More than a month has passed 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 annihilatory effort by Moscow – an attempt to to deny the very sovereign status of Ukraine.
As Ukrainians confront their Russian invaders, the inevitable comparisons to another long-simmering conflict – between China and Taiwan – have arisen. Analysts and government officials have reflected on the many lessons that can be learned from the war in Europe. While the two disputes are certainly not identical, there are nonetheless many similarities that can help illuminate what a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would look like.
A 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 historically claiming their sovereignty. Over the decades, Moscow and Beijing have used imperial myths and ancient history (often the unmediated “control” of the Manchu Qing dynasty between 1683 and 1895 for Taiwan) to justify their coercion, irredentism, and power wars. assault.
Throughout the 20th century, Soviet treatment of Ukraine was characterized by invasions and several rounds of man-made famines, culminating in the Holodomor of 1932-33, in which an estimated 4.5 million people died of starvation or related effects. The sheer inhumanity of the mass murder orchestrated by Moscow, which specifically targeted Ukrainian nationalist centers, found its analogue only in the Nazis’ attempt to exterminate the Jewish people and other minorities during World War II.
This historical context helps explain the mass graves and hundreds of women and children massacred at Bucha during the current war, Russia’s relentless targeting of non-military targets across Ukraine, and the disturbing rhetoric emanating from Moscow. As in the 1930s, it is a question of expurgating the state, its institutions and its symbols, which can only be achieved with the dehumanization of an entire race (for example, by asserting that “Ukrainism deep” is false and that Russia seeks to “dehumanize-Nazify Ukraine).
The recent atrocities committed by the Russian military in Ukraine are also the product of frustration and resentment at Ukrainians’ stubborn defiance, attachment to their hard-won democracy and Western inclinations. Moscow’s frustration is the product of its own ultranationalism and the affront of Ukraine’s refusal to be integrated into a new Greater Russia. This is why the massacres uncovered in recent weeks cannot be attributed solely to uncontrollable rookie Russian soldiers; Russian leaders have made no effort to end such excesses – in fact, the massacres are part and parcel of a strategy of annihilation.
This aspect of the conflict over Ukraine shares many similarities with that of the Taiwan Strait. Beijing is also deeply offended by the refusal of “Taiwanese compatriots”, whom it considers to be Chinese, to accede to its demands for unification. Like Ukraine, Taiwan – or the Republic of China, as it is officially called – is a Western-leaning state that has embraced democracy and in many ways defines itself in relation to the authoritarian People’s Republic of China.
Taiwan’s resistance is incomprehensible to the Chinese Communist Party, a contradiction it cannot admit, 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 Taiwanese to embrace unification is seen as an insult, a denial that often triggers an irrational, if not Pavlovian, response from the Chinese. In fact, it’s quite similar to the reaction of many Russian ultranationalists when asked about Russia’s war on Ukraine.
This resentment is compounded by the extent to which Taiwanese and Ukrainians have distinguished themselves favorably from their ethnic cousins, which is downright unpleasant for Russians and Chinese. This may help explain why nationalist forces that arrived in Taiwan after World War II engaged in widespread acts of violence against the local population in an effort to stamp out their independence movement and force a nation into submission. otherwise distinct population – a population that was still present on the island but had been made even more distinct by half a century of Japanese colonial rule from 1895 to 1945.
Just as Russia attempted to control and then eradicate the Ukrainian language, the Nationalist government imposed strict language and cultural controls in an attempt to “re-sinicize” Taiwan and, in the process, eradicate a localist and nationalist sentiment that contradicted the government’s narrative (as in Ukraine, local languages, where permitted, were relegated to a supposed “lower class”). In the meantime, and much like Moscow in Ukraine during the Cold War, the Nationalists launched the White Terror to imprison and kill anyone who challenged its authority.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, one-party rule in Taiwan ended, martial law was lifted, and the country was democratized; the once authoritarian nationalist party, the KMT, has also accepted, if sometimes imperfectly, democracy. Ukraine, meanwhile, gained independence from a crumbling Soviet Union and embraced democracy while seeking closer relations with (and security guarantees from) Europe. In both cases, these developments contradicted the accounts from Beijing and Moscow.
The inability of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping to realize their imperial dreams, and the refusal of Ukrainians and Taiwanese to integrate into the empire, are at the heart of the politics of resentment that drives the policies of Beijing and Moscow. to the two respective countries. It also informs the passions in the hearts of ultranationalists, propagandists, the military and a public who may not have access to all the information they need to understand their country’s actions abroad, which can lead people to murderous excesses or to support such behavior.
Therefore, despite Beijing’s repeated assertions that Taiwan and China are one family, it is highly likely that Chinese soldiers invading Taiwan would also act on their resentment and engage in mass atrocities in the face of Taiwanese resistance. And like Moscow in Ukraine, the CCP and the generals in Beijing would not intervene to end the abuses. The same process of dehumanization that marked Russia’s behavior 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 deserves brutal retribution.
As the international community faces Russia’s unlawful aggression against Ukraine, it must realize that a Chinese attack on Taiwan would most likely lead to mass atrocities and crimes against humanity. Given Taiwan’s relatively small territory and the lack of a land border with a friendly country for the evacuation of civilians, it is entirely possible that a Chinese takeover and subsequent pacification campaign could result in a bath of blood.
Resentment and irrationality are undeniable components of the annexationist policies of Moscow and Beijing towards Ukraine and Taiwan. This is a reality against which the targeted countries and the international community must prepare.
Michael Cole is a Taipei-based Principal Investigator at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and the Global Taiwan Institute. He is a former intelligence officer with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service in Ottawa.