The war in Ukraine continues, and lines are slowly being drawn in the sand. Nations have begun imposing sanctions; few can ignore the reality of Russia’s aggression and atrocities, especially as it edges to the possibility of making a full declaration of war.
For Taiwan, this resurrects a different reality, the tangled web of its own complex past and how as a colony of Japan, it became involved with Russia, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
Some role reversals are immediately evident. Taiwan is now an independent nation and the CCP rules China. The CCP indirectly supports the Russia, which had supported it against Japan in the past. Is this why it remains silent on Russia’s aggression and atrocities?
A deeper look is needed. One does not have to have lived very long in Asia to be conscious of Beijing’s continued demands for a full apology from Japan for the aggression and atrocities of World War II. One senses that Beijing will never be satisfied, no matter what Japan says or does, although the war ended more than 75 years ago.
Perhaps Japan’s atrocities make too good of a whipping boy in trade negotiations and other dealings with Japan, but still, why then is Beijing so silent on Russian aggression in Ukraine given that Japan’s actions on China easily parallel many of Russia’s actions on Ukraine?
Begin with Manchuria in the 1930s, where Russia and Japan had been contesting for influence and raw materials for decades; China was then involved in the first phase of its civil war between the CCP and the KMT.
The Japanese had already defeated Russia in the war of 1904-1905. However, as Japan continued to expand its empire, it now faced a Russia free of the tsars, but under its communist party.
In 1931, Japan moved in to take over Manchuria with the trumped up pretext of the Mukden incident to justify its actions. Japan claimed that it had to defend citizens sympathetic to it from unwanted aggression.
It did not end there. Six years later, in 1937, Japan again would use the Marco Polo Bridge Incident to escalate its ambitions and justify a full-scale war in China.
Contrast that with Russia’s actions in Ukraine. In 2014, Russia moved in to take much of the Crimean Peninsula where it used the excuse that it was protecting the interests of sympathetic citizens there. However, its more primary motive was to control greater frontage on the Black Sea. Russia had interests to protect.
Then, about eight years later, Russia implemented a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Its continued motive was to oust the “hostile Nazi government” that it visualized. Nations always need motives to justify their aggression.
A second shared factor is the ironic overconfidence of both powers. By 1937, Japan’s militaristic government was confident that it could soon take large swaths of China with impunity. Russia similarly by this year has been confident that it could sweep in and take down the Ukraine government in Kiyv.
That did not happen, and now, as Russia moves to recalibrate its goals and focus on land along the Black Sea, it takes vengeance.
A third shared factor is the mounting list of atrocities that are taking place. Japan committed atrocities in Manchuria; they increased once resistance stiffened and official war was declared. Few can ignore the “Rape of Nanking,” in which Japan sought to break the spirit of the Chinese and exact vengeance for resistance.
In Ukraine, Russia has become frustrated in its failed attempt to swiftly roll over the country. Indiscriminate bombing and execution of prisoners are now more evident as it seeks vengeance and to break the Ukrainian spirit.
This is where Beijing’s silence begins to stand out. If China has never forgotten or forgiven Japan for its atrocities, why then is it woefully silent about even questioning Russia on Ukraine?
The use of sanctions brings up a separate worrying factor. Japan was censored by the League of Nations, and it left the League as a result. Russia unfortunately has a more prominent position in the UN; it will not leave such an entity where it has veto power. However, Russia still suffers sanctions and they raise the stakes.
The sanctions on Japan inevitably led it to become blind and desperate. It would decide to use what it considered to be clear means to solidify its territory with an attack on Pearl Harbor and the US.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has already issued similar veiled threats. Russia seeks a private freedom of action like that of Japan’s past military government. Western powers cannot help but take note and have marked out selected retaliatory targets in Russia should Russia escalate this matter. China, like a past joint Axis power, remains ironically silent.
China in the 1930s was embroiled in the first phase of a civil war when Japan took over Manchuria. Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) as leader of the KMT had already purged the CCP in Shanghai and was working on consolidating his control of China when the 1931 Mukden Incident took place.
Russia, while siding with the CCP, also kept necessary links with the KMT, because it needed the KMT in its territorial fight against Japan. By 1934, the weakened CCP had escaped in its famed “long march” and found haven in China’s northwest, where it had the protection of Russia. Then came the game-changing Xian incident in December 1936 when Chiang was captured and could have been eliminated. Instead Russia forced him to make a temporary peace with the CCP.
Although many in the CCP might have wanted to eliminate Chiang, Russia knew he was needed. The ultimate question for each in this complex puzzle always was: Who at the moment is the greater enemy? This complexity of the past helps expose why Russia is being given a free pass by the CCP.
However, that same tangled web of the past also impacts Taiwan and the present as the autocratic leaders of Russia and China seek to extend their personal rule into a “fictitious eternity.”
How did Taiwan find freedom in this complexity?
Back in the 1930s, colonial Taiwan benefited industrially and economically as Japan expanded its war effort. However, the upcoming war also halted any efforts of Taiwanese to gain their sense of self-determination by electing Taiwan’s representatives to the Japanese National Diet.
At this period, Japan had been building up its showcase colony. Yet all that developed infrastructure and even its rice production would unfortunately later be taken away by Chiang and the KMT as they fought their losing battle with the CCP in China.
In short, what Taiwan had gained in its colonial past was stripped and went to serve the KMT’s losing war effort in China. Taiwan would later have to wrest democracy from the autocratic KMT.
What lessons should the present independent Taiwan draw from this tangled web of the past?
Russia is no friend of Taiwan. Taiwan is a democratic nation and as such it always conveys the larger paradigmatic threat to an autocratic Russia.
Russia also needs China, as the two autocracies support each other in their ambitions. Russia would easily look the other way if China attacked Taiwan and would side with China, just as China now looks the other way as Russia attacks Ukraine.
China is no friend of Taiwan. It seeks to control Taiwan as Japan did Manchuria. The KMT at heart is also no friend of Taiwan. The KMT lost the civil war with the CCP, but the KMT is still Chinese at heart and has never identified with the reality of Taiwan’s becoming independent. The KMT struggles to find a discourse that does not expose the flaws of its failed past.
Taiwan’s strength is in its democracy; it is for this reason that Taiwan can identify with the plight of the Ukrainians. Also, the Ukraine situation might be finally forcing other nations to reassess their unneeded bending to China for economic gain. It does not take much to point out the hypocrisy of the CCP, which can never forgive Japan for what it did more than 75 years ago, but yet finds it too difficult to speak out in any way against the atrocities in Ukraine.
One final matter remains. Other nations must realize the reality of the new imagined communities that have grown up in Taiwan and Ukraine. These far outweigh any false claims of irredentism or revanchism that are made by Taiwan and Ukraine’s avaricious neighbors.
Jerome Keating is a writer based in Taipei.
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