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Taiwan, Crimea, and the Fourth End of the Post-Cold War Order

I usually avoid writing about current affairs, because I prefer my blog to be about cultural, historical, or social issues that go beyond the headlines, or to talk about travel and sights. But over the past few weeks, things have happened which I believe will have a long-lasting impact on all of us, and I simply can’t ignore them. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea by Russia after a referendum forced upon Kiev by the barrel of the Kremlin’s gun, have been a turning point in contemporary history. This war has been fought with the same methods of 20th century politics, and it will trigger a dangerous chain reaction. 

The Crimean crisis is the third big historic event that marks the end of the post-Cold War world order. That world order was based on American leadership and neoliberal economics. After 1991, Russia’s superpower status disintegrated, and the country appeared weak, unstable, and innocuous. The Western world believed to have triumphed, and it announced the end of history. But the end of history was in fact only the inability of the West to innovate and to understand how the world was changing. 

American triumphalism, coupled with its neoliberal ideologisation, was the seed of the end of American power. The apex of US power and at the same time the beginning of its decline was the Iraq War; the Iraq War delegitimised the credibility of the US as a world leader. The US violated the basic principle of inviolability of every state’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, on which a peaceful world order must be based. In this way, the US declared that they were beyond legality and that they did not believe in the post-WWII system they had themselves established. After the Iraq War, the whole system started to collapse. 

Meanwhile, China with its pragmatic mixed economic policy became richer and more powerful year by year. After the economic crisis of 2008, the decline of the US economy and the rise of the Chinese model could not be denied any more. 

These two years – 2003 and 2008 – mark the two first ‘ends’ of the post-Cold War order. The Crimean crisis is the third one. 

As I have discussed in my previous post about the history of Crimea, there are good reasons why a large section of the Crimean population want to belong to Russia. However, Russia violated Ukraine’s sovereignty, and the referendum does not legitimise the aggression. Because the US had done something similar in 2003 and in other occasions (for example in the case of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, which Russia regarded as unlawful), the US’ condemnation of Russia sounded hypocritical. 

Driven by a nationalistic ideology, Russia incorporated a piece of territory that belonged to another state, only on the basis of the ethnic and linguistic composition of that territory, something that reminds of Tsarist policies in 20th century Eastern Europe and of Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland. In this way, Russia showed its new-found power and strengthened its state-sponsored nationalistic ideology. 

The fourth end of the post-Cold War era will sooner or later come. And its stage will be in the Far East, most probably in Taiwan. 

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Taiwan’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) both claim that China and Taiwan are one country (see my post about the Taiwan question). But Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party and a large part of the public in Taiwan believe that Taiwan is a nation different from China.

Although Crimea and Taiwan are entirely different, there are some common things. The triangle Moscow-Kiev-Washington is similar to the triangle Beijing-Taipei-Washington. An emerging superpower, a small country, and a former world leader are engaged in a power struggle that derives from the complex post-Cold War settlement. That world order is fluid, unclear, and hypocritically harmonious. Taiwan and Crimea are not just two elements of a nationalistic discourse; they are also the trophy awaiting those rising powers that successfully challenge US leadership.

The Crimean crisis has revealed the true face of the PRC. For years, Beijing has been defending the principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs and of the peaceful resolution of international conflicts. That was instrumental. Beijing is observing Washington’s and Brussels’ reaction carefully. And the passive response of the West and international organisations has proved that China could invade Taiwan without having to face a strong international reaction. Or at least, that’s the – dangerous and perhaps incorrect – conclusion the Chinese leadership may draw.

Perhaps the West cannot intervene in the current crisis. But it has to understand that a new Cold War scenario has been developing. And the stability of the world will paradoxically be made possible only by a clear understanding on the part of all great powers that a new Cold War is an historical necessity.
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