China, Eyeing Taiwan, Sees Lessons in Russia's Reckless Ukraine War
China is watching.
When Russia's President Vladimir Putin ordered the first of his 190,000 troops into Ukraine on February 24, the invasion had a seismic effect on Europe and the western world. But tremors were also felt some 5,000 miles to the east; Taiwan rapidly became a trending topic.
For years, the world has speculated nervously on when China's President Xi Jinping will finally make good on the Chinese Communist Party's vow to annex Taiwan, an island off the east coast of the People's Republic of China, a spark that threatens to ignite a hot war between Beijing and Washington.
Ukraine offers Beijing a hazy window into its own future. Russia's many failures and miscalculations in its blitzkrieg, and Moscow's struggle to control in Ukraine against a fierce, well-armed, and highly motivated resistance, are tough meat for Xi's Taiwan planners to chew on.
So too is the unexpectedly unified and powerful western response to Russia's aggression. Moscow now sits atop a pile of economic rubble because of devastating sanctions. As Russia counts the cost in rubles and bodies, Washington believes China's Taiwan calculations are changing as a result.
As the Kremlin broadcast Putin's pre-recorded hour-long address in the prelude to the full-scale dawn invasion that would follow three days later, his framing of Russians and Ukrainians as "one people," and his argument that Ukraine's statehood was a demonstrable fiction and a mistake, would've sounded eerily familiar to those in Taiwan.
Leaders in Beijing have employed similar historical narratives for decades. Despite the Taiwan public's preference for an identity that is distinctly Taiwanese, and its rejection of any existence that isn't wholly free and democratic, China likens the island's 23.5 million people to political hostages who have been led astray by a small cabal of radical separatists backed by the United States.
Putin told Russians fantasies about liberating Ukraine's long-suffering people from bandits and neo-Nazis. His soldiers, it was said, would be welcomed with flowers and smiles.
A comparable pictured appears to exist inside Zhongnanhai, in the minds of Xi and those in his inner circle. It's difficult to say whether the Chinese leadership truly buys into this worldview. What's known is its patience and determination to unify Taiwan with China in order to achieve Putin-esque national glory.
A pretext for a Chinese invasion could read very similarly to Putin's justification for going to war.
Didi Kirsten Tatlow, a senior fellow and China expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, thinks Putin may even have borrowed the idea from Xi—an example of "authoritarian learning," she said, "in framing and making its claim to Ukraine in atavistic and historical terms, denying it statehood or even identity, as China has done for decades with Taiwan."
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a photograph during their meeting in Beijing, China, on February 4, 2022.
[Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images]
The Kremlin's Miscalculations
China does not need to look hard to find Russia's miscalculations so far—and there are plenty for Beijing's strategists to analyze.
Though Russia may yet achieve its near-term military objectives by capturing Kyiv, Moscow's political objectives—forcing neutrality and territorial concessions out of Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky—are far from guaranteed.
Russia's military progress has been slower than expected. The invading forces broke from the Russian doctrine that relies on overwhelming use of artillery and long-range fires—rockets and missiles—to soften up defenses for the battalion tactical groups that would then smash Ukraine's mechanized forces.
Moscow instead seemed to hope that "thunder runs" and airborne operations by small, specialized units could quickly penetrate Ukrainian defenses and decapitate Zelensky's government in Kyiv. These high-risk operations failed, with units bogged down and destroyed by highly motivated, well-trained, and well-armed Ukrainian defenders.
The Russian military has since fallen back on more established tactics. Massed armored columns are now snaking their way toward Kyiv and other major objectives. But this means slower progress, more strain on Russian logistics and more opportunity for Ukrainian counter-attacks and asymmetric harassment, all while Western sanctions strangle Russia's economy.
There's also no indication that the Ukrainian people would accept a leader appointed by the Kremlin, or that their post-2014 shift to the West would be moved by Moscow's coercion and the destruction wrought upon their cities. This is only likely to become more protracted. Russia's slow progress is giving way to frustration. Russian bombardments are becoming more indiscriminate, killing and wounding more civilians while destroying homes and vital civilian infrastructure. Ukrainians already had little interest in living under the Russian yoke. The brutality of the invaders will only have deepened the animosity.
A Russian military victory would inevitably be followed by an entrenched and potent guerrilla resistance, likely financed, armed, and trained by Western militaries and intelligence agencies. The shock to Europe's system appears to have united NATO and the European Union, although both blocs have been criticized by their Ukrainian partners for not doing enough to cow Moscow.
Still, Russian aggression has prompted an unprecedented Western realignment. Germany is re-arming; the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is dead; Sweden and Finland are discussing NATO membership; and Switzerland is imposing financial sanctions.
