More Alike than Not: Kosovo and Taiwan

More Alike than Not: Kosovo and Taiwan

img more alike than not kosovo n taiwan
More Alike than Not: Kosovo and Taiwan

Arbenita Sopaj is a PhD candidate and teaching assistant at the Graduate School of International Cooperation Studies (GSICS), Kobe University. She also is a lecturer and coordinator at the International Relations Office at Dardania College in Kosovo and a researcher at the Research Institute for Indo-Pacific Affairs (RIIPA). 

In April, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine entered its second month, China reportedly made a “semi-secret” delivery of anti-aircraft missiles to Serbia. This news report underscored the complex regional security situation in the Balkans and highlighted a small but not insignificant actor in the region: Kosovo. In recent years, Russia’s military supply to Serbia has caused great concern in Kosovo over regional security, as noted by Kosovo’s Foreign Minister Donika Gërvalla-Shwarz at a UNSC meeting in April. Kosovo’s main concern at present is that the unresolved conflict in Ukraine could potentially serve as a springboard for Serbia to pursue its ethnically-based agenda throughout Southeastern Europe, with China’s and Russia’s support. 

Many discussions over the years have revolved around Kosovo’s right to declare independence, and these discussions have only grown during the conflict in Ukraine. In a recent meeting with United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, Russian President Vladimir Putin mentioned Kosovo’s rights to self-determination by citing the ruling by the International Court of Justice acknowledging Kosovo’s independence, arguing that territories within any state can declare their own sovereignty without acknowledgment from the national government. Accordingly, Putin stated his belief that the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics—the two Russia-backed breakaway states in Eastern Ukraine—should be able to enjoy the same right in declaring their independence without consent from the Ukrainian government. While his statement set off a great deal of criticism in Serbia, it represented positive news for Kosovo, considering that Moscow does recognize Kosovo’s de jure independence.  

Kosovo is one of the youngest independent countries in the world. In general, the Balkan state of 1.8 million inhabitants, which gained its independence over two decades ago, is seen by most observers as having little relation to the cross-Strait sovereignty dispute involving China and Taiwan. Yet, it is worth noting that China voiced strong opposition to the 1999 NATO intervention that eventually led to Kosovo’s independence in 2008, primarily due to the potential implications of the operation for the Taiwan issue. Moreover, Kosovo is still claimed by Serbia as its Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija. In many ways, the current political situations in Taiwan, Kashmir, Catalonia, and Nagorno-Karabakh are similar to what has transpired in Kosovo. 

Despite some differences, Kosovo and Taiwan share many similarities, such as their pursuit of maintaining sovereignty, and their strong emphasis on democracy. Taiwan’s presence in Kosovo dates back to 1999, when Taiwan’s former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) provided assistance worth USD $300 million. [1] In the years since, Taipei has maintained a consistently sympathetic stance towards Kosovo as both states struggle to maintain a position in the international arena. Many Kosovars see Taiwan as a friend, since the country recognized Kosovo’s independence in 2008, becoming the first East Asian country to do so. 

This decision drew harsh criticism from Chinese officials. In a brief interview given at the time by Liu Jianchao (劉建超), the spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Liu claimed that “Taiwan is part of China and thus does not have the right or eligibility to discuss or honor the so-called recognition of Kosovo.” Considering China’s anti-secession law, Beijing is concerned about the prospect that “secessionist movements” like that of Kosovo might emerge in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Tibet. Accordingly, China’s opposition to the Kosovo intervention confirms again its policy in terms of territorial disputes. 

In 2001, US President George W. Bush clarified America’s commitment to Taiwan. Only a few months later, he also stated his concern regarding the Kosovo crisis, in which force was used. Examining Kosovo’s case can provide insights into Taiwan’s relations with China, while also revealing possibilities for stronger cooperation between Taipei and Pristina. In its long quest for independence, Kosovo has been able to make significant headway, despite Serbian opposition. Serbia’s continuous attempts to interfere in Kosovo’s development were clearly visible when it actively resisted the inclusion of Kosovo in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2015. Serbia claimed a diplomatic victory by gaining the support of China and Russia: ultimately, it managed to persuade 92 of the 142 members to take its side, while 29 abstained. Although defeated, Kosovo has nevertheless shown remarkable progress in being recognized by the international community, establishing diplomatic relations with 114 out of 193 UN member states. 

While drawing lessons from Kosovo’s experience, it is crucial for Taiwan to recognize that independence may not provide a satisfactory answer to internal problems, including those of political leaders with regard to China.  For instance, the north of Kosovo remains a disputed territory, where a bridge divides ethnic Serbs in the north and Kosovars in the east, often resulting in intense conflict. Amidst the chaos of the Kosovo War in 1998-1999, a large majority of Kosovars mobilized in support of independence from Serbia, a significant step that was easily recognized by the United States and the international community. [2] In Taiwan’s case, the latest survey carried out by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy revealed that 55.3 percent of respondents were optimistic about democracy in Taiwan. While that may seem like a reasonable number, a shared sense of identity between citizens is critical for maintaining cohesion when a nation asserts its independence, as this will shape its future status. In addition to this, both countries have long had US support in their pursuit of international space. As a result, Kosovo and Taiwan can cooperate in three important areas that are crucial to their respective futures: cultural exchange, science and technology, and economic development.

