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What China is Learning from the Ukraine War
And What it Means for the West
The PLA are careful and meticulous students of modern warfare, particularly the U.S. way of war. But despite recent organizational reform efforts, the PLA remains essentially a political entity with a war-fighting mission. It is a party army, not a national army. And its approach to learning and leadership is heavily influenced by its own organization, as well as traditional Chinese culture and education.
Charles Hooper, 21 July 2022.
The war in Ukraine has seen a profusion of reports and documents that explore the purported lessons from the war. While it is much too early to describe our observations as such, these nonetheless play an important role for governments and military institutions to adjust their own strategy and military investments based on the events in Ukraine.
A subset of this large-scale discussion on lessons from the war in Ukraine is those that might be drawn by China for application in its strategic competition with the United States of America. Once again, this is a useful undertaking. We should be able to anticipate what our potential adversaries might learn from the largest war in Europe for over 70 years.
Multiple authors have produced articles and reports on this topic. In April 2022, Thomas Corbett, Ma Xiu and Peter Singer published an excellent piece with DefenseOne. They explored subjects such as joint operations, information warfare and logistics. In July last year, Evan Feigenbaum and Charles Hooper explored Chinese lessons during this event, including battle command, deterrence and the differentiation between political and warfighting functions of the PLA.
In February this year, Evan Feigenbaum and Adam Szubin published an article in Foreign Affairs about Chinese learning from the war. In June this year, the Atlantic Council published a report by John Culver and Sarah Kirchberger offers other useful insights. Finally, in July this year, Gabriel Dominguez examined the potential lessons that China could draw from Ukraine in a good article published by the Japan Times. There are other reports as well that are not listed here.
My first piece on China’s lessons from the war was published back in April 2022. Arriving just 47 days after the start of the Russian invasion, it was a very short, quick look at initial observations from the war. Nearly a year later, in February this year, I undertook another exploration of what China was learning from the war and how it might be using Ukraine to wargame its own future options.
Now after nearly 600 days of war in Ukraine, it is worth reassessing the lessons from this war that might interest China and its leadership. The most important scenario for which these lessons apply would be the conquest of Taiwan.
China and a Taiwan Conquest
The unification of the Republic of China (Taiwan) with the People’s Republic of China has been a feature of many speeches made by President Xi Jinping of China. In his 2022 New Year speech he noted that
The complete reunification of our motherland is an aspiration shared by people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. I sincerely hope that all the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation will join forces to create a brighter future for our nation.
Resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China's complete reunification is a shared aspiration of all the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation. It is indispensable for the realization of China's rejuvenation. It is also a historic mission of the Communist Party of China.
The White Paper also contained a series of proposition that underpin Chinese thinking in its approach to thinking about Taiwan:
1. Complete Reunification Is Critical to National Rejuvenation
2. National Development and Progress Set the Direction of Cross-Straits Relations
3. Any Attempt by Separatist Forces to Prevent Reunification Is Bound to Fail
4. External Forces Obstructing China's Complete Reunification Will Surely Be Defeated
The modernisation of China’s military institutions over the past two decades has largely been focussed on the capacity to forcefully seize Taiwan if economic, political and other incentives for reunification prove insufficient.
This modernisation was initiated by the United States success in Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Watching as the technologically sophisticated western forces quickly over ran the world’s (at that time) fourth largest Army, Chinese Communist Party leaders knew the same could happen to the massive but low technology People’s Liberation Army. The 1991 Gulf War shocked the Chinese military into a decade’s long recapitalization of its military, which has included advanced ships, aircraft, ground combat vehicles and satellites. It has also resulted in reforms to strategic and operational command and control, and better joint integration.
Chinese lessons from other conflicts, including the wars spawned by 9/11, have also included a reformation in their operational doctrine and has resulted in concepts such as ‘intelligentization’ and ‘systems destruction warfare.’ As they have with previous Western conflicts, it is highly likely that Chinese analysts will explore the war in Ukraine for its many relevant lessons.
In a February 2023 address to an audience at Georgetown University, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, William Burns noted that the Chinese leader was trying to draw lessons by the "very poor performance" of the Russian military and its weapons systems in Ukraine. President Xi, and his Central Military Commission, have been paying close attention to the war in Ukraine. Indeed, the Chinese military have become very fast followers of new technologies and techniques in warfighting since their forensic exploration of the US victory in the 1991 Gulf War.
The past 550 (+) days have therefore provided a significant learning opportunity for President Xi and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). It is important to appreciate the character of the learning that the Chinese Communist Party leadership, and its military arm, might draw from the large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. By appreciating how the Chinese may learn and where they might adapt, we can also inform our own national security strategies and military modernisation programs in the coming years.
