Unlikely Allies: A Case for Cooperation Between Taiwan and Iraqi Kurdistan

Unlikely Allies: A Case for Cooperation Between Taiwan and Iraqi Kurdistan
Credit: Dean Karalekas

What you need to know

Where it counts, Taipei and autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan share more similarities than differences.

Geopolitically, there might at first glance seem to be little similarity between the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan) and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Taiwan is an island whose main security threat is invasion by an expansionist communist superpower, whereas Iraqi Kurdistan is a landlocked region threatened by Islamic insurgents and regional powers that are roughly equally balanced militarily. On closer inspection, however, the two do share certain similarities: for one thing, each, in its own way, is key to maintaining the current regional balance of power.

It is important to distinguish Iraqi Kurdistan from the other unrecognized polities in the region that straddle the borders separating the Kurdish people from the homeland to which they aspire. The Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), for example, is built upon the same cultural roots, but differs greatly in political expression. Rojava, as the DFNS is more commonly known, eschews nationalism – even Kurdish nationalism – in favor of a libertarian socialist model dubbed “Democratic Confederalism” that comes too close to anarcho-communism for the comfort of some of its allies in the fight against Daesh (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS). According to one of this author’s informants, many in Iraqi Kurdistan see the DFNS as fanatics, though they are highly respected as fierce warriors, with even all-female units scoring impressive victories against Daesh.

Iraqi Kurdistan, meanwhile, is the central pivot point around which all of the region’s players (Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey) rotate. As noted by Seth Frantzman in The Hill, it sits on Iran’s doorstep; encompasses the trade (primarily oil) route to and from Turkey; serves as a link to U.S. forces fighting in Syria; and exerts some measure of influence in government coalitions in Baghdad.

Credit: Dean Karalekas
Iraqi Kurdistan has enjoyed autonomy and a commitment to liberal democracy since 1991.

Likewise, Taiwan occupies a key position in the First Island Chain that is so pivotal for America to maintain its security guarantee in the Asia Pacific, and its economy is deeply integrated with those of the West as well as that of China. In other words: the stability of both states is needed in order to maintain the balance of power in their respective regions. And just as Frantzman concludes that the United States needs a strong Kurdistan region, it likewise needs a strong Taiwan – one that is at least strong enough to maintain its de facto independence from China.

Both Taiwan and Iraqi Kurdistan make for natural allies of the West in that they share a degree of classical liberal values, primary among which are the advances made toward freedom as evidenced by their respective periods of democratization in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In Taiwan, martial law was repealed in 1987, and just nine years later the country held its first democratic presidential election, with Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) emerging victorious despite Chinese attempts to intimidate the electorate by launching missiles and conducting military exercises in the Taiwan Strait.

In 1992, Iraqi Kurdistan held its first democratic elections, in which Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jelal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) formed a power-sharing agreement. This commitment to compromise was unexpected given the antagonistic relationship between the two parties. In both countries, politics is largely influenced by ethnic identity, and here too we see some parallels.

Like their shared experience with democratization, the two countries also have a fraught relationship with public plebiscites. In September of 2017, fresh off a string of battlefield victories, the Barzani government was emboldened to hold a referendum on independence. The result was a pyrrhic victory: the population voted overwhelmingly (at 92.7 percent) for formal independence from Iraq. Unfortunately, the government was not in a position to deliver on that dream, and the result scared and angered the region’s other stakeholders: Capitals from Washington to Istanbul expressed their displeasure, and Baghdad shut down air travel in and out of the area, and took over the lucrative oil-producing region of Kirkuk, robbing Erbil of much-needed revenue. The best that can be said of the referendum is that it was the right idea at the wrong time.

