“Instrumentalist hypocrisy”: concepts of territorial integrity in Ukraine and Taiwan

Mar 12, 2023
Flags of Ukraine and Taiwan.

The different way in which the concept of ‘territorial integrity’ is applied by the West in Ukraine and Taiwan sheds light on the instrumentalist hypocrisy at the heart of American foreign policy, and the role of the media in obscuring that hypocrisy.

‘Territorial integrity’ is very much the mantra in much of the discussion about the Ukraine war.

President Zelensky insists on it, President Biden invokes it as do US allies around the world, including Australia’s Penny Wong. It is noticeable that there is never any discussion in the West about what the people in the disputed territories – Crimea and the four oblasts of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia- think about that. Apparently, their opinions do not count. In other times and other places, the narrative is quite different. With Kosovo, for instance and most significantly Taiwan, the Western emphasis is on what the locals are claimed to want and no attention is paid to the sanctities of territorial integrity. Here self-determination, or separatism, is privileged to the exclusion of international law.

The difference in treatment in turn sheds light on the instrumentalist hypocrisy at the heart of American foreign policy, and the role of the media in obscuring that.

Territorial integrity and its counterpoint, separatism, is a perennial issue at the core of history. What constitutes a nation-state, what can be hived off and what can be added? And by whom? What are the rights of the people in the part to be detached or added, and those left behind? Crucially what is the role of foreign powers?

It is an issue central to the history of the United States. The American Revolution was an act of separation from Britain, and the civil war a bloody denial of the right of separation, or secession, by the Confederacy. The United States also expanded across the continent and then across the Pacific absorbing territory and destroying peoples as it went. The effective genocide, physical and cultural, during this expansion has meant that the US, in contrast to countries of the ‘Old World’, not least China and Russia, does not currently face any challenge from separatism. History has completed its task, and has seemingly been abolished, though as we know history has an annoying habit of not ending.

The rhetoric of US foreign policy is exceptionally imbued with words such as values, democracy, and human rights, but the practice follows a deeper riverbed. Hypocrisy and double standards provide a bridge between rhetoric and reality.

This is well-illustrated in the case of Donbass (used here as a convenient portmanteau for Crimea and the four oblasts) and Taiwan. The policy of the US is to prevent the secession of the Donbass and to promote that of Taiwan. The territorial integrity of Ukraine must be enforced and that of China destroyed. It might be argued that this differentiation is justified by the circumstances but an examination of the complexities of the historical process demonstrates that the reason is not adherence to transcendental values but domestic and foreign realpolitik.

Countries have often tolerated ethnic diversity, even supported it as part of a policy of divide and rule, but at the same time attempted to forge a national identity, and jealously guarded their territory against domestic separatism and foreign incursion. Separatist movements seldom exist without foreign involvement and few succeed in detaching themselves without external help.

Thus nations, with their territorial integrity and supposedly inviolable borders are not God-given but historical constructed, often violently. They are messy and contested. Preserving existing borders makes good sense as a general rule, because the human and material costs of change can be horrendous. But local wishes cannot be ignored. This means that these issues, and possible solutions are political rather than legal.

Although it has roots stretching back into history Ukraine has only existed as a modern independent state since 1991. Its territory owes much to expansion during the Soviet period, most importantly Khruschev’s transfer of Crimea to it from Russia in 1954. Despite this fragile foundation Ukraine could have been a viable and prosperous country. It inherited a considerable industrial base from the Soviet Union and rich agricultural land from nature. But for this to come about it needed two things: neutrality, so that it could have good and economically profitable relations with both Russia and the West, and an acceptance of multiethnicity, respecting the rights of the large Russian minority. The Maidan coup of 2014, orchestrated by the US, led to failure on both issues. Minsk II could have provided a partial solution but was not implemented and the territorial integrity of 1991 has been lost, probably for ever.

Taiwan was populated by various waves of migration from the Chinese mainland and became part of the Chinese state in the 17th century. It was seized by Japan in 1895 and up to 1949 there was no stronger advocate of a territorial integrity -which included Taiwan (and the islands in the South China Sea) – than the US. The island was returned to China in 1945 but In 1949 America ‘lost China’, Chiang Kai-shek moved the seat of the Republic of China there and the US established a de facto protectorate, seeing Taiwan as a vital pawn in its struggle against the People’s Republic of China. Long separation from the rest of China has left many on Taiwan ambivalent about their national identity but since the 1980s there has been considerable economic, and social, reintegration with the Mainland. The best solution would be a peaceful political reassociation with the Mainland, with a high level of autonomy, leaving most things as they are, but in particular with foreign affairs controlled by Beijing. A solution not without difficulties but basically a common structure in other parts of the world and one which could have held Ukraine together.

Whilst local forces play a significant role, the key common actor in both places has been the US. America’s drive to destroy Russia by expanding NATO, and exploiting ethnonationalism has torn Ukraine’s territorial integrity asunder and wreaked havoc on it. America’s use of Taiwan as a pawn against China, challenging China’s territorial integrity threatens a far greater disaster, which would reach far beyond the island of Taiwan itself.

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