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China’s Lessons From Russia’s War in Ukraine

FILE - A Chinese J-10 fighter jet is being guided on the tarmac following a flight demonstration at China's 13th International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, in Zhuhai, in southern China's Guangdong province, Sept. 28, 2021.
FILE - A Chinese J-10 fighter jet is being guided on the tarmac following a flight demonstration at China's 13th International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, in Zhuhai, in southern China's Guangdong province, Sept. 28, 2021.

China is learning from Russia’s troubled war in Ukraine to improve its battle strategies and prepare for economic sanctions if Beijing ever attacks self-ruled Taiwan, experts believe.

The country may also be looking harder at peaceful solutions for Taiwan, they say.

Russia is facing stronger-than-expected military resistance in Ukraine since its invasion on February 24, especially in the streets, along with stiff Western-led economic sanctions and stepped-up military aid from abroad.

Chinese officials are eyeing ways to take over Taiwan relatively fast by targeting the island’s communications hubs and major political institutions, some analysts believe. They say China would need more logistical support for any amphibious attack on the island that’s 160 kilometers away, and a media message to back up any invasion.

“China at least would learn that they’ll need to better prepare for sufficient logistics support for the amphibious operation, as well as a great number of munitions, such as artillery and missiles, if China decides to attack Taiwan,” said Chen Yi-fan, assistant professor of diplomacy and international relations at Tamkang University in Taiwan.

“Most importantly, China needs to command the moral high ground through cognitive warfare and media discourse,” he said.

Russian setbacks

Ukraine said on April 3 its forces had retaken the whole zone around the capital, Kyiv, for the first time since Russia invaded. Russia had announced around the same time that its military would focus on two breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine rather than the capital or the country’s interior.

The effect of Russian firepower is “overestimated,” while advanced weapons systems have “limited supplies of ammunition,” a retired Russian colonel warned in February before the war, as quoted by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. The colonel further predicted bloodshed from urban combat.

In a March 23 forecast, the Institute of International Finance said Russia’s economy will shrink by about 15% this year because of the war.

China vs. Taiwan

China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, when Chiang Kai-chek’s Nationalists lost to Mao Zedong’s Communists and established a presence on the nearby island. The two sides have been self-ruled since then.

Taiwan-China talks broke down in 2016 after Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen took office. Her political party opposes unification with China. People’s Liberation Army air force planes fly almost daily through a corner of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.

Beijing has never ruled out use of force, if needed, to unify the two sides.

China’s most recent war anywhere in the world occurred in 1979, when it took over several cities near its shared land border with Vietnam but failed to stop Vietnam from toppling the pro-Beijing Pol Pot government in Cambodia.

Battle preparation

China, keeper of the world’s third strongest armed forces, would vie with No. 21-ranked Taiwan in terms of military equipment and personnel.

Russia’s setbacks, however, suggest that any Chinese attack would take time, possibly more than China is ready for, some experts say.

“If Beijing wants to take Taiwan by force, it won’t act until it’s convinced it can win decisively and quickly,” James Jay Carafano, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation, said in a commentary on March 8.

China would strive for a battle focused on disabling military installations and “decapitation” of Taiwanese leaders to ensure that no one stays on the ground as a “hero,” said Alexander Huang, chairman of a military strategy research foundation in Taipei. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has appealed to multiple sympathetic countries for military aid — and received it.

“I think a lot of the discussion inside China is how to perform a total information blockade so Taiwan cannot cry for rescue,” Huang said.

Chinese military leaders should be rethinking their command structure, said Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst with the U.S.-based RAND Corporation research organization. “It is an open question whether a field commander can pull the trigger in a lot of these cases,” Grossman said. “They may still need to get Beijing’s authorization.”

Bracing for sanctions

Beijing is likely to recalibrate its expectations for the international response to any attack on Taiwan, Tong Zhao, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment’s Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, told a conference hosted by Boston radio station WBUR.

“China is very surprised about the Western response,” Zhao said. “I think this shows that even … Russian experts ... didn't know there was going to be such strong international support to Ukraine. I think Chinese experts are starting to reevaluate these strategies and policies.”

Officials in China are braced only for “limited” economic sanctions lasting three to five years, said Oriana Skylar Mastro, fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, who spoke at the WBUR event.

Compared to Russia, China depends more on other countries for economic stability. China is the world’s biggest exporter of manufactured goods with 14.7% of the world total from 1978 to 2020, the U.N. agency UNCTAD estimates.

Peaceful solution

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, asked in early March about Taiwan, pledged to “advance the peaceful growth of … relations and the reunification of China.”

Officials in Beijing are probably exploring harder now for a nonmilitary solution, Huang said. Taiwan and China have been at odds since 2016 on how to treat each other in any talks — as separate countries, parts of China or something else.

“The lessons (from Ukraine) send a big alert to Beijing (that) if they cannot achieve the goal militarily, quickly, then it’s going to be a geostrategic disaster, and that might lead Beijing to think more about other measures, not the military option,” he said.