Three geopolitical lessons China is learning from Russia’s war in Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has obvious parallels with a possible future Chinese invasion of Taiwan. It is reasonable, therefore, to assume that the best and brightest in China’s national security community are already looking to the former for tactical, operational and strategic lessons relevant to the latter.

It’s still early days, of course, and the most important lessons to be learned may not become clear for some time yet. But Russia’s “special military operation” is already teaching some important lessons regarding the logic of inter-state war in this post-unipolar moment — lessons that China’s leaders are sure to be learning even as the war rages on with no end in sight. 

Let’s start with the most basic lesson being taught by the Russian invasion: Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is incredibly difficult. The truth of this Clausewitzian dictum is on prominent display in Ukraine today, where a combination of Russian operational shortcomings and the unexpectedly tenacious resistance of the Ukrainian military and people have generated such friction that Moscow’s ability to prevail over Kyiv has been called into serious question.

From Beijing’s perspective, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine must be raising serious questions about the practicability of a similar kind of invasion of Taiwan — especially given the added complication of trying to invade a territory that is separated from the Chinese mainland by a 100-mile-wide body of water. 

Beyond the timeless truth that war is hard, however, the Russian invasion is schooling the world in three geopolitical realities that are particular to this specific historical moment — realities that China’s leaders are surely coming to understand.

The first of these is that the West is not a spent historical force. Since the 2008 financial crisis, China’s leaders have viewed the West as being in serious decline, unable to rouse itself to deal with serious challenges — even those that threaten its very economic foundations. NATO’s swift and decisive response to Russia’s aggression makes this assumption difficult to sustain. Indeed, it is inconceivable that Beijing could look at the reaction of Western governments (as well as Japan’s) to Russia’s invasion and not conclude that the West can in fact rally when confronted with real dangers. On the contrary, one of the lessons being taught by Putin’s war is that the West is less a fading civilization whose time on the center stage of world politics is rapidly coming to an end than a player that still has a highly consequential role to play on the global stage.

A corollary of this is that should China finally take the fateful step and invade Taiwan, the West will not sit idly by. Rather, if its reaction to Putin’s war is any indication, it will be both willing and able to impose significant and very painful costs on the aggressor. 

A second geopolitical take-away from the Russian invasion of Ukraine – and one that cuts in the opposite direction to the first – is that the United States seems unwilling to risk nuclear war over non-treaty security relationships. To be sure, Washington has made it very clear that it will not tolerate an attack on a NATO member state — that it will honor its North Atlantic Treaty Article V commitments, even to the point of war.

But it has also made clear that it will not come to the military defense of the non-NATO member Ukraine. One lesson that Beijing might learn from this is that, in the absence of either a bilateral treaty like the one it has with Japan or a multilateral treaty like the one binding members of NATO, the United States is unlikely to intervene militarily to defend Taiwan. And if that is the main takeaway from this war, then Beijing may well be emboldened to use military force in any future crisis involving the Taipei government.

Finally, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has probably already taught China’s leaders that the broader international community can self-mobilize in response to aggression. From governments to international organizations, from private firms to cultural associations, the world has responded to Russia’s aggression swiftly and with devastating effect.

And it has done so spontaneously. While the United States may have played a catalytic role in triggering the initial response, that response has quickly spiraled out of Washington’s control — to the point where no one in the United States is able to dial the international pressure on Russia up or down in response to changing circumstances.

It is possible, of course, that this self-mobilization may turn out to be nothing more than the death-spasm of the liberal international order — a last, gasping expression of all the high-sounding liberal virtues that were peddled so relentlessly following the Soviet Union’s unlamented demise. Equally, it may be nothing more than a unique moment of moral panic — a one-off episode of mass hysteria that tells us very little about how the world might react to a future great power invasion of a neighbor. 

And, of course, there’s always the possibility that while the international community has clearly been willing to mobilize against the aggression of a relatively weak and economically insignificant Russia, it would be less inclined to do so in the face of an invasion carried out by a much more powerful and economically consequential China. 

But China’s leaders must also be considering the very real possibility that the global condemnation of Putin’s war might be telling them something significant about the evolving geopolitical ecosystem and the kinds of systemic pressures it can generate in response to a clearly illegitimate use of force. 

In other words, the lesson they might be drawing from this episode is that for the foreseeable future anything that even remotely resembles Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is likely to elicit an unbearable, full-spectrum and perhaps even uncontrollable response from the international community. 

What, ultimately, will the Russian invasion of Ukraine teach China’s leaders about using force to subdue Taiwan? Again, it’s early days yet and that makes it difficult to answer that question definitively. But if there’s one big lesson that Vladimir Putin’s war is likely to teach China’s leaders, it’s this: The simplest things in war are incredibly difficult — and never more so than when you are fighting a committed, tenacious enemy. 

That has obviously been true in Ukraine, and China’s leaders now have every reason to believe it would be true of Taiwan too. And given this, and the demonstrated ability of the West to react swiftly and meaningfully, the ultimate takeaway for China should be obvious: Think very, very carefully before you cry “havoc” and let slip the dogs of war.

Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., and a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @aalatham.

Tags China China-Taiwan tension invasion of Taiwan NATO Post-Soviet conflicts Russia Russia-Ukraine war Russian invasion of Ukraine Russo-Ukrainian War Taipei Taiwan Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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