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I wonder if any international law or agreement authorizes the Taiwanese people with the right to self-determination. Namely "Taiwan's independence or not should be decided by Taiwanese people, not by any other country".

I would like to see the original context/reference for statement like this, whether China agrees with it or not.

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  • 1
    A google search only returns this page on that (quoted) phrase. Are you claiming it appeared somewhere (in some other language)? Aug 21, 2022 at 17:56
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    The general question about "international law and self-determination" was asked in politics.stackexchange.com/q/70925/26455.
    – Rick Smith
    Aug 21, 2022 at 18:11
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    I don't have time to really look into it, but someone with time might start with law.cornell.edu/wex/self_determination_%28international_law%29
    – Readin
    Aug 21, 2022 at 19:41
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    I am puzzled by the phrasing of the question. Do you expect international law, rather than particular treaties/agreements, to refer specifically to Taiwan, by name? If not what doesn't international law regarding the self-determination of people cover with regards to Taiwanese people's aspirations, besides the inconvenient fact that China has a UN veto vote? Aug 21, 2022 at 20:11
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    i.e. what's special about Taiwan that they would not be expected to have that right, after 73 years of self-government? If the country wanting to force reunification was Belgium, not China, would anyone give a crap about Belgium's wishes in the matter, legally speaking? Aug 21, 2022 at 20:20

6 Answers 6

36

The example of Kosovo brought up in SJuan76 answer in the comments is helpful. At the time Kosovo was a province of Serbia (and internationally recognized as such by (almost?) everyone). Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. Serbia asked the International Court of Justice to rule whether this declaration was lawful or not.

They key quote (from here) is:

ICJ President Hisashi Owada said international law contains no "prohibition on declarations of independence."

This would also apply to Taiwan or to the Donbass region in Ukraine. There are no international laws that regulate who is or isn't allowed to declare independence.

The follow up question is whether such a declaration is internationally recognized or not. Every country decides on their own which other entities they do or do not recognize as independent countries. There are no international laws about that and in some cases different countries come to different conclusions about the same entity.

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  • 24
    Independence is secured with only one thing--force. If you can beat up those that disagree with your independence, then you are independent.
    – Faito Dayo
    Aug 22, 2022 at 19:48
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    The current government of China - the PRC - never de-facto ruled in Taiwan. This makes looking at e.g. Kosovo interesting, but it's not quite the same, as Taiwan is not a question of independence. They are independent. It is a question of recognition of independence vis a vis PRC threats.
    – DevSolar
    Aug 23, 2022 at 9:05
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    @FaitoDayo Is that how India gained independence from Britain?
    – nasch
    Aug 23, 2022 at 14:29
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    @nasch To a degree, including indirectly via force of others. The World Wars greatly weakened both Britain's willingness and power to fight for continued control over colonies. Aug 23, 2022 at 17:00
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There is no "court of international law" in the first place. Politics is merely the art of the possible. Once this truth is grasped, the question naturally dissolves itself.

If that is still not clear, for reference, this is the territory that Taiwan AKA Republic of China AKA "Chinese Taipei" claims sovereignty over:

Territory of the Republic of China

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  • 3
    Indeed, it is the mutual disconnect between the ROC and PRC's claims of sovereignty with the reality on the ground that makes this such a volatile political flashpoint.
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 22, 2022 at 23:50
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    You should quote your sources. Aug 23, 2022 at 10:29
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    You'll need to provide more convincing evidence that Taiwan actively claims all of these territories, and what this map is based on. Comments under this question say that ROC officially recognises Mongolia; and answers here and here cover the subtleties of the remaining "claim" to mainland China.
    – IMSoP
    Aug 23, 2022 at 11:57
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    Upvoted, because ROC/KMT claims are a part of the puzzle. However, I can't help wondering if, in the extremely convoluted logic present in PRC/ROC relations, the KMT giving up on these claims could not be claimed a cause for war: "Hah, you are claiming you only control Taipei island. So not one China? You are declaring independence! War!". I think I remember reading something to that effect. Last, KMT, who historically made these claims, is currently the pro-China party in Taiwan. Aug 23, 2022 at 19:17
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    Is there any area claimed by PRC but not claimed by ROC?
    – gerrit
    Aug 24, 2022 at 7:49
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No.

It is a circular condition.