Russophiles can no longer support rapprochement with a toxic Kremlin, and Western capitals are being forced to review their long-time tolerance of dirty Russian money and Putin-allied oligarchs.
None of this is in Russia's long-term strategic interests, and it's upon these theoretical future battlefields where Beijing's calculus might shift.
A member of Ukraine’s armed forces takes up a position in the Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine on March 11, 2022.
[Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images]
Analysts in Taipei and Washington have long speculated that a Chinese attack could begin with a limited advance into Taiwan's outlying islands of Kinmen and Matsu, which sit a short distance from the Chinese mainland.
However, capturing those territories without making a move on Taiwan proper could have an impact similar to that seen after Russia's annexation of Crimea and occupation of the Donbas: It risks removing some of the most China-friendly segments of the electorate and likely will solidify Taiwan's identity and alignment with the West.
To be sure, Taiwan's defense planners don't believe a minor incursion is the most likely scenario either. During a March 10 committee hearing in the island's legislature, Taiwan's defense minister, Chiu Kuo-cheng, predicted a full-scale military campaign complete with saturation attacks on all territories as well as a simultaneous and rapid amphibious assault.
He told one lawmaker: "The objective of any invasion by the Chinese Communist Party would be to occupy Taiwan. They are already capable of taking Kinmen and other outlying islands, so why haven't they done it? Because they need to be confident that they can do it in one attempt. If not, they'll end up in the same situation Russia faces in Ukraine. That's giving them pause."
Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund, expects the Chinese military to closely study Russia's operation in Ukraine before drawing clear lessons. "One possible lesson is that the initial strike should use significant levels of force," she said. "If Taiwan makes significant territorial defense preparations, the PRC will have to factor that into their planning in ways they may not have done in the past."
Taiwan’s reservists take part in military training at an army military in Taoyuan, Taiwan, on March 12, 2022.
[Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images]
Like Ukraine, Taiwan's armed forces would be at a numerical disadvantage compared to the invading force. However, they would also be fighting on home turf with both indigenous and American-made weapons and equipment. The defenders have some geographical advantages on their side, too, beginning with the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait, which is marred by poor sea conditions in certain seasons and not suitable for crossing.
Christina Chen, an assistant research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taipei, believes the importance of substantial anti-armor and anti-aircraft weapons to repel an invasion is already a notable takeaway from the conflict in Europe.
"Training of militia and reserve forces would be necessary if vast amounts of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles are to be put into effective use," Chen said. "Also, Ukraine has managed to keep the majority of its combat power (tanks, aircrafts) intact. Most of all, its air defense system has not been much disrupted. As a result, the Russians do not have total advantage in the air, and the Ukrainian forces can launch attacks when necessary. The Ukrainian experience shows that a small defensive force operating on home soil can be powerful."
Whether the Taiwanese public would resist a Chinese invasion through some form of insurgency cannot be known in advance. Few predicted the level of resolve among Ukraine's civilians. Taiwan is making reforms to reserve training and civilian mobilization, moves many believe aren't being implemented with enough urgency.
Recent surveys show that the public's will to fight is there. One such poll of about 1,300 Taiwanese people by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy and the Election Study Center of National Chengchi University in late 2021 found that 72.5 percent were willing to fight for their country if China used force against it for unification.
"I think the [polling] suggests a high likelihood of civilian resistance to occupation," said Chen, whose organization has done similar surveys with similar results—and the willingness to fight could reach new levels after watching the heroics in Ukraine.
China knows it doesn't yet possess the capabilities to achieve a quick and successful takeover of Taiwan, Chen argues. "A military invasion, however, might happen if serious upheavals happen in China, which may drive Xi to take the risk." She cites a "major power struggle between Xi and his political opponents" as one example. When the fighting does start, however, the humanitarian crisis would be no less catastrophic, with no land borders for Taiwan's millions of refugees to flee across.
Beijing Does the Math
At a House Intelligence Committee hearing on March 8, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines assessed that China was already more reluctant to invade Taiwan than just several months ago.
"The view is both that it is likely to reinforce China's perspective on the seriousness with which we would approach an infringement on Taiwan and in the unity that they've seen between Europe and the United States, particularly in enacting sanctions," she said.
At the same session, CIA Director William Burns said Beijing had been "surprised and unsettled" by Ukraine's resistance and the strength of the Western reaction. But both said the Chinese leadership's determination and readiness to use military force shouldn't be discounted.
Perhaps most surprising is the private sector's response to Putin's war. More than 300 companies have withdrawn from Russia, including energy giants BP, Shell, and ExxonMobil, according to a growing list compiled by the Yale School of Management.
