Beijing Has No Problem With Separatists—So Long as They’re Scottish
As leader of the Scottish National Party, Mr. Salmond has spent his life working for Scottish independence and last year finally secured a referendum, scheduled for September 2014, on whether to sever the country’s 300-year-old union with the rest of the U.K.
In Beijing this week, the first minister – leader of Scotland’s semi-autonomous parliament – made much of China’s vast appetite for oil, high-grade whisky and British soccer. As he sees it, the country is an unmissable business opportunity for Scottish exporters. It turns out the Great Hall of the People, venue for the once-a-year meeting ofChina’s rubber-stamp parliament, is even heated with Scottish boilers.
The Scottish delegation signed a batch of energy and technology deals Monday, as well as an agreement to airScottish soccer games on Chinese TV. It also donated some whisky cups to the Chinese firms involved with the deals.
There is no doubting Chinese appreciation for Scotland’s proudest export. “Having made a close study of these matters last night, performing my duty of empirical research as first minister and sampling a range of the products, I can report that the Scottish whisky industry is in good heart,” Mr. Salmond said in Beijing.
But as an independence lifer, he is in strange company. Separatism – not to mention referendums – gives China’s leaders the heebie-jeebies. The predominantly Muslim western region of Xinjiang has been on lockdown since a jeep plowed into a crowd last week in Tiananmen Square, the symbolic heart of China, and burst into flames in what the government has labeled a separatist attack. Tibet has also been under tight security since riots in 2008.
And if Taiwan ever formally declared independence, it might find itself on the sharp end of the People’s Liberation Army’s nuclear arsenal.
This is Mr. Salmond’s third trip to China since he took over as first minister in 2007. He claims credit for an 88% increase in Scottish exports over that period, as well as the dispatch of two giant pandas named Tian Tian and Yang Guang – or Sweetie and Sunshine, as translated by the British press – to the Edinburgh zoo.
The first minister met China’s now-Premier Li Keqiang on a visit to Scotland in 2011. But when the Dalai Lama – regarded by Beijing as a dangerous secessionist – was in Edinburgh a few months later, the two did not meet.
That is probably just as well for Scotland’s leader. British Prime Minister David Cameron sat down for a chat when His Holiness was in Britain last year and Sino-British relations haven’t been the same since. Things have thawed a little since Chancellor George Osborne, the second-most powerful man in the government, came to China last month – but Beijing and Westminster are still frenemies at best.
So far Mr. Salmond’s campaign for independence looks all but quixotic: only 25% of Scots support it, according to one poll, while about the same share of English respondents said they would like to see the Scots cut loose. But with the referendum still almost a year away, Mr. Salmond still has a fighting chance.
While China abhors separatism in theory, it has a few reasons of its own to cozy up to Mr. Salmond.
“China cultivating more contacts with separatists in Northern Ireland and Scotland would make London quite uncomfortable,” said the Global Times, a fiery newspaper owned by the Chinese government, earlier this year. “If Britain and China start competing over who can be tougher against the other, can Britain be the winner?”
Diplomacy makes for some strange bedfellows. If the polls are all proven wrong and Scotland does throw off its bonds to the rest of the U.K., China could find itself with a new friend in Europe. And next time Mr. Salmond is in town, he may get a full state visit.