Taiwan, too, is suffering a hangover from too many recent plebiscites, the results of which left the island’s progressives deeply disappointed. Like the referendum in Kurdistan, the questions in Taiwan seem to have been the right ideas, just at the wrong time. While Taiwan’s Referendum Act explicitly bars any plebiscites on matters pertaining to the ROC Constitution (which a question on independence would certainly do), independence-minded activists and politicians have had to make do with tangential issues serving as proxies for localization, such as same-sex marriage and the name rectification of Taiwan’s Olympic team (from “Chinese Taipei” to “Taiwan”), both of which failed to earn public support in the polls earlier this month. While political heavy hitters, including former presidents Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), have been supporting a move to hold a referendum on Taiwan independence on April 6, 2019, this now seems an unwise move given the recent electoral results.

Credit: Dean Karalekas
For Iraqi Kurdistan, despite the hopes of its citizens, independence lies far over the horizon.

In both countries, politics is largely influenced by ethnic identity, and here too we see some parallels. It should be noted that in East Asia, as in the Levant, nations are roughly divided according to ethnicity, tribe, or some similar expression of the concept of Jus Sanguinus, or right of blood. This is contrary to the practice in the United States, Canada, and other nations of the new world, where nationalism is expressed more as a set of common values and the population is made up of host of different ethnicities who are the descendants of settlers and immigrants. Likewise, the nations of Europe, in their inception, were based not on ethnocentrism but religious affiliation. This has important implications for nation-building and ethnic identity: An Australian cannot become a Korean, for example, while a Korean can, with little difficulty, become an Australian.

While many Kurds like to trace their heritage back millennia, the modern Kurdish identity, or Kurdayeti, is heavily influenced by the nation building that took place following the fall of the Persian and Ottoman empires and the division of the region into nation states roughly delineated along ethnic lines. While the Arabs, Persians, and Turks obtained their own nations following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the geopolitical gerrymandering that ensued after World War I, the Kurds were left out. Today their territory is divided by the borders separating Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.

In her book “The Kurds and the State: Evolving National Identity in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran,” Denise Natali describes how Kurdayeti became ethnicized, and how this is important, “given the repertoire of an ethnic group’s identities, politics affects how national identity becomes institutionalized and the various forms nationalism may assume.” This quote could easily be used to describe the Taiwanese identity and its political expression.

In Taiwan, the concept of a Taiwanese ethnic identity as separate from Chinese began to emerge during the Japanese Colonial Period (1895-1945), and only grew after the island was taken over by the Republic of China, which moved its capital to Taipei in 1949. Different languages and, after a half-century of separation, different customs, practices, and belief systems between the two populations only served to highlight the distinctness of the Taiwanese identity, despite heavy-handed government efforts to stamp it out through Sinicization campaigns. During the White Terror period, political expression of this distinct identity was met with harsh reprisals, but under the surface, society continued to become more ethnicized.

In Kurdistan, the political shift from empire to a modern nation state opened the door to a new kind of political space that had a distinct impact on Kurdish identity. For one thing, identity no longer had to be predicated on religion, but could find expression in conceptions of ethnicity. This is not to say that Kurds did not have such a conception of themselves prior to the end of the imperial era: rather, the ruling elite of the Ottoman and Persian empires conceived of their minority populations strictly in terms of religious affiliation, ignoring ethnicity, Natali points out.

Likewise, in Taiwan, the end of the martial law era imposed under the regime of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) unleashed the population and freed them to openly embrace their Taiwanese identity, and further democratization allowed for the opening of a new channel in which to express and explore that identity in the political realm. Under the Kuomintang (KMT) regime (and indeed: in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, which seeks to rule over Taiwan), the Taiwanese ethnicity did not exist per se, as the Taiwanese people were merely a sub-group of Han Chinese, indistinguishable from their counterparts on the mainland: fellow descendants of the Yan and Yellow Emperors. Under the Ottoman and Persian empires, as under Zhongnanhai today, ethnicity was a tool of psychological and sociological control.

Thus, Kurds, like the Taiwanese, are acutely aware that they are not just outsiders, but outsiders under constant threat of being subsumed by the tyranny of the majority. Kurdish history is replete with reminders of this dynamic, not the least of which is the Anfal Genocide, the most infamous incident of which was the gassing of Iraqi Kurds in the city of Halabja, perpetrated by Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. Even today, Iran and Turkey are collaborating on a joint strategy aimed at neutralizing the Kurds, according to Arif Qurbany, a writer from Kirkuk.

