Ukraine-Taiwan panel: can we compare these two cases?

On Tuesday March 15th, at 7pm, students and staff members alike filled Wijnhaven’s biggest auditorium to follow the Ukraine-Taiwan panel, which was organized by the East Asia and Russia & Eurasia Committees.

The event was structured around two main questions:

  1. Is it appropriate to compare the invasion of Ukraine by Russia to a potential invasion of Taiwan by mainland China?
  2. What is the state of Sino-Russian relations; how are they affected by the current situation?

After answers to these questions had been formulated, attendants had the opportunity to intervene, either in person or online.

Three lecturers were invited to answer the questions and participate in the discussion: Dr. Frear and Dr. Wilbrink, from the area Russia and Eurasia, and Dr. Wits, from the East Asia area. Their presence was a way to take advantage of the professionals available within the university and use their knowledge to understand the events currently taking place. 

These experts first talked about the potential similarities between the Ukrainian and Taiwanese cases, one of them being the discourse of unity and historical similarities. They mentioned the concept of slave unification through Putin’s eyes, thereby debunking the supposedly natural and physical resemblance of Ukrainian and Russian natives. Indeed, according to the experts, despite some obvious linguistic and cultural relations and a clearly shared history, the two countries cannot be considered as the same; doing so, they argued, is partaking in cherry picking and falsifying history. From there, the experts  moved to the Taiwanese case, arguing that the main difference with the Ukrainian situation is that the latter has been internationally recognized as a sovereign country – Taiwan has never been recognized by China, or other nations, as independent. Moreover, it was argued that the Taiwanese people feel very little relation with mainland China, making China’s argument of unification hard to believe.

Building on the echoed claim of reunification, the conversation returned to Ukraine, and how its invasion was prepared – or not – by Russian authorities. According to the experts, in 2005, Putin assured the world that he would never launch a mission to annex Crimea – a statement we now know to have been disregarded. However, they assume that since 2014’s events in the Crimea area, everything has been improvised. In other words, the invasion of Ukraine was not necessarily an initial goal or plan  – or at least, they think it has  never been formulated in such a manner. Despite unlikely long-term historical plans of invading Ukraine, looking at Putin’s speeches, an ever-lasting frustration regarding the West is easily identified.

But if Putin initially did  not plan to invade Ukraine and still launched the military action a few weeks ago, what is to say that the Chinese authorities will not also launch military action into Taiwan? Dr. Wits assured attendees that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is not likely to happen in the near future – this is not part of Chinese strategy, and the Russian wars will not change that. Unfortunately, he admitted that we might witness similar military actions in a decade or so. 

Another crucial point to be  brought up concerned the importance of the balance between democracy and authoritarianism for the different countries discussed. According to the speakers, although Ukraine is admittedly more democratic than its neighbours, the country still does not live up to the common definition of democracy. However, when it comes to Taiwan, the islands and its people are really proud of their political system, and use their democracy as a strength. This can be perceived as a threat to China – which has recently been awarded the nickname of Un-people’s Republic of China

Finally, the experts  covered the geopolitical differences between Ukraine and Taiwan, the potential cautiousness of China, and Russian domestic repression. Most notably, the hypothetical role of Xi Jinping in Putin’s decision was brought up and debunked. To quote one of the speakers, the two powers are now merely “frenemies”, though they might have been considered “BFFs” in the past. Indeed, they are currently mainly maintaining business relations, still sharing a common disagreement of the West. Nevertheless, if the West falls, China and Russia would not agree on another system, and so to state that the two nations closely orchestrate military action together, is incorrect at best

The discussion was followed by very interesting questions by students and staff members revolving around, among other things, the risks of a potential nuclear war. The heavy mood was lightened with the help of occasional jokes concerning Putin’s botox. Especially for students specializing in either of the specifically addressed regions, the panel and subsequent discussion were enlightening. Unfortunately, for those attendees less familiar with the areas, it was sometimes hard to follow and understand the whole matter. Thankfully, the discussion was sufficiently well-constructed, so that those students too learned at least some enriching new information.

by Lu




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Images from Mirek Bui

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