Tuesday, March 04, 2014

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Will Taiwan-China be the next Ukraine-Russia?

3/04/2014 Taiwan Explorer
To those who are living in Taiwan the recent events between Ukraine and Russia must look very familiar, and could be a frightening precedent as to what we might see in this part of the world in the near future. Of course these are two different conflicts between two different countries, that have different ideologies, histories, ethnicities, and geopolitical implications, but nevertheless, there are parallels which I want to highlight here in few highly simplified points just to start a discussion. Now let me clarify, that I am no expert on these things, but I know both regions quite well, and I am very concerned.

Will Taiwan follow Ukraine's path?

1. Parallel: Ukraine and Taiwan are politically divided

The popular (and in 2014 already outdated) idea is that Taiwanese are divided into north and south, north being predominantly Mandarin speaking and pro-China, while the south is predominantly Taiwanese-speaking and pro-Taiwan. Ukraine is commonly described as being divided into West and East, west being predominantly Ukrainian-speaking and pro-Ukraine, while the East is predominantly Russian-speaking and pro-Russia. In both cases the languages and geographical location don't necessarily indicate a particular political affinity, the divisions from the past are now much more complex, the lines are blurrier than ever, especially when it comes to younger generations, nevertheless there is still some truth in these simplifications.

2. Parallel: Citizens fight for a corrupt-free and democratic country, against foreign interference

Just like Taiwan's sovereignty is heavily undermined by China, so is Ukraine's by Russia. In both cases the Cold War has not fully ended, its legacy is passed on to the next generation. But young Ukrainians and young Taiwanese want something better, they want to decide the fate of their country, and leave the past behind. Both are willing to go on the streets for their convictions and aspirations, the protests in Kiev's Maidan were truly impressive, but Taiwan is definitely not lagging behind when it comes to mobilizing people. The only difference is that the situation in Ukraine is much more dire. People were pushed to the edge, and managed to overthrow their leader. Taiwan is much more stable right now, and the economy is still doing relatively well on paper. In reality wages are getting lower and lower, while the living cost is rising. A lot of young Taiwanese are asking themselves: How long will this go on? Sadly, a lot of young talents are becoming foreign workers in other countries.

3. Parallel: People want to get rid of their leader

While Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine, was ousted from his presidency just a while ago by the indestructible perseverance of the people, and a wider national coalition, his Taiwanese counterpart Ma doesn't enjoy much support among the people who elected him not too long ago. Nearly 75% are unsatisfied with his performance, and this high dissatisfaction level remains unchanged more or less since he was sworn in for his second term in 2012. While he's not under threat to be ousted, the next 2 years until the end of his second and last term will be very rocky. Let's be clear: Ma is no Yanukovych, but there are definitely similarities in the relationship between the people who voted them into office, and their quick disappointment soon after.

4. Parallel: The leader is friendly towards the big neighbor

Just like Ukraine's former president Yanukovych, who is perceived as pro-Russia, Taiwan's current president Ma is seen as pro-China. The problem is that both Russia and China, two totalitarian countries, believe they are historically, ethnically, and linguistically connected to their smaller neighbors, and use that as a justification to pursue political influence with the goal of eventual annexation. Putin supposedly said in 2008 to George W. Bush: "Ukraine is not even a state! What is Ukraine? Part of its territory is Eastern Europe, but part of it – a considerable part – was gifted by us!" The Chinese government still claims "Taiwan is an inalienable part of China" and is pursuing policies to limit its international presence and bilateral relations with other countries. Russia is opposing Ukraine's membership into NATO or EU, and instead tries to lure it into the Eurasian Union, which goes against the will of the Ukrainian people similarly to how an incorporation of Taiwan into China goes against the will of the majority of Taiwanese.

5. Parallel: Governments create economic dependency on the big neighbor

Taiwan's economy is more and more tied to China, from production to export, the current government is betting everything on one horse (no pun intended). In 2012 China (together with Hong Kong) made up over 40% of all Taiwan's exports (source) and was by far Taiwan's number 1 export partner. Similarly nearly 26% of Ukraine's exports went to Russia, which was its number 1 export country (source). It doesn't take an expert to realize that this growing dependency has already become a big problem for current and future generations. Both regimes in Russia and China use it to assert political influence that serves their interests and the ultimate goal of eventual annexation.

Image from Maidan in Kiev. I took this photo last year when everything was peaceful.

6. Parallel: Supporters of the big country use chauvinism to disqualify the small country's culture and identity

The Russian propaganda machine against Ukraine is going full throttle now, sadly also on Taiwanese forums, and in many other parts of the world wide web. Ukrainian language is portrayed as "a Russian dialect" with some Polish elements, Ukrainian culture and identity are belittled, Ukrainian history is explained only from Russian imperialist perspective. Some media went as far as to label the recent pro-EU protesters as "fascists", and Putin and his military as liberators and peacemakers. If you change the word Ukraine with Taiwan, and Russia with China, and read my paragraph again, you will realize that the same tactics is used in this part of the world. It's a textbook propaganda, and sadly it often works.

7. Parallel: The military is just around the corner and willing to strike any time

What we see unfolding these days in Crimea, and perhaps soon in other parts of Ukraine, we might see one day in Taiwan. Russia's army is not far from Ukraine, in fact it's already inside, so is China's army just around the corner waiting to invade, and at the same time expanding at an incredibly fast pace. 1600 ballistic weapons are pointed at Taiwan today, and they shall be deployed in case Taiwanese people decide to change constitution and proclaim formal independence. Or perhaps it won't even need anything drastic to trigger mobilization, an arbitrary excuse may not be hard to find as we see it with Putin these days. A lot of analysts don't argue anymore "whether China will invade", but "when China will invade" Taiwan. It's a very uncomfortable truth, something that we Westerners in Taiwan have to face in our mind quite often, but tend to put it aside and dismiss it. "It won't happen" we often tell to ourselves, but after the recent events in Ukraine, a country that geopolitically bears striking similarities with Taiwan, who can really be sure that something like this won't happen here?

Debate below, but keep it classy, if you want to be published.