Russia’s war in Ukraine has taught the world’s autocrats some useful lessons:
Invasions can be harder than they look.
It is not wise to go to war with an army that does not have much training against serious opponents.
The United States and its allies may seem divided, but they can always stick together in a crisis.
And when ordinary people decide to defend their homes, they can put up a surprisingly good fight.
These lessons could have a practical impact in a half-world of Ukraine in the standoff between China and Taiwan.
Reclaiming Taiwan has been a major goal of the ruling Chinese Communist Party since it seized power in 1949. Chinese President Xi Jinping regularly reconfirms his intention to return Taiwan to the motherland – through peaceful means if possible, non-peaceful means if not.
It is therefore reasonable to assume that Xi and his aides paid close attention to the problems faced by their quasi-ally Vladimir Putin in his brutal campaign to restore Russian control over its smaller neighbor, Ukraine.
In some ways, Taiwan seems like an easier target than Ukraine. It’s smaller – 24 million people, not 44 million. Its army is a tenth the size of China’s, and it hasn’t built the kind of territorial defense force that Ukraine currently uses to great effect. Meanwhile, the Chinese Navy and Marine Corps (yes, that’s its name) spent decades working on the ability to stage amphibious landings against an island like Taiwan.
But Taiwan has advantages that Ukraine did not have.
The Taiwan Strait is over 100 miles wide, which would make an amphibious invasion daunting.
Taiwan has a security commitment from the United States — not as strong as the treaty that commits the United States to defending NATO allies, but stronger than Ukraine. (President Biden made a point of mentioning this in his conversation with Xi on Friday.)
Finally, the United States has a more direct economic interest in Taiwan than in Ukraine; Taipei is a major trading partner, the source of more than half of the world’s high-end microchips.
“What we saw in Ukraine raises serious questions for China about the risks of military activity against Taiwan,” Evan Medeiros of Georgetown University, a former National Security Council official, told me the week. last.
“China’s theory is that if we have to use force it will be quick and effective and that economically the West needs China more than Taiwan. All of these assumptions are now being challenged.
But there were also important lessons for Taiwan.
The biggest surprise in Ukraine, beyond the poor performance of the Russian military, was the success of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces, its army of reservists and unevenly trained civilians.
“That’s the real lesson from Ukraine for Taiwan: you need civilians who know how to use a gun,” said Bonnie Glaser, China expert at the German Marshall Fund. “Taiwan could easily do something like that, but they didn’t.”
US defense planners have long urged Taiwan to adopt a strategy they call “asymmetric defense” – recognizing China’s vast advantages in manpower and equipment and aiming to increase the cost of an invasion. The goal, retired Admiral James Stavridis recently wrote, should be to turn the island into a “porcupine – a prickly, indigestible entity that could deter China from using force.”
But for much of the past decade, Taiwan has gone in the opposite direction: it has reduced the size of its regular army and reduced the training of its reserves. He invested in high-end weapons favored by military leaders, such as F-16s and Abrams tanks, instead of more mundane tools that could deter an onboard invader: anti-aircraft weapons, anti-ship missiles and advanced mines.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen embraced the American argument, at least in rhetorical terms.
“The recent situation in Ukraine proves that in addition to international support and assistance, it is about the unity of our people to protect our country,” she said recently.
But progress has been slow. Tsai promised to increase defense spending to 3% of the gross domestic project from 2.1% currently (the United States spends around 3.5%). But even after Taiwan’s legislature approves more defense spending, it will take more than five years to get there.
So U.S. officials have privately emphasized another lesson from Ukraine: The U.S. and other countries can help Taiwan defend itself, but only if the Taiwanese show they are ready and willing to fight. .
“People love a fighter,” noted Elbridge Colby, a former senior defense official in the Trump administration. “If Ukraine had retreated, international support for them would not have happened.”
The more Ukraine shows that a determined population can make an invasion costly, the more it gives small countries like Taiwan a model of how to defend themselves – and hopefully deter the next invasion before it begins. .
If so, the terrible toll of the war in Ukraine could have at least one positive side effect: it is quite simply possible that this conflict has reduced the risks of a conflict in Asia.