Ukraine War Will Change China's Invasion Plans—Taiwan Defense Minister

The challenges faced by Russia throughout its invasion of Ukraine will force China to change its own invasion playbook, Taiwan's defense minister said on Wednesday.

The consensus among military strategists is that, as with the Kremlin, the leadership in Beijing plans for a swift and decisive victory when it moves to annex neighboring Taiwan in the future. However, many believe Russia's lack of progress, and Ukraine's resistance in particular, has given China pause for thought.

Some analysts believe Beijing will conclude that only heavy saturation strikes and air supremacy against the island could provide the upper hand China would need for its forces to cross the strait to invade and occupy the densely populated Taiwanese cities.

Others say Xi Jinping, requiring a political achievement to justify his third term as leader, may turn to capturing one of Taiwan's outlying islands instead, as Vladimir Putin did with Crimea or the Donbas, with little pushback from the West.

"The Russia-Ukraine war has informed all countries, including our own, and our enemy is no exception," said Chiu Kuo-cheng, Taiwan's defense minister. "We must continue to monitor [the situation] closely. We have a very good opportunity to learn, and we will use it."

"It will definitely change," Chiu said of China's invasion playbook. "As for how it will change, that's what we're continuing to assess."

Public Resistance

Ukraine's resistance, now in its eighth week, has implications for Taiwan, too. Defense planners see smartly equipped armed forces and a highly motivated public as likely to add an additional layer of deterrence against China, which, like Russia, boasts a formidable numerical advantage.

For decades, the possibility of American military intervention in a Taiwan Strait crisis has been the key factor. The United States has a deliberate policy of "strategic ambiguity" that keeps both Beijing and Taipei guessing. In Ukraine, however, a new dimension has emerged with potential consequences for Taiwan's defense—intelligence.

U.S. officials have hinted that the scope of intelligence support given to Kyiv, including in real time, could be a model to help Taipei in its own fight in the future. Some, however, fear the successful application of American intelligence sharing could supersede arms or troop support.

Then there are the West's sanctions, the speed and extent of which would have "unsettled" leaders in Beijing, CIA Director William Burns told the House Intelligence Committee in early March. "I think there's an impact on the Chinese calculus with regard to Taiwan."

Distraction Narrative

Any hypothetical attack on Taiwan would revolve around the political atmosphere in Zhongnanhai, at the very top of the Chinese Communist Party leadership. Chen Ming-tong, Taiwan's intelligence chief, believes an invasion is unlikely in the near term, with Xi minded to maintain stability in the country this year and next.

On Tuesday, however, an unnamed Taiwanese official told the Taipei Times that Xi could launch a limited attack after the CCP grants him an unprecedented third five-year term in office at the upcoming 20th National Congress, rumored to take place in November.

To "distract from domestic troubles"—the resurgence of COVID and an economic slump—China's leader might seek to annex one of Taiwan's islands, the official said, naming Kinmen and Matsu, close to the Chinese coast, and the solitary Pratas Island or Itu Aba in the South China Sea.

"Since taking Taiwan proper would be difficult, smaller outposts would be far more probable targets," the official said. "China might also take a cue from Russia's recognition of separatist areas in Ukraine as a pretext for its invasion, and claim that it is seeking to 'rejoin' 'pro-China' areas with the motherland."

Defense Minister Chiu didn't directly address the prospect of a limited invasion when asked about the prediction. "Whether [China] attacks outlying islands or the main island [of Taiwan], the main mission of the armed forces is to train for war.

"This is what we're guarding against, and it won't stop," he told reporters outside the Taiwanese legislature.

While the anonymous official's political assessment may not represent the current thinking inside Taiwan's defense establishment, there are real signs that Russia's protracted war in Ukraine has given China a lot to think about.

"The current struggles by the Russian military, which we have long admired, is sending big shock waves across the party," a Nikkei Asia report on Wednesday quoted a senior CCP member as saying.

"There is a renewed awareness about how difficult it would be to cross the strait," said a former member of the Chinese military.

Taiwan has a large array of radars that continually scan the skies and seas surrounding the island for Chinese troop movements. The Pentagon is understood to have a direct line to Taiwan's intelligence-gathering hardware, some of which was purchased from the U.S. and fitted by American engineers.

A buildup of Chinese forces, enough to launch a large-scale advance, is therefore likely to be detected several months ahead of time. Given the accuracy of U.S. intelligence disclosures before the Russian invasion, similar warnings out of Washington would come with renewed credibility in the future.

It's little wonder Chiu, Taiwan's top defense official, said he was "quite surprised" to read news of an ongoing Chinese attack, after a Taiwanese television station mistakenly broadcast mock news tickers of an invasion—part of an annual defense drill—along with Wednesday's 7 a.m. headlines.

China Invasion Plans Will Change, Taiwan Says
A member of Taiwan’s ROC Air Force guides a U.S.-made F-16V fighter aircraft out a hangar at Chiayi Air Base on January 5, 2022. On April 20 in Taipei, Taiwan’s Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said Russia’s struggles throughout its invasion of Ukraine mean China will change its own invasion playbook for the island. SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images