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China’s Lessons from Russia’s War
By Kevin Rudd

For Chinese President Xi Jinping, a Marxist-Leninist dialectician, the events in Ukraine won’t fundamentally alter China's grand historical ascent. As a cautionary tale, Russia's military failures will simply impel China's leadership to make even more substantial preparations before seizing Taiwan.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, two views quickly emerged in the West about what lesson China would take from the war. The first suggested that NATO’s failure to deter Russia – or to defend Ukraine directly – would inspire China to advance the timetable for a planned invasion of Taiwan, or even to capitalize on the chaos brought about by the war to attack the island immediately. But after Russia’s military ran into significant and unexpected challenges early on, an alternate line of analysis emerged suggesting that China has now been significantly deterred from ever attempting to take Taiwan.

Both of these views are superficial, misleading, and just plain wrong. Chinese President Xi Jinping is not the type of leader to let himself be pushed from his preferred course by anything or anyone – including Russian President Vladimir Putin. He and the rest of the Chinese leadership will certainly be drawing military and financial lessons from Russia’s war in Ukraine. But China will neither accelerate nor postpone its preferred timetable because of anything it sees happening on the battlefields of Donbas.

Nor will Xi’s determination to regain Taiwan change because of anything he sees happening in Asia, for that matter. Taiwan’s separation from the motherland has always symbolized the era of Chinese weakness at the hands of Japanese imperialism. For the Communist Party of China, the existence of a Taiwanese administration outside of the control of the government in Beijing is a raw, festering wound. Indeed, Taiwan’s reunification with the motherland is central to Xi’s promise to complete Mao Zedong’s revolution. That makes reunification essential both to the CPC’s political legitimacy and to Xi’s own deification within the CPC pantheon.

During his time in power, Xi has solidified an iron grip over the Chinese party-state. More recently, however, policy missteps, most significantly on the economy – where a pivot to the “left” and centralized measures like the “zero-COVID” lockdown strategy have undermined private-sector confidence and growth – as well as an overreaching approach to foreign affairs, have exposed him to some criticism. Still, his position – and reappointment this fall to rule for another term, or for life – remains very secure. But failing to prevent a bid for formal independence by Taiwan would be a failure of an entirely different magnitude: no Chinese leader could survive such a humiliation.

THE PRIME DIRECTIVE

For Xi, reunification is not in doubt, however. As he put it in a message to his Taiwanese “compatriots” in 2019, Taiwan’s return to the mainland’s tender embrace is “a necessary requirement for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Moreover, he has given this “necessary requirement” a definite timetable: it must be realized before 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China and the date Xi has set, in accordance with his “China Dream,” for completing the “great rejuvenation.” But since Xi fully intends to be enshrined in Chinese history as Mao’s spiritual successor during his own political lifetime, the more likely timeline for reunification is between now and 2035, before he moves to a comfortable retirement with his legacy secured.

Russia’s military and economic challenges in Ukraine will not affect Xi’s goal. Rather, they are likely to compel him to double down on ensuring that the Chinese military is fully prepared to take Taiwan by force should he give the order. China’s military modernization and efforts to instill greater discipline within the People’s Liberation Army began almost as soon as Xi took office in 2013. That year, he launched a campaign to root out corruption in the military, and this was followed by far-reaching reforms in 2015 to ensure that the PLA could “fight and win” modern, “informationized” wars.

These reforms have included overhauls of the PLA’s organizational and command structure; training to conduct joint operations; improved logistics and capabilities to project power; and the development and integration of an array of advanced hypersonic missiles and other modern weapons systems. Seeing Russian setbacks in Ukraine will not change the fundamental strategic objective of making the takeover of Taiwan militarily possible.

BLUEWATER DREAMS

To that end, PLA leaders are almost certain to be watching their Russian counterparts’ performance closely in order to identify areas where they themselves can improve. China, unlike Russia, has no recent direct warfare experience to draw upon. The PLA last fought a major war nearly a half-century ago, when Deng Xiaoping ordered an invasion of Vietnam. But that brief border war ended very badly for China. (In an eerie parallel with Russia’s war on Ukraine, where Putin met with Xi just before launching his war, Deng met with then-US President Jimmy Carter, telling him that Vietnam was about to be “spanked.”)

