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How to Teach Beijing a Lesson in Ukraine

What China learns from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will inform its decision-making on Taiwan.

By , a former U.S. national security advisor who served from 2019 to 2021.
A mural depicting a female saint-like figure holding a Javelin missile is shown on the side of an apartment block.
A mural depicting a female saint-like figure holding a Javelin missile is shown on the side of an apartment block.
A mural titled “Saint Javelin” dedicated to the British portable surface-to-air Javelin missile is unveiled on the side of an apartment block in Kyiv, Ukraine, on May 25. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The world is becoming more dangerous. Russia’s war on Ukraine is entering its seventh month, while China has become increasingly aggressive toward Taiwan, with recent large military exercises around the island and the regular crossing by fighter jets of the median line that divides the Taiwan Strait. The lessons the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) learns from Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine will inform Beijing’s decision-making on Taiwan.

What could be called the Davos view that China is “communist in name only” is fading. In its place, an understanding of the strength of both ethnonationalist and Marxist-Leninist conviction among the Chinese leadership is taking hold. It was once common to believe that China would be transformed into a more liberal polity if the United States kept making concessions and continued to ignore its unfair trade practices, intellectual property theft, and genocide—just the opposite has occurred. China has become steadily more authoritarian and more aggressive, especially over the past decade. The United States is now paying a price for its past naivete and tendency toward appeasement of Beijing.

Since Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly embraced a “no limits” partnership on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there have been worries that Beijing would seize the moment to invade and annex Taiwan. Although the prospects of an immediate invasion are slim, with China distracted at home by economic crisis and the run-up to the critical 20th Party Congress, the threat remains.

The world is becoming more dangerous. Russia’s war on Ukraine is entering its seventh month, while China has become increasingly aggressive toward Taiwan, with recent large military exercises around the island and the regular crossing by fighter jets of the median line that divides the Taiwan Strait. The lessons the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) learns from Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine will inform Beijing’s decision-making on Taiwan.

What could be called the Davos view that China is “communist in name only” is fading. In its place, an understanding of the strength of both ethnonationalist and Marxist-Leninist conviction among the Chinese leadership is taking hold. It was once common to believe that China would be transformed into a more liberal polity if the United States kept making concessions and continued to ignore its unfair trade practices, intellectual property theft, and genocide—just the opposite has occurred. China has become steadily more authoritarian and more aggressive, especially over the past decade. The United States is now paying a price for its past naivete and tendency toward appeasement of Beijing.

Since Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly embraced a “no limits” partnership on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there have been worries that Beijing would seize the moment to invade and annex Taiwan. Although the prospects of an immediate invasion are slim, with China distracted at home by economic crisis and the run-up to the critical 20th Party Congress, the threat remains.

There are four key factors Xi and the CCP are considering as they watch developments in Ukraine. The first is the resilience of the targeted state. Russia has seen that the invasion of a modern nation-state is hard. Putin’s inability to win a quick victory in Ukraine demonstrates that a smaller country might prevail in combat with sufficient supplies and morale. To deter or defeat an invasion, Taiwan should become a well-bristled porcupine so as not to appear appetizing to China. Ukraine’s success can be leveraged into deterrence against China.

Taiwan, with Western assistance, must immediately add to its arsenal key weapons systems, including the Naval Strike Missile, an anti-ship weapon that can launch from sea or land and has a range of 100 nautical miles. If mounted on the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, these missiles would be very effective for shoot-and-scoot missions. In addition, the Quickstrike air-dropped sea mine or other advanced sea mine technology from the United States, if deployed in quantity, could wreak havoc on an amphibious force. The now-famous Javelin anti-tank missile would be very useful in dealing with Chinese armor once on shore. The Stinger anti-aircraft missile presents a real danger to China’s rotary wing fleet. Finally, the Anduril Anvil anti-drone area defense system would also be effective against the Chinese military’s anticipated wide use of small drones. These weapons are not complex platforms. As we have seen in Ukraine, where the use of Javelin and Stinger missiles has been quite effective, such platforms, when deployed in sufficient quantities, can devastate a better-equipped invading force.

There have been numerous calls for Taiwan to lengthen the current term of compulsory military service from the current term of four months to one year, or longer. While the debate continues over whether and how to do this in such a way that does not break Taiwan’s economy, there are ways Taiwan can improve its military reserve in the immediate term, given the urgency of the times, perhaps by organizing the “shooting clubs” now popular in the Baltic states and Poland to familiarize their people with firearm use and safety in combat. Such an effort is easier to undertake, and thus far more effective, when done well before a shooting war starts.

