- Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the largest conventional European conflict in decades.
- That begs the question: could China use this moment to plan an invasion of Taiwan?
- While China is unlikely to invade anytime soon, Russia’s success—or failure—could ultimately influence what Beijing does next.
Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine is a brutal reminder of how fast and lethal modern conventional warfare can be. Another equally destructive flashpoint is the Taiwan Strait, where the people of Taiwan face invasion from the People’s Republic of China. But does a conflict in Ukraine make one in Taiwan any more likely? While there are no signs China plans to invade soon, the conduct of the war in Europe could have far-reaching consequences, reaching the Taiwan Strait itself.
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Early Thursday morning, Russia’s armed forces, under the direction of President Vladimir Putin, launched an attack on Ukraine. The attack started with cruise- and ballistic-missile strikes against targets across the 784-mile-long country, from the border with Romania all the way to the country’s long border with Russia. The strikes were quickly followed by air strikes, artillery barrages, and a ground assault, reportedly to capture the cities of Kharkiv, Odessa, and the capital Kyiv itself. Ukrainian forces are reportedly offering stiff resistance, but Russia has made serious gains, including an air assault against Antonov airport, near Kyiv.
U.S. intelligence and other authorities have predicted Russia’s offensive for months, warning that the military buildup amounted to far more than the forces required if Putin were simply attempting to intimidate Ukraine. The question is, with the world’s attention on the Russian attack on Ukraine, could China decide to make its move on Taiwan?
“The invasion of Ukraine should be a wake-up call for Washington,” Ian Easton, senior director at the Project 2049 Institute and author of The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense, tells Popular Mechanics. “At this point, it would seem prudent for American national security officials to prepare for all manner of possible scenarios. It is possible that Putin and Xi are coordinating operations. There is some reason to believe they are. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could be a precursor to a future Chinese Communist Party use of force against Taiwan.”
Could Russia and Ukraine be working together? The two countries have similar goals … up to a point. Both want strategic outcomes at the expense of the liberal international order maintained by the United States and its allies; Putin wants a Russian Empire back to pre-1917 levels, while China wants to return Taiwan to its fray. The U.S. stands in the way of both operations.
It’s not clear how much Chinese leader Xi Jinping knew about the impending attack. If he did know about it far in advance, he did not do anything to militarily coincide with the invasion. Chinese military movements have been normal in the past 24 hours, though there was a flight of nine People’s Liberation Army Air Force aircraft—including eight fighters and one reconnaissance aircraft—that entered Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone. The aircraft did not enter Taiwanese airspace.
It would likely take weeks, or even months, for Chinese forces to assemble for an invasion of Taiwan. Whatever benefit China could draw from the Russo-Ukrainian War would likely be in the form of lessons learned about modern warfare, including tactics, logistics, and the efficiency of certain types of weapons—especially short and medium ballistic and cruise missiles, as China has hundreds of both.
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One example of a lesson learned could be from Thursday’s fight at Antonov airport, approximately ten miles northwest of Ukraine. According to news reports, a regiment of the Russian 31st Guards Air Assault Brigade was inserted via helicopter to capture the airport, with the intention of later landing the other two-thirds of the brigade. Ukrainian forces were able to not only beat back the reinforcements, but destroy the Russian regiment, recapturing the airport.
This single battle has ominous consequences for Chinese planners. Outside observers believe China was preparing to use large-scale air assaults as part of any forced landing in Taiwan. Helicopters could simply load up with troops and equipment and cross the Taiwan Strait in less than an hour. Unlike troops moved by amphibious sealift, helicopter-borne troops can move faster and have a wider selection of landing zones on beachheads and further inland. A single helicopter can make multiple crossings a day.
The problem with using helicopters, as the Battle of Antonov Airport makes clear, is that they are fragile and a strong enough defense can make it impossible for them to land. If the defenders are surrounded and aren’t relieved, as the 31st Guards learned Thursday, they could be annihilated on the ground.
In this case, Russia’s loss could be China’s gain. Chinese military planners might decide that an air assault against Taiwan is too risky, and increase their construction of amphibious warships to compensate. This, in turn, could throw off any long-term invasion timetable, if one exists, by several years.
A lesson for Taiwan and the United States, Easton explains, is that sometimes countries preparing to invade other countries actually do it. “At a minimum,” he says, “it is clear that the assumptions our leaders have made about deterrence and war prevention have been falsified by events. Given its stark diplomatic isolation, Taiwan is even more vulnerable than Ukraine.”
China may not be in a position to invade Taiwan today, but tomorrow is a different story. In the meantime, it will likely absorb as many lessons about the Russo-Ukrainian War as it can. If it goes well for Putin, whose forces outnumber Ukraine’s, it could embolden Xi Jinping and solidify plans to invade the island. If the war goes badly for Putin, who is already facing several reverses in just the last 24 hours, China could be persuaded that attacking Taiwan is ultimately too risky.
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