Making matters even more difficult when it comes to Taiwan, the PRC has no naval warfare experience at all, beyond a few minor incidents in the South and East China Seas. In fact, the last time that Chinese ships were engaged in a full-scale naval conflict was during the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894-95, which also ended badly for China.

Russian military setbacks in Ukraine will therefore reinforce the PLA’s long-held tradition of strategic caution about the difficulties involved in invading Taiwan. For any invasion to succeed, the PLA would need to conduct a complicated amphibious operation – something it has no practical experience doing – on a scale larger than the Allied D-Day landings in Normandy in 1944. Hence, the PLA has long concluded that it must be able to bring overwhelming force to bear to sweep away any American, Taiwanese, and allied forces that might come to the island’s defense. This problem has been compounded by increasingly unambiguous signals from the United States and its allies – most significantly Japan – that they view the defense of Taiwan as critical to their interests. China’s military leaders thus fully recognize the gap they will need to close to achieve the necessary level of force supremacy.

Xi had already expedited the PLA’s original timetable for its reform and modernization program well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. China’s most recent five-year plan, adopted in early 2021, moved up the completion date from 2035 to 2027. If all goes smoothly (from Xi’s perspective), the modernization will be finished not long before the de facto timeline for reunification with Taiwan begins in the early 2030s. Viewed in this light, Russia’s experience in Ukraine will not push China to act sooner than the late 2020s, but it certainly will deepen Xi’s conviction to meet his revised timetable.

FULL SPEED AHEAD

The last lesson that China’s government will take from Russia’s experience is that it is essential to hardwire the Chinese economy against the kinds of financial and economic sanctions that the US and the European Union are now using to isolate and enfeeble Russia.

To avoid suffering the same fate, Xi’s government will accelerate longstanding efforts to strengthen the renminbi’s international position, open China’s capital account, and increase the currency’s share of global foreign-exchange reserves. That will make it more difficult for the US and its allies to seize Chinese assets than it was for them to freeze Russia’s central-bank reserves.

Xi will also be motivated to redouble his effort to make China a “self-reliant” economy, by selectively decoupling supply chains from the West, supporting domestic technological self-sufficiency, and ensuring food and energy security. But beyond prompting China to double down on these existing policies, the war in Ukraine is unlikely to change the regime’s outlook significantly. Under Xi, China has already been pursuing economic self-sufficiency, financial and technological resilience, and a military modernization geared toward challenging, and someday displacing, US strategic primacy.

For Xi, a Marxist-Leninist dialectician, the events in Ukraine won’t fundamentally alter the great “trend of the times,” which he has defined as “the East rising, the West declining.” Xi personally believes that he is a “great man,” able to channel the tides of history and fulfill China’s destiny – including through the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland.

Xi and the PLA will watch Russia’s military difficulties in Ukraine with keen interest, but in accordance with a strategic approach that is generally conservative about military risk-taking. Unlike Putin, China already understands implicitly Sun Tzu’s timeless warning that, “The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.”

So, the Chinese will watch what happens in Ukraine with an eye toward avoiding Putin’s mistakes, and with a deep confidence that China can and will do better. Of course, the danger for Xi is that such confidence could ultimately prove as delusional as Putin’s belief that he would conquer Ukraine in a matter of days.

In the meantime, America and Taiwan face the challenge of building up effective levels of deterrence, so that when Xi’s preferred timetable reaches its moment of decision, the PLA will have no choice but to advise him that the military risks are still too great to launch an invasion. In Washington, DC, and in allied capitals around Asia, the goal over this next dangerous decade will be to raise those risks to the degree that Xi continues to think twice.

Kevin Rudd, twice prime minister of Australia, is President of the Asia Society and the author of The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China (PublicAffairs, 2022).
For Indian tourists travelling by land:- 72 hours (-ve) C-19 report, CCMC form and Antigen Test at entry point

For Indian tourists travelling by land:- 72 hours (-ve) C-19 report, CCMC form and Antigen Test at entry point

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Information for Indian tourists travelling by land:- 72 hours (-) C-19 report, CCMC form and Antigen Test at entry point
Information for Indian tourists travelling by land:- 72 hours (-) C-19 report, CCMC form and Antigen Test at entry point
Information for Indian tourists travelling by land:- 72 hours (-) C-19 report, CCMC form and Antigen Test at entry point