Why Does China Even Care About Scottish Independence?

Why Does China Even Care About Scottish Independence?

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 London.

"We welcome a strong, prosperous, and united United Kingdom," Li said, speaking alongside Prime Minister David Cameron at 10 Downing Street.

Li’s tongue-twister 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 Edinburgh.

* Correction, June 19, 2014: This article originally misstated the nationality of José Manuel Barosso. He is Portuguese.(Return to reading.)