Russia’s Ukraine Disaster Exposes China’s Military Weakness

Beijing knows its own military has much in common with Moscow's ineffective force.

By , a professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California San Diego and director of the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC).
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping during a military parade on May 9, 2015 in Moscow.
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping during a military parade on May 9, 2015 in Moscow.
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping during a military parade on May 9, 2015 in Moscow. RIA Novosti via Getty Images

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has stirred fears that China could similarly move on Taiwan. By this logic, shared among foreign and security policy thinkers across the American mainstream, Putin’s floundering conquest of the eastern European nation on NATO’s doorstep shattered international norms and expanded the policy menu for the world’s other leading irredentist strongman, Xi Jinping.

But this line of argument has a fundamental flaw. In Beijing, the conflict in Europe serves not as a green-light for China’s military campaign against Taiwan, but as an invaluable opportunity for Chinese war planners to learn about their own battlefield vulnerabilities at someone else’s expense. Beijing is not in a state of reckless escalation or suicidal. To the contrary, Chinese military planners view their own military capabilities with marked caution, and eight months into the war in Ukraine Russia’s serial failures have amounted to a drawn-out approximation of what a rash or poorly prepared Chinese campaign in Taiwan might look like. From a strictly military perspective, the Ukraine crisis has very likely pushed the timeline for Chinese attack against Taiwan backwards, not forwards.

China’s decades-long military relationship with Russia helps to explain why Chinese leaders see the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait with so much circumspection. Russia and China have an extensive if volatile history of close military cooperation—the Chinese Communist Party based the organization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the Soviet model and has imported a significant amount of high-end weaponry from Moscow. When Chinese leaders see Russia’s tens of thousands of dead or wounded troops over the course of its sputtering campaign in Ukraine, its loss of several thousand fighting vehicles, its inability to achieve battlefield objectives that once seemed easily attainable, and the end of its military’s ability to inspire any real fear, they are glimpsing a potential catastrophe that has alarming implications for their own security. Chinese leaders fear that if they were to go to war against Taiwan and fail to take the island, this would lead to the downfall of the Communist Party.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has stirred fears that China could similarly move on Taiwan. By this logic, shared among foreign and security policy thinkers across the American mainstream, Putin’s floundering conquest of the eastern European nation on NATO’s doorstep shattered international norms and expanded the policy menu for the world’s other leading irredentist strongman, Xi Jinping.

But this line of argument has a fundamental flaw. In Beijing, the conflict in Europe serves not as a green-light for China’s military campaign against Taiwan, but as an invaluable opportunity for Chinese war planners to learn about their own battlefield vulnerabilities at someone else’s expense. Beijing is not in a state of reckless escalation or suicidal. To the contrary, Chinese military planners view their own military capabilities with marked caution, and eight months into the war in Ukraine Russia’s serial failures have amounted to a drawn-out approximation of what a rash or poorly prepared Chinese campaign in Taiwan might look like. From a strictly military perspective, the Ukraine crisis has very likely pushed the timeline for Chinese attack against Taiwan backwards, not forwards.

China’s decades-long military relationship with Russia helps to explain why Chinese leaders see the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait with so much circumspection. Russia and China have an extensive if volatile history of close military cooperation—the Chinese Communist Party based the organization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the Soviet model and has imported a significant amount of high-end weaponry from Moscow. When Chinese leaders see Russia’s tens of thousands of dead or wounded troops over the course of its sputtering campaign in Ukraine, its loss of several thousand fighting vehicles, its inability to achieve battlefield objectives that once seemed easily attainable, and the end of its military’s ability to inspire any real fear, they are glimpsing a potential catastrophe that has alarming implications for their own security. Chinese leaders fear that if they were to go to war against Taiwan and fail to take the island, this would lead to the downfall of the Communist Party.

Economically, China has long leaned westward, towards the rich countries of the democratic world whose demand for Chinese goods and resources fueled decades of high-paced economic growth and brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. But militarily, China has been under an arms embargo from those exact trading partners ever since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown—there is simply too much moral, political, and legal hazard for top weapons exporters like the United States, France, or the U.K. to enter into business with Beijing. Russia is the only global defense industrial power that is willing to work with Beijing.

In 1989, after the Tiananmen Square crackdown turned China into one of the world’s more isolated regimes, the Chinese government appealed to the collapsing Soviet Union for help with its defense sector, reestablishing a relationship that had ruptured with the Sino-Soviet split in 1960. In the first five years of the resumption of the Chinese-Russian arms trade, China mostly wanted completed weapons systems—full aircraft, ships, artillery pieces, and other materiel that could be put to immediate use because of rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait. Starting in the mid 1990s, the focus changed, as China realized it had a greater need for specific components and subsystems that could be slotted into the increasing number of platforms that the Chinese now built and designed themselves.

China also sought to produce Russian systems within its own defense factories. The rising superpower was an attractive destination for Russian weapons experts who wanted to escape their post-Soviet homeland’s myriad crises, and hundreds of the country’s defense scientists and engineers were recruited into China in the 1990s.

In 1995, Moscow and Beijing signed a license agreement for the assembly and eventual manufacturing of Russia’s advanced Su-27 fighter aircraft by the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation. Later, Russia accused China of using the agreement as an opportunity to swipe the design of the Su-27, which the Chinese relabelled as the J-11.

Credible evidence of widespread Chinese theft of Russian military technology was not enough though to scuttle the dependent defense relationship between the two countries—a sign of how durable the ties between their military-industrial complexes have turned out to be, as well as evidence of how few other options for high-level arms cooperation both believe they have.

