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Ukraine, Taiwan, and the politics of big neighbour resentment

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Photo by Joseph Anson

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More than a month has elapsed since Russia launched its war of aggression against Ukraine. Its constant targeting of civilian targets, and evidence in recent days of other mass atrocities, have dispelled any doubt that what we are witnessing in Ukraine is nothing less than an annihilative effort by Moscow – an attempt to negate the very sovereign status of Ukraine.

As Ukrainians confront their Russian invaders, the inevitable comparisons with another long-simmering conflict – between China and Taiwan – have arisen. Analysts and government officials have pondered the many lessons that can be learned from the war in Europe. Although the two disputes are certainly not identical, there are nevertheless many similarities that can help shed light on what a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would look like.

One little-discussed aspect characteristic of the two conflicts is that, in both cases, the belligerents, Russia and China, have long denied the legitimacy of the targeted countries while laying historical claim of sovereignty over them. Over decades, both Moscow and Beijing have used imperial myths and ancient history (often hands-off “control” by the Manchu Qing dynasty between 1683 to 1895 for Taiwan) to justify their coercion, irredentism, and wars of aggression.

Throughout the 20th century, Soviet treatment of Ukraine was characterized by invasions and several rounds of man-made starvation, culminating with the Holodomor of 1932-33, during which an estimated 4.5 million people died of starvation or related effects. The sheer inhumanity of the Moscow orchestrated mass murder, which specifically targeted Ukraine’s nationalist centres, only found its analogue in the Nazis’ attempt to exterminate the Jewish people and other minorities during the Second World War.

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This historical context helps explain the mass graves and hundreds of slaughtered women and children in Bucha in the current war, Russia’s incessant targeting of non-military targets across Ukraine, and the disturbing rhetoric emanating from Moscow. As in the 1930s, the aim is to expurgate the state, its institutions and symbols, which can only be completed with the dehumanization of an entire race (for example, through claims that “Deep Ukrainianism” is fake and that Russia seeks to “de-Nazify” Ukraine).

The recent atrocities committed by Russia’s military in Ukraine are also the product of frustration and resentment over the Ukrainians’ stubborn defiance, their attachment to their hard-earned democracy and Western leanings. Moscow’s frustration is a product of its own ultranationalism and the affront posed by Ukraine’s refusal to be incorporated into a new Greater Russia. That is why the massacres uncovered in recent weeks cannot solely be attributed to out-of-control rookie Russian soldiers; Russian leaders have made no effort to put an end to such excesses – in fact, the massacres are part and parcel with a strategy of annihilation.

This aspect of the conflict over Ukraine shares many similarities with that in the Taiwan Strait. Beijing is also deeply affronted by the refusal of “Taiwan compatriots,” whom it regards as Chinese, to accede to its demands of unification. Like Ukraine, Taiwan – or the Republic of China, as it is officially named – is a Western-leaning state that has embraced democracy and in many ways defines itself in comparison to the authoritarian People’s Republic of China.

Taiwan’s resistance is incomprehensible to the Chinese Communist Party, a contradiction that it cannot countenance, hence the official rhetoric that only a small number of “separatists” from the Democratic Progressive Party and “foreign elements” oppose the “inevitable trend” of unification. For Chinese ultranationalists, the refusal of the people in Taiwan to embrace unification is seen as an insult, a negation that often triggers an irrational, if not Pavlovian, response among the Chinese. In fact, this is quite similar to how many Russian ultranationalists react when asked about Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Compounding this resentment is the degree to which Taiwanese and Ukrainians have distinguished themselves favourably from their ethnic cousins, which is downright unpalatable for Russians and Chinese. This may help explain why Nationalist forces that arrived in Taiwan after the Second World War engaged in widespread acts of violence against the local population in an attempt to eradicate its independence movement and force into submission an otherwise distinctive population – one that was always present on the island but had been made further dissimilar by half a century of Japanese colonial rule from 1895 until 1945.

Much as Russia attempted to control, and then eradicate, the Ukrainian language, the Nationalist government imposed strict controls on language and culture in an attempt to “re-Sinicize” Taiwan and, in doing so, to eradicate a localist and nationalist sentiment that contradicted the government’s narrative (as in Ukraine, local languages, when permitted, were relegated to a supposed “lower class”). In the meantime, and not unlike Moscow in Ukraine during the Cold War, the Nationalists launched the White Terror to imprison and kill anyone who defied its authority.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, one-party rule was ended in Taiwan, martial law lifted, and the country democratized; the once authoritarian Nationalist party, the KMT, also accepted, if at times imperfectly, democracy. Ukraine, meanwhile, gained independence from a collapsing Soviet Union and embraced democracy while seeking closer relations with (and security guarantees from) Europe. In both cases, these developments contradicted the narratives in Beijing and Moscow.

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping’s inability to accomplish their imperial dreams, and the refusal of Ukrainians and Taiwanese to subsume themselves into the empire, lie at the heart of the politics of resentment that animate Beijing’s and Moscow’s policies toward both respective countries. It also informs the passions in the hearts of ultranationalists, propagandists, soldiers and a public that may not have access to all the information it needs to understand their country’s actions abroad, which can drive people to murderous excesses or support for such behaviour.

Consequently, despite Beijing’s repeated claims that Taiwan and China are one family, it is highly likely that Chinese soldiers invading Taiwan would also act upon their resentment and engage in mass atrocities in the face of stiff Taiwanese resistance. And like Moscow in Ukraine, the CCP and the generals in Beijing would not intervene to end the abuse. The same process of dehumanization that has marked Russia’s behaviour toward Ukraine would accompany a Chinese military campaign against Taiwan, just as Chinese propagandists and ultranationalists dehumanized the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. Anyone who resists is a “traitor” to the Chinese race and therefore deserving of brutal retribution.

As the international community deals with Russia’s illegal assault on Ukraine, it must realize that a Chinese attack against Taiwan would also very likely lead to mass atrocities and crimes against humanity. Given Taiwan’s relatively small territory and lack of a land border with a friendly country for civilian evacuation, it is a distinct possibility that a Chinese takeover and subsequent pacification campaign would result in a bloodbath.

Resentment and irrationality are undeniable components of Moscow’s and Beijing’s annexationist policies toward Ukraine and Taiwan. This is a reality that the targeted countries and the international community must prepare against.

Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and the Global Taiwan Institute. He is a former intelligence officer with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service in Ottawa.

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