Credit: Dean Karalekas
Ammunition belts and other military supplies, never hard to find in a region which has seen its share of conflict.

In Taiwan, it is the constant threat of military annexation by China and Beijing’s tactic of leveraging its economic clout to erase the Taiwanese identity from the consciousness of the international community, and to normalize the idea that Taiwan is a part of China. It does this through such means as listing Taiwan as “Taiwan, China” on multinational firms’ websites, forcing Taiwan to compete in the Olympics as “Chinese Taipei,” and bullying other countries into dealing with Taiwan simply as a “Separate Customs Territory” and not a country in its own right. In both cases, each population is keenly aware that they can entrust their future survival as an ethnicity only to themselves and their own political autonomy.

Far from stamping out these ethnic identities, however, this constant pressure only aids in feeding them, and pushing them to grow in ways that distinguish themselves from the oppressive majority. In both cases, this appears to be expressed in the adoption of values and practices that are normally associated with Western notions of classical liberalism.

In the words of Qurbany, the Kurdish nation “has been well ahead of the Turkish and Arab nations in terms of society, customs, behavior, respect for human values, equality and tolerance of other religions.” This is evidenced by Iraqi Kurdistan’s banning of forced marriages and female genital mutilation, restrictions placed on polygamy, and amendments made to the Iraqi Personal Status Law that resulted in a marked decline in honor killings.

According to a report in The Hill, the Kurdistan Regional Government has been largely successful in its efforts to protect members of the nation’s Christian, Jewish and Yezidi minorities from persecution—groups that widely suffer from ethnic-based violence elsewhere in Iraq, and the region. More recently, speaking on the periphery of an event to mark the International Day for Eliminating Violence Against Women, the Head of the European Union’s Liaison Office in the Iraqi Kurdistan capital of Erbil, Clarisse Pásztory, remarked on Nov. 25, 2018 that Iraqi Kurdistan “has a great reputation of inclusivity” in all aspects of society, ranging from ethnicity to religion.

Taiwan is likewise ahead of its regional neighbors in terms of respect for human rights and institution of legislation and practices predicated upon such concepts as gender equality, freedom of speech, and respect for human rights. While the recent plebiscite on same-sex marriage failed to pass in Taiwan, the very fact that Taiwan society is having this public debate puts the nation at the forefront in Asia on this progressive issue.

Credit: Dean Karalekas
Looking down at a street in Iraqi Kurdistan.

In the ways that have been discussed, and in many others, Taiwan and Iraqi Kurdistan share similar interests, goals, and aspirations for recognized nationhood. This makes them natural allies. So how can policymakers and leaders leverage these commonalities? For one thing, the respective governments in Erbil and Taipei should explore opportunities for cooperation and exchange, especially in the realm of public diplomacy. Students from Iraqi Kurdistan would benefit from studying at universities in Taiwan, and vice versa. A sister-city agreement between Taichung and Sulaymaniyah, for example, would likewise help to promote cultural and people-to-people ties. Both could benefit from the experience of the other in terms of how to maintain de facto autonomy under geopolitical conditions that militate against it.

At the end of the day, both nations are dependent on American largesse for their security: Erbil needs Washington (or more to the point, Washington needs Erbil) in the continued fight against Daesh, whereas Taipei continues to depend on US arms sales and the Taiwan Relations Act for its defense against a Chinese invasion. Indeed, both nations are arguably America’s strongest allies in their respective regions, yet both are routinely overlooked in the grand geopolitical maneuvers because of their status as largely unrecognized states. There was not a single mention of Taiwan in the Obama administration’s much-ballyhooed Asian Pivot, for example, whereas Washington regularly sides against Erbil in order to placate Baghdad. For this reason, it is not enough to rely solely on America to preserve security, but rather to take an active hand. For both nations, seeking like-minded allies and creative solutions would go a long way toward the success of such an endeavor.

Read Next: INTERVIEW: The Distant Self-Governing ‘Utopia’ of Rojava Has a Message for Taiwan

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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