a greater, more socially progressive and policy-detailed Taiwan governance. I think I have trouble going much further because of the problem inherent in your phrase ‘becoming annexed or absorbed by the contemporary (post-19th century) nation-state and suffering a loss of sovereignty during an ensuring [ensuing] process of political and economic peripheralisation’.

    It seems to me that the distinction between ‘annexed’ and ‘absorbed’ is paramount as delimiter of the discussion. Catalonia has not been annexed by Castillian Spain, and as to absorption, even that is problematic – the years since Franco are ones when – if anything Catalonia – has evolved and expanded as a very powerful element of the Iberian peninsula. Many see its problem as having evolved away from the main trajectories of Spain per se by so much, with so great an economic predominance, that it is now in a position to exist independently despite the doubts about its northern border – that is, will French Catalonia ever support such independence moves as praxis?

    Furthermore , for hundreds of years Catalonia has been more northern looking, more linked to the euro-economy than any other part of Iberia – witness the efforts of the French authorities in the later 18th century to limit the movement of artisans from there southwards to northern Spain as a mode of stopping the flow of skills and technologies in textiles into Spanish industry – a complete failure of course, and Catalonia prospered accordingly.

    Nothing comparable may be said in the Taiwanese case viz China. Many Taiwanese would claim that they have never ever been part of the Chinese imperial or modern national systems. In this view they were never annexed (even under Liu in the 1880s etc), were always on the frontier at best, resisting at all times imperial authority, though there may have been periods of cultural absorption. However, those same people would probably be the first to also argue that both annexation and absorption occurred under Japanese colonialism after 1895; remember quite apart from governance the way in which language was perverted, Japanese headmasters ran schools as well as all public offices, resistance was forcefully squashed. Today, no fear arises from Japan, only from China, a China itself moving on all economic fronts to greater growth, openess and innovation.

    So – to my mind we have few handles for comparison, many for contrast. But I confess I am irritated by this, its not particularly a position I like, its no simple solution, for its at the basis of many of the problems of any considerable comparative as well as global history. We can not rest content by saying that things are unique to each case – otherwise we become either antiquarians or academically pretentious. Perhaps we should continue this sort of discussion somehow? One thing now required is to place Taiwan in an international context for those who are not experts in the field and mght only have rather vague ideas about Taiwan, its location and it culture, beyond being one of the economic successes of post 1950s Asia.
    Ian Inkster 18/11/17.

  2. Hi Ian, thank you so much for your extended response. Apologies for not replying sooner as I’ve only just seen it. You raise a number of issues but I think I find most agreement in your last paragraph. I think a driving motivator for this piece was to a) offer something more nuanced than the rushed comparisons and contrasts offered by mostly journalists / IR think tank publications on the issue of Taiwan/Catalonia, and b) use this platform to offer ideas for potential solutions to what often seem, as you point out, almost intractable problems of such complexity that diplomacy stands little chance of succeeding where it inevitably has to. Of course, as seen in one of the replies to my 2nd part that often comes with the danger of “the road to hell”, especially when a seemingly good idea translates someone else’s imperilment. I agree wholeheartedly though that it is important to elevate Taiwan and place it in the IR context it deserves, in a way that improves upon and perhaps finally sheds the tropes with which it has become associated.

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