On March 20, the headline of the morning briefing from The New York Times was “Is Taiwan Next?” In the current context of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, readers immediately understand what is supposedly “next” for Taiwan: an invasion by China.
As a Taiwanese person, I feel conflicted about headlines like this. Conversations with armchair political scientists fetishizing war aren’t new, but hypothesizing about war in a time when a full-scale invasion was imminent feels distasteful.
I am not claiming that we shouldn’t compare Taiwan to Ukraine. However, I would argue that many of these comparative discourses are simplistic and demeaning, as they cherry-pick digestible facts that undermine centuries of nation building, culture and identity. I would like to challenge us, instead, to compare the methods used by the perpetrators of violence and unrest: Putin and Xi.
These two autocrats undermine sovereignty by establishing a fraternal tie between the autocratic nation and its smaller counterpart. Putin claims that Ukraine is Russia’s “little brother,” united by a similar language and culture. Chinese newscasters have called for Taiwan to “come back home” (灣灣，回家吧). 灣灣 (wan wan) is a diminutive and patronizing name for Taiwan.
These sentiments are meant to persuade the international community that Ukraine and Taiwan are only temporarily “rebelling,” but that deep down, they belong to Russia and China respectively. As Putin and Xi analogize relations between two distinct countries to be brotherly and close-knit, this rhetoric reduces the nation building, sovereignty and autonomy of Ukraine and Taiwan to merely a younger, immature sibling of a bigger autocratic country.
Once this rhetoric — no matter how discreetly concealed — is believed by the international community, the public can easily justify the annexation of Crimea, the current invasion of Ukraine, the genocide in Bucha, and more. Ukraine and Taiwan, after all, were never truly independent; they are just appendages to larger countries. This rhetoric creates justification for Russia and China to continuously abuse their power.
I’ve been asked questions such as “why doesn’t Taiwan want to be part of China if you speak the same language?” that preemptively assume that Taiwanese people do not have the capacity for self-determination. We should direct these questions to autocratic states instead. Why is it that we turn to smaller states and expect them to explain their multifaceted identity in mere sentences to prove that they deserve to have autonomy? That they don’t deserve to be invaded? Why is it that my peers ask how I would feel about an invasion in the land where I was born, raised, and grew to love? A place where my family and friends live, where the graves of my ancestors rest?
Will China invade Taiwan? Not yet. The “yet” is important. Ukraine, and the international community, have continuously demonstrated the backlash China will receive if it chooses to invade Taiwan. We can just hope that when it does happen, we will be as resilient and strong as Ukraine. But more importantly, stand with, support, and donate to Ukraine. The war in Ukraine is a war against the free world, against democracy and sovereignty. Ukraine has proven, time and time again, that autocrats cannot abuse their power without repercussions. Our support for Ukraine will determine how authoritarians learn from each other in the future.
Claire Tiunn (Chang) PO ‘24 is a politics and Russian & Eastern European studies double major. She learns most of her Russian from Russian rap songs.