How China is using Ukraine to wargame Taiwan
During a recent address to Georgetown University, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, William Burns noted that the Chinese leader was trying to draw lessons by the “very poor performance” of the Russian military and its weapons systems in Ukraine.
President Xi Jinping, and his Central Military Commission, have been paying close attention to the war in Ukraine. Indeed, the Chinese military have become very fast followers of new technologies and techniques in war fighting since their forensic exploration of the US victory in the 1991 Gulf War.
Xi Jinping (centre) inspects the Central Military Commission joint operations command centre In November.Credit:AP
The decisions of Xi have a significant impact on Australia’s defence and national security posture as well as our trade and diplomatic decision-making. While caution is required to ensure we are not mirror-imaging our Western perspectives, it behoves a clever national security establishment to explore how Ukraine might evolve Xi’s thinking about reunification with Taiwan and other potential military adventures in the Indo-Pacific region.
Xi and his advisors will have closely watched how the American president, the US national security community and NATO make policy decisions about the war. The Chinese will be keen to understand what Russian policies or actions might have influenced Western decision-making about the war, and what capabilities deterred the West from escalating its support or intervening. They will also have observed how outrageously and brutally the Russians can behave without Western forces intervening. This will inform the Chinese decision-making about its level of military aggression towards Taiwan.
The Chinese will have also observed the strategic influence operations during the war. The daily speeches by President Zelensky, his battlefield visits and his addresses to major international gatherings have been pivotal in sustaining Western military, economic, humanitarian and intelligence assistance.
For Xi, he will be pondering how to prevent a Taiwanese President generating such influence. Western assistance to Ukraine has made a significant contribution to blunting the Russian invasion and defeating them on the battlefield. The Chinese will be examining ways to prevent such endeavours by the Taiwanese. At the same time, they appear to have realised that confrontational diplomatic approaches erodes Chinese influence and this lesson may be a key reason for recent moderation in Chinese diplomatic interactions with other nations (rogue balloons excepted).
Vladimir Putin speaks to President Xi in Shanghai in September.Credit:Pool Sputnik Kremlin
The exploitation of time is another area where the Chinese Communist Party are probably confident that they will have learned lessons from this war. While the degree of Western support for the war has probably surprised Putin and Xi, this aid often took time to be decided on by governments and to arrive in Ukraine. Therefore, Xi and his Central Military Commission will he refining their contingency plans for Taiwan, and ways to distract the United States and Europe, to delay their intervention for as long as possible.
And when geography is considered, time becomes an even more precious resource in a Taiwan scenario. Ukraine is close to Western Europe and aid can be delivered relatively quickly. On the other hand, Taiwan is distant from the nearest country that might be able to support it. The PLA will be sure to exploit this.
The longer this war has gone on, the more obvious it has become that the Russo-Ukraine War has become a war of industrial systems. Both Russia and Ukraine have used extraordinary amounts of ammunition and military materiel. Consumption rates like these have not been seen in Europe since the Second World War. Post-Cold War drawdowns of military forces, war stocks and defence industry capacity has meant that the holdings of materiel in Western military institutions have been significantly reduced. And with the exception of American artillery ammunition production, no country has yet announced an expansion of industrial capacity to replace materiel and ammunition sent to Ukraine. The Chinese, with their massive industrial capacity and ongoing defence build-up, probably believe they have an advantage over the West in this area.
Currently, they would be right in this assumption.
Taiwanese soldiers pose for a photo after military exercises in January which simulated a possible intrusion by Beijing. Taiwan, like Ukraine, will seek robust support from the West if China acts.Credit:AP
Finally, it would not have escaped Xi’s attention that the quality of people matters. There is a significant asymmetry between the quality of Ukrainian and Russian soldiers and their leaders. Ukraine’s advantage in this regard has made a significant difference on the battlefield. And while quality of personnel was described as requiring a “sense of urgency” by Xi in his 20th Party Congress speech, development of military leaders who are able (and permitted) to think laterally remains an institutional problem. The lesson from Ukraine for Xi is that he may have to light a fire under the PLA to speed up the improvement in quality of training and education in the PLA.
There is a final lesson that Xi may draw from Ukraine. An important battle in Ukraine right now is the adaptation battle. Both sides and their strategic leaders are learning and adapting, seeking to constantly generate a new advantage over the other. If Xi and his leadership can hone their ability to do this in peacetime, it would make them a much more formidable military in wartime.
As the one-year anniversary of the February 2022 Russian invasion approaches, we can be sure that Xi and the Chinese Communist Party will have learned much from this war to refine their plans for Taiwan and the wider Indo-Pacific Region.
Mick Ryan is a retired ADF major general.
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