Leadership: Ukraine War Lessons for China


May 17, 2023: Even before Russia actually invaded Ukraine, China advised that such an operation would be unwise. Russian leader Vladimir Putin ignored that advice, which implied that Putin did not have an accurate assessment of what the Russian military was actually capable of. Chinese leader Xi Jinping was further dismayed when Putin also ignored Chinese calls for withdrawing from Ukraine and limiting the long-term damage to the partnership with China. Successful Chinese leaders tend to be more mindful of historical lessons and seek not to misinterpret them.

Russia insists that Ukraine is part of Russia and must be reunited with the motherland. China has a roughly similar situation with Taiwan. Unlike Russia, China does not consider a major attack on Taiwan a suitable solution because of the side effects and risks.

The Ukrainian experience has already persuaded most Taiwanese that they could reliably defeat or disrupt Chinese attack plans. Taiwanese also note that CCP (Chinese Communist Party) rule in China is failing, especially since Xi Jinping reversed many of the reforms the CCP implemented in the 1980s to get the Chinese economy going and curb most government efforts to disrupt that economic growth. Democracies have similar problems but, because they are democracies have an effective way to fix things by electing new officials.

China, Taiwan and the United States are all studying the Ukraine War for useful lessons and one of the few they could all agree on was that the huge quantities of artillery ammunition expended exceeded peacetime estimates. This can have an impact on a Chinese attempt to seize Taiwan by force. Taiwan has been increasing its weapons and munitions stockpiles for years as well as training more men for combat duty. While China has long planned to use over a thousand ballistic missiles and lots of airstrikes, they still have to get troops onto the island and deal with Taiwanese ground forces. At that point both sides would be depending on artillery a lot and the Ukraine War has demonstrated that a lot more artillery ammunition is needed than anyone planned for. Transporting that extra artillery ammunition ashore in Taiwan complicates Chinese logistical planning and delays its readiness to attack.

The Ukraine War also demonstrated the importance of motivation and morale. The Taiwanese identify with the Ukrainians while the Chinese note that they, like Russia, are basically police state dictatorships while Ukraine and Taiwan are democracies that are highly motivated to innovate and fight to preserve their way of life. China would also suffer much more than Russia from any economic problems an attack on Taiwan would lead to.

China, like Russia, has internal economic and population problems. China’s working age population is shrinking and that is having an impact on the military because not enough Chinese are willing to serve. Its economic problems were amplified by large-scale covid19 related shutdowns in 2022. This triggered widespread and very open public resistance. The government backed down, unwilling to literally go to war with its people over this. Chinese leaders were then obsessed with there being no covid19 infections at all in China and so imposed the shutdowns. Most Chinese, however, paid attention to what was happening in the rest of the world, concluded that some infections and deaths were preferable to the shutdowns, and took to the streets to coerce the government into shutting down the shutdowns. The breadth and depth of their protests was unprecedented in the history of Communist China, and so threatened the power of the Chinese Communist Party that it submitted to public demands. This set a dangerous precedent for the future.

One of the economic risks associated with China attacking Taiwan is the economic backlash and damage to China. Western sea power will immediately block Chinese imports and exports for at least the duration of hostilities, and sanctions will block or greatly diminish those for longer. Worse, the ensuing worldwide financial and economic chaos will dramatically reduce Western demand for Chinese products long-term. China’s economy is far more dependent on its exports than the West is on imports from China.

Next is the unique position of the Taiwanese electronics industry, which is the sole or primary manufacturer of several key electronic components. China and the rest of the world are very dependent on Taiwanese computer products. Destruction of Taiwanese computer products industries during an invasion would result in world-wide economic disruptions for several years before America, Japan and South Korea could replace Taiwan’s former production. Taiwan has made veiled threats of destroying the plants producing those unique products at the onset of any Chinese attack. This issue will become more prominent during the immediate run-up before the invasion, and cause increasingly greater anxiety and turmoil in both Western and Chinese markets as they prepare for both the loss of Taiwan’s unique products plus all Chinese imports and exports for an uncertain period.

China’s economy would suffer most of all because China is as dependent on the West for Taiwanese electronics, and on Western imports of China’s non-electronic products that would plunge due to lack of Western demand during a recession. The West would certainly not export its computer electronics to China given that China would have caused such economic chaos, and China lacks the ability to manufacture its own advanced electronics without imports of key Western components and materials.

The price of a successful Chinese invasion of Taiwan would likely be destruction of CCP rule in China. As an invasion gets closer, the risks of trying it will become more and more apparent to China’s very risk-averse Communist Party leaders, and president Xi is just one man.

Another problem is the lack of accurate information on key aspects of the government and economy. All this is nothing new, and over thousands of years Chinese have realized that you cannot eliminate corruption but you can try to minimize the most dangerous side-effects, like a hollowed out military that looks great but cannot win at endeavors like a sudden attack on Taiwan. Chinese analysts, discussing this in public forums (mass media, professional journals and so on) conclude that one should honor the ancient advice of Sun Tzu by convincingly threatening war but not actually fighting unless there is no choice. That would mean using your forces to defend China but not to get into a war of aggression you can’t win. Sun Tzu also advised ignoring advice from military leaders that the troops are ready for any contingency, including an order to attack a neighbor. Unless you have a military with recent successful military experience, any claims to military capabilities and success in a war are suspect.




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