A similar reaction to an attack on Taiwan is far from assured, despite the enormous consequences it could have on global supply chains and major economies. Taiwan's lack of formal diplomatic relations with most countries in the world could be a factor; its absence of representation within the United Nations system could be another. But the key consideration would be the centrality of the Chinese market to the global economy, experts say.
"Beijing is likely surprised by the degree of unity in the international community condemning the invasion—141 countries in the UN—and especially the widespread support for sanctions," Glaser said.
"It is uncertain, however, to what degree countries would be willing to impose such harsh sanctions on China, which is the second-largest economy in the world and the largest trading partner of over 100 countries.
"In my judgment, if the PRC decides that it is necessary to use force against Taiwan, the circumstances will be quite dire and China's leadership will have determined that they are willing to pay a high cost in order to achieve unification."
Aircraft from the Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force fly in formation during a parade to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1, 2021, in Beijing, China.
Tatlow said the outbreak of war had been a "visceral shock" for Europe. The possibility of a conflict across the Taiwan Strait is growing in the collective consciousness, but its impact would be different, she said, and sanctions might be targeted rather than sweeping. "There is the distinct possibility that the Russia sanctions are going to prove to be a 'dry run' for China, should it choose to invade Taiwan," she said.
Economic analysts in Beijing may already be crunching the numbers to determine the financial impact of Western sanctions on certain critical sectors, to see whether—or when—China might possess the wherewithal to weather a similar storm.
According to Tatlow, Europe, including Germany, is just now coming to grips with how it had emboldened Putin's authoritarian rule. China's touting of its "no limits" partnership with Russia in the same month as the invasion could lead to a similar awakening, accelerated by Beijing's apparent reluctance to distance itself from the worst of Moscow's depredations in Ukraine—a phenomenon of the new Cold War and Beijing's eagerness to get one over on the West in general and the U.S. in particular.
It's dawning on Europe what China and Russia's long-term plan to "change the world order" really means, Tatlow said.
A Different American Response
For China, the biggest variable in a hypothetical cross-strait conflict is one it's already considering—the likelihood of Taiwan receiving foreign military support. Most analysts already see Beijing's military planners factoring in intervention by the U.S. as a minimum. Its expanding nuclear and conventional long-range strike capabilities are not for Taiwan; they aim to deter Washington by targeting U.S. bases in Japan, Guam, Hawaii, and even continental America.
Several months before Russia's invasion, when President Joe Biden made clear that no U.S. troops would fight in Ukraine, it was considered a prudent move that could greatly reduce the possibility of a nuclear clash with Putin. If it comes to the defense of Taiwan, the U.S. will face a similarly difficult decision when challenged by an arguably more capable and rapidly modernizing adversary in China.
Yet Washington's position on the matter remains purposefully ambiguous—it won't publicly commit or dismiss the possibility of defending Taiwan militarily. At a House Armed Services Committee hearing on March 9, Ely Ratner, the Pentagon's assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, told lawmakers that America's response would be different. "I'm confident that some of our closest partners would be with us in a Taiwan contingency," he said.
One growing impression is that a significant response from Japan is likely. Tokyo would at the very least render large amounts of humanitarian aid. It could also permit the deployment of American troops from Japan-based facilities nearest to Taiwan. However, whether the Japan Self-Defense Forces have an active role to play is another complex question, given the limitations of its postwar constitution. When Japan is permitted to engage in collective self-defense with its treaty ally, it must first be contingent upon an existential threat to Japan itself.
Taiwan could be more isolated from allied help than Ukraine, which shares borders with four EU and NATO nations. Russia has already warned it might target convoys bringing weapons and supplies from the EU to Ukraine, and last weekend destroyed a key military base close to the Polish border. Realistically, Moscow won't be able to stop them all, but a Chinese air and naval blockade of Taiwan might prove very effective.
Lessons to Learn
When hostilities broke out in Europe last month, officials in Beijing and Taipei both said that Ukraine and Taiwan shouldn't be compared, albeit each for its own reasons. There are few similarities between the two, especially from an American perspective, either in terms of size, location, or the importance of their respective economies.
But in Taiwan, a not-insignificant portion of the public has projected Ukraine's fate onto its own, even if only for reasons of morale.
This has been reflected in action, too. On March 16, a government-backed account collecting funds for Ukraine's humanitarian aid topped $22 million in two weeks, the largest donation drive in recent memory since Japan's earthquake and tsunami in 2011, when Taiwan's relief eventually totaled $260 million.
With the fighting in Ukraine still ongoing and the military and political outcomes yet to be decided in either Kyiv or Moscow's favor, experts agree that it's far too early to draw definitive conclusions.
What's certain is that Beijing will have taken lessons from the first three weeks of the conflict—and Taiwan, too.
(c) 2022, Newsweek