China’s Lessons from Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

Thousands of miles from the cities Russia is bombing in Ukraine, China has studied how modern warfare is waged. In the proxy fight between the two superpowers, Beijing sees a source of invaluable lessons about weapons, manpower, intelligence and motivation that will help it prepare for future wars, writes The Japan Times.

Xi Jinping received in the KremlinPhoto: Kremlin Moscow / DPA / Profimedia Pictures

Chinese military analysts have been examining the war for innovations and tactics that could help in a potential conflict with Taiwan, a country Beijing wants to annex and the United States has pledged to protect.

The war provides an opportunity for China to learn from the successes and failures of the two belligerents

The New York Times reviewed nearly 100 Chinese research and media articles that evaluated the war by Chinese military analysts.

Ukraine offered “a new understanding of the future world war,” Major General Meng Xiangqing, a professor at Beijing’s National Defense University, wrote in the Guangming Daily newspaper in January. “Russia’s nuclear deterrence strategy has played a key role in NATO’s reluctance to go to war.”

Pentagon officials said the Russian invasion was a clear warning to China against the risk of war with Taiwan, 100 miles from its coast. Russian forces lacked weapons and ammunition and failed to gain intelligence, resulting in a lack of progress on the ground and heavy loss of life.

“The exposed deficiencies in the logistics and distribution of the Russian military should be the focus of our attention,” says an article in the magazine of the Chinese Military Technology Development Agency. China should prepare for similar challenges “if we consider sea crossings or island acquisitions in the future” — an implicit reference to taking over Taiwan.

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That’s right, China’s official military budget of $225 billion is nearly three times that of Russia’s, and China’s large manufacturing capacity and technology means Russian forces can build many of the advanced drones and other weapons they miss.

China has not fought a major war in 40 years since Deng Xiaoping sent troops into neighboring Vietnam, and its military researchers study conflicts in other countries with particular attention.

The Ukrainian war is particularly important to China because it involves a proxy fight pitting Russia, Beijing’s closest ally, against the United States and its allies that support Ukrainian forces.

China “approaches this war in a different way than the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan,” said Lyle J. Goldstein, an expert at Defense Freedoms, a Washington think tank who has studied Chinese assessments of the war in Ukraine. “They find themselves in Russia’s shoes, more or less at war with America.”

Chinese experts say Russia’s difficulty in bringing in enough infantry troops means China must maintain its large and powerful ground forces even as it expands its naval and air forces.

“A great power must maintain a reasonable level of ground forces or lose its advantage on the battlefield

Wu Dahui, a former military researcher at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, wrote this year that Russia’s experience shows that “a great power must maintain a reasonable level of ground forces, otherwise it will lose its advantage on the battlefield.”

Russia’s failures to provide prompt and reliable information on Ukrainians’ movements have led Chinese analysts to urge the People’s Liberation Army forces to learn how to best use drones, communications and satellites in combat.

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“Russia has been unable to move forward due to a lack of coordination and information sharing,” said Bonnie Lin, director of the China Power Project.

“In addition to the fierce conflicts on the battlefields, the war in the information and perception field is very intense.”

Russia’s troubles in Ukraine appear to have reinforced official Chinese views that Beijing, like Moscow, is at the center of a “hybrid war” involving economic sanctions, technology blockades, information campaigns and cyber attacks.

“The United States and the West are using this conflict to engage in full-scale diplomatic repression and complete cultural isolation of Russia,” Gao Yun, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, writes in the People’s Liberation Army’s flagship newspaper. “In addition to the fierce conflicts on the battlefields, the war in the information and perception field is very intense.”

As Ukraine’s successes grew, Chinese military analysts focused on equipment and intelligence provided by NATO countries to Ukraine to fight against Russian forces. Mostly, China is monitoring the thousands of Stinger, Javelin and other missiles Ukraine has bought and is weighing what will happen as Taiwan increases its stockpile, said Goldstein, who teaches at Brown University.

“I think the Chinese are looking at all this very carefully, crunching the numbers and doing the math,” he said.

Another concern among Chinese military analysts is Ukraine’s use of Starling, a satellite service operated by SpaceX, with some suggesting Beijing install a similar system.

Starlink helped Ukrainian forces maintain communications and direct attacks even where digital infrastructure was destroyed. Chinese military analysts blamed Russian forces’ inability to intercept the Starling. Inspired by the scenes in Ukraine, Taiwan has begun studying how to create a similar system.

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“To face the Starlink threat,” military researchers wrote in a study, “we must design and build our own low-orbit satellites.”

China has condemned the use of nuclear weapons in war and vowed never to launch a nuclear attack

Even so, Chinese President Xi Jinping indicated last year that China would continue to expand its nuclear arsenal, which now has more than 400 warships, far fewer than Russia or the United States.

According to the Pentagon, China’s nuclear arsenal could grow to about 1,000 warships by 2030. Putin’s threatening gestures could set a precedent for Chinese leaders, said Woodnow of the National Defense University.

“My biggest concern is that they’re miscalculating nuclear threats,” Woodnow said. “Xi may believe that the US and its allies can be easily defeated in the Taiwan conflict. But that would be an error of judgment.”

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