The world is focused on Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. And outside of Europe, no country has paid closer attention than Taiwan, a fellow frontline democracy also threatened by a nearby revisionist authoritarian power in Beijing. The lessons of the war in Ukraine are relevant to the entire free world. But it is especially crucial that the Taiwanese people learn from them so that the Taiwanese people can secure their own freedom from tyranny.
The first lesson is that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), like Vladimir Putin’s Russia, cannot be trusted. Like the Kremlin, the CCP views international treaties and obligations as mere parchment barriers to its own ambitions. The Ukrainian government, and many nations around the world, made the mistake of accepting Russia’s word in the Budapest Memorandum. What followed is Ukraine’s present catastrophe.
The second lesson is related, and it is that there should be no middle road, no excuse for not standing firm, when it comes to national sovereignty. Most importantly, no nation — Taiwan especially — should ever outsource guarantees of their sovereignty to other countries, and certainly not to China.
Ukraine made such a mistake, and not only in the Budapest Memorandum. Kyiv also put faith in Beijing.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many of Ukraine’s political elites wavered between the competing power centers of the European Union and Russia. Lacking a clear position and unable to decide between the two, many placed their hopes on a “third way.” They sought to disentangle themselves from the binary choice of Brussels or Moscow, and looked east to Beijing for a strategic partnership. The hope was that this would extricate Ukraine from its never-ending geographic strategic security predicament and guarantee its security. This was music to the ears of the CCP.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Belt and Road Initiative are tools of Beijing’s influence. It has for some time used them to pull former Soviet republics, especially Ukraine and Kazakhstan, into its own sphere of influence. The goal is to advance the CCP’s power and to isolate Russia, with whom China — though they cooperate in some areas — is competing for strategic resources and geopolitical influence.
Ukraine’s historic vigilance against Russia’s ambitions allowed the CCP to take advantage of the situation. Together with Ukraine, it signed, with alacrity, a series of security and “friendship” treaties. These treaties contained several solemn promises. They elevated China and Ukraine’s relationship to a “strategic partnership” in 2011. Most significantly, they provided Ukraine with nuclear-security guarantees in the event it would be threatened with nuclear attacks. This landmark agreement was codified in a joint statement signed in Beijing in late 2013 by then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平).
With this agreement, Beijing issued a direct challenge to Moscow, which considers Ukraine a core interest to its geopolitical ambitions. Russia is the only country that would conceivably threaten Ukraine with nuclear attack, and indeed, we’ve seen such threats in recent weeks. This was one of many reasons that a significant portion of Ukraine’s political elites mistakenly believed they would receive strategic protection from China. In return, they reciprocated by providing Beijing with extraordinary generosity over the last couple of decades.
Beijing has benefited enormously from its arrangement with Kyiv. Ukraine has for some time provided China with sophisticated, Russian-designed, high-end military weaponry at a fraction of the Russian price tags. This includes China’s first aircraft carrier, as well as advanced jet engines for China’s strategic heavy bombers, amphibious assault hovercraft, and a variety of missile technologies. Some of these technologies were provided illegally. All of them have been used to bully other countries. And they will certainly be used in any future war by China against Taiwan.
The benefits for Beijing extend beyond equipment. Thousands of Ukrainian weapons experts, trained during the Soviet era, have been lured to China and employed within China’s national defense industry and research institutions over the years. They have been heavily involved in the People’s Liberation Army’s weapons modernization programs, including aircraft carrier retrofitting and redesigning, as well as next-generation fighter jets designing and engineering.
This has been crucial in upgrading China’s capabilities as it prepared for a possible invasion of Taiwan and threatens regional and global peace and stability.
China’s GDP is approximately ten times larger than that of Russia. Kyiv believed that a close relationship with Beijing would deter Moscow from making any rash moves against Ukraine. They believed that Sino-Ukrainian friendship and cooperation would last forever. They believed this as the CCP’s leadership solemnly boasted of its promises to Ukraine.
But China’s opportunism came through again. Beijing weighed its strategic relationship with Moscow against its pledges to Kyiv. And China reneged on its promises to Ukraine. It did so without blinking an eye. More than abrogating its pledges, Beijing has actually colluded with Russia with no regard to conscience or good faith. After Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Kyiv’s “strategic partner” in Beijing vanished without a trace — it even abstained on a United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning the attack. More than that, China has openly encouraged Russia’s invasion through its enormous and sophisticated international and domestic propaganda machine, which has overwhelmingly sided with Russia. Its representatives in international organizations such as the International Court of Justice have also voted with Russia to reject global calls for ceasefires and punishments.
China’s perfidy is not new. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, China abandoned Ukraine. Beijing refused to pay the Ukrainian government for the cutting-edge weapons Kyiv had supplied to China. Instead, at Russia’s demand, it diverted the massive sums of money it owed to Ukraine government to the defense plants in the Russian-occupied Crimea.
