Ukraine Lessons Should Be 'Soaking in' for China: U.S. Official

Leaders in China should be cognizant of how the world might react to another "act of aggression" after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a senior U.S. defense official said on Tuesday, echoing a widely held view in Washington that Moscow's experiences thus far should give Beijing pause.

Colin Kahl, the Pentagon's under secretary of defense for policy, told a Center for a New American Security (CNAS) conference that major economies—China's most important trading partners among them—would likely impose a heavy cost in response to potential Chinese military action in the future.

Beijing maintains a territorial claim to democratically ruled Taiwan and publicly refuses to rule out the use of force to achieve its political objective of capturing the island. Taiwan, which sees itself as a functionally independent country, has said it's been inspired by Ukraine's resistance against Russia.

Sanctions levied against Moscow—even at the cost of damage to the West—suggest advanced economies in Europe and North America wouldn't simply move on like they did after Beijing quashed democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, Kahl said.

He told CNAS's Richard Fontaine: "If I'm sitting in Beijing, I think the fundamental question to draw is, if they were to commit an act of aggression sometime in the future, will the world react the way that it did when China snuffed out democracy in Hong Kong? Or will the world react more like it did in the case of Ukraine?"

"I think it's imperative for the leadership in Beijing to understand that where the world is now, the Ukraine scenario is a much more likely outcome than the Hong Kong scenario," Kahl said. "I hope that that's soaking in, in Beijing and elsewhere."

China Should Draw Lessons From Ukraine—Colin Kahl
A burnt-out tank stands beside a road in Bucha, Ukraine, on April 16, 2022. The fierce resistance Russian forces have met in Ukraine are just one of the lessons U.S. officials believe China’s leaders will be watching as they consider plans for their own future attack on Taiwan. Artem Gvozdkov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

National security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN in March that China was likely aware that President Vladimir Putin was "planning something" in Ukraine, but Beijing might not have known the full extent of his designs. "Because it's very possible that Putin lied to them the same way that he lied to Europeans and others."

Ultimately, however, China's Russia hands failed to anticipate the scale the Kremlin's ambitions, Kahl told the think tank event.

"I suspect they are surprised at the quality of U.S. and Western intelligence relative to their own intelligence capabilities, in the sense that they did not predict that Russia was going to do this," the Pentagon's defense planner said. "That was an intelligence failure for [China], so I think they'll have to work through what the implications of that are."

China also is likely taking note of the operational struggles experienced by the Russian army—in logistics, morale, training, planning and doctrine—as well as the "tenacity and creativity" of Ukraine's resistance, Kahl said.

"I think one lesson of that is you can spend hundreds of billions of dollars on military modernization. It turns out in real life this stuff is really hard, and that the targets of aggression have a number of opportunities and strategies of denial that can be very effective," he said.

For Taiwan—also outnumbered and outspent by its potential adversary—Kahl sees value in the acquisition of "high-end asymmetric capabilities" such as unmanned aerial vehicles and man-portable anti-armor and air defense systems. Another lesson from Ukraine, he said, is the demonstration of resolve.

"Tenacity pays off in the sense that you can turn a conflict that one party thought was a fait accompli into a protracted conflict that generates the sympathy and solitary of much of the world," said Kahl. "That magnifies the cost imposed on an aggressor. So I suspect other would-be victims of aggression are drawing some lessons from that experience, too."

The Defense Department categorizes China as its "pacing challenge."

"By that we mean China is really the only country with both the intent and the capability to systematically challenge the United States militarily, politically, diplomatically, economically, technologically—kind of across the board—and that that is true not just in the moment, but for the foreseeable future," Kahl said.

Russia—an "acute threat"—is No. 2, "very immediate, and sharp," he said. The defense official believes Western's sanctions have left Moscow little choice but to further align itself with Beijing.

Kahl argues Putin's still has his eye on "a significant portion of Ukraine, if not the whole country." But he doesn't believe the Russian president can achieve his objective.

The U.S.'s goal, he said, was to help Ukraine defend itself, and to "strengthen [Kyiv's] position at the bargaining table when inevitably the two sides sit down to talk about how this all ends."