China’s Plans For Taiwan: Ukraine Sends Xi Jinping Back To The Drawing Board
Xi Jinping and his people are no doubt paying close attention to events in Ukraine. They may not like what they are seeing – and this should cause them to rethink a ‘Taiwan seizure scenario’ on several fronts. These include the military and operational, of course. But as, if not, more importantly, they may need to reconsider assumptions about Taiwan’s willingness to resist as well as the willingness of the United States and the European Union (EU) and other free nations (such as Japan) to impose punishing financial and economic sanctions on the PRC – and to provide military support (direct or indirect) to Taiwan.
Beijing may reckon it has underestimated Western backbone – and the difficulties of seizing Taiwan at a reasonable cost in People’s Liberation Army (PLA) lives, economic harm to China, and reputation, and running the risk of turning the PRC into an international pariah.
Suppose you’re a Chinese strategist tasked with writing up a report to inform Xi and the rest of Zhongnanhai about what guidance events in Ukraine (and the Russian experience to date) offer when thinking about Taiwan. Here are a few things you might include:
Military / Operational
The two battle zones (Ukraine and Taiwan) couldn’t be more different. Ukraine is basically a plain – some open and some forested, sharing a border with Russia and the Belarus puppet state. Taiwan is an island with a 90-mile strait to cross. Also, Taiwan has a narrow coastal plain on the west side – much of which is built up (urbanized) – and the rest of the island is ‘vertical’ (mountainous). Forget about armored assaults, but don’t forget about the difficulties of urban combat.
Conventional warfare is still relevant. It is never easy and never cost-free.
Even a relatively small number of committed and reasonably well-trained defenders can cause all sorts of problems – and savage and delay an attacking force – in both urban and forested terrain – and even relatively open terrain. And time is not on China’s side if it invades Taiwan. It must have a quick resolution and a fait accompli – or it risks the danger of Taiwan’s supporters having time to steel themselves and get things together to support Taiwan and to punish the PRC. Especially as pictures and films of dead Taiwanese and destroyed buildings hit the internet. This imagery and information would also not be welcome inside the PRC – assuming it slips through the Great Firewall.
Taiwan’s military has its problems, but it is a competent and serious enough force that can bleed an attacker. Taiwan’s terrain is advantageous for the defender. And a little bit of success can mushroom and bolster military and public confidence. So if the PRC invades Taiwan and it turns into a long bloodbath, China’s global reputation will go down the toilet fast – and keep going. It will be isolating itself and turning itself into an international pariah. Sort of like a really big North Korea.
The Russians were apparently counting on a show of ‘shock and awe’ (after an extended intimidation campaign and covert subversion) being enough to bring Ukraine to its knees. Not quite. Beijing is counting on something similar. But maybe missile barrages, aerial and naval attacks, cyber and electronic attacks, and the like against Taiwan won’t be enough. PRC leaders must be wondering.
It may be much harder to establish control of the air than imagined. The Russian Air Force outnumbers and outclasses the Ukrainian Air Force in every respect and Ukrainian airfields are all known and ‘targetable’. Yet, the Ukrainian Air Force is still operating at a certain level – although the Russians appear to have ‘held back’ a bit.
Cyber defenses may be tougher to breach than imagined. Ukraine’s communications networks still seem to be operating to a fair degree – and ‘command and control’ of the Ukrainian military is also operating. Closing down Taiwan’s ‘networks’ may not be so easy.
Even missile bombardment may not be as decisive as expected. The Russians have employed long-range missile attacks but don’t seem to have had so much effect. Would using a lot more missiles be more effective? Beijing should wonder. Sometimes you’re just moving the rubble around – and it also is terrible ‘optics’ from a propaganda perspective. There’s no better way to build international sympathy for the people you are attacking.
Precision weapons – in Ukraine’s case, the Javelin and other anti-tank missiles can cause no end of trouble to an attacking force – and even a much more powerful attacking force. In China’s case, anti-ship missiles will be the equivalent of the ‘Javelin’ in the Ukraine fight. A single anti-ship missile can reach out many miles – and to the Chinese coast – and sink a ship. These weapons are easy to deploy and operate and very hard to locate and destroy. So the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) could find itself running out of ships (and crews) before Taiwan runs out of anti-ship missiles.
Shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles (such as the Stinger) can be very effective for a resilient air defense – even against an opponent that has a far superior Air Force. Once again, these are cheap, easy to employ, and hard to locate. This of course ties into the challenge of establishing ‘air dominance.’ One more bit of data which suggests Taiwan may be more survivable than the PRC assumes.
The ‘nuclear weapons card’ perhaps isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Russia has nukes and yet Ukraine hasn’t crumbled. Quite the opposite. And even the Americans and the Europeans have developed a backbone and are providing serious and effective weaponry to Ukraine – even though just a short while ago most pundits thought it impossible – as it was ‘too provocative.’
