Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Lessons from the Front

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, May 31, 2022 --  

The utter failure of Russia to subjugate Ukraine provides sobering news for China's ambitions toward Taiwan.

With Russia’s dreams of a quick and easy conquest of Ukraine up in flames, lessons from its failure may decide Taiwan’s fate on the other side of the Eurasian continent.

Taiwan's situation is in many ways similar to that of Ukraine before the conflict began. Like Ukraine, Taiwan is a democracy facing territorial claims and bullying from a giant authoritarian neighbor. In both cases the bully denies the smaller country’s right to exist. And both cases risk dragging the United States into a war with a nuclear armed power.

Russia's failures in Ukraine exposed its giant military as a hollow force unable to conquer its much smaller neighbor. Could the same be true of China? Nobody knows. Unlike Russia, China has not been involved in a military conflict in over 40 years, when it briefly invaded Vietnam as punishment for its involvement in Cambodia.

But lack of combat experience applies even more to Taiwan. Its armed forces have not faced a battle since fleeing to the island from the mainland in 1949.

This is in stark contrast to Ukrainian forces which have obtained deep experience battling Russia and Russia-backed militias in Eastern Ukraine since 2014. Even if Taiwanese forces could somehow match the tenacity and resolve of the Ukrainians, they will start their fight with China as unseasoned fighters.

Russia's failure in Ukraine is symbolized by tanks with turrets blown off by drones and shoulder-fired missiles. China's tanks may be similarly obsolete, yet this is of minimal impact given that the two countries have no land borders. The sinking of Russia's flagship Moskva by Ukrainian anti-ship missiles offers a more important lesson. Any Chinese invasion force must first sail across the strait, exposing it to the same threat from missiles on Taiwan's shores.

But the power of anti-ship missiles hurts Taiwan, too. Taiwan needs the United States to come to its aid with air cover. But China's large investment in long-range anti-ship missiles means that American aircraft carriers can't come to Taiwan's rescue without getting close enough to expose themselves to Chinese strikes.

Debate about whether giant naval ships are made obsolete by anti-ship missile technology have been raging since ships were sunk in the Falklands War 40 years ago. Naval analysts attribute the sinking of the Moskva more to Russian incompetence than the inherent vulnerability of large naval vessels. American ships are probably better able to defend themselves against similar attacks.

But only a single missile needs to get through to disable an aircraft carrier. Each day that an American aircraft carrier supports Taiwan gives Chinese missiles another chance to take it out. Americans may not be willing to take that chance, forcing them to rely on bases in Okinawa -- at the far edge of the range of its fighter jets.

Geography means that China will have a much easier time sending a large number of aircraft to attack Taiwan without using vulnerable aircraft carriers. But the Ukraine war also shows that Chinese aircraft will be unable to engage in low-altitude missions without being shot down by shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft missiles. This limits the use of Chinese air power to high altitude bombing, and perhaps dropping a limited number of troops and supplies by high-altitude parachuting.

Airstrikes would allow China to do enormous damage to Taiwanese cities, perhaps making Taipei and Kaohsiung look like scaled-up versions of Mariupol and Severodonetsk. Landing even a small number of troops could be terrifying to the Taiwanese. But it may not be possible for China to land sufficient troops to actually occupy the territory because it would require exposing planes, landing craft and tanks to devastating losses from mobile missiles launchers.

The final lesson for China from the Ukraine war comes from the economic sanctions and isolation that Russia has faced. As bad as things are for Russia, the country's near total reliance on oil and gas for income means it can always find a buyer, even if it is more limited in what it can purchase with the proceeds. China's economic system is far more integrated with other countries both for export income and for inputs to its supply chain. While it can certainly survive international sanctions for as long as a war lasts, the long-term experience of a war would be far more painful for China than for Russia. That is undoubtedly sobering for China.

While it's a mixed bag, the news from Ukraine mostly isn't good for China's ambitions of absorbing Taiwan. That doesn't mean China won't try -- Putin shows how authoritarian leaders motivated by nationalism can do crazy things. Perhaps the best news for Taiwan is that these lessons exist at all. For those who wish to stop China and save Taiwan, the lessons of Ukraine provide an excellent guide to doing exactly that.

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Dangerous Game, October 25, 2021