The relationship thrived into the new millennium. China was the world’s leading arms importer between 2003 and 2007 with a global share of 12 percent of total global purchases, second-largest between 2009 and 2013 with a 4.8 percent share, and sixth-largest from 2014 to 2018 with a 4.2 percent share, according to estimates from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The overwhelming majority of these imports came from Russia. The PLA even had a specific front company, the China Poly Group Corporation, responsible for Russian arms procurement.

The SIPRI-reported decline of China’s share of the world arms import market over the first two decades of the 21st Century reflects the new-found ability of the Chinese defense industry to meet the PLA’s requirements. This revival of the military industrial complex has accelerated under Xi Jinping’s rule, who has prioritized indigenous defense innovation and self-sufficiency.

Still, the PLA generals in charge of the country’s armaments system see no contradiction between foreign defense cooperation and home-grown weapons development. In 2012, Lieutenant General Li Andong, the director of the PLA General Armament Department, wrote an article in Chinese Military Industry News urging a ramp-up in Chinese defense research while also instructing the country to “grasp opportunities and actively carry out international cooperation.” Russia was the prime focus of this foreign “cooperation,” as it continues to be. The ties only seemed to deepen: There would be “no forbidden areas” of collaboration between Russia and China according to Xi and Putin’s fateful declaration at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, a euphemism for, among other things, an expansion of existing and new joint development of military technology.

Over the past decade, the ties between the two countries have taken on a broader strategic character, as Chinese thinkers began to view superpower competition with the US as both an inevitability and the primary existential national security challenge. In 2011, analysts affiliated with the PLA Academy of Military Sciences argued that “the United States does not want to see big powers like China and Russia to grow stronger,” showing how Chinese official thinking linked the strategic horizons of both countries.

Moscow’s military failures in Ukraine raise many awkward issues from a Chinese perspective, especially if the two neighbors really are destined to be erstwhile allies in a long-term struggle with the United States. Russia’s air force has been conspicuously absent over Ukraine, and its high-end ground weaponry has been either unimpressive or completely irrelevant on the battlefield—the Russian military has gained what little ground it could only by obliterating entire cities using long-range firepower, a low-tech and high-brutality means of breaking an opponent who has gained a potentially decisive battlefield edge from the American weaponry it has received. The Ukrainians have been able to reverse much of Russia’s meager territorial gains during an ongoing series of counter-offenses that began in early September, with even experienced Russian combat units proving unable to hold out against a smaller western-equipped force.

The command-and-control structure of the PLA, with an over-dependence on inexperienced junior and mid-ranking officers because of a structural deficit of non-commissioned officers, is modeled on that of a Russian military whose leadership has proven stunningly poor in recent months. Perhaps most worryingly from a Chinese perspective, the army that is currently bogged down in Ukraine is far more battle-tested than China’s, with recent experience in Chechnya, Syria, Georgia, and a range of other contexts. In contrast, out of the top 100 officers in the Chinese military, only one of them was at junior officer level during the country’s disastrous 1979 invasion into Vietnam, which is the last major land war China has fought.

A Russian military that’s been fighting somewhere on earth for most of the past 30 years has shown a notable inability to carry out complex joint operations in Ukraine—the invasion began with Ukrainian National Guard units holding off a botched Russian special forces landing in Hostomel, an air installation outside of Kiev. China has been ramping up military drills in recent years, in part to create the impression that the PLA actually can coordinate an unified air, land, and sea command for an invasion of Taiwan. But most exercises would not qualify as joint (requiring interoperability among services) and would more likely be combined maneuvers (services operating next to each other with occasional coordination).

In Beijing, military planners are likely wondering if the PLA could perform any better than its Russian counterpart against what is in some respects an even harder target than Ukraine—a mountainous and heavily protected island wielding a larger and more advanced arsenal of American and European aircraft and air-defense systems, naval systems, and ground forces. China will have to project its troops over considerable distance into Taiwan by sea and by air, a formidable and complex undertaking the Russians have not faced in Ukraine. With Taiwan, the U.S., and much of the world are carefully watching China’s every military move in and around the vicinity of the Taiwan Strait, so the critical element of strategic surprise essential for a successful invasion will be hard to attain.

Russia’s Ukraine adventure should be inspiring caution among the PLA’s professional war-fighting cadre. They have seen their closest military ally gamble everything on an elective war of territorial conquest only to end up weaker, less feared, and more isolated than they were before the invasion.

Still, it would be a mistake to think that the Ukraine war will convince China never to attempt a takeover of Taiwan, or that it will prevent China from using force to pursue its territorial claims in the South China Sea, India, or anywhere else. Indeed, a year before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Chinese authorities issued a new accelerated timeline to the PLA to accomplish key modernization goals at a far more urgent pace. This was reiterated by Xi in his keynote speech at the 20th Party Congress in October 2022 when he called for a “quicker elevation of the PLA to world-class standards” and the need to achieve key unspecified military development goals by 2027 instead of an earlier timeline of 2035.

This suggests that PLA leaders are facing a worrying conundrum over the next few years. The lessons of the Russian war against Ukraine shows that China militarily needs much more time to strengthen and revamp its war-fighting establishment to address the glaring weaknesses and gaps highlighted on the Ukrainian battlefield. Politically though, Beijing is becoming increasingly anxious that its goal of reunification with Taiwan is at growing risk because deepening ties between Taiwan and the U.S. and its allies. The PLA may find itself being called into action well before it is combat-ready.

Tai Ming Cheung is a professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California San Diego and director of the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC). He is the author of Innovate to Dominate: The Rise of the Chinese Techno-Security State.

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