The second factor is the invading force’s capability. Russia’s military has proved far weaker than analysts expected, especially in combined arms and maneuver operations. This realization must have jolted Xi. The Chinese and Russian militaries train together and conduct joint military exercises. China also has purchased or developed domestic versions of Russian military equipment that are not performing as advertised.

Unlike Russia, which has been engaged in decades of continuous wars in Chechnya, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Syria, and Libya, China’s last armed conflict was in 1979 against Vietnam. China has been relying on its more experienced partner, Russia, to train its forces for combat in massive joint exercises largely run through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation over the past several years. It thought it was getting state-of-the-art practice. Right now, those Russian tactics, techniques, procedures, and order of battle do not look particularly good, and there are serious worries about the quality of Russian kit.

The third factor is regional states’ reaction to the aggression. NATO’s rapid expansion after the invasion of Ukraine has been a game-changer. China was shaken and took note. It called Finland and Sweden’s accession to NATO a return to a “Cold War mentality.” Putin invaded Ukraine expecting to drive a wedge into the alliance. But instead of splitting Germany, Italy, and Hungary from the historic Western allies—the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and France—NATO gained two new members, and Russia gained over 800 miles of additional front with NATO.

NATO expansion is a serious concern for China, which regularly denounces any attempt at security multilateralism among its neighbors, especially when prompted by Washington. Even if successful, an invasion of Taiwan could prompt further security alliances in the region rather than delivering a calamitous blow to U.S. power in Asia. Of course, an unsuccessful attack would be even more devastating to Chinese ambitions.

While it remains a largely rhetorical body, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad, could prove a model for such alliances. While the prospect of a military alliance with famously neutral India is unlikely, the United States already has security agreements with the other two Quad members, Japan and Australia. Both Tokyo and Canberra are upping their cooperation with each other. South Korea’s new President Yoon Suk-yeol recently expressed interest in joining the Quad if invited, while other U.S. allies and partners such as the Philippines could potentially join. There are even rumblings that France and the United Kingdom may seek admittance to the club, following the AUKUS trilateral deal. For Beijing, Finland and Sweden joining NATO is a bad omen for what could happen in Asia if China takes military action against Taiwan.

The fourth factor being weighed is what economic punishment for an invasion might be imposed on the aggressor. This factor is problematic for the West given the Ukraine crisis, and the United States must remedy it swiftly. The evolution and implementation of economic sanctions being levied against Russia in response to its war of aggression have been slow and ineffective.

There is some evidence that internal Chinese propaganda is downplaying the sanctions in an effort to discredit the West. China may still care about potential secondary sanctions affecting Chinese companies, but real fear arises only if China’s massive oil and gas deals with Russia are targeted by Western sanctions. So far nothing on this front has occurred. Europe continues, more than six months into the war, to pump roughly 1 billion euros per day into the Russian economy via its fuel purchases.

Xi cannot afford to be hit with comprehensive sanctions by both Europe and the United States in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Although the CCP is implementing policies aimed at making China more self-reliant, it is not prepared to completely decouple from the West.

Thus, how hard Russia is hit with the West’s punitive economic tools will influence how China moves forward. Already, one Chinese think tank, the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China, is declaring that Putin is not only beating sanctions, but he is also massively profiting from his war in the face of sanctions due to the spike in oil prices. Economics matters to the CCP. Getting rich allows Beijing to engage in its massive armament buildup and fund its Belt and Road Initiative.

Accordingly, the United States and the West more broadly must move beyond the current half-measure sanctions on Russia. That means full sanctions on Russia’s Central Bank and the full removal of all Russian transactions from the SWIFT international payment messaging system. It is time to defund Putin’s war machine and send a strong message to Xi: The West can and will decouple its economies from dictatorships when they invade their neighbors.

In the short term, the United States can show resolve, help the Ukrainians resist, and potentially save the Taiwanese people from invasion by supplying Taiwan with effective armaments now and by severely punishing Russia with the full measure of Western economic might.

Alex Gray, former U.S. National Security Council chief of staff, and Allison Hooker, former U.S. National Security Council senior director for Asian affairs, also contributed to this essay.

Robert C. O’Brien is a former U.S. national security advisor who served from 2019 to 2021. Twitter: @robertcobrien

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