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An expert's point of view on a current event.

What Ukraine Can Tell Us About China

Russia’s invasion might inadvertently reveal much about Beijing’s future plans.

By , the author of A Sense of the Enemy and Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 28, 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 28, 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 28, 2019. Kim Kyung-Hoon/Pool/Getty Images

All of us sometimes fantasize about how we would spend the money if we won the lottery, but we might not realize how much those fantasies reveal. As it turns out, there’s surprising information contained within those daydreams. Pattern-break analysis, a method I explore in my book A Sense of the Enemy, is the study of how dramatic, unexpected events expose underlying drivers. If you won the $100 million jackpot, would you quit your job immediately, or would you simply carry on as usual but with a few more vacations? It’s our behavior around these pattern-breaking moments that can expose what truly drives us. If we know how that works, we can learn something about ourselves. And if we apply those tools to strategic opponents, we can learn how they act, too.

In my study of how historical figures tried to understand their enemies, I found that the ones who succeeded most, such as Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi or German Chancellor Gustav Stresemann, had a method. They focused on an enemy’s behavior around pattern-breaking moments for clues to that enemy’s key drivers. The current Ukraine crisis is such a moment. It offers us an important lesson not in how Russian President Vladimir Putin thinks—but in how the Chinese leadership does.

If Beijing begins to take intensified, dramatic new steps to insulate itself from possible Western sanctions, then it may be a significant clue that it is serious about a possible future annexation of Taiwan. Or it could presage some other aggressive move that would trigger severe Western sanctions. In fact, Beijing is already stepping up its economic inoculation efforts.

All of us sometimes fantasize about how we would spend the money if we won the lottery, but we might not realize how much those fantasies reveal. As it turns out, there’s surprising information contained within those daydreams. Pattern-break analysis, a method I explore in my book A Sense of the Enemy, is the study of how dramatic, unexpected events expose underlying drivers. If you won the $100 million jackpot, would you quit your job immediately, or would you simply carry on as usual but with a few more vacations? It’s our behavior around these pattern-breaking moments that can expose what truly drives us. If we know how that works, we can learn something about ourselves. And if we apply those tools to strategic opponents, we can learn how they act, too.

In my study of how historical figures tried to understand their enemies, I found that the ones who succeeded most, such as Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi or German Chancellor Gustav Stresemann, had a method. They focused on an enemy’s behavior around pattern-breaking moments for clues to that enemy’s key drivers. The current Ukraine crisis is such a moment. It offers us an important lesson not in how Russian President Vladimir Putin thinks—but in how the Chinese leadership does.

If Beijing begins to take intensified, dramatic new steps to insulate itself from possible Western sanctions, then it may be a significant clue that it is serious about a possible future annexation of Taiwan. Or it could presage some other aggressive move that would trigger severe Western sanctions. In fact, Beijing is already stepping up its economic inoculation efforts.

Beijing’s economic protective measures span the realms of global currency exchange to international supply chain controls. As Zongyuan Zoe Liu has shown, China has been hardening its shell by ensuring that its primary oil suppliers, such as Russia, Iran, and Venezuela, accept the Chinese yuan as payment, thereby freeing itself from dollar dependency. As of 2019, China had stakes in 101 ports worldwide, including 16 in Europe, giving it the potential to disrupt the flow of goods to the United States in the event of a clash. Liu details multiple means that Beijing has been pursuing for years, but she interprets them as largely defensive. U.S. analysts must ask whether those measures are purely defensive—or are they being made in preparation for Beijing’s own aggressive acts? One way to think about the problem is by asking what other states would do. The world’s other largest economies—Japan, Germany, Britain, France, or Italy—are not hardening themselves in this way, most likely because they have no intention of acting in ways that would trigger massive sanctions against them.

In strategic thinking, pattern-breaking moments are those times when normal routines are upended and standard operating procedures are completely overturned. They can be any dramatic events, from a nuclear disaster to a massacre, a sudden spike in violence, or even a peaceful revolution. Crucially, they are events exogenous to the enemy in question—incidents that the opponent did not create itself. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would therefore not be a pattern-breaking moment for it or Putin—but it certainly was for the rest of the world.

The unprecedented economic sanctions that have accompanied Putin’s war are a particularly strong example of this. A distant war in Europe might not touch Beijing directly, but the financial ripples undeniably have. The scope and scale are unprecedented. The United States did previously freeze Iran’s foreign exchange reserves, but the seizure of Russian assets has occurred at much greater levels and in capitals across Europe and beyond. More striking still has been the voluntary withdrawal of hundreds of private businesses from Russia. No government agency commanded these corporations to pull out. They chose to exit, losing billions of dollars in the process. More than any other aspect of the sanctions, this element of voluntary sacrifice by corporate entities will have captured Beijing’s attention.

Chinese leaders may have been equally surprised by the unified response of democratic nations. The many divisions among NATO and European Union allies have often made concerted action challenging. But Russia’s invasion proved so unacceptable to Europeans that they have reacted with uncommon singularity of purpose. Even historically neutral Switzerland has joined the anti-Russia sanctions and declared itself opposed to Putin’s war. And beyond Europe, Singapore, which seldom takes sides, has unequivocally sided with the West, with its foreign minister calling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “a clear and gross violation of the international norms.” Solidarity among most advanced economies against aggression is one more marker of this pattern-breaking moment.

Chinese leaders found that their erection of genocidal labor camps in Xinjiang produced strong sanctions from the United States, and China’s brutal crackdown on protests in Hong Kong also led to a stern Western response. But those reactions were costs that Beijing appeared willing to bear. Until Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Beijing could have convinced itself that an invasion and annexation of Taiwan might be achieved at a high, though acceptable, price. That calculation must now be rethought.

Seeing how vulnerable Moscow has been to both the freezing of its foreign currency reserves in Western central banks and the corporate pullout, Beijing now knows that it, too, could be targeted in similar ways. And while its currency might not be at risk, the fear of global economic isolation might hasten trends that have been long underway.

Meaningful pattern-breaking moments are relatively rare. When they come along, we need to take note. We should remember that the key is not to seek a change in behavior. Instead, it is to scrutinize the behavior, whatever it is, around those precious moments. Because even if someone’s behavior remains the same, that in itself provides important insight into what they might do next.

The views expressed are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the Naval Postgraduate School, the U.S. Defense Department, or the U.S. government.

Zachary Shore is the author of A Sense of the Enemy and Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions. His newest work, This Is Not Who We Are: America’s Struggle Between Vengeance and Virtue, is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press in 2022.

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