Ukraine Will Impose Caution on China’s Aspirations in Taiwan

Seen from a Russian-Chinese perspective, in many ways Ukraine and Taiwan are similar. Both nations are ethnically, socially and culturally deeply connected to their main adversary. Both are democracies, eager to break out of the Communist mold and become vibrant capitalist economies. Both look for support from the West, especially the US, and have considerable military hardware of western origin. Both are geographic buffers between superpowers—Ukraine between NATO/US and Russia while Taiwan acts as a maritime buffer between the Chinese and US mainland. And of course, in both cases the ‘big daddy’ wants the ‘spoilt kid’ to come back home.

Military thinkers have been commenting on the impact of the Russia-Ukraine war on China. Opinions vary from those who look at the world’s reaction and its impact on Russia, largely the devastating effect on the economy, the crippling sanctions and accompanied consequences on supply chains, business, trade, etc. This camp is convinced that the rippling effect of the war on Russia will constrain China from repeating a debacle. There are others who look at the situation through a diplomatic lens—a world too pre-occupied with Europe, a retreating US from the Asia-Pacific, the weakening impact of COVID-19 on the economies in the Asia-Pacific and, more recently, Chinese expansion into the South Pacific Island states beyond the second island chain. This camp sees this as a classic VUCA moment for China to exploit the prevailing situation and settle the Taiwan issue for perpetuity.

Russian offensive in Ukraine: Classic conventional maneuvers

While both views have their own merit, there is a need to look at the ongoing war in Ukraine as juxtaposed to Taiwan through a military lens. To a military mind, the Russian offensive was a multi-directional, land-based offensive fought in flat terrain between two asymmetric adversaries, one a nuclear super-power. Further, it was restrictive in scope, in that the military aim was to create a buffer between NATO and Russia by liberating and supporting the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, integrating Crimea into Russia as well as crippling the military capability of Ukraine so as to ensure it ceases to be a military threat to Russia. It is evident that the aim has been achieved albeit at huge cost to the image and economy of Russia, something no military planner would have ever factored. That it took a superpower so long to achieve its aim (the war is still ongoing) has questioned a number of emerging theories on future wars being short, swift, technology driven, high intensity and ‘grey’. In fact, in many ways the Russia–Ukraine war has been a wake-up call for military thinkers and commanders that the old dictums and basic tenets of fighting conventional wars continue to hold fast and remain relevant. The space for a conventional war has been pried open and asymmetric strategies like non-contact warfare through media, cyber and control of electro-magnetic spectrum have gained acceptance.

The Russian military offensives have been classic mechanized maneuvers over large stretches of flat landscape, supported by missiles, overwhelming artillery fire and air attacks. Yet they failed against a hostile air defense environment, small operations conducted by well-trained anti-tank missile teams, innovative use of drones and, most of all, a resilient and highly motivated national collective will. A combination of Javelin, N-LAW, Stinger and combat media teams stalled the Russian offensive. I call it JASSNAM. The other major lessons are the vulnerability of aircraft to MANPADS and of large ships to even the most outdated of missiles. It is true that the Ukrainian air force was virtually grounded or non-existent in the war, but it is equally true that even the most sophisticated SU-24 or SU-57s of the Russian Air force were operating with caution and restraint in the battle space.

Taiwan: A multi-dimensional challenge

The battle space on the Taiwan side is completely different. The Taiwan military, although small, is highly sophisticated in weaponry. Its arsenal boasts of a fair number of Fifth Generation Fighter aircraft (FGFAs) like the F-16 and F-18s, top line Abrams tanks, highly reliable Short Range Ballistic Missiles (SRBMs), excellent Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance (ISR) and Air Defense capabilities. In fact, the Battlefield Transparency (BFT) and Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) available to Taiwan forecloses any possibility of surprise by a Chinese attack.

The other major challenge is the 130-200 km wide Taiwan Straits, which is a natural effective buffer available to Taiwan against any military misadventure. The annexation of Taiwan will require a physical attack on the Taiwan mainland by an expeditionary force supported by missiles, air and a potent AD umbrella. Nevertheless, skilful use of precision missile attacks on large ships like LCVs and troop carriers like the Type 071 or Type 075 can be disastrous for the PLA. One may recall the last successful expeditionary landing was possibly at Inchon in South Korea in the 1950s against little opposition. The Normandy landings are of course legendary but they came at a huge price of men and material.  More importantly, one cannot overlook the huge national sentiment and national will that can be a decisive factor in upsetting even the best military plans. For example, Ukrainians from all over the world have responded to the clarion call and supported their nation from far and wide, a factor seldom considered by military planners. Some military thinkers have alluded to a ‘porcupine strategy’ for Taiwan, essentially multi-point, multi-directional and multi-dimensional attacks that could be prohibitive in cost to the image of the PLA.

All this without factoring the direct involvement of the US in keeping with its commitment to Taiwan’s defense and support to Taiwan from other nations in the Asia-Pacific notably Japan and the Philippines.

Therefore, it is abundantly clear that economy and diplomacy aside, a military option exercised by China will come at a huge cost, the impact of which will draw China into a vortex of local unrest/ insurgency, international condemnation including crippling economic sanctions and loss of face for the CPC. None of these augur well for Xi Jinping as he goes into an unprecedented third term as ‘President for life’ at the 20th Party Congress at the end of 2022. In any case, a Ukraine-like heroic and defiant stand by the people of Taiwan would cause irrecoverable damage to the invincibility of the PLA as a modern military as well as China as an emerging super-power.

Views expressed here are author’s personal.