Russia's invasion of Ukraine has put China's stance on Taiwan back in the spotlight. But despite shared narratives of national unity, there are key differences in how Beijing and Moscow approach territories they consider their own.
Ever since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there have been comparisons between the Russian-Ukrainian war and China's standoff with Taiwan, with divergent views on whether the same scene would be repeated.
The situations have similarities: Both Moscow and Beijing use the notion of “national unity” and Putin's war narrative also reflects China's theoretical dilemma on the issue of "anti-secession".
But there are key differences to Moscow's and Beijing's approaches.
Historical and nationalist claims
Beijing's claim to national unity has long been based on two aspects. The first is historical and nationalistic. China argues that Taiwan "historically belongs to China" and "was developed by the Chinese". The argument is that both sides of the Taiwan Strait are "China for the Chinese", thus trying to establish a historical and national "China" that belongs to Beijing.
However, the concept of "Chinese nation" actually long predates the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party, even though it is now mobilized entirely as part of Beijing's political discourse.
It is not uncommon in history for countries to change their territories and borders.
Using this historical "China" to argue for the integrity of sovereignty, Beijing claims that "the sovereignty of Taiwan belongs to all Chinese people, including our compatriots in Taiwan". Hence, in Beijing's eyes, "Taiwan's legal status as part of China's territory is clear and unquestionable, both in domestic and international law."
While appealing to the imagination of China's domestic nationalists, such historical and nationalist claims lack persuasiveness in the international arena. After all, it is not uncommon in history for countries to change their territories and borders. Relying solely on the rhetoric of their own history and nationalism will not garner broader sympathy.
Therefore, the other side of Beijing's claim is to rely on the fact that the Beijing regime is widely recognized internationally as the sole legitimate government and representative of "China" under the current international law framework. They also argue that the Beijing regime has the legal right to the sovereignty of all of China. In this sense, the current separation of the mainland and Taiwan is only a "temporary" and "illegal" state, while a nominal "civil war" against Taiwan would be framed as more of a large-scale security "counterinsurgency" operation.
The Beijing regime claims that Taiwan's sovereignty belongs to all Chinese people.
Awkward questions for Beijing
Yet China's failure to openly distance itself from Russia in the face of Russia's irrefutable aggression in the Russian-Ukrainian War makes both narratives awkward. In Putin's Feb. 21 speech, jokingly referred to as a "history lesson," he strongly disparaged Ukraine as an independent nation and state with a culture different from Russia's. He described the country as a purely artificial one created by Soviet Russia and claimed "Ukraine is an inseparable part of our (Russia's) historical, cultural and spiritual space."
The bigger problem comes from Russia's recognition of the separatist regimes in eastern Ukraine.
This imperialistic and chauvinistic rhetoric has not only made the world warier of hostile acts based on nationalistic and historical-cultural claims, which include China's territorial claims to Taiwan. It has also not exactly been received positively within China, since Russia is actually the country that has directly or indirectly appropriated the largest area of Chinese territory in modern history. So the expansionist tendencies revealed by this unilateral interpretation of Russian cultural history cannot fail to raise alarm.
Of course, since the Chinese government officially recognizes Ukraine as an independent and sovereign state, Putin's remarks cannot directly harm Beijing's historical nationalist narrative per se. The bigger problem comes from the Russian government's legal recognition of the separatist regimes in eastern Ukraine and the official launch of military operations in the name of assisting those regimes on Ukrainian soil.
Based on its own anti-secessionist stance, Beijing had to formally state that it "respects the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine”. But when specifically questioned whether "Russia's choice to recognize the sovereignty of two breakaway regions of Ukraine violates the sovereignty of Ukraine," Beijing refused to address the question directly. It aligned itself with Moscow, saying that "the evolution of the Ukrainian issue is closely linked to the delay in the effective implementation of the new Minsk agreements."
The role of the U.S.
China sees Taiwan, with its referendum on independence and external support from the United States, as undermining the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity. This has comparisons to the secessionist regime in Ukraine, which held its own referendum on independence in 2014 and sought Russian military support.
Looking deeper, it is notable that Beijing (the Chinese Communist regime) never really ruled Taiwan itself, while Eastern Ukraine is unarguably within Ukrainian territory. Beijing’s refusal to admit that Russia violated Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and its equivocation on siding with Moscow’s support of secession will undoubtedly further undermine China's position to make similar claims on Taiwan.
Despite the similarity in claims, it is notable that there are also fundamental differences. Officially, Taiwan is the “Republic of China” — the regime that had ruled mainland China before the Communist Party’s victory gaining power under Mao in 1949. It was only in the 1970s when Mao’s China was officially recognized as the sole legitimate government of China.
In this process, the attitude of the U.S. and of U.S.-China diplomatic relations had been crucial. Between Beijing’s “People’s Republic of China” and Taiwan’s “Republic of China”, the U.S. has shown ambiguous attitudes: It has supported the claim that “Taiwan is ROC (Republic of China), and ROC is Taiwan”, while it has not changed the official position of no objection to the "one China" from Beijing. As a result, Beijing has paid considerable attention to Washington’s public opinion about China's claims on Taiwan and America’s own stance on anti-secession. Even the Civil War in American history has also been used in Beijing’s rhetoric. China's defense minister, for one, has repeatedly stated to the public that "China will do whatever it takes to preserve the unification of the motherland, just as the United States did in the Civil War."
A Taiwanese soldier takes part in a military drill as tensions between Taipei and Beijing have been rising in recent months.
Building a narrative for national unification
Beijing’s claim misses the role of the people in its firm stance on “national unity”. The legitimacy of its regime relies on a Communist Party led-revolutionary war, with no consent from the people themselves (especially the 23 million people in Taiwan).
Beijing differs here from Moscow: Even while being the aggressor, Russia relied on a referendum to ensure its legitimacy before annexing Crimea. And later in eastern Ukraine, it awaited a referendum by pro-Russians and the establishment of a "People's Republic" government before it was "invited" to provide “military assistance”. Now, as war rages in Kherson, Russia is trying to force a referendum to create a "Kherson People's Republic".
The legitimacy of its regime relies on a Communist Party led-revolutionary war.
Thus, the dilemma of Beijing’s national unification narrative is unlikely to have an easy solution at the moment. While Beijing's awkward position in its attitude toward the separatist regime in Ukraine is certainly a result of its diplomatic interests, Beijing’s China would continue to encounter dissents if it is unable to build a complete narrative for the legitimacy of its national unification.
Bearing all these different factors in mind, understanding the context of China's national unification narrative is an essential prerequisite for responding to the Taiwan question from any standpoint.
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