The reunification of Taiwan with mainland China has been a feature of many speeches made by President Xi Jinping of China. Indeed, in his 2022 New Year speech he noted “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.”
The past 47 days will have been a profound learning opportunity for Xi and the People’s Liberation Army in their quest to return what they view as a rebellious province. It is important to understand the nature of the lesson that the Chinese Communist Party leadership might take from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Of course, caveats apply to such observations. Our Western orientation often means we project our own thoughts and preferences onto those we don’t understand. Noting that danger, we should at least attempt to divine what lessons Xi might take from Ukraine. Because in appreciating where the Chinese may learn and adapt, we also inform our national security strategies and military modernisation programs.
While there are many military lessons from Ukraine, the key ones for Xi will be political.
The experience of President Vladimir 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. Putin’s greatest errors were to assume Ukraine was not a real country, and that it would only provide token resistance to any Russian intervention. From there, all of Russia’s strategic and military errors have flowed.
Xi will probably rethink Taiwanese motivations and capacity to resist reunification across all its dimensions, not just military. But to do so, Xi may also need to hear from a wider range of 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 questionable.
The Chinese president will have been surprised by the rapid and robust response by 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. But at the same time, Xi will take note that the West has been very reticent to commit any people to fight on the side of the Ukrainians. This is related to next lesson Xi may have learned.
A good deterrent, especially a nuclear one, matters. Putin has issued veiled threats about the use of nuclear weapons if the West intervenes 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 physically crossed into Ukraine. This may encourage the Chinese to further invest in their nuclear deterrent.