China’s behavior in one part of the globe, and its disregard for agreements and obligations elsewhere, should inform how the Taiwanese people understand its intentions closer to home. Beijing wasted no time in jettisoning its “strategic partnership” with Ukraine. It colluded with Russia, and even enthusiastically promotes Moscow’s military campaign. When it comes to such promises as “One Country, Two Systems,” the so-called “1992 Consensus,” or any other vacuous “United Front” propaganda, Taiwan cannot trust China.
Perhaps the most important lesson from the war in Ukraine is that nations must look to their own defense. Like Israel, Ukraine seeks to build support for its defense from friendly nations, including through military aid. But Ukraine, also like Israel, works to ensure that it can also defend itself while it seeks military assistance from allies and partners. Both the Ukrainian and Israeli governments promote a whole-of-nation defense mobilization, an approach that requires every citizen to contribute to the defense of their nation.
Neither the United States nor NATO has directly intervened militarily in the Russia-Ukraine war. From the beginning, President Joe Biden made it abundantly clear that the US military would not be drawn into the fight in Ukraine. Even with this statement, the entire population of Ukraine did not give up. Instead, Ukrainians have been rallied to action, mounting a heroic and unyielding war of resistance. Ukrainians are paying a heavy price. But their bravery and determination as they refuse to be subjugated by a foreign aggressor have inspired the world. Because Ukrainians fight for themselves, more aid has come, including military, diplomatic, and humanitarian assistance. When this war is over, I have no doubt that Ukrainians will be even more independent, and even more self-reliant. They will also be admired and welcomed around the world.
In contrast, when a nation doesn’t focus on its own defense and fails to invest in and mobilize its people, then the international community is unlikely to provide necessary assistance. Ukraine does not have a defense treaty with the United States. And if the Ukrainians were not fighting as bravely as they are, then the US and NATO would likely not provide this level of sustained assistance against Russia, a nation that should have decisive military and economic advantages.
Another lesson from the war between Russia and Ukraine is that large, autocratic nations may have certain natural advantages due to their scale, but they also have their own internal predicaments and problems. History shows that vast empires, such as Tsarist Russia and imperial Germany in the early decades of the last century, initiated wars of conquest. But their acute internal problems, from internal dissent to a lack of resources, at home left them vulnerable. The wars that many of these big countries started led to their downfall. Wars exacerbate existing domestic problems. When coupled with international opposition, these problems can be fatal.
Take China. The CCP lives in constant fear that the Chinese people will revolt against its tyrannical rule. As such, controlling and repressing the entire Chinese population is a far more pressing concern for the Party than even national defense and preserving its international reputation. Genocide in Xinjiang, erosions of Hong Kong’s freedoms, the ubiquitous totalitarian techno-surveillance system, and violations of every citizen’s basic dignity in every universal human rights category should suffice to make this point. China is also surrounded by wary neighbors who have been humiliated and bullied by Beijing, from India, to Vietnam, to the Philippines, to Japan. In response, major global powers are coalescing to form a practical framework to maintain a just global order against the CCP’s attempts to dominate the free world, including through the Quad, AUKUS, and other security arrangements. Like Russia, China lacks regional and global allies. It has no friends to assist in any acts of military adventurism against Taiwan.
Understanding these realities, it makes no sense to give in to notions of defeatism or capitulationism, especially before the first shots are fired. The war in Ukraine shows the world that free people can stand up to tyranny, and they can do so together.
For anyone who doubts that the lessons of Ukraine are applicable to Taiwan, look no further than the rationales for the attack. At the core of Putin’s campaign is a dangerous ideology that seeks to justify the invasion of smaller nations by larger ones.
The Russian military has employed savage methods during its invasion of Ukraine. And, to use the CCP’s own parlance, Putin is engaging in a form of “historical nihilism” — an overt fabrication and falsification of history to justify his unprovoked aggression.
Vladimir Putin has always believed that the former captive nations in the Soviet Union possess no independent nationhood. He believed that the concept of an independent Ukraine is an invention, a figment of historical imagination created during the Soviet era. Putin has also espoused this belief about Kazakhstan, saying that there has been no independent Kazakh nationhood.
This historical nihilism is the main ideological foundation for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The CCP has a similar view of Taiwan. It categorically denies the mature national consciousness and unique self-identity of Taiwan’s 23 million people. This identity was forged through decades of independent development, especially through the extraordinary democratization of the past three decades that has existed free from the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian dictatorship.
The ongoing tragedy in Ukraine is a manifestation of the brutal ambition of a revisionist imperial state to subjugate an independent nation. It is also an alarming display of a pernicious historical nihilism based on fantasy and bankrupt cynicism. It is a warning to Taiwan that the Taiwanese people and their friends around the world must heed. For freedom and democracy to prevail, we cannot afford to give up the fight, or to forget the lessons of history.
Read in Taipei Times