In recent years, Taiwan has implemented several cultural initiatives with Kosovo. In 2017, the Kosovo Cultural Exchange Association was established with its headquarters in Taipei. This organization aims to link citizens of both countries through exchanges of ideas and resources. Additionally, the exhibit Kosovo NEXT10 was held in 2018 to present visually Kosovo’s aspirational future for the next ten years. Several other projects have helped to integrate the citizens of both countries, while showcasing their respective pasts and enhancing their positions in their respective regions. To date, Kosovo’s government has not been able to play a more prominent role in Taiwan, as its policy focus has been largely regional and primarily aimed at EU integration. Although Kosovo has yet to achieve significant progress in this area, it has nevertheless been able to develop a number of initiatives through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and its Diplomatic Academy (KDA), including efforts to improve its people-to-people diplomacy (with civil society, academia, and policymakers) and digital diplomacy (online multimedia content), as well as the establishment of a new Diplomatic School. This has enabled KDA to invite academics, scientists, and youths from abroad, even from countries that have not yet established diplomatic relations. 

Considering Taiwan’s reputation as one of the world’s leading technology producers, Kosovo has much to learn. As stated by Chen Ting-yen (陳廷彥), projects such as Open Data Kosovo and Taiwan’s g0v have the potential to become useful platforms for collaboration on technological issues. Moreover, another crucial area where Kosovo and Taiwan can strengthen their partnership is the economy.  Despite Kosovo’s greater international recognition, its economic sector lacks sufficient progress. Taiwan, meanwhile, ranks as the 10th most innovative nation in technological infrastructure in the world, while it ranks eighth in the world in terms of economic growth. 

In 2021, a meeting took place between Kosovo’s Chamber of Commerce President Safet Gërxhaliu and Taiwan’s representative in Hungary, Yung-Ping Andrew Chang (張雲屏), where the two discussed setting up economic relations between their two countries. Shortly after, several Kosovar products were exported to Taiwan. While relatively small, Taipei has strengthened its presence in Kosovo steadily. In December 2021, Taiwan expanded its relations with Kosovo via a mutual parliamentary friendship group, which aims to strengthen government-to-government ties. It is the first friendship group in the Balkans assembled by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The significance of this partnership will certainly make it possible to examine closely Washington’s role in Kosovo’s quest for independence.  Similar to the US-led military intervention in Kosovo, Joe Biden’s trip to Tokyo for the QUAD summit emphasized the US commitment to defend Taiwan in the event China invades. 

Yet, it is important to acknowledge that Taiwan’s efforts to be recognized internationally as an independent state have been continuously impeded by China’s influence in the international arena. Taking advantage of its experience in navigating COVID-19 successfully, and with support from the United States, Taipei expressed its desire to attend the World Health Organization (WHO) meeting held last year. Although the United States pushed hard for Taiwan to join, China’s strong objections led to the WHO denying 13 members’ requests to include Taiwan on the agenda. Despite China’s persistent attempts to erode the country’s reputation, Taipei has nevertheless distinguished itself from many other Asian nations with an active free press and as one of the most democratic countries in the world, maintaining the country’s relevance on the international stage. 

Unlike Kosovo, Taiwan is recognized by only 14 nations as of 2022. Consequently, the country should step up its efforts to build stronger relationships with countries that still do not consider it an independent state. With that in mind, Taiwan has a greater chance of achieving international recognition through diplomatic and strategic means. 

While Kosovo has expanded its relations with Taiwan in recent years, doing so remains a relatively low priority for Pristina. This is primarily due to two factors. First, Kosovo has focused its efforts mainly on achieving European Union membership, with the aim of obtaining visa liberalization in order to allow its citizens to travel freely within Europe. As prospects for EU enlargement are not promising in today’s political climate, Kosovo should broaden its scope and explore the opportunities presented by other regions and countries. Cooperating with Taiwan could be an ideal opportunity for Kosovo to make a greater impact in Asia, since Taiwan possesses a great deal of influence in the region that would be highly beneficial to Pristina’s long-term policy in Asia. Second, Kosovo’s reluctance to enhance relations with Taipei has been caused by China’s ability to use its UN veto power to reject Kosovo’s calls to join international organizations—much like it does with Taiwan. Nevertheless, the shared interests between Kosovo and Taiwan are accompanied by a common adversary—China—a characteristic that can enhance relations between them. The numerous existing initiatives, pursued mostly by Taiwan, can be used as a launching pad to establish stronger ties with Kosovo. Due to Taiwan’s growing initiatives and investments in Kosovo, it is crucial that Kosovo’s government take an active diplomatic posture toward Taiwan. 

The main point: Kosovo and Taiwan, as smaller democratic states threatened by larger neighbors who claim sovereignty over them, share much in common in terms of their interests and concerns. Accordingly, Kosovo and Taiwan should seek means of closer cooperation in the fields of diplomatic, cultural, and economic exchange.

[1] Taiwan President Handbook: Volume 1, Strategic Information and Developments, (International Business Publications, Washington, DC, 2003).

[2] Arsim Bajrami and Florent Mucaj, “E Drejta Kushtetuese [Constitutuional Law],” Universiteti i Prishtines Fakulteti Juridik [University of Prishtina Faculty of Law], 2018.