Imperial Past Drives Russia, China’s Territorial Claims in Ukraine, Taiwan

Both Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, have invoked nostalgia for Russia and China’s imperial past to justify their expansionism

Beijing’s rise has given it leverage to isolate Taiwan. Photo courtesy scmp.com

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Beijing has threatened to reunite Taiwan with the Chinese mainland since the nationalists relocated their government to the Pacific Ocean Island after losing to the communists, who established the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The spotlight was back on Taiwan when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Parallels have been drawn between Russia and China’s territorial claims amid fears that Beijing could be encouraged to forcibly reunite ‘the rebel region’ of Taiwan it has claimed sovereignty over since the 1950s.

Russian nationalists believe people who speak their language as well as ethnic Russians in Ukraine, which was a part of the USSR and where separatists seek to be part of Russia, are under threat. Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, sees Ukrainians and Russians as ‘one people’ and Ukraine as an extension of Russia. Imperial Russia considered Ukrainians as Little Russians and Russia as Great Russians. Mainland Chinese similarly consider Taiwan as part of China; their languages overlap, and they are also culturally similar. China ceded Taiwan, which has emerged as a major Asian economy and a top producer of technology worldwide, to Japan after the 1894-95 war. It got the territory back decades later following the Second World War in the 1940s.

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Both Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, and Putin have invoked nostalgia for Russia and China’s imperial past to justify their expansionism. Days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, China reiterated its commitment to ‘resolving the Taiwan question.’ According to the New York Times, Xi appeared more concerned about Taiwan’s fate than the war in Ukraine in a call with his American counterpart, Joe Biden, about the Russian invasion.

The US made it clear it has no intentions of intervening militarily in Ukraine. This came as Russia and China appear to have sensed an opportunity to assert themselves amid a void left on the world stage as a result of the West’s pullback after its failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Taiwan, which has faced diplomatic isolation as China opposes its recognition and has regular relations with a handful of countries, has for long counted the US as its most important partner and protector. The US and Taiwan, an island of 24 million inhabitants which allows same-sex marriages, are liberal democracies, unlike authoritarian China. Taiwan may have built a modern economy, but its military of about 88,000 million ground troops is no match that of China— about a million.

Unlike its clear stand on refraining from intervening in Ukraine directly, the US has taken a vague line on Taiwan. It is expected to deter China from attacking Taiwan. Status quo also benefits China, which has made most of relative global peace over the decades. Its position as an economic power in an increasingly integrated world could be at stake in the event of a conflict. This could possibly prevent Chinese aggression against Taiwan as well. A lack of progress in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has lessons for China and could help maintain the status quo in the Pacific region.

Beijing’s rise has ensured it has the leverage to isolate Taiwan, which occupied China’s UN seat till the 1970s over two decades after Mao Zedong-led Communists captured power from the nationalists. Generalissimo Chiang Kai‐shek, the President of Nationalist China, fled to Taiwan with his forces and led a government there in exile for 25 years. He was also recognized as China’s legitimate ruler before the communists began to assert themselves globally. Chiang dreamt of recapturing the mainland until he died in 1975. In his political testament published hours after his death, he urged his supporters to fulfill his dream and restore China’s national culture.

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Chiang, who received military training in Japan, participated in the uprising that overthrew the Qing Dynasty and led to the formation of the Chinese republic. Chiang would became a Chinese Nationalist Party member and build its army. He spearheaded the reunification of much of China and suppressed the communists. Chaing would become one of the Big Four leaders of the Allies in the Second World War against Germany, Italy, and Japan along with US President Franklin D Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. While his global stature increased, his position weakened at home with communists overthrowing him after the three-year Chinese civil war, which broke out in 1946. He would spend the rest of his life in Taiwan with his dream of reclaiming mainland China unfulfilled.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

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