Waiting for war to spread: Watching bombs drop on Kyiv stirs feelings of dread for Taiwan

Taiwanese Americans like my family see unnerving parallels between the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the risks of China attacking their homeland.

Mary Chao

While the world watches the devastation in Ukraine, in New Jersey, Piscataway's Jaclyn Lee has been eyeing the situation in Taiwan with equal dread. 

A native of Taiwan who emigrated more than 20 years ago, Lee worries about the mother and siblings she left back home on the Pacific Island nation. 

She sees the similarities between Ukraine's plight and that of Taiwan, which has been under threat of invasion from China for more than seven decades. Lee watches the daily shelling in eastern Europe and worries about her family in Taichung.

Among Taiwanese Americans, "It's what everyone is talking about," she said.

Russia and China

As the world watches Vladimir Putin's army roll toward Kyiv, it's especially unnerving for Americans with family in Taiwan. Since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, when the losing Nationalist Party retreated to the island, the Chinese Communist Party has threatened to take back what it deems as part of its country.

China views Taiwan, located just 125 miles off its southeastern coast, as a breakaway province. But Taiwan's leaders say it is an independent country. 

Ukraine supporters protest in Taipei, Taiwan, on March 1, 2022.

Taiwan, officially called the Republic of China, was established when the Nationalists and about 2 million followers retreated to what was then the island of Formosa in 1949. My parents were part of the wave of Chinese who settled on the island, a group known in Mandarin as "waishengren," or those "born outside." 

Mary Chao, The Record NorthJersey.com

My mother often shared stories of her escape from China a year after the civil war ended. Her first husband had refused to leave even as other families with means were evacuating. 

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They learned the hard way that communist China would not be welcoming to former capitalists. My mother's family were wealthy factory owners and immediately were branded enemies of the people. Her husband was paraded around publicly, saved from execution only after his employees vouched for him against accusations of treason. The family finally fled, one by one, by sneaking onto cargo ships bound for Hong Kong.

Threat of a Chinese invasion

My mother's first husband passed away in Taiwan, and she was a young widow with three children when she married my father. The Nationalist Kuomintang party enforced martial law on the island from 1949 to 1987. The nation prospered under an authoritarian regime with U.S. backing. But the threat of a Chinese invasion always loomed large.

In 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon's visit to China sent shockwaves across the island. The United States had been Taiwan's staunchest ally, but people worried Nixon's overture would put that at risk. Fearing an attack, as many did, my family soon left for America.

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In the decades that ensued, a Chinese takeover was always a possibility. But that threat has seemed to balloon in recent years as leaders of both China and Taiwan have grown more strident. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping said in October that reunification with the island must be fulfilled. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen vowed her government will not bow to pressure and would continue to boost the island’s defense.

No one knows how an authoritarian regime will act at any given moment. Washington sent a delegation of former senior defense and security officials to Taipei on Wednesday, in a sign of support. Taiwan, meanwhile, said it has increased its alert level, in case China tries to take advantage of the situation in Europe distracting Western nations.

Soldiers in Tainan, southern Taiwan, in 2020.

Taiwan's military is well trained and armed, with service mandatory for all Taiwanese men on the island. But it's a nation of 23 million that would be facing off against a country of 1.4 billion in China, a David-vs.-Goliath situation similar to what we're seeing in Ukraine. Ukraine's armed forces have been able to hold off Russian troops in the first days of the invasion, but it's not clear how long that can last.

The United States does not recognize Taiwan as a nation, but it has a military presence in Okinawa, Japan, to keep an eye on peace in the region. Washington has long adopted a policy of "strategic ambiguity" toward its democratic partner in Taipei, providing arms but stopping short of a promise to defend the island against invasion.

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Not everyone on the island seeks independence. Some of the Chinese waishengren would like to see a peaceful reunification with the mainland.

Jaclyn Lee, of Piscataway, developed a mentor program for young Asian Americans.

For Jaclyn Lee's family, it's complicated. Her father hails from China but her mother is Taiwanese. Her family is split on the issue of sovereignty, she said, declining to reveal where she stands.

Indeed, the issue of independence is touchy even for Taiwanese and Chinese Americans who long since emigrated. I reached out to a half-dozen now living in New Jersey and none was willing to state their opinions publicly. Privately, people have strong views, both pro- and anti-reunification. But many who were raised under decades of martial law on the island don't feel comfortable speaking out. 

The ambiguity bleeds into even counts of the community in America. Because some consider themselves Chinese and others Taiwanese – and the Census Bureau doesn't differentiate – estimates range all the way from 195,000 to 697,000, according to a Pew Research report in September. 

I asked my father, now 89 and living in Queens, how he feels about Russia's war in Ukraine possibly prompting China to strike. That's why we left four decades ago, he reminded me, noting that life on the island is one of never-ending anticipation over China's plans.

As an ethnic Chinese, he would be fine with reunification. But Taiwan has changed much since we left, with native-born residents leading the government now instead of waishengren. Our family had held status equivalent to white South Africans in that country's apartheid era – a minority that held positions of power for decades in a one-party system until Taiwan's first free elections in 1996.     

Mary Chao in Taiwan

As the issue of sovereignty hangs in the balance, Jaclyn Lee checks in on her relatives in Taiwan to make sure they're OK. She's the only one in her immediate family who emigrated to America. It's the same situation in my family, with some of my relatives still on the island. 

My uncle is one of them. He decided he'd rather remain in his homeland and accept the constant fear of a Chinese invasion, much like the Ukrainians who have decided to stay put in this time of unrest. 

Mary Chao 趙 慶 華 covers the Asian community and real estate for NorthJersey.com, where this column originally appeared. Follow on her Twitter: @marychaostyle