China Is Watching
Newsweek Europe|April 01 - 08, 2022
The russian invasion is reshaping Beijing's plans to make Taiwan its own
By John Feng. Photographs by David Brennan, Greg Baker, AFP and Getty

WHEN RUSSIAN PRESIDENT VLADIMIR Putin ordered the first of his 190,000 troops into Ukraine on February 24, the invasion had a seismic effect on Europe and the Western world. But tremors were also felt some 5,000 miles to the east: Taiwan rapidly became a trending topic.

For years, the world has speculated nervously on when President Xi Jinping will finally make good on the Chinese Communist Party's vow to annex Taiwan, a self-ruling island off the east coast of the People's Republic of China—an act that threatens to provide the spark that ignites a hot war between Beijing and Washington.

The developments in Ukraine offer Beijing a hazy window into its own future. Russia's many failures and miscalculations in its blitzkrieg, and its struggle to assert full control in Ukraine against a fierce, well-armed and highly motivated resistance, are tough meat for Xi's Taiwan planners to chew on.

So too is the unexpectedly unified and powerful Western response to Russia's aggression. Moscow now sits atop a pile of economic rubble because of devastating sanctions. As Russia counts the cost in rubles and bodies, Washington believes China's calculations about annexing Taiwan are changing as a result.

Putin's Prism

AS THE KREMLIN BROADCAST PUTIN'S PRE-RECORDED hour-long address in the February 21 prelude to the full-scale dawn invasion that followed three days later, his framing of Russians and Ukrainians as one people, and his argument that Ukraine's statehood was a demonstrable fiction and a mistake, likely sounded eerily familiar to those in Taiwan.

Leaders in Beijing have employed similar historical narratives for decades. The Taiwan public has made clear its preference for an identity that is distinctly Taiwanese, and its rejection of any existence that isn't wholly free and democratic. Yet China likens the island's 23.5 million people to political hostages who have been led astray by a small cabal of radical separatists backed by the United States.

Putin told Russians fantasies about liberating Ukraine's long-suffering people from bandits and neo-Nazis. His soldiers, it was said, would be welcomed with flowers and smiles.

CHINA LIKENS TAIWAN'S 23.5 MILLION PEOPLE TO POLITICAL HOSTAGES LED ASTRAY BY A SMALL CABAL OF RADICAL SEPARATISTS BACKED BY THE U.S.

A comparable picture appears to exist inside Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party, in the minds of Xi and those in his inner circle. It's difficult to say whether the Chinese leadership truly buys into this worldview. What's known is its patience and determination to unify Taiwan with China in order to achieve Putin-esque national glory.

A pretext for a Chinese invasion could read very similarly to Putin's justification for going to war.

China expert Didi Kirsten Tatlow, a senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, thinks Putin may even have borrowed the idea from Xi—an example of authoritarian learning,” she says, “in framing and making its claim to Ukraine in atavistic and historical terms, denying it statehood or even identity, as China has done for decades with Taiwan.

The Kremlin's Miscalculations

CHINA DOES NOT NEED TO LOOK HARD TO FIND Russia's miscalculations so far—and there are plenty for Beijing's strategists to analyze.

Though Russia may yet achieve its near-term military objectives by capturing Kyiv, Moscow's apparent political objectives—forcing neutrality and territorial concessions out of Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky-are far from guaranteed.

It is surely not escaping Beijing's notice, for example, that Russia's military progress has been slower than expected. The invading forces broke from the Russian doctrine that relies on overwhelming use of artillery and long-range fires rockets and missiles—to soften up defenses for the battalion tactical groups that would then smash Ukraine's mechanized forces.

Moscow instead seemed to hope that thunder runs” and airborne operations by small, specialized units could quickly penetrate Ukrainian defenses and decapitate Zelensky's government in Kyiv. These high-risk operations have failed, with units bogged down and destroyed by highly motivated, well-trained and well-armed Ukrainian defenders.

The Russian military has since fallen back on more established tactics. Massed armored columns are now snaking their way toward Kyiv and other major objectives. But this means slower progress, more strain on Russian logistics and more opportunity for Ukrainian counterattacks and asymmetric harassment, all while Western sanctions strangle Russia's economy.

Also noteworthy to Chinese observers: There's no indication that the Ukrainian people would accept a leader appointed by the Kremlin, or that their post-2014 shift to the West would be moved by Moscow's coercion and the destruction wrought upon their cities. This is only likely to become more protracted. Russia's slow progress is giving way to frustration. Russian bombardments are becoming more indiscriminate, killing and wounding more civilians while destroying homes and vital civilian infrastructure. Ukrainians already had little interest in living under the Russian yoke. The brutality of the invaders will only have deepened the animosity.

A Russian military victory would inevitably be followed by an entrenched and potent guerrilla resistance, likely financed, armed and trained by Western militaries and intelligence agencies. The shock to Europe's system appears to have united NATO and the European Union, although both blocs have been criticized by their Ukrainian partners for not doing enough to cow Moscow.

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