In the months since Russia invaded Ukraine, one global player has watched with particular interest as it calculates its own future plans.
During the Ukraine crisis, China has appeared publicly more emboldened than ever by its ambitions for Taiwan, the island nation over which it also claims dominance but which, unlike the former Soviet sovereign state, is recognized only by a shrinking number of minor countries.
Beijing’s rhetoric, even as the international economy falters and the world scrambles to ease a spiraling humanitarian crisis in Europe, remains defiant as nations express growing concern that China is preparing for a destabilizing invasion of its own. to meet a long-standing territorial objective. .
Any attempt by Taiwan to formally declare its independence from China would lead to “a road to death,” Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe told the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual military gathering in Singapore, on Sunday.
“No one should underestimate the resolve and ability of the Chinese military to safeguard its territorial integrity,” Wei said of Taiwan, which Beijing considers nothing more than a renegade mainland province.
Privately, however, the confidence China has felt about its ambition to retake control of the island nation has changed in recent weeks, perhaps dramatically, as it surveys the unforeseen international reaction to Moscow’s unprovoked aggression, according to various current and former officials and analysts familiar with Chinese and US assessments of Beijing’s ambitions.
“The US-led Western response to the Russian invasion was faster and more robust than many in China and probably many other countries, including some in the United States, expected,” says Taylor Fravel, director of the Program for Security Studies at the MIT and Chinese expert. military strategy.
Wei’s remarks employed language that other participants privately described as “stronger than usual” Y they were particularly noteworthy given that he delivered them shortly after meeting with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a common secondary encounter at such high-profile international gatherings that, in this case, the Chinese requested.
“We will fight at all costs and we will fight to the end. This is the only option for China,” Wei said.
Although it is an imperfect comparison, the US has formal defense commitments to Taiwanfor example, but not with Ukraine: the unanimity of the US-led international effort to contain Russia since its invasion in February surprised the Chinese Communist Party and forced it to reconsider the global consequences that would accompany a similar move to annexation. Taiwan.
Others suggest that China is in fact completely reassessing what it thought it knew about a likely Western response to its own plans for Taiwan following the potency of international sanctions against Russia and the military response that the United States has orchestrated through its allies. in Europe.
Photos you should see – June 2022
That response is something apparatchiks in Beijing have not anticipated, a source who has spoken with senior Chinese military officials about their planning tells US News on condition of anonymity.
“You can genuinely see that it took them by surprise, something that they didn’t anticipate at all completely took them,” says the source.
China’s calculations to invade Taiwan began to change after President Joe Biden’s decision. for the United States to leave Afghanistan in August, says the source. Beijing believed that the subsequent shameful and calamitous retirement it left the US on the defensive, and officials concluded that subsequent US weakness presented a unique opportunity to draw new conclusions about Taiwan.
“What’s happened now, based on recent discussions, is that there’s concern that the West hasn’t backed down, that it hasn’t curled into a ball, that it’s actually becoming much more proactive when it comes to Russia,” the statement said. font. He says. “It is as if they had done a very complicated mathematical sum and, at some point, between calculating it, the numbers had been wrong. Now they have had to go back in terms of what went wrong in their own analysis and perception.”
“This has now disturbed Beijing quite significantly because they didn’t anticipate that the United States, on Ukraine, would be so proactive but also, by extension, focused on Taiwan. The situation and dynamics have changed, and it seems that instead of the West being caught off guard, it is China that is being caught off guard.”
China’s steady march in recent years away from a Western-led international order has been marked by a series of confrontations and sources of outrage, including its sometimes cheeky moves to ensure more control However, Hong Kong has limited recent experience that would inform the collateral effects of an act of aggression on the scale of invading Taiwan, both internationally and domestically.
Indeed, among the changing factors influencing Beijing’s thinking, analysts say, is whether it could avoid domestic outrage over unprovoked military action and whether that even informs its decisions.
“Taiwan is not optional for China, it’s a question of when.”
“That’s the million dollar question that no one knows the definitive answer to,” says Tyler Jost, a Brown University professor who specializes in Chinese national security decision-making.
“The evidence seems pretty compelling to me that the party is capable of shaping what the public wants even in a crisis, and even in cases where it’s trying to get the public to back down,” says Jost. He notes: “The last time the Chinese were in a major military conflict that went wrong was in 1979 in Vietnam. But the information available to Chinese society then was very different from today.”
Beijing’s current relationship with Russia will also help determine what it feels it could put up with if China found itself under similar economic and military constraints as Moscow. China has so far resisted international pressure to condemn the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine, although it has not yet confirmed whether it is willing to provide Russia with military support desperately need. But some analysts believe that China sees Russia as the proverbial lifeboat it may need to weather a pre-emptive move on Taiwan, just as it helps Moscow today.
Tong Zhao, a senior fellow at the Beijing-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, recently noted a growing fear that China sees an eventual confrontation with the West, particularly the US, as inevitable, resulting in a “showdown” in China. The near future.
“In this scenario, Russia must be China’s most reliable strategic partner. Only Russia can provide China with access to important resources, minerals, food, fuel, economic support that no other country can provide,” Zhao said. a recent podcast with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “So I think this strong sense in China, this view that it cannot sacrifice its special association with Russia, come what may.”
However, he noted that it is not yet clear whether a Russia weakened by international isolation could help China reciprocally.
And some, including Fravel, have questioned whether China in recent years felt the US has been “in retreat,” particularly with regard to the punitive policies of the Trump administration followed by the candor of the current president. Biden, a long-serving senator with extensive foreign affairs experience, has for some time signaled his desire to support Taiwan militarily against the Chinese threat. In May, said so much out loud – again – a move that some analysts believe changed a core tenet of US policy toward the region that military planners have deliberately tried to keep ambiguous to deter China and avoid needlessly riling it up.
“There are also many differences between Ukraine and Taiwan, given the long-standing commitment to Taiwan’s defense,” says Fravel. He asserts that China “may be refining its assessment,” but also notes, “For the past two decades, China has taken the prospect of US intervention very seriously.”
“Perhaps China’s leaders now have a better idea of what that support might look like should a major crisis or conflict break out across the country. [Taiwan] Narrow”, says Fravel.
Others with extensive experience of the US government’s involvement in dealing with China say the Biden administration, apparently emboldened by Russia’s dismal military performance in Ukraine, now bears some responsibility for the position it finds itself in. Beijing and how the potential for conflict could change.
“I think the only risk here is thinking that the ball is finally in the US court,” Carnegie’s Zhao said. