June 1999

Kosovar tail wags Chinese dog




This article is about sovereignty and territorial integrity. At the time of writing, a messy truce has been reached in Kosovo, after a clumsy American and NATO air campaign over Serbia. The truce requires the Serbian troops to pull out from Kosovo, and provides for NATO and Russian forces to move in, but it does not set out any long term plan for Kosovo's future. In fact, it continues to recognise Yugoslav sovereignty over the province, even when it is clear the Albanian Kosovars, 90% of the province's population, will never want to have anything to do with Serbia again.

Without any arrangement for a plebiscite, or negotiations, this is a truce and military occupation of a territory without an "exit strategy", to use that favoured term of American military planners. I shall be very interested to see how this drama is going to play out over the next few years. Perhaps the Americans hope that the people of Serbia will topple Milosevic and a new government may prove more reasonable towards Kosovo. Let's hope so, though looking at how long Saddam Hussein has lasted in Iraq after the Gulf War, I shan't hold my breath.

Self-serving bad behaviour from Beijing

Next to Milosevic and Serbia, the people who have behaved worst through this war might have been the Chinese government. In the main, they acted as spoilers throughout, providing vocal support for Milosevic, condemning NATO and the US every day through the war. When a UN resolution was needed to buttress the truce, they almost threw a spanner in the works, by threatening to use their veto.

Beijing censored news about the Serbian expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Albanian Kosovars. One billion Chinese didn't hear of the atrocities committed by Belgrade against a civilian population. Instead, the government-controlled media in China portrayed the Americans as merciless aggressors and bullies against a small country, Yugoslavia, trying heroically to maintain its territorial integrity.

When American bombs hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade on May 7th, it was like a godsend to the Beijing government. They fanned popular anger against the Americans. They held back from broadcasting the US government's apology for days, to allow the demonstrations to intensify. While Chinese nationalism is a force often underestimated by foreign observers, most analysts also concluded that there was cynical manipulation of the street reaction by the government in order to distract from the upcoming tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen crushing, June 4th.

The main Chinese reason for taking such an anti-American line was that they stood strongly for the principle for non-interference in another country's territorial integrity, namely, Yugoslavia's. They were totally against the "hegemonistic" tendencies of the United States.

Of course, contributing factors included the Chinese anger at the way in which the US side blocked their entry into the World Trade Organisation. Beijing was also annoyed at the anti-Chinese fall-out from the Cox Report about the theft of nuclear secrets.

I wonder whether the Chinese government seriously believed their Kosovo tactics would increase China's bargaining weight in world affairs. If they did, they were wrong. People might have had to take account of their weight, but it was the weight of an elephant run amok on a fairground. In the medium to long term, it is completely counterproductive. You can't expect people not to notice that China's pro-Serbian position was unjustifiable in the light of Serbian behaviour towards the majority Kosovars. Its own censorship and manipulation of domestic reaction was self-serving, and its role in international bodies through the whole affair was unhelpful.

Chinese are paranoid about their territorial integrity

Why on earth did the Chinese take such a strident and unprofitable position over Kosovo and Yugoslavia's territorial integrity? Because the Chinese are paranoid about their own territorial integrity.

They have a small separatist movement among the Uighurs of Xinjiang, a province almost as large as Mexico. The Tibetan movement abroad just refuses to die away, though there is hardly any activism within Tibet itself nowadays. Above all, Taiwan is effectively independent, and it is the US that stands in the way of its re-absorption into the "motherland".

But as Kosovo shows, the whole problem hinges on what we mean by territorial integrity and sovereignty. We cling to outmoded ideas; there is no fresh thinking. China sticks to a historical idea of its territorial boundaries and sovereignty and insists on the right to reconquer Taiwan by force if necessary. The US and the West do not dispute historical bases for boundaries, witness how they recognise Belgrade's sovereignty over Kosovo even while their forces march into it, and in their train a UN administration is set up.

What is democracy without the freedom to leave?

We are too generous with historical boundaries, too parsimonious with the reality of people's wishes. There may be a good reason for not disturbing boundaries lightly, because it can open up an infinite number of claims and counterclaims, leading to more horror and grief than a stalemated truce. But when the wishes of the present generation of people are clear, then to pursue historical claims against their territory with war or suppression is completely wrong.

Almost everyone desires democracy. But how can we support democracy without supporting self-determination of definable peoples and territories? How can we support democracy on one hand and on the other insist that democracy does not extend to choosing to leave?

Nations and boundaries are living things. Historical unities cannot override the desires of the present generation in each territory, in determining how they identify themselves, and which states they want to be part of.

Sovereignty, like authority, must be earned from the people. If a central government resorts to brutish behaviour against its own citizens to defend its own notion of sovereignty over them, like the behaviour of Belgrade over Kosovo, then I would say that sovereignty is forfeited.

I wish the NATO countries had taken such a position. It would have cleared the decks for the Kosovars, and provided the moral basis for holding a referendum among them to decide whether they wish to rejoin Yugoslavia, join Albania, or go it alone. The present truce is a muddle that gives aggressors the legalistic excuse to go once more at it when they get the chance again.

East Timor

Almost incredibly, something positive is happening in East Timor. The Indonesians invaded that little territory of about a million population in 1975 when the decrepit Portuguese colonial administration collapsed into chaos in the wake of a democratic revolution in Portugal itself. After the invasion, Jakarta annexed it, though most countries did not recognise their claim. In the ensuing two and a half decades, perhaps 100,000 people have died in the conflict between the East Timorese and the Indonesians.

Earlier this year, Jakarta finally announced that they would offer an autonomy package to them, but if they still rejected that, the Indonesians would give them their independence. The UN has moved in to organise the referendum, scheduled for August. That at least is the intention, though it is marred by continuing violence and intimidation of voters by a pro-Indonesian militia. But at least, if the voting goes smoothly, and the choice free and fair, there is light at the end of the tunnel. 


Which is more than can be said for the China-Taiwan stand-off. Taiwan is effectively an independent state, with its own defence forces and a significant economy by World standards. China insists that Taiwan is one of its provinces, and has no right to secede. The Taiwanese people increasingly feel different from the Chinese mainlanders, and abhor the thought of subjecting themselves to Beijing.

Well, history must yield to present wellbeing and determination. If tomorrow, the Taiwanese make it clear in a free and fair vote that they want to formalise their separation, then we should all respect that decision and wish them well. Otherwise, what on earth do we mean by democracy?

Yawning Bread