China, like Russia, has ambitiously reformed its Soviet-style military, and experts say Leader Xi Jinping will carefully analyze the weaknesses revealed by the invasion of Ukraine, as could apply to his own People’s Liberation Army and his plans for self-government. island of Taiwan.
“The big question that Xi and the PLA leadership must ask themselves in light of Russia’s operations in Ukraine is whether an army that has undergone extensive reforms and modernization will be able to conduct operations far more complex than those that Russia has undergone. during his invasion of Ukraine,” said M. Taylor Fravel, director of the security studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Russia’s armed forces have undergone an extensive process of reform and investment over more than a decade, with lessons learned from the battle in Georgia, Chechnya, Syria and the annexation of Crimea guiding the process. However, the Ukrainian invasion has exposed weaknesses from above.
Experts are collectively baffled that Russia invaded Ukraine with seemingly little preparation and lack of focus — a campaign along multiple, ill-coordinated axes that has failed to effectively combine air and land operations.
Soldiers are running out of food and vehicles are broken. With losses mounting, Moscow has withdrawn its bloodied troops from the capital Kiev to regroup. Last week the guided-missile cruiser Moskva sank after Ukraine said it hit the ship with missiles; Russia blames the sinking on a fire on board.
“It’s very difficult to see success at any level in the way Russia has pursued the campaign,” said Euan Graham, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore.
President Vladimir Putin, who has been deeply involved in Russia’s military reform, even appointed a general commander for the operation only about a week ago, apparently awaiting a quick victory and grossly misjudging the Ukrainian resistance, Graham said.
“It’s a very personal war on his part,” Graham said. “And I think the expectation that this would be a cakewalk is of course the biggest failure.”
Putin’s decisions raise the question of whether he received accurate assessments of the progress of military reform and Ukraine’s capabilities, or whether he was simply told what he wanted to hear.
Xi, also an authoritarian leader who has played a personal role in China’s military reform, may now be wondering the same thing, Fravel said.
“Xi may specifically question whether he will receive accurate reports of the PLA’s likely effectiveness in a high-intensity conflict,” he said.
China has had no major conflict recently to gauge its military prowess, having fought its last major engagement against Vietnam in 1979, said David Chen, a senior consultant at CENTRA Technology, a US-based government services firm.
“The wake-up call for (China’s) Central Military Commission is that there are more unknown factors involved in such a campaign than they might have anticipated,” Chen said.
“Russia’s experience in Ukraine has shown that what seems plausible on paper at the Academy of Military Sciences or the National Defense University becomes much more complicated in the real world.”
Xi, the son of a revolutionary commander who himself spent time in uniform, began military reform in 2015, three years after he assumed leadership of the Central Military Commission.
The total force was reduced by 300,000 to just under 2 million, the number of officers was reduced by a third, and more emphasis was placed on NCOs to lead in the field.
The Chinese military has a tradition of respect for lower-ranking soldiers’ initiative that dates back to its revolutionary origins, said Yue Gang, a Beijing-based military analyst. By contrast, Russian forces in Ukraine have shown weaknesses where frontline decisions had to be made, he said.
“Chinese soldiers are encouraged to put forward their thoughts and views when discussing how to fight,” Yue said.
China’s seven military districts have been reorganized into five theater commandos, the number of group armies has been reduced, and the logistics system has been reorganized to increase efficiency. The ratio between support and combat units was increased and there was more emphasis on more mobile and amphibious units.
Xi has also tried to end rampant corruption in the military and went after two top former generals shortly after taking power. One was sentenced to life imprisonment and the other died before his case was concluded.
The Chinese military is highly opaque and beyond the purview of civilian judges and corruption investigators, so it’s hard to know how thoroughly the organization has been driven away from practices such as selling commissions and kickbacks on defense contracts.
For Xi, the military’s primary mission remains to protect the ruling Communist Party, and he has followed his predecessors hard in fighting back attempts to make the military shift its ultimate allegiance to the nation.
Xi’s predominant political focus could mean the lessons he is drawing from the conflict in Ukraine are beyond the basics, Graham said.
“Xi Jinping will always apply a political solution because he is not a military or economic specialist,” Graham said. “I think the military lessons have to go through a political filter, so I’m not sure China will take the lessons that are plentiful and for all to see.”
The stated goal of China’s military reform is to “make and win wars” against a “strong enemy” — a euphemism widely believed to refer to the United States.
China has pumped huge amounts of money into new equipment, has begun more realistic training exercises involving force-on-force scenarios, and has sought to reform its combat doctrine by studying US combat in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo.
Gene. US Marine Corps commander David Berger said at a forum in Australia last week that Beijing would keep a close eye on the conflict in Ukraine.
“I don’t know what lessons they will learn, but… they are undoubtedly focused on learning, because that’s what they’ve been doing for the last 15 years,” he said.
Berger stressed the need for strong coalitions in the Pacific as a way to control China’s ambitions towards Taiwan.
China claims Taiwan as its own, and controlling the island is an important part of Beijing’s political and military thinking. In October, Xi again reiterated that “the nation’s reunification must be accomplished, and certainly will be.”
Washington’s long-standing policy has been to provide political and military support to Taiwan, without explicitly promising to defend it against a Chinese attack.
Like Putin’s assessment of Ukraine, Xi’s China doesn’t seem to believe Taiwan would try to put up much of a fight. Beijing routinely blames the island’s problems on a small group of hard-core independence supporters and their American supporters.
The fully state-controlled Chinese media, meanwhile, draws on the imagined narrative that Taiwan would not willingly go to war against what it describes as their fellow Chinese.
Now, many countries’ quick response to impose harsh, coordinated sanctions on Russia after its attack on Ukraine, and a willingness to supply Ukraine with high-tech weapons, could prompt Xi to reconsider his approach to Taiwan, Fravel said.
With “the rapid response of advanced industrialized states and the unity they have shown, Xi will likely be more cautious about Taiwan and less encouraged,” he said.
Conversely, the experience with Ukraine could prompt China to accelerate its timetable on Taiwan with a more limited attack, such as taking a remote island, as a real test of its own military, Chen said.
“It would be wise to mature the PLA’s joint institutions and procedures through increasingly rigorous exercises,” Chen said.
“But as the world has seen, a central leader with specific ambition and a shorter timeline can recklessly short circuit the process.”