Written by Yu-Shan Wu.
Comparisons have been made between Ukraine and Taiwan, with the ominous implication that Taiwan may become Ukraine in the foreseeable future, i.e., a weak country attacked by its much stronger neighbour. Most of the comparisons are shallow in that they simply draw on the obvious power asymmetry that exists between Russia and Ukraine and between mainland China and Taiwan, as well as the hostile intention of the mighty country toward the lesser power. However, the structural similarities between the two cases run much deeper.
Two major geopolitical fault lines are formed today due to competition between the US-led maritime alliance and great continental powers (China and Russia). One fault line is in Eastern Europe, and the other in East Asia. Ukraine finds itself on the East European fault line, and Taiwan is in a comparable position on the East Asian fault line. Both countries are under cross pressure from the maritime alliance and continental power. Together with other lesser powers on the fault lines, Ukraine and Taiwan need to take a strategic position between the two camps. There is a finite number of feasible positions that the lesser countries can choose from: junior partner, hedger, and pivot.
Both Ukraine and Taiwan are economically linked to the great continental power but dependent on the maritime alliance for security. Many other lesser countries on the two fault lines share with Ukraine and Taiwan this dual dependence structure, but there is a unique feature that only Ukraine (and Belarus) and Taiwan have. Ukraine and Russia are both East Slavic countries. Eastern Ukraine was part of Russia and then the Soviet Union since the Treaty of Andrusovo of 1667 until the dissolution of the Union in 1991. Western Ukraine was added to the Russian Empire through the three partitions of Poland in the 18th century. The westernmost part (such as Lviv) of Ukraine did not join the rest of the country until the end of WWII. The fact that Russia and Ukraine are ethnically, linguistically, and historically linked means Russians consider Ukrainians their brothers and Ukraine (at least its eastern part) a Russian land. At the break of the Soviet Union, Russians were a significant minority in Ukraine, and the Russian language was a mother tongue for even a larger share of the population. The bond between the two countries was very strong indeed. The different historical experience of Russification for different parts of Ukraine, however, suggests a decreasing gradient of Russophilia as we move from the eastern part of the country to the western region, the latter being a stronghold of Ukrainian nationalism and Russophobia.
Taiwan, or the Republic of China, also has ethnic and identity entanglement with mainland China, where the majority of ancestors of Taiwanese migrated from. In a sense, Taiwanese and mainland Chinese are both ethnic Chinese. Thus they share the same language (with the mainland using a simplified written language) and religion. But different waves of migration created different degrees of attachment to China, with the “mainlanders” who came with the ROC government in 1947-49 to the island being much more attached to their Chinese identity than the “native Taiwanese” whose ancestors came much earlier. Besides the migration timing, the Japanese colonization (1895-1945) also made a huge difference, as only the native Taiwanese were subject to this experience, while the mainlanders remembered the eight years of bitter war against the Japanese invaders on the mainland (1937-1945). Today the PRC considers Taiwan a province to be united with the motherland. Being much smaller and worried about being swallowed by the mainland governed by a communist party-state, Taiwan has psychologically distanced itself from China and fomented Taiwanese nationalism. Like in Ukraine, the attitude toward its much stronger neighbour is different across regions on the island, with the southern part more pro-independence (i.e., severance of remaining legal ties with mainland China enshrined in the ROC Constitution) than the northern part. Again, like Ukraine, Taiwanese electoral politics is embroiled in a divide on the relationship with the great continental power, with clear regional diversities.
Similar strategic position on the geopolitical fault line, ethnic/linguistic entanglements that define the politics on the ground (including divergent regional features), and the willingness of the continental power to wage war to subjugate the weaker country are the prominent features of the Ukraine-Taiwan comparison. Those features existed before the current crisis, facilitating interesting comparisons but not thought to be directly related. However, the simultaneity of rising tensions on both the East European and East Asian strategic fault lines put the two cases together in people’s minds. Suddenly, they began to interact, and people wondered whether Taiwan would become the next Ukraine.
In reality, the interaction between the two cases, or the interaction between the two strategic fault lines, began much earlier, with the United States being the primary nexus. Ever since the end of the Cold War, Washington has been putting pressure on China and Russia for strategic and ideological reasons. That force caused the two continental powers to mend fences and then collaborate against Western pressure. Increasingly Washington mobilized its European allies to strengthen the American position on Indo-Pacific, viz. containment of China and rallied its East Asian allies to support the US stance on Europe, such as countering Russian expansion. The American factor is behind the donations of vaccines by many East European countries to Taiwan as COVID-19 raged on the island last year and Taiwan’s strong support of Ukraine in the current Russo-Ukrainian war (to the extent of being listed as an unfriendly nation by the Russian government). Prior to the current crisis, Taiwan, not Ukraine, was considered the “most dangerous place” on earth. Whenever a crisis flares up on either strategic fault line, the US finds it necessary to warn the adversary on the other fault line not to take a chance. Washington finds it necessary to drive a wedge between Russia and China, sensing its vulnerability in fighting a two-front war. Countries on the two fault lines are necessarily affected. For Taiwan, to support Ukraine is to impress the US and Europe so that when Taiwan is invaded, there might be a greater willingness in the West to come to the island’s rescue.
Ukraine and Taiwan are not merely comparable, they interact, mainly through the US. However, there is even something more to this comparison. All the major players in East Asia are intensively watching how the war in Ukraine unfolds, seeking to learn lessons that may be of use if war comes to their region. This adds a third dimension to the Ukraine-Taiwan comparison: demonstration. For China, it is how to evade the mistakes that the Russian military made that led it to the current quagmire and how to deal with the harsh economic sanctions that may be imposed on Beijing if it launches a war of forceful unification. Hopefully, it may conclude that such an invasion is not worthwhile. For the US, it is to test the ability of Western sanctions and international rally against an aggressor and gain lessons on how to support a lesser country against a much stronger neighbour. It may also reflect on how strategic flirting with Kyiv contributes to Russia’s aggression. For Taiwan, it is to realize the imminence of war and plan on how an asymmetric war (even scorched earth urban warfare) might be fought, and hopefully to think really hard on how to prevent such war from happening in the first place to evade the Ukrainian scenario. With the benefit of hindsight, let’s hope everyone gains some foresight, and the worst may not repeat itself on the East Asian fault line.
Yu-Shan Wu is Academician and Distinguished Research Fellow at Academia Sinica. His major interests are in political and economic transitions in (ex-)socialist countries, constitutional engineering in nascent democracies, and theories of international relations and Cross-Taiwan Strait relations. He has authored and edited 24 books and published more than 160 journal articles and book chapters in both English and Chinese.
This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Ukraine and Russia-Taiwan and China’.
Welcome to join the online roundtable on ‘Ukraine-Russia; Taiwan-China’ co-chaired by TSP and SUIT at University of Nottingham, on 5th of April, 12 noon-13:30 UK time, eventbrite registration link: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/roundtable-on-ukraine-and-russia-taiwan-and-china-tickets-303468240677.