And the big lesson for Beijing: Intimidating an opponent into submission is harder than it looks. Russia tried for many months against Ukraine. China has been trying for years against Taiwan. And without any real success. Invading Ukraine seems to have made things worse for Russia – and the ‘excuses’ such as claiming Russia ‘had no choice’ have mostly fallen flat.
Economic / Financial
Beijing probably won’t like what it sees on the economic/financial front either if the Americans, Europeans, and others should do to the PRC what they are doing to Russia.
The Americans and Europeans and others have shown themselves willing to apply serious economic and financial sanctions against Russia – and as importantly against Russia’s top leaders. Targeting overseas assets must worry Zhongnanhai and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) elites given how much they’ve moved overseas and the scale of their overseas property holdings. Russian and Chinese elites are glad to have their citizens absorb all sorts of punishment – but when it affects them personally, it’s a different equation.
The PRC leaders presumably thought the Americans, Westerners, and others would never impose sanctions that were also ‘self-harming’ to American/Western elites and their economies. They seem to have been mistaken – though time will tell about the level of commitment.
Cut off U.S. financial dealings and economic ties and tech transfers to the PRC and the Chinese economy will be in serious trouble, and fast. The EU has also banned Russian aircraft from operating in EU territory. The Americans may follow. Russian ‘media’ outlets are similarly being pressured.
Chinese leaders may have discounted this level of potential isolation if they invade Taiwan. They may need to reconsider. British Petroleum and others pulling out of Russia must have been a surprise. The PRC must wonder now if many foreign ‘anchor tenants’ and firms who claimed they were in China for the long haul just might leave.
And if their home governments impose restrictions and sanctions, that decision might be made for them. Shareholders might help make the decision as well – complaining that companies should not invest in a country that attacks its democratic neighbors. One notes that to date genocide, organ harvesting, strangling Hong Kong, and bullying neighbors haven’t been enough to move Western businesses to divest from China. Maybe Taiwan (following on Ukraine) will do the trick.
Political / Psychological
Ukraine and Taiwan are as much ‘battles of the mind’ as they are of blood and steel.
Killing civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure can be counter-productive. Rather than terrorizing into submission, it may indeed provoke greater resistance among a broad swath of the population. And it also provokes other nations and organizations to step up pressure on the perpetrators (i.e. China) and increases willingness to punish and isolate the perpetrators. So China will go from being seen in foreigners’ eyes as ‘lovable Pandas’ to ‘bloodthirsty fire-breathing dragons’.
A so-called ‘decapitation’ strike to eliminate a nation’s leadership isn’t always so easy – as Ukraine has shown. The same might apply to Taiwan. And brave leaders can rally people who were thought to be demoralized and ready to crumble. The PRC may be underestimating Taiwan in this regard. And even if a few top leaders are killed or captured, that doesn’t mean everyone else rolls over for the invader. Not at all.
China, like the Russians, may have been counting on Quislings and fifth columnists to help collapse Ukraine/China from within. Given Ukraine’s resilience and its leadership’s bold efforts to rally a defense, the Russians must be wondering what happened? The Chinese too must wonder if the money they’ve spent on subverting Taiwan’s politicians, academics, media, and others has been well spent.
Even America’s financial and business classes – who have to date been able to overlook overwhelming evidence of genocide and human rights violations in the PRC in hopes of making some money may change their tune when videos appear of Taiwan, Taichung, and Kaohsiung getting blasted and civilians lying dead in the streets.
The attack on Ukraine is waking up Taiwan and the Taiwanese to the threat they face from the PRC. The Taiwanese might have wanted to ignore the Chinese threat, but Ukraine – like Hong Kong – is putting the danger ‘front and center.’ This is more likely to lead to an improved Taiwanese defense as more attention and resources are applied. And it may also result in faster improvement of military reserve capabilities and maybe even a rudimentary Civil Defense scheme.
And don’t forget that because of Ukraine, many other nations (America, European Union, Japan, and others) are now ‘internalizing’ that a ‘Taiwan scenario’ is indeed likely in the near future. So the issue is going to get far more attention and with a sense of immediacy – and possibility – than has existed to date.
The Russians have managed to get the Germans to finally stand up on their hind legs. Can you imagine? China must wonder whether the Japanese will do the same? Attack Taiwan they probably will. And not just the Japanese. Maybe the South Koreans and a long list of others.
None of this is good news for the Chinese Communist Party leadership.
Russia might indeed bulldoze Ukraine into submission in the coming weeks. But things will not go back to normal. Russia and its economy will struggle. And it will be many years before Russia and Russians aren’t looked at askance. Such is the result of Putin’s Ukraine adventure that reminded much of the West that it still has some principles – and even a backbone.
Xi Jinping might have to go back to the drawing board if wants to subjugate Taiwan.