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China ‘learning lessons’ from Russia war in Ukraine, intelligence officials say

Chinese President Xi Jinping is watching closely how Russia’s war in Ukraine unfolds and the global response as Beijing weighs the risks of taking over Taiwan, top intelligence officials told lawmakers on Tuesday.

“The Chinese are going to watch this very, very carefully,” Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“It’s going to take some time for them to sort out all elements of — diplomatic, information, military, economic — that have occurred with this crisis,” he added.

Berrier made his comments during a hearing to evaluate the intelligence community’s assessment of worldwide threats. Lawmakers largely focused on the successes and shortcomings of U.S. intelligence in assessing Russia’s capability in Ukraine and how they relate to the threats facing Taiwan. 

“We pretty dramatically overestimated the strength of the Russian military. I’d be surprised, for one, if China’s military strength proves to be so attenuated,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said to intelligence officials. “Don’t you think we’re dealing with a significantly more formidable adversary with China?”   

Berrier and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, also testifying at the hearing, said that Beijing would rather subsume Taiwan through diplomatic and economic pressure, but the threat of a military takeover between now and 2030 remains acute. 

“It’s our view that they are working hard to effectively put themselves in a position in which their military is capable of taking Taiwan over our intervention,” Haines said. 

“They would prefer not to use military force to take Taiwan. They’d prefer to use other means,” she added.

There is robust bipartisan support in Congress for supporting Taiwan to prevent it from coming under forceful control from Beijing.

Berrier and Haines both listed China as an unparalleled priority for the intelligence community and a major security challenge for the U.S. and called its expanding nuclear arsenal “historic.”

The democratically elected government in Taipei is viewed as a key U.S. partner in the region for pushing back against China’s efforts to overtake the democratic international order. 

Yet Beijing views Taiwan as part of its sovereign territory and the government in Taipei as a rogue actor and is intent on exercising control over the island.  

The U.S. is committed to Taiwan’s self-defense without officially recognizing the island as independent from Beijing. Intelligence officials said lessons learned from Ukraine’s defensive war against Russia and American assistance have provided key takeaways for how Washington can engage with Taipei.

“There are some things we can do with Taiwan. I think they’re learning some very interesting lessons from the Ukrainian conflict,” Berrier said, pointing to how Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s leadership has inspired the forces, the success of small tactical military units against Russian units incapable of acting independently and “effective training with the right weapons systems.”

Yet Berrier said that the Taiwan military is not “where it should be,” pointing to a large conscript force with a short enlistment period.

“I think we have to engage with our [Indo-Pacific Command] partners within the Department of Defense, the Taiwan military and leadership to help them understand what this conflict has been about, what lessons they can learn and where they should be focusing their dollars on defense and their training,” Berrier said. 

Berrier and Haines said it is too soon to tell what lessons China is taking away from the U.S.-led global response against Russia, between the coordinated sanctions imposed by allies in Europe and the Group of Seven nations, isolation at the United Nations, and the success of Ukraine’s military. 

Still, China is unlikely to accelerate its plans to take over Taiwan, officials said. 

“They’re thinking about future operations probably against Taiwan and how difficult that might be. They’re probably also thinking about the scrutiny they would come under should they entertain thoughts or operations like that,” Berrier said. 

He added that one of those lessons he hoped the Chinese take away from Russia’s war in Ukraine is “just how difficult a cross-strait invasion might be and how dangerous and high risk that might be.” 

Berrier and Haines also came under pressure over failures of the U.S. intelligence community that overestimated Russia’s military capabilities to take over Ukraine — and that followed the overestimation of the strength of the Afghan military forces to resist the Taliban — in how it assesses Beijing’s intentions. 

“Within 12 months we missed the ‘will to fight,’ we overestimated the Afghans’ will to fight and underestimated the Ukrainians will to fight,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said.

“I hope that the intelligence community is doing some soul searching about how to better get a handle on that question,” he added.

Tags Avril Haines Josh Hawley Josh Hawley Russia-Ukraine war Scott Berrier Scott Berrier Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky Xi Jinping Xi Jinping
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