China is well-known for
cracking down on areas seeking self-rule at home. The breakaway regions of
Tibet and Xinjiang have become perpetual objects of Beijing's displeasure. That
opposition to regional autonomy is now making itself felt abroad. On Tuesday,
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang scolded Scots seeking independence from
"We welcome a strong,
prosperous, and united United Kingdom," Li said, speaking alongside Prime Minister David
Cameron at 10 Downing Street.
underscores China's stance on separatism at home, where on Monday three alleged
Uighur separatists were sentenced to death for their role in an October attack on
Beijing's Tiananmen Square that killed six and injured nearly 40. It also
speaks, more broadly, to how Scottish nationalism has ignited debates on
separatism far beyond London.
Scots will head to the
polls in September for a referendum that threatens to split Edinburgh and
London after nearly three hundred years of unity. The voting will be closely
watched in Brussels, where Scottish independence could have devastating repercussions
for the European Union. Pro-Europe feelings run highest in Britain's north, so
Scottish secession would proportionally shift the rest of the U.K. toward
Euroskepticism -- and could even tip the scales toward a U.K.-EU split in a referendum promised by the Cameron
government for 2017. A British departure could be devastating: the U.K. is
expected to become the EU's largest economy in the next 20 years and, along with France, is
the EU's most important player on the world stage.
Scotland isn't the only
region in Europe seeking self-rule, and the outcome of September's referendum
will be closely watched by other breakaway regions. Spain's Catalonia region,
with a population roughly the size of Scotland's, is seeking greater autonomy
from Madrid, and if Scotland wins independence, Catalonians are likely to use
Scotland for inspiration in how to relate to its former masters -- and how to
manage an application to join the European Union. EU Commission President José
Manuel Barroso* said in 2012 that it would be "extremely
difficult, if not impossible" for Scotland to secure EU membership after
independence, effectively pouring cold water on Edinburgh's hopes for
successful sovereignty. And in November, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy decried separatist regions hoping to depart on "solo
adventures in an uncertain future."
Those comments reflect EU
fears of a British exit after Scottish independence -- but they were also
implicit warnings to Catalan nationalists. Madrid has warned separatists that
full independence might be unconstitutional, and ruled out a referendum. But
Catalan lawmakers have said they'll push ahead with a vote in November anyway.
Foreign opposition to peaceful
separatism comes cheap. There are no assets to freeze, no treaties to sign, no
rebels to fund. In return for nominal support, a reward: the legitimization of
centralized power at home and the warming of relations between capitals abroad.
Li's recent comments cover
all of these bases. China-U.K. relations have seen a few bumps in recent years
-- the GlaxoSmithKline bribery scandal is only a recent example. Li's comments will
not only bolster the legitimacy of central power at home. They should also
bring Beijing a little closer to London. Trade deals worth over $23 billion,
also signed during Li's visit, should sweeten the deal.
The latest polls suggest
that September's referendum will be close. For now, Scots haven't forgotten about allies
abroad. Back in February, a representative from the Scottish National Party --
the same group behind the upcoming referendum -- led the Scottish Parliament's
first-ever debate on self-immolation in Tibet, implicitly
challenging Beijing's authority to rule provinces reaching for autonomy.
Like the coming referendum
on Scotland's independence, that conversation should resonate far beyond
* Correction, June 19, 2014: This article originally misstated the nationality of José Manuel Barosso. He is Portuguese.(Return to reading.
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