Taiwan Does Not Resemble Ukraine as Much as it Does the Donbas

Photograph Source: Heeheemalu – CC BY-SA 4.0

The latest tactic of the language of hegemony has been to equate the situation of Taiwan with that of Ukraine to exemplify the aggressiveness and intrinsic evil of China and Russia, countries described as part of an alliance to destroy the “rules based order” that the United States built and is the strongest defender—note the difference between “rules based order”, which is equivalent to “the law of the US”, and international law. These cases are equated so that Western hegemony can progress in the definition and isolation of a new “Axis of Evil”, legitimizing its military encirclement to prevent its expansion and possible threat to the Western position of global dominance.

On December 29, the newspaper El País criticized in the headline editorial the unilateralist policy practiced by Trump and Netanyahu, later continued by Biden, which has allowed, if not instigated, the Israeli occupation of Palestine and parts of Syria against international law (although apparently not against the US “rules based order”). In the concluding paragraph, the editorial warns that if this attitude is not changed, this ambiguity with regards to international law will have very negative consequences on “the message that Washington sends in the direction of Putin’s also internationally reprehensible expansionist instincts regarding Ukraine and Xi Jinping’s regarding Taiwan”. The language of hegemony seems to forget that international law upholds the integrity of Syria, Palestine and Ukraine, but also dictates that Taiwan is a part of China (whether called PRC or ROC, that is a secondary issue). It is precisely the support of the US that made it possible for Taiwan to de facto segregate itself from China, just as the Golan Heights have de facto separated from Syria, regardless of what international law had to say about this.

Similarly, in an article involved in the whitewashing of US hegemony, The Economist mentions that “Unfortunately, America is tiring of its role as guarantor of the liberal order. The giant has not exactly fallen asleep again, but its resolve is faltering and its enemies are testing it. Vladimir Putin is massing troops on the border with Ukraine and could soon invade. China is buzzing Taiwan’s airspace with fighter jets, using mock-ups of American aircraft-carriers for target practice and trying out hypersonic weapons”. This stance, which hypocritically defends the moral integrity of the US as a global policeman despite the countless abuses of “international law” that it upholds, is based on the misrepresentation and manipulation of the facts. To begin with, China does not fly its fighter jets over “Taiwan’s airspace”, but over its ADIZ, an area without international legitimacy far from the island’s territory, over international waters. Likewise, the fact that China puts its weapons to test does not make China any different from any other military, unless we depart from the biased premise that all military development by China is illegitimate because it threatens US global dominance. In the same vein, Russia is not pretending to invade Ukraine, but to defend the Donbass. This is the post-truth of hegemonic discourse: it relies on a drop of truth to build a distorted political imaginary that precisely coincides with what the majority of the public wants to hear: China and Russia are evil, we Westerns are the force of good (and God).

Other examples can be found in editorials in the Taipei Times, the leading English-language anti-China newspaper in Taiwan, where their many foreign contributors (one can guess that they are lobbyists for the US military industry) promote both the increase in the sale of weapons to the island and the association of Russia and China as a new Axis of Evil: “promoting a global boycott of the February 2022 Winter Olympic Games in China is now necessary to help deter a Russian invasion of the Ukraine that could well be a prelude to a CCP invasion of Taiwan”. Voice of America also followed this line warning how Russia and China are becoming coordinated to undermine US hegemony. As a last illustration, Taiwanese media recently shared how a Taiwanese “think tank” associated in a popular meme the Ukrainian headache of living next to Russia with the headache of Taiwanese living next to China. In addition to asking ourselves when “think tanks” are dedicated to publishing memes, another important question arises here: Has no one considered that the role Russia is playing in the Donbass is exactly the same one the United States is playing in Taiwan? Taiwan does not resemble Ukraine as much as it does the Donbass region.

Ukraine’s situation is as historically complex as Taiwan’s. In recent times we have seen a coup and a change of alliances in Ukraine, as well as the Russian occupation of Crimea and the uprising of the Donbass with the support of Russia. Nonetheless, although Vladimir Putin described in a recent essay that Ukraine and Russia are “one people”, at no time has Russia claimed to want to invade and annex Ukraine, but rather to defend the people of the Donbass, “labeled as separatists and terrorists” by Ukraine, from possible acts of “ethnic cleansing and the use of military force”. After all, isn’t it exactly the same as NATO did in Kosovo? Of course, there are geostrategic interests behind the Russian support for the Donbass, but that attitude does not differ at all from the interest of the United States to defend Taiwan (or Kosovo) from acts of aggression by its enemies (something that does not happen in Western Sahara, Palestine or Nagorno-Karabakh, when the aggressors are US allies or the US has no geostrategic interests). As recently mentioned by Prof. Joshua Shifrinson in The Guardian, the US and the west have lost sight of the idea that Russia also has vital interests: “in the grand sweep of post-cold war relationships have become less sensitive to Russian concerns […] Russia does not want other political groupings present near their homeland. That’s not a hard thing to understand. Imagine if China were to form an alliance with Canada. Powerful states don’t want other powers forming alliances near their borders”. The same happens, naturally, in the case of China and the presence of Taiwan as a militarized US protectorate.