Key Lessons for China from Ukraine
Strategy Matters. As Russia has rediscovered in the past 18 months, getting strategy (and its underpinning assumptions) right is critical to effective military operations. The price of strategic incompetence is military organisations being used for unclear or unachievable political objectives, poorly resourced or out of balance in their capabilities, badly led or a combination of all four. Ultimately, bad strategy is punished on the battlefield, as the Russians have experienced on multiple occasions in this war. And, if there are enough of these battlefield defeats, they can eventually lead to national humiliation, disgrace or defeat.
In the case of Russia, the opportunistic and narrow approach to strategy taken by Putin has led to a string of battlefield defeats, economic sanctions and the humiliation of a nation that thought itself a superpower. It has also led to a reinvigoration of the NATO alliance.
Effective strategic thinking and strategy development must align political objectives with the means available to achieve them. In other words, strategy needs to be resourced appropriately. Whether it is the allocation of personnel to the right areas of government and the military, or provision of sufficient quantities of equipment and munitions, as strategist Bernard Brodie once wrote that “strategy wears a dollar sign.” Resourcing of strategy includes sustaining an industrial base that can expand when the occasion arises. China will have watched and learned.
The Chinese President and his advisors will also have closely observed how the American President, the US national security community and NATO make policy decisions about the war. The Chinese will be keen to understand what Russian policies or actions might have influenced Western decision-making about the war, and what capabilities deterred the West from escalating its support or intervening.
The Chinese will also have observed how outrageously and brutally the Russians can behave without Western forces intervening. This will inform the Chinese decision-making about the level of military aggression towards Taiwan before and during any conflict. However, given recent statements about the re-education of the Taiwanese after any Chinese invasion, we can assume that China will not recoil from the kind of brutality demonstrated by Russia against the Ukrainian people in the past 18 months.
Time. The exploitation of time is another area where the Chinese Communist Party are probably confident that they will have learned lessons from this war. While the degree of Western support for the war may have surprised Putin and Xi, this aid often took time to be decided on by governments. More time was wasted in slow delivery of assistance to Ukraine.
Therefore, Xi and his Central Military Commission will he refining their contingency plans for Taiwan, and ways to distract the United States, Japan, regional partners and Europe, in order to delay their intervention for as long as possible. When geography is considered, time becomes an even more precious resource for China in a Taiwan scenario. Ukraine is close to western Europe and aid can be delivered relatively quickly. On the other hand, Taiwan is distant from the nearest countries that might be able to support it. The PLA will be sure to exploit this.
The longer this war has gone on, the more obvious it has become a war of industrial systems. Both Russia and Ukraine have used extraordinary amounts of ammunition, fuel and military materiel. Consumption rates like these have not been seen in Europe since the Second World War. Post-Cold War drawdowns of military forces, war stocks and defence industry capacity has meant that the holdings of materiel in western military institutions have been significantly reduced. And with the exception of American artillery ammunition production, no country has yet announced an expansion of industrial capacity to replace materiel and ammunition sent to Ukraine. Time to mobilise becomes a critical vulnerability for any nation that might seek to assist Taiwan.
The Chinese, with their massive industrial capacity and ongoing defence build-up, probably believe they have an advantage over the West in this area. Currently, they would be right in this assumption.
Understand your Enemy (and desired future citizens). In his classic text, Sun Tzu describes how fundamental an understanding of one’s enemy is to ultimate victory. His writings are very much ‘enemy-centric’ and throughout them he explores why a knowledge of one’s adversary is critical to manipulating them, defeating their plans, and if necessary, defeating them in battle.
The experience of President Putin may convince Xi that he needs to invest more in understanding the motivations of the Taiwanese, and their willingness to resist any forceful reunification.
Among Putin’s most significant errors were his assumption that Ukraine was not a real country, that its government would fall once the Russian Army marched on Kyiv, that the Ukrainian military would only provide token resistance to any Russian intervention and that Western nations would not intervene decisively. These assumptions were largely based on his experience with the 2008 Georgia operation, the 2014 invasion of Ukraine and the more recent Russian operations in Syria. However, almost all of Putin’s strategic assumptions were disproved very early after the Russian large-scale invasion began in February last year. From here all of Russia’s strategic and military errors have flowed.
Because of this, the Chinese Communist Party and the PLA may rethink their assumptions about Taiwanese will and their capacity to resist reunification across all its dimensions, not just military. But to do so, the Chinese President will need to hear from a wider range of different opinions. Whether this is possible in a system where Xi has become the centre of a personality cult and relies on a smaller group of trusted advisers to make decisions, is highly questionable.
