It is no surprise that Taiwan has paid close attention to the recent referendum that took place, amid much controversy, in Catalonia.
But a bigger question is whether independence referendums by Catalans in Spain, as well as among Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan, can serve as an important object lesson for the island state, which is debating whether to take a similar approach.
Taiwanese Premier William Lai Ching-te’s recent comments on his commitment to independence further stoke such sentiments, and calls for Taiwan’s legislature to pass amendments legalising such an action are increasing.
However, the differences between the China-Taiwan issue and Spain-Catalonia are more significant than the similarities.
First, in Taiwan, there is not the sense of immediacy that has inspired Catalans to seek outright independence. Despite having just 20 remaining diplomatic allies, Taiwan enjoys de facto independence, similar to any sovereign state, with its own political system, government and army, plus the right to issue its own passport and currency. Catalonia, on the other hand, is officially one of the 17 autonomous communities in Spain.
Second, a referendum on Taiwanese statehood would not receive the same international support the Catalans have received, as a great majority of nations, including all major powers, recognise the one-China principle, though many Taiwanese might believe they have no less justification for their endeavour than the Catalans, the Kurds, the Scottish and the Quebecois under international law.
Third, Catalonia accounts for 20 per cent of Spain’s GDP, and many in the wealthy northeastern Spanish region are convinced they would be better off having full control over that wealth. The Taiwan economy, on the other hand, is heavily reliant on trade with the mainland and any political separation would be disastrous for the Taiwanese economy.
Fourth, it is hard to see how a declaration of independence would markedly improve the lives and welfare of Taiwanese, as it would not change Taiwan’s status on the international stage.
Fifth, a fundamental difference is that while both the Spanish and Catalan governments are democratic and their political values are almost identical, there is a huge gap in politics across the Taiwan Strait.
As a thriving free democracy in Asia, Taiwan maintains a model of self-determination, freedom and protection of human rights – the core principles of the United Nations – while mainland China, despite its rising economic clout, remains the world’s last major communist one-party state.
Thus, any attempt to advance the island’s independence would be met with wholesale repression, and possibly war, from Beijing. China has not only promised, but legislated for military action should Taiwan ever declare independence.
Finally, and most importantly, we should note that while the Spanish confrontation is between an armed central government and an unarmed local government, the China-Taiwan conflict would be between two major armies in Asia – a war between them would not only destroy regional peace but also undermine global stability.
Under the current situation, as it is unrealistic to hope that the two political adversaries can live in the same bed or permanently divorce, the best tactic to achieve peace is to maintain the “status quo” before any permanent solution is found.
Any Taiwanese effort to abandon this tactic will risk Beijing’s wrath and could make the US reassess its assistance, which is crucial for the island’s survival.
Cary Huang is a senior writer at the Post