The lesson of the Ukraine war for China in a Taiwan scenario seemed, at first, to be: go for a quick, fait accompli land-grab before the democracies can respond. Instead, the lesson now is: bombard Taiwan into submission first before trying a huge risky landing.
This is re-post of an article I wrote for 1945.com earlier this month. There’s been lots of writing about what lessons China might draw from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, because of the parallels. As I write,
Both are treated as dissident territories by a large, belligerent, autocratic neighbor. Both look to the US and other democracies for help but lack formal alliances with them. Further, the position of the democratic world toward them both is ‘strategic ambiguity.’ Neither can be sure the democracies will help them.
Had the Russian war gone well – specifically, had it been the intended quick fait accompli which won before the West could get its act together – this war might have served as a genuine model: grab Taiwan before the US and Japan can come to rescue and then present the new status quo as the end of hostilities and force the US to be the one who looks like it is escalating.
Instead, Russia is losing, and the lessons turned out to be far different:
1. Mobilized, nationalistic populations will fight tenaciously
2. Autocratic militaries suffer from corruption and morale problems
3. Western sanctions will be far more punishing than expected
The asymmetries between China and Taiwan are even greater than between Russia and Ukraine, so China might be able to win by sheer weight. But that’s what Russia expected too, and the geography is much worse for China. A Taiwan invasion would have to cross 100 miles of water. That is a huge logistical hurdle, on par with D-Day 1944.
So if you’re China, the strategic take-away is to pound Taiwan for weeks before invading. That would activate massive global resistance of course, but that is better than marching in and losing as Russia is doing.
Here is that 1945 essay:
The Lesson of Ukraine for China: Grabbing Taiwan would be Harder than it Thinks – There has been much discussion that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an encouragement for China to consider its own land-grab – of Taiwan. Taiwan and Ukraine are indeed in similar geopolitical positions. Both are treated as dissident territories by a large, belligerent, autocratic neighbor. Both look to the US and other democracies for help but lack formal alliances with them.
Further, the position of the democratic world toward them both is ‘strategic ambiguity.’ Neither can be sure the democracies will help them. The logic is that this vagueness will discourage direct intervention by China and Russia. Simultaneously though, the democracies have sought to develop robust state capacity and military capability in Ukraine and Taiwan, to improve their ability to defend themselves and, ideally, deter Russia and/or Chinese attack.
Read the rest here.