Russia has demonstrated in the past 18 months what happens when factual information is withheld from a national leader at war. In a December presentation to the Reagan National Defense Forum in California, Avril Haines, the U.S. director of national intelligence, described how President Putin “is becoming more informed of the challenges that the military faces in Russia, but it's still not clear to us that he has a full picture at this stage of just how challenged they are.”
This should not be surprising. As Murray, Knox and Bernstein have described in The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States and War, authoritarian states have long demonstrated the capacity for limiting the flow of information to leaders and self-deception. They write that “throughout the centuries, tyrannies have displayed the notorious tendency to punish the bearers of bad news, consequently, the willingness of their bureaucracies to analyse the world in realistic terms may be less than satisfactory. Whether China can break out of this pattern will be interesting to watch.
A final element of this is understanding your enemy’s allies. The Chinese president, probably like Putin, will have been surprised by the rapid and robust response by large parts of the international community to the Russian invasion. This has resulted in a variety of assistance mechanisms being provided to the Ukrainians from Europe, the United States and beyond. Weapons, humanitarian aid, intelligence and other forms of aid have flowed freely. The NATO alliance has been reinvigorated, and it has attracted additional members. However, the Chinese will probably also take note that the West has been unwilling to commit people to fight on the side of the Ukrainians.
Nuclear Deterrence. A good deterrent, especially a nuclear one, matters. Putin and some of his close advisors have issued veiled threats about the use of nuclear weapons if the west intervenes militarily in the Ukraine conflict. Most of this is posturing and bluff; indeed, it has become a standard Russian tactic. But, it has ensured that no western military forces have crossed into Ukraine. This may encourage the Chinese to further invest in their nuclear deterrent.
The annual report to the US Congress on Chinese military capacity in 2021 found the Chinese had already commenced a build-up of their nuclear forces. The 2022 version of this report expanded on this topic, noting that:
The PRC has continued to accelerate the modernization, diversification and expansion of its nuclear forces. The PRC has stated its ambition to strengthen its ‘strategic deterrent’.
If there was any doubt in the Chinese President’s mind about the cost of expanding of their nuclear force, the effectiveness of the Russian nuclear sabre rattling over Ukraine – which has probably influenced discussions around ‘no fly zones’ and ‘NATO boots on the ground’ has probably removed such doubts.
That said, the accelerated strategic strike campaign being undertaken by Ukraine against Russian targets is yet to result in a Russian escalation. This challenges conventional wisdom among western political and policy elites about the impact of providing certain weapons to Ukraine. It allows a closer examination of the value of conventional deterrent capabilities by countries like Japan and Taiwan.
Integrated Action. A more detailed exploration of this issue will be conducted in a subsequent article. But if there is one military lesson of overwhelming importance, it is that unified military action is not discretionary in modern war. The Russians totally ignored to old military principle of unity of effort by initially attempting to fight four separate wars in the north, the east, the south and in the air. While April has seen a readjustment, it remains to be seen whether this initial miscalculation has compromised any chance of Russian success.
Over the past decade, the PLA has been undergoing a process of transformation that has reduced the traditional influence of the Army. This process has seen the formation of several joint theatre commands. The aim, in President Xi’s words, is to “create a joint force that can fight and win”. At least in theory these have developed joint warfighting concepts that are used in military exercises.
A key aspect of this integrated action is achieving what the U.S. Marine Corps calls Single Battle. This is the ability to combine combat operations, support activities and logistics into an integrated and smoothly orchestrated whole. It is extraordinarily difficult. As we have witnessed during the war in Ukraine, even the most basic competencies in logistics and close combat require investment before a conflict to get right.
However, developing competencies in high level joint warfighting takes time. The US military, the most sophisticated and capable military as this integrated form of warfighting, has been on a multi-decade journey to get where it is. So have other nations that have aimed to increase their joint, integrated warfighting capabilities. And they still have challenges with this approach.
This will be an even more difficult challenge for the PLA given Western warfighting concepts incorporate their own version of Systems Destruction Warfare. They will focus on breaking down joint interaction and operational systems. The Chinese, with none of the American’s operational experience, have a long way to go before in this regard. But the Ukraine experience has probably convinced them that their reforms are worth the effort.
Adaptive Capacity. An important battle in Ukraine right now is the adaptation battle. Both sides and their strategic leaders are learning and adapting, seeking to constantly generate a new source of advantage over the other. This is occurring at the tactical, operational, strategic and political levels.
Part of this adaptation battle has been focused on technology. Autonomous systems have not just proliferated on the battlefield; they have literally exploded in a massive expansion in the kinds of missions they conduct, and the pure quantity now deployed. But, the adoption of these systems would not be as effective without other new technologies that leverage their capabilities, such as meshed civil-military sensor networks and digital command and control.
