What lessons might Chinese President Xi Jinping and his advisers draw about Taiwan based upon Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
Ukraine does present some good news from Beijing’s perspective. Russia’s nuclear weapons capability has deterred NATO from sending troops in direct defense of Ukraine. We know this because President Joseph Biden repeatedly broadcast the U.S. fear of war with a nuclear-armed adversary as the central rationale for ruling out direct American military intervention in defense of Ukraine. This might reassure Xi that the United States would likewise be deterred from intervening to save Taiwan.
Still, the comparison is inexact, which could lead Xi to dangerously miscalculate. The U.S. interest in Taiwan is far greater than the American investment in Ukraine’s fate. The loss of Taiwan would directly threaten Japan’s security and undercut the U.S. strategic position along the first island chain in East Asia. A failure to defend Taiwan would also strike a blow to American credibility in the region and around the world. Moreover, the U.S. retains nuclear advantages over China that it does not vis-à-vis Russia. Xi should also take into account that American public support for U.S. military intervention on behalf of Taiwan is much higher as compared with Ukraine.
Also on the plus side, Xi must take heart in noting that, according to polls, popular support among Russians for the war and for Putin has been high, despite Western efforts to puncture the all-encompassing media control exercised by Putin’s regime. An invasion of Taiwan would likely be popular among Chinese citizens as well.
While Xi might find the West’s unity around a campaign to arm Ukraine and sanction Russia unnerving, he can take some comfort from the fact that many countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia have balked at fully cutting ties with Russia or endorsing the West’s narrative of events. And China has an even wider network of friends and dependencies than Russia.
Still, the Ukraine war presents Xi with considerable cause for alarm. Most obviously, Russia vastly overestimated its own military prowess and underestimated both the will and fighting capacity of the Ukrainians. This is doubly discouraging since Beijing’s Taiwan invasion strategy depends upon a decisive victory achieved quickly enough – within days – to present the United States with a fait accompli. If the Taiwanese manage to hold out, on the other hand, then the U.S. Navy would have the opportunity to intervene.
Not only has the Ukraine conflict forced Beijing to question the assumption of quick victory, but it has also provided Taiwan with tactical lessons in how to foil an invasion force. Those advocating for a “porcupine” strategy that confronts a Chinese invasion force with an asymmetric, whole-of-society response have now gained the upper hand. Moreover, public support for raising military spending and lengthening military reserve training has deepened.
Another worrisome sign for Beijing has been the willingness and ability of the West to effectively cut Russia off from the global financial system. Although the value of the ruble has bounced back from its initial downturn, Russia is currently on the precipice of its first sovereign default since 1917. China must be impressed not only by the unprecedented degree of coordination among the world’s financial great powers, but also by the willingness of these countries to absorb considerable costs in order to punish Russia.
Of course, China’s economy is far larger, more resilient and more central to the global economy compared with that of Russia. Still, Xi must confront the sobering realities that the dollar remains the world’s key currency and the global financial system runs through New York and Washington, D.C. As the Ukraine example illustrates, China will undoubtedly pay an economic price should it make war upon Taiwan.
Overall, the main lesson for Beijing from the Ukraine crisis is that once war is initiated, uncertainty prevails and events can easily spin out of control. After the West’s weak response to Russian moves on Ukraine in 2014, Putin had little reason to expect more than pro forma protests as he completed his takeover of Ukraine. And how could Putin have predicted that a former comedian and his underequipped military would stand up to the mighty Russian army? As he seeks lessons from the Ukraine that might provide guidance on Taiwan, Xi Jinping is left to contemplate the fog and confusion of war.