The Parallels Between Ukraine and Taiwan
As Putin continues his game of international chicken and blackmail over Ukraine, it’s hard not to see similar dynamics at play with China’s increased posturing over Taiwan. While there are a variety of differences between the two cases, the similarities are striking.
Putin has long believed that Russia needs to regain its Soviet-era sphere of influence. He has decried the expansion of NATO to include countries that were former Soviet states or within the broader Iron Curtain. He has employed numerous tactics over the years to combat European and NATO expansion and to reassert Russia. He’s used cyberattacks, conventional military attacks, economic carrots and sticks, petroleum sales, and thuggery, all to return Russia to the status it once held in the world.
Putin regards Ukraine akin to a rogue province of Russia. He views the two as historically one people, one entity (despite the fact that Ukraine predates Russia as a nation) and he does not accept it as an independent nation. In addition, Putin sees a democratic Ukraine bent on joining NATO and cementing ties to Europe as an existential threat—a possible demonstration effect to the people of Russia that could undermine their support for the authoritarian Putin.
His maximalist dream of annexing all of Ukraine is out of the question. Short of that, he wants a client state and as much Ukrainian territory as he can bite off.
While part of Putin’s current gambit is to threaten invasion to force the United States and Europe to the table to renegotiate decades-old security agreements, have no doubt that Putin views Ukraine as inherently Russian and will use all means possible to force Ukraine to submit to his will.
Turning to the east, there is a similar dynamic between China and Taiwan. China views Taiwan as a breakaway republic and has long sought “reunification.”
Here’s some relatively quick background. Taiwan (Formosa) was an independent, self-governing island centuries ago before other nations got their hands on it. The Dutch took it as a colony in the early 1600s until China grabbed it in the later years of that century. China ruled Taiwan until Japan took the island in 1895.
After World War II, Taiwan returned to Chinese rule under the Republic of China (ROC) government of Chiang Kai-shek. So, technically, in 1945, Taiwan was a formal part of China—although not all the people of Taiwan were on board with that. They rose up against Chinese rule in 1947 and there was a brutal crackdown by the ROC.
Then, the communist revolution kicked off, and in 1949 Chang Kai-shek fled the communist-controlled mainland and set up the ROC government in exile in Taiwan. Hence, to this day, Taiwan is the ROC and China is the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
The people of Taiwan are divided regarding reunification. They generally like their independent, democratic status. Those who are ethnically Taiwanese generally want to declare independence. The ethnic Chinese, the majority of whom arrived after the communist revolution, favor reunification. However, there is a catch—most want China to be reunited under the ROC government not the PRC. In essence, they want the ROC government, the pre-1949 Chinese government, to return and for China and Taiwan to be reunited under a democratic ROC government.
Follow all of that? Bottom line, few people in Taiwan want the island unified and subjugated under the PRC. Unfortunately, Taiwan has less leverage each year.
China has spent decades spending billions to woo countries to change their allegiance from Taiwan to China as the UN did in 1971 and the United States did in 1979. Nicaraguan thug and dictator Daniel Ortega just switched allegiance, leaving only a handful of countries in the world still loyal to Taiwan.
Like Putin, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping is trying to consolidate power and territory. Xi wants Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other special territories back in the fold and under his control. Again, like Putin, Xi views himself as a historical figure and he wants to cement his legacy by consolidating Chinese territory.
Once more like Putin, Xi is resorting to soft and hard power tactics to achieve his goals. There is no question that China could take Taiwan by force quickly and relatively easily. The problem for Xi is that the United States has a security pact with Taiwan and would be on the hook to help defend Taiwan. The lack of such a pact with Ukraine is one of the reasons Putin is on the verge of invading.
In the case of Taiwan, China has been escalating incursions into Taiwanese air space and asserting more control over the South China Sea. And unlike Putin’s gambit, Xi is not turning up the heat on Taiwan to extract concessions from the United States in other areas, Xi wants Taiwan and wants to make it clear to Taiwan and the United States that independence shall never happen.
Taiwan has had a tough slog. It went through a rocky transition to democracy and has emerged as a vibrant “nation” with a stable government, diverse economy with a lot of tech and innovation, and educated population that does not want to submit to communist rule.
In 2008, I traveled to Taiwan to report on the triangular dynamic between China, Taiwan, and the United States. It has been a delicate balancing act where the United States needs to maintain support for Taiwan, but if the United States (or powerful individuals or groups in the country) advocate for independence, that sets off China and risks Chinese escalation against Taiwan or the United States. Maintaining an uneasy status quo has been the least bad option for decades. But, Xi has been pushing the limits and has his sights set on reclaiming Taiwan. It’s a horrible prospect.
The following subscriber-only content is a deleted chapter from my book about my trip to Taiwan. Enjoy!