What lessons is Xi Jinping learning from the war in Ukraine?
The optimistic answer is that the lessons he is learning make an invasion of Taiwan less likely. First, Xi may be wondering how well his untested military would perform if told to invade. Surely the abysmal performance of Russian troops must make Xi, and every other high official in China, wonder what happens if stiff resistance is met. Like the Russian army, but unlike the U.S. military and our allies who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan, the People's Liberation Army or PLA is simply untried. And Xi must fear that a military defeat could threaten his own hold on power.
Second, Xi must wonder about the impact on his economy (suffering already from Covid lockdowns that may cause low growth for all of this year) that harsh sanctions would cause. Of course the unity in the West around Ukraine—the United States, Canada, EU, NATO plus Australia, Japan, and many other states—might not be replicated. But it needn’t be replicated exactly for there to be considerable damage to China.
Yet there are other lessons Xi might take from Putin’s war and that make invasion no less or perhaps even more likely. First, he may learn that he must go all in for a “blitzkrieg” if he invades. That is presumably what Putin intended, and he presumably assumed (as many in the West did) that after just a few days he would have conquered Kyiv and could install a puppet government there. Resistance would collapse quickly and Zelensky would be in exile or dead, that line of thinking went. So the lesson for Xi could be that he must completely overwhelm Taiwan and take Taipei very fast, using whatever vast number of troops, ships, and planes is required.
Second, along the same lines, he may have learned that it’s crucial to avoid resupply of the other side. That has been critical to Ukraine, and it has been possible because of its land borders with NATO countries. Taiwan is an island and the Chinese navy, the PLAN, can be used to police the shipping lanes to Taiwan. This is another argument for China to put massive forces to work, so that they achieve capitulation before resupply can begin.
If resupply does begin or is attempted, that could mean confrontations with foreign ships, including American ships—but here is a third and critically important happy lesson for Xi: the United States flatly refused direct confrontation with another nuclear power over Ukraine. President Biden couldn’t have been clearer. The United States has no obligation to defend Ukraine and the president has said we will not do so directly, and Taiwan is in the same position. There is an obligation under U.S. law to help Taiwan defend itself --but it is not a treaty ally like the NATO member states or Japan and South Korea. (President Biden stated that we have a commitment to defend Taiwan, but the White House staff then walked back his comment and said no policy change was implied.) As the State Department puts it, “The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act provides the legal basis for the unofficial relationship between the United States and Taiwan, and enshrines the U.S. commitment to assist Taiwan in maintaining its defensive capability.”
So Xi might conclude that if he moves fast with overwhelming force, the United States will back off rather than confront his forces directly or even in an effort to resupply the Taiwanese forces. And he might conclude that if that happens, the conflict will be over fast and countries around the world will avoid heavy sanctions on China because the cause is lost.
It would be a huge gamble for Xi, of course. An excellent deterrent would be the fall of Vladimir Putin, showing that an unsuccessful military effort will risk Xi’s own political demise. And a Russian defeat, meaning a continuing conflict that saps Russia’s military strength even more and damages its economy deeply, will be another deterrent.
What does this suggest for U.S. policy? Increase the sanctions and the damage they do. Increase military supplies to Ukraine so the Russians lose more and more, and are seen to be losing. And deliver more weapons to Taiwan quickly, so that it seems more and more to be an indigestible porcupine whose military conquest will be too difficult and risky to undertake.