Let us examine further the parallels. Both Taiwan and the Donbasss, from the standpoint of international law, are regions of two sovereign states (China and Ukraine) that became independent de facto as the result of a civil war with an important component of proxy war. In the case of the Donbass some institutions qualify it a “civil war” or a “non-international” conflict whereas others consider it is mainly a conflict between Ukraine and Russia or a proxy war. In the case of Taiwan it could also be described as a conflict between US and China for the very same reasons: US troops and aid support for the KMT during the Chinese civil war and afterwards was essential (for instance, see the different “Taiwan Strait Crisis”), and presently the conflict around Taiwan is a direct consequence of US direct and indirect military support. Moreover, the international proxy war argument also affects the opposite side in both conflicts: Soviet support of Communist China and NATO support of Ukraine.

Ukraine claims the Donbass employing the exact same arguments as the People’s Republic of China claims the Republic of China (Taiwan). Both conflicts were the product of the intervention of great powers supporting different sides and allowing the disintegration of both states into two separated areas with, eventually, different national and political sentiments. Russia supported the Donbasss uprising for geopolitical interests and with the excuse of defending from abuse the Ukrainian citizens with Russian identity who lived in said territory. The US supported the KMT and now supports Taiwan, equally, for geopolitical interests and with the excuse of keeping communism at bay, first, and upholding “democracy” later (even if the real objective is to contain China through Taiwan). Furthermore, both Russia and the US claim that the attempts of Ukraine to recover the Donbass and China to recover Taiwan, respectively, are existential issues that affect their national security (even if in the case of the US with regards to Taiwan, this is a stance much more difficult to justify). Russia has accused the Atlantic Alliance of increasing tensions and facilitating a future invasion of the Donbass by supplying Ukraine with weapons, increasing its activity near Russian borders, and involving non-NATO countries. Equivalently, the US and Taiwan accuse China of being a growing military threat, increasing its military activities around the island, pressuring other countries to sideline Taiwan, and planning to project its power towards the Pacific after Taiwan is occupied. Both Russia and the US claim that they are not doing anything illegitimate, but defending the right of the peoples to choose in which country they want to live, and that it is the other side that is fuelling tensions by keeping the flames of war alive. They also claim that their militarization of the Donbass and Taiwan is with no intention to attack Ukraine or China, unless, of course, Donbass or Taiwan are invaded. Of course, China and Ukraine want to recover the territories lost to secessionist forces and request the opposed superpowers to stop increasing tensions and supporting the “rebels”. It seems evident that the comparison should be between Taiwan and the Donbass, not Ukraine.

Western media such as The Washington Post are accusing Russia of not respecting international law and wanting to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty, clearly recognized by international law, so Crimea or Donbass cannot be “expropriated” by Russia. On the contrary, the same emphasis is not made in pointing out that under international law Taiwan is part of China, so that the US efforts to grant Taiwanese independence are equivalent to Russia’s actions against the sovereignty of a recognized state. Furthermore, although the presence of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border is currently described as an operation for the invasion of Ukraine, the interest is instead to pressure NATO to move away as to ensure the defence of the Donbass. Equivalently, the US military presence around China, within Taiwan with US troops on the ground, through regular warship crossings of the Taiwan Strait, and so on, is envisaged as a defence of freedom and as a warning to China’s intention to invade the island.

Why, if Russian interference in the Donbass is understood as negative, the interference of the US in the case of Taiwan was and is legitimized as positive? Should we attend to “international law” only when it is convenient? Does the “US rules based order”—which is equivalent to the US hegemonic discourse—constitute the only standard to be obeyed? Why the Taiwanese pro-independence pundits claim for the freedom of the people to decide on their future but deny this possibility to the citizens of the Donbass? These contradictions are just some of the many fallacies installed as universal common sense by the language of hegemony. In the end, the conflicts in which Taiwan and Ukraine are inserted have as a main point in common the meddling of the US and its goal of imperialist domination. The headache is not living next to Russia or China, but living in a world where uniquely the United States dictates what is wrong and what is right according to its national interests transformed into a “rules based order”.

Juan Alberto Ruiz Casado, PhD from the National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University, in Taiwan.