How Russia's Invasion of Ukraine Is Shaping China's Plans for Taiwan

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Taiwanese soldiers salute during National Day celebrations in Taipei.
In this Oct. 10, 2021, file photo, Taiwanese soldiers salute during National Day celebrations in front of the Presidential Building in Taipei, Taiwan. (AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying)

As Washington grapples with the fallout from Russia's invasion of Ukraine, lawmakers and officials are also wrestling with what the war means for a different territory eyed by a U.S. rival half a world away.

In several congressional hearings this week, lawmakers pressed U.S. military leaders and intelligence officials to dissect how the war in Ukraine might be affecting China's thinking on invading Taiwan.

The takeaway: Beijing appears unnerved by both the strength of the world's condemnation of Moscow and the Russian military's struggles in the first two weeks of the war, but it's unclear whether that's enough to prevent Chinese President Xi Jinping from using force to accomplish his No. 1 priority of reunifying China and Taiwan.

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"We continue to watch to try to identify, has he learned the correct lessons as it applies to the changing world order and the concern that we see in the Ukraine?" Adm. John Aquilino, head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.

Intelligence officials suggested Beijing may be more hesitant to act now.

"They've been surprised and unsettled to some extent by what they've seen in Ukraine over the last 12 days, everything from the strength of the Western reaction, to the way in which Ukrainians have fiercely resisted, to the relatively poor performance of Russia," CIA Director William Burns told the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday.

Still, Burns said, "I would not underestimate President Xi and the Chinese leadership's determination with regard to Taiwan."

A little more than two weeks after Russia launched a massive assault on Ukraine, Kyiv and most major cities remain in Ukrainian hands, though Russia has had better progress in the south, occupying Kherson and isolating Mariupol through devastating attacks -- including bombing a maternity hospital.

U.S. officials say Russia failed to achieve its goal of quickly overwhelming and seizing Kyiv because of a stronger-than-expected Ukrainian resistance and the Russian military's own logistics failures, including low fuel and food supplies.

Meanwhile, Russia's economy is in shambles after the West imposed strict sanctions and major companies vowed to end business there, and the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency estimates as many as 4,000 Russian troops may have been killed in the first two weeks of the war.

In his Senate testimony, Aquilino cited the death toll as one of the lessons he said Beijing should be learning from the war in Ukraine.

"Number one, the loss of life required to create and execute an illegal war is certainly something that ought to be taken away," Aquilino said, adding that the high casualty rate is something that "will haunt" both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Xi.

China should also take note of the broad international condemnation of Russia's actions and the "significant economic impacts that the free world can bring together," Aquilino added.

The United States views Taiwan as a democratic bulwark against authoritarian China's expansionist ambitions, but does not officially recognize Taiwan as an independent country, a careful highwire act that has been U.S. policy since President Richard Nixon established relations with China in 1972. But the United States has still sought to harden Taiwan against a potential Chinese invasion, including training Taiwanese forces and selling Taipei fighter jets, anti-ship missiles and other weapons.

China considers Taiwan a breakaway province, and Xi has vowed to pursue "reunification." While U.S. officials say Xi would prefer to accomplish that through coercive measures short of all-out war, they add he is prepared to use military force if need be.

Aquilino's predecessor, Adm. Philip Davidson, predicted last year that China could try to invade Taiwan within six years. Aquilino has not explicitly endorsed that timeline, but he noted to lawmakers this week that Xi has told his military to "complete its modernization" by 2027.

"I see actions that give me concern that the timeline is shrinking, and the mission that I've been given is to be prepared for it," Aquilino said, citing Chinese actions such as cracking down on Hong Kong, claiming disputed territory in the South China Sea and skirmishing with Indian forces in disputed territory along the China-India border.

For the U.S. military, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been "a real wake-up" on the need to prepare for possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan, including putting more troops and ships in the Asia-Pacific region, Aquilino said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday.

While stressing that Taiwan and Ukraine are "two different things," in part because of differences in the U.S. military posture in Europe and the Pacific, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier told the House Intelligence Committee that China is watching how the Ukraine war unfolds "very, very carefully."

One factor that could be contributing to China's unease in the wake of Russia's attack on Ukraine is Beijing's own intelligence failures, Burns told senators Thursday.

"Chinese leadership, President Xi in particular, is unsettled by what he's seen, partly because his own intelligence doesn't appear to have told him what was going to happen," Burns said at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.

Weeks before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Putin and Xi signed a pact that declared there were "no limits" or "'forbidden' areas of cooperation" between Russia and China.

While Burns does not expect major changes in China-Russia relations post-Ukraine invasion, he does think Beijing is concerned about the "reputational damage that China suffers by association with the ugliness of Russia's aggression."

Overall, Burns said, the war in Ukraine is having "an impact on the Chinese calculus with regard to Taiwan, which we obviously are going to continue to pay careful attention to."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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