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What China is learning from the Russo-Ukraine war and what it means for the West – Sydney Morning Herald
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What China is learning from the Russo-Ukraine war and what it means for the West – Sydney Morning Herald 

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The reunification of Taiwan with mainland China has been a feature of many speeches made by President Xi Jinping of China. Indeed, in his 2022 New Year speech he noted “the complete reunification of our motherland is an aspiration shared by people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. I sincerely hope that all the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation will join forces to create a brighter future for our nation.”
The past 47 days will have been a profound learning opportunity for Xi and the People’s Liberation Army in their quest to return what they view as a rebellious province. It is important to understand the nature of the lesson that the Chinese Communist Party leadership might take from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Xi Jinping may be surprised by Vladimir Putin’s military blunders, but he will take lessons from the Ukraine invasion.Credit:AP
Of course, caveats apply to such observations. Our Western orientation often means we project our own thoughts and preferences onto those we don’t understand. Noting that danger, we should at least attempt to divine what lessons Xi might take from Ukraine. Because in appreciating where the Chinese may learn and adapt, we also inform our national security strategies and military modernisation programs.
While there are many military lessons from Ukraine, the key ones for Xi will be political.
The experience of President Vladimir Putin may convince Xi that he needs to invest more in understanding the motivations of the Taiwanese, and their willingness to resist any forceful reunification. Putin’s greatest errors were to assume Ukraine was not a real country, and that it would only provide token resistance to any Russian intervention. From there, all of Russia’s strategic and military errors have flowed.
Xi will probably rethink Taiwanese motivations and capacity to resist reunification across all its dimensions, not just military. But to do so, Xi may also need to hear from a wider range of opinions. Whether this is possible in a system where Xi has become the centre of a personality cult, and relies on a smaller group of trusted advisers to make decisions, is questionable.
The Chinese president will have been surprised by the rapid and robust response by the international community to the Russian invasion. This has resulted in a variety of assistance mechanisms being provided to the Ukrainians from Europe, the United States and beyond. Weapons, humanitarian aid, intelligence and other forms of aid have flowed freely. But at the same time, Xi will take note that the West has been very reticent to commit any people to fight on the side of the Ukrainians. This is related to next lesson Xi may have learned.
A good deterrent, especially a nuclear one, matters. Putin has issued veiled threats about the use of nuclear weapons if the West intervenes in the Ukraine conflict. Most of this is posturing and bluff; indeed, it has become a standard Russian tactic. But it has ensured that no Western military forces have physically crossed into Ukraine. This may encourage the Chinese to further invest in their nuclear deterrent.
The annual report to the US Congress on Chinese military capacity in 2021 found the Chinese had already commenced a build-up of their nuclear forces. If there was any doubt in Xi’s mind about the effectiveness of their nuclear force, Ukraine has probably removed such doubts.
The Chinese will have watched the strategic influence campaigns of Ukraine and Russia closely. Ukraine has run a model program to influence Western governments and solicit aid and diplomatic assistance since the invasion in February. This government effort has been supplemented by the Ukraine telecommunications industry keeping its phone and internet network functional, allowing citizen journalists to transmit images of the war, including Russian atrocities.
Given the decline in external trust in the Chinese government in the past five years, this is an area that will receive significant attention from the CCP – for its international as well as domestic activities.
Finally, the power of charismatic leaders matters. Xi, despite the personality cult around him, is perhaps one of least charismatic personalities in world politics. He must live in fear of a Zelensky-like president being elected in Taiwan. Such a leader could unify the people against a Chinese threat but also gain international support before or during a crisis. While the CCP may not be able to prevent the rise of such a leader, it would certainly be more focused on their removal in the immediate lead-up to any military invasion of Taiwan.
Some have concluded the CCP may now view a forced “reunification” with Taiwan in the near future as militarily too difficult. That is certainly possible, but it is also a best-case assessment. Another possibility is that Xi and the PLA will absorb the lessons of Ukraine and apply them to the more complex contingency of invading Taiwan.
As I have written in recent days, the Russo-Ukraine War has delivered a massive wake-up call to strategists and defence planners everywhere. This includes the leadership of the People’s Republic of China. While the Chinese may have been surprised by the relative incompetence of Russian strategy, the political and military lessons from this debacle are likely to have a profound impact on Chinese strategic thinking, and military transformation, in the coming years.
Mick Ryan is a retired major general who served in the ADF for more than 35 years and was commander of the Australia Defence College. He is the author of War Transformed: The Future of 21st Century Great Power Competition and Conflict.
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