If you claim that Taiwan's independence to be the right of Taiwanese people, then you are already recognizing Taiwan as an independent country, and not part of another country.

In general, countries are recognized as independent, regions are not. Again a full circle. When an entity is recognized as a country depends only on the opinion of the recognizing country, and certainly there are lots of entities whose state cannot be agreed upon, with different recognition levels by different countries (e.g. Kosovo).

For example, for Germany Kosovo is an independent country, while at the same time it considers the breakaway republics of East Ukraine as regions of Ukraine and not countries. As such, any independence of those entities should be decided by Ukraine, and dealing with them as independent countries would be an attack on the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

The more that has been decided was that the International Court of Justice ruled that Kosovo declaring its independence was not a breach of international law.

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    This isn't quite accurate. ICJ decided that since "final status" of Kosovo was left open, some group from Kosovo declaring independence wasn't illegal (after many years of failed negotiations). But there's no circuliarity here because ICJ didn't decide itself that the final status was up for debate. And likewise the UNSC which did leave the final status as an open question, didn't (itself) decide that Kosovo should be independent. Aug 22, 2022 at 10:42
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    How does talking about "Taiwanese people" imply that Taiwan is an independent country? We can talk about Bavarian people even though Bavaria is not recognized as independent. Aug 22, 2022 at 13:40
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    @user253751 what is important is not talking about "Taiwanese people", but saying that "Taiwanese people have the right to decide on Taiwan's independence". If they have that right, you already consider them independent, since the opinion of mainland China is not relevant.
    – SJuan76
    Aug 22, 2022 at 13:58
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    @user253751: You are missing the point. The point is not whether you can define Bavarian people, but whether you rule that the independence of Bavaria is up to Germans or to Bavarian. If you rule the latter, you already gave a measure of independence to Bavarians -- you gave them the choice to recognize Germany's authority, or not. Aug 22, 2022 at 14:40
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    @MatthieuM. neither is the principle that giving some group a choice means they are independent... Aug 22, 2022 at 17:15
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The charter of the United Nations says:

Article 1

The Purposes of the United Nations are:

  1. To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace;
  2. To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace;
  3. [...]
  4. [...]

And in Article 2, section 4:

All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

(emphasis mine)

So if Taiwan is a "state", the UN charter says that no UN member may deprive it of its right to self-determination, and in particular may not use the threat or use of force to do so.

This begs the question of whether Taiwan is a "state". As the charter itself does not define this term, let's consult what the Encyclopædia Britannica says about states in international law:

The accepted criteria of statehood were laid down in the Montevideo Convention (1933), which provided that a state must possess a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and the capacity to conduct international relations.

Taiwan meets all these criteria: The defined territory is the island of Taiwan, permanent home to 23 million people, a government with all the usual ingredients, which demonstrates its capability to conduct international relations by maintaining the 31st largest diplomatic network in the world with 110 offices.

Appendix: Recognition of statehood

Britannica writes:

Recognition is a process whereby certain facts are accepted and endowed with a certain legal status, such as statehood, sovereignty over newly acquired territory, or the international effects of the grant of nationality. The process of recognizing as a state a new entity that conforms with the criteria of statehood is a political one, each country deciding for itself whether to extend such acknowledgment. Normal sovereign and diplomatic immunities are generally extended only after a state’s executive authority has formally recognized another state (see diplomatic immunity). International recognition is important evidence that the factual criteria of statehood actually have been fulfilled. A large number of recognitions may buttress a claim to statehood even in circumstances where the conditions for statehood have been fulfilled imperfectly (e.g., Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992). According to the “declaratory” theory of recognition, which is supported by international practice, the act of recognition signifies no more than the acceptance of an already-existing factual situation—i.e., conformity with the criteria of statehood. The “constitutive” theory, in contrast, contends that the act of recognition itself actually creates the state.

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There's no settled international law on declaring independence, but there are cases for both sides:

On the one hand, the UN still considers the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar, among other places, to be "non-self-governing territories" and subject to "decolonization", even in cases where there was no pre-colonial population and the current population voted overwhelmingly to keep the current arrangement. This suggests that external parties may have a say in the independence of a region without regard for the opinions of the locals.