The adaptation required to build a more effective military however is built on more than just technology. However, none of these new technologies would have had the impact they have without a variety of human interventions. These interventions generally fall into one or more of three types: new ideas, new (and evolved) organisations, and training.
At the same time, adaptation processes need to close the interval between new technologies and new modes of employment. There is almost always a time lag in the process between introduction of new technologies and the introduction of the new doctrines and institutions that best exploit it. In his book, The Diffusion of Military Power, Michael Horowitz proposes what he calls the Adoption Capacity Theory, which “makes clear the distinction between interest in responding to an innovation and the substance of that response.” The Ukrainians, generally, have been very quick to absorb new technologies and then adapt their human processes around them.
Beyond the war in Ukraine, Chinese military institutions will be looking to ensure that there is only a small gap between new technologies and the development of new doctrines and organisations to employ them. As such, if Chinese President Xi and his leadership can build the foundation for their military to be adaptive in peacetime, it would make them a much more formidable military power during any future conflict.
Leadership and Strategic Influence. The Chinese will have also observed the strategic influence operations during the war. The daily speeches by President Zelensky, his battlefield visits and his addresses to major international gatherings have been pivotal in sustaining western military, economic, humanitarian and intelligence assistance. The Chinese President will be contemplating how to prevent a Taiwanese President generating such influence. As I wrote in last year:
Xi, perhaps one of least charismatic personalities in world politics, must live in fear of a Zelensky-like President being elected in the Republic of China (Taiwan). Not only would such a leader be able to unify their own people against a Chinese threat, but they would also be even better at gaining international support before or during a crisis.
Western assistance to Ukraine has made a significant contribution to blunting the Russian invasion and defeating them on the battlefield. The Chinese will be examining ways to forestall any such efforts to solicit foreign military assistance by the Taiwanese government in a future conflict. At the same time, the Chinese in the past couple of years appear to have realised that confrontational diplomatic approaches erodes Chinese influence and this lesson may be a key reason for recent moderation in Chinese diplomatic interactions with other nations.
People. Finally, it has not escaped the attention of observers of this war that the quality of people matters. The generally low quality of its conscript force, notwithstanding the presence of some very good elite forces such as the Airborne troops, has played a major role in Russia’s military woes. This issue will probably have gained the attention of the People’s Liberation Army as well. There is a significant asymmetry between the quality of Ukrainian and Russian soldiers and their leaders. Ukraine’s advantage in this regard has made a difference on the battlefield throughout the war.
And while quality of personnel was described as requiring a “sense of urgency” by Xi in his 20th Party Congress speech, development of military leaders who are able (and permitted) to think laterally remains an institutional problem. This issue was explored in the excellent piece by Corbett, Xiu and Singer, where they describe how:
Despite some recent success in recruiting a higher-quality, more-educated voluntary force, the PLA has likewise failed to move away from conscription. It presently requires about 660,000 two-year conscripts, many lacking even partial high-school education, to fill out its ranks. The PLA places heavy emphasis on personnel political education, and Chinese conscripts have been raised from an early age to believe in the necessity of “liberating” Taiwan. Still, the PLA is surely watching with concern as a conscript force with at least some similarities to its own fares so poorly, and will likely redouble their campaign to attract more, and preferably higher-quality, voluntary recruits.
The lesson from Ukraine for the Chinese leader is that he may need to accelerate PLA reforms in order to increase the quality of training and education in the PLA.
China Will Be Learning
The war in Ukraine has provided a huge wake-up call to strategists and defence planners. This includes the leadership of the Peoples Republic of China. While the Chinese may have been surprised at the relative incompetence of Russian strategy, and Russian military operations, they will still be observing closely. The political and military lessons from this Russian debacle are likely to have a profound impact on Chinese strategic thinking, and military transformation, in the coming years.
Because, while there may be some who have concluded that China now views a forced “reunification” with Taiwan in the near future as militarily too difficult, this is also a ‘best case’ assessment. Another possibility is that the PLA will absorb the lessons of Ukraine and apply them to the more complex contingency of invading Taiwan in the coming years. As Toshi Yoshihara has written:
Policymakers should treat the lessons that Chinese strategists have learned as early warning signs of the PLA’s future trajectory.
Nearly 600 days since the beginning of the 2022 Russian invasion, we must assume that the Chinese government and their military has studied this war at least as closely as they studied the 1991 Gulf War. It is prudent that we assume they will learn and adapt, even if there are gaps or shortfalls in the institutional capacity for the Chinese to make a full range of transformations based on Ukraine.
Because their learning and adaptation does not have to make them perfect. They just need to be slightly better than their adversaries.
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