Russia’s Ukraine Failures Shake China’s Taiwan Plans

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China has publicly appeared more emboldened than ever about its ambitions to retake control of Taiwan. Privately, however, its confidence has faltered as Beijing studies Moscow’s failures in Ukraine.

In the months since Russia invaded Ukraine, one global actor has watched with particular interest as it calculates its own future plans.

China during the Ukraine crisis has publicly appeared more emboldened than ever about its ambitions for Taiwan, the island nation over which it similarly claims dominion but which, unlike the sovereign former Soviet state, is recognized only by a dwindling number of minor countries.

The rhetoric from Beijing, even as the international economy swoons and the world rushes to relieve a spiraling humanitarian crisis in Europe, remains defiant as nations express growing concerns that China is preparing for a destabilizing invasion of its own to fulfill a long-held territorial goal.

Any attempt by Taiwan to declare formal independence from China would lead to “a path to death,” China’s Defense Minister Wei Fenghe declared on Sunday at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual military gathering in Singapore.

“No one should ever underestimate the resolve and ability of the Chinese armed forces to safeguard its territorial integrity,” Wei said of Taiwan, which Beijing considers nothing more than a renegade province of the mainland.

Privately, however, the confidence China has felt about its ambition to retake control of the island nation has shifted in recent weeks – perhaps dramatically – as it studies the unanticipated international reaction to Moscow’s unprovoked aggression, according to several current and former officials and analysts familiar with Chinese and U.S. assessments about Beijing’s ambitions.

“The U.S.-led Western response to Russia’s invasion was more rapid and robust than many in China and probably many other countries expected – including some in the United States,” says Taylor Fravel, director of the MIT Security Studies Program and an expert in Chinese military strategy.

Wei’s assertions employed language other participants privately described as “stronger than usual” and were particularly notable given that he delivered them shortly after meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin – a sideline encounter common to such high-profile international gatherings that in this case the Chinese requested.

“We will fight at all cost and we will fight to the very end. This is the only choice for China,” Wei said.

Though an imperfect comparison – the U.S. has formal defense commitments to Taiwan, for example, but not with Ukraine – the unanimity of the U.S.-led international effort to contain Russia since its invasion in February has nonetheless surprised the Chinese Communist Party and forced it to reconsider the certain global fallout that would accompany a similar move to annex Taiwan.

Others suggest that, in fact, China is completely reevaluating what it thought it knew about a likely Western response to its own plans for Taiwan following the potency of international sanctions against Russia and the military response the U.S. has marshaled through its allies in Europe.

That response is something the apparatchiks in Beijing have not anticipated, a source who has spoken with senior Chinese military officials about their planning tells U.S. News on the condition of anonymity.

“You can genuinely see that it’s caught them off guard, something they did not anticipate at all has completely thrown them,” the source says.

China’s calculations for invading Taiwan began shifting in the aftermath of President Joe Biden’s decision for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan by August, the source says. Beijing believed the subsequent embarrassing and calamitous withdrawal left the U.S. on the defensive, and officials there concluded that the subsequent American weakness presented a unique opportunity to draw new conclusions about Taiwan.

“What’s happened now, based on recent discussions, is that there are concerns that the West hasn’t retreated, that it hasn’t curled up into a ball, that actually it’s becoming much more proactive when it comes to Russia,” the source says. “It’s like they’ve worked out a very complicated math sum and somewhere, in between calculating it, the numbers have gone wrong. Now they’ve had to backtrack in terms of what went wrong in their own analysis and perception.”

“This has now perturbed Beijing quite significantly because they did not anticipate that America – about Ukraine – that they would be so proactive but also by extension focusing on Taiwan as well. The situation and the dynamic has changed, and it seems instead of the West being caught off guard, it’s China being caught off guard.”

China’s steady march in recent years away from a Western-led international order has been marked by a series of confrontations and sources of outrage – including its at-times brazen moves to secure greater control of Hong Kong. However, it has limited recent experience that would inform the knock-on effects of an act of aggression on the scale of invading Taiwan, both internationally and at home.

Indeed, among the shifting factors influencing Beijing’s thinking, analysts say, is whether it could head off domestic outrage at an unprovoked military action and whether that even informs its decisions.

“That’s the million-dollar question that nobody knows the answer to definitively,” says Tyler Jost, a professor at Brown University who specializes in Chinese national security decision making.

“The evidence seems pretty compelling to me that the party is able to shape what the public wants even in crisis, and even in cases it’s trying to get the public to back down,” Jost says. He notes, “The last time the Chinese were in a major military conflict that went poorly was in 1979 in Vietnam. But the information available to Chinese society then was much different than it is today.”

Beijing’s current relationship with Russia, too, will help determine what it feels it could endure were China to come under similar economic and military constraints as Moscow has. China has so far resisted international pressure to condemn the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine, though it has not yet confirmed whether it’s willing to provide Russia with the military support it desperately needs. But some analysts believe China sees Russia as the proverbial lifeboat that it may need to weather a preemptive move on Taiwan, just as it helps Moscow today.

Tong Zhao, a Beijing-based senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, recently noted a growing fear that China sees an eventual confrontation with the West – particularly the U.S. – as inevitable, resulting in a “showdown” in the near future.

“In this scenario, Russia must be China’s most reliable strategic partner. Only Russia can provide China with the access to important resources, minerals, food, fuel, economic support that no other country can provide,” Zhao said on a recent podcast with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “So I think this strong sense in China, this view that it cannot sacrifice its special partnership with Russia, no matter what happens.”

He noted, though, that it’s not yet clear whether a Russia weakened by international isolation would be able to help China reciprocally.

And some, including Fravel, have questioned whether China in recent years felt the U.S. has been “on the retreat,” particularly with regard to the punitive policies of the Trump administration followed by the current president’s outspokenness. Biden, a long-serving senator with broad experience in foreign affairs, has for some time signaled his desire to support Taiwan militarily against the Chinese threat. In May, he said as much out loud – again – a move some analysts believe shifted a central tenet of U.S. policy toward the region that military planners have purposefully tried to keep ambiguous to deter China and avoid unnecessarily rankling it.

“There are also many differences between Ukraine and Taiwan, too, given the longstanding commitment to Taiwan’s defense,” Fravel says. He affirms that China “may be refining their assessment” but also notes, “For the last two decades, China has taken very seriously the prospect of U.S. intervention.”

“Perhaps China’s leaders now have a better idea of what that support might look like should a major crisis or conflict erupt across the [Taiwan] Strait,” Fravel says.

Others with deep experience in the U.S. government’s involvement in dealing with China say that the Biden administration, apparently emboldened by Russia’s dismal military performance in Ukraine, now bears some responsibility for the position Beijing finds itself in and how the potential for conflict might change.

“The only risk is, I think, in thinking here that the ball is ultimately in the U.S. court,” Carnegie’s Zhao said. “If the U.S. does something provocative, China may be forced to take action even though China’s military preparedness isn’t as great as China hopes.”

In addition to Biden’s own statements about Taiwan that Beijing considers a threat, the administration has dispatched former senior officials to visit the island. A bipartisan group of lawmakers traveled there in April, a week after China expressed outrage at reports that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California would also visit – plans she scuttled after testing positive for COVID-19.

“Many in D.C. seem to think the combination of Western response and Russian poor performance in Ukraine will give China pause in considering a move on Taiwan. I think this is wishful thinking. Taiwan is not optional for China, it’s a matter of when,” a former diplomatic official with deep experience in China tells U.S. News.

“The U.S. can push back the Chinese timetable or we can accelerate it. Those are the options,” the official says. “Unfortunately, we are currently engaged in the latter.”

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