Opinion

Is Beijing paying attention to Russia's faceplant in Ukraine?

Russia's bungled invasion should have China rethinking its reunification ambitions

As Russian President Vladimir Putin's capricious and poorly planned invasion of Ukraine stalls out due to unexpectedly stiff resistance and bungled logistics, a message is being sent beyond Moscow: Territorial conquest is no cakewalk. And you can be sure that, perhaps more than anyone else outside of Europe, policymakers in China and Taiwan are paying very close attention to Russia's struggles.

Putin reportedly expected a multi-pronged, lightning advance to precipitate the fall of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky within days. Instead, Russian forces have been so far incapable of seizing the large Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv and Kyiv and have resorted instead to increasingly brutal and indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas. Worse for the Russian strongman, though, are the reports of besieged supply lines, poorly maintained equipment, and low troop morale that have made the once-unthinkable possible: Outright defeat at the hands of Ukraine, whose military forces have made the most of their defensive advantage, deploying drones, anti-tank, and anti-aircraft munitions to devastating effect.

Moscow's options are dwindling. To consolidate control of Ukraine would require the ongoing application of bloody brute force against urban areas, likely sending most surviving Ukrainians into exile. The international community would never recognize Moscow's sovereignty over Ukraine or any puppet regime installed by Putin. At this point, the best gambit for the Kremlin is likely a negotiated settlement that recognizes Russian control of the Eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk as well as the 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. It all goes to show that interstate war between relatively modernized militaries has been quite rare in the post-Cold War period, and Russia is learning some unpleasant lessons about the nature of 21st-century warfare.

How worried should Chinese President Xi Jinping be that an attempt to reclaim what he considers the breakaway province of Taiwan might result in something similar to Russia's catastrophe in Ukraine? In recent years, China has ramped up its preparations for an amphibious assault on Taiwan by embarking on an expensive retooling and expansion of its armed forces. Stanford University's Oriana Skylar Mastro argues that "Xi wants unification with Taiwan to be part of his personal legacy." The Chinese leader is pushing 70, so the clock is definitely ticking on that one.

Taiwan is a multiparty democracy that has existed in a kind of juridical limbo since Chinese nationalists decamped for the island after their defeat in the Chinese Civil War in 1949. But while leaders on both sides remain publicly committed to the idea that Taiwan is a part of China, Beijing's broken promises and newfound determination to extinguish Hong Kong's unique political system have only served to harden attitudes in Taiwan about mainland China and the potential for peaceful unification. At some point, all of the contradictions inherent in relations between China and Taiwan are likely to come to a head.

The U.S. maintains a "One China policy" that acknowledges Beijing as the legitimate government of China, and does not officially recognize Taiwan as an independent country. Simultaneously, the U.S. has committed itself to the island's defense without a formal treaty, practicing a so-called "strategic ambiguity" that allows Washington to serve as Taipei's arms dealer and protector even while maintaining the pretense that it does not support the island's independence. If you see shades of America's inscrutable level of commitment to Ukrainian sovereignty here, you're not alone.

China clearly anticipates U.S. involvement in any armed conflict over Taiwan, and its military planning aims for victory no matter what Washington chooses to do. But Russia's thus-far dreadful performance in Ukraine should further give them pause. Putin's military hasn't engaged a truly capable adversary in the post-Cold War period, and it shows. Similarly — as Yan Xuetong noted recently for Foreign Affairs — China "has not been involved in a shooting clash since 1989 and has not fought a real war since 1979."

Shaking that dust off involves more than just planning and training. In Ukraine, Russia's inexperience in taking on a reasonably equipped adversary defending its own turf showed almost immediately. Boston University political scientist Rosella Cappella Zielinksi, an expert on war financing and costs, told me that "one big lesson is to not underestimate an untested military as Russia and others did with Ukraine." Taiwan has never fought an interstate war and assumptions about how its forces would perform certainly look shakier than they did a month ago.

Just as Russia's forces numerically dwarf Ukraine's, China has a titanic edge over Taiwan on paper. But as invaders, Chinese troops might face similar issues of morale and purpose — most Taiwanese, after all, speak the same language as those on the Chinese mainland. More importantly, Taiwan's military is well supplied and would be highly motivated to defend the country's identity and democracy against an existential threat.

Does Ukraine's staunch resistance mean that China will now be less likely to try to reunify by force? If they come to believe that Taiwan might have a similar defensive advantage to that enjoyed by Kyiv, maybe so. In international relations, "offense-defense balance theory" suggests that war is more likely when offensive modes of warfare have an advantage over defensive modes. The rapid U.S. victories over Iraq in 1991 and 2003 — one of the few interstate wars in recent years by which to gauge that balance — may have given military planners the false impression of offensive dominance. In reality, the U.S. victories were largely produced by the qualitative and quantitative inferiority of Iraqi military forces, which even in the early 1990s were generations behind America's. Ukraine's ability to hold off the numerically and qualitatively superior Russian military suggests that, at least for now, well-supplied defenders might have a significant edge.

CIA Director William Burns claimed last week that Chinese officials have been "surprised and unsettled" by Russia's failures in Ukraine. Across the Taiwan Strait, leaders in Taipei are scrutinizing the conflict, too, and likely becoming more hopeful about their ability to defend the island with appropriate investments in the kinds of weapons and tactics that have halted the Russian advance in Ukraine. For all the pointless suffering and destruction that Putin has unleashed on his neighbor, his folly might make war over Taiwan less likely, help diminish growing tensions between Washington and Beijing, and discourage a new wave of interstate aggression.

If I were him, though, I wouldn't wait for a thank you card.

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