Also, in the aftermath of both WWI and WWII, the victorious factions (re-) established a number of (at least nominally) independent states in eastern Europe and Asia without paying too much attention to the opinions of the locals (though much was said about self-determination during the process), generally by handing power off to some favoured faction and helping them suppress rival factions until they'd established enough control to stand on their own.

On the other hand, most places that are currently "independent" are so because some faction of locals wanted to be independent in some way:

  • They were formerly dominated or occupied by some faction seen as outsiders, declared independence, then went through some process that may have involved violence before the outsiders consented to recognize their independence.
  • They were formerly dominated or occupied by some faction seen as outsiders but negotiated a settlement with the outsiders that included agreed-upon terms of independence.
  • Some faction seen as outsiders attempted to assert control over them but were successfully repelled.
  • Etc.
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  • Your last section is a bit confusing, because it implies that "independence" is always created by expelling or repelling occupiers. Surely it's possible for a modern state to exist that has never been occupied, but has been independent as far back as we can recognise "states"? Most obviously, states that have generally been the occupiers rather than the occupied remain independent.
    – IMSoP
    Aug 23, 2022 at 12:07
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    Well, I did say "most" :). Also, if you go back far enough in history, even the recent occupiers have been occupied by someone. Take England: they were a disunited set of tribes with at most weak central leadership, then invaded by Rome in the 1st century. They were became independent again a few hundred years later by abandonment (an unusual situation), were invaded by Angles and Saxons, had a complicated series of wars with the Danes, were invaded by Normans, then started invading everyone else. But England, or something like it, has been "independent" since the Romans left in 410. Aug 23, 2022 at 15:50
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    Also, even most places that have been "independent" for a very long time have successfully defended that independence on various occasions, which falls under my third bullet-point. To pick on England again, they successfully fended off a number of attempts by France to assert dominance over them (and France did the same to them). Aug 23, 2022 at 15:55
  • The assertion that "there is no settled law international law on declaring independence" is rather asinine since it presumes there would be any body to enforce it. Most things in international law are enforced because high party's subject themselves to international courts like arbitrators which typically provides guarantees to those wanting to do business with them that they would act fairly. When things escalated to the threat of military interventions, its typically beyond the point when the aggressor has much care about such "courts". Aug 24, 2022 at 22:55
-2

Well, the Han people invaded Taiwan en masse during their civil war in the mid 20th century, overwhelming the local indigenous Austronesian "Formosans" by numbers. Before that, it was administered by Japan for many decades, and only small parts of it were ever under the control of Qing dynasty proxies (e.g.: the pirate Coxinga), whilst indigenous small "tribal" states existed, even through preceding Dutch and Portuguese loose administrations. It's difficult to see what (or whose) law applies, or exactly who might be seeking independence from whom.

If for example, many countries refuse to recognise the independence of a large powerful country, then what meaning does it have? Similarly, if many countries acknowledge the independence (or right to self-determination) of small (in numbers or area) polities (or "countries"), what meaning does it have? Independence seems to be more a de facto state, that is latterly given de jure status, as it can't practicably be changed. Then there's the related point about economic independence. You could argue that most countries are not economically independent.

So, to answer the question... there is only any international law that says anything because powerful countries agree that there is, and in the case of Taiwan, at least one powerful country doesn't agree; but other powerful countries do agree; hence a war may ensue to decide it.

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    "the Han people invaded Taiwan en masse during their civil war in the mid 20th century, overwhelming the local indigenous Austronesian "Formosans" by numbers. " Your history is incorrect. The Han overwhelmed the Austronesians much early. They did it basically at the same time that Europeans were overwhelming American Indians. By 1895 when the Japanese took over Taiwan the Austronesians were already less than 5% of the population. They did maintain independence in the mountainous areas but it was the Japanese, not the Han, who were able to end that independence (thus the Seediq Bale movie).
    – Readin
    Aug 28, 2022 at 21:18
  • The history is not incorrect; nor is it "my history". The Han did not exist in any significant numbers before the inundation of the island by Guomindang refugees during the Chinese civil war. There is no credible comparison between what happened to the native Taiwanese and the native Amerindians. The situation is more comparable to Tibet, where the indigenous people have been deliberately inundated by Han by the CCP since the invasion of Tibet; and similar to Ireland and the plantations to a lesser extent. The main point is that the CCP's claims of ancient control of Taiwan are specious lies. Aug 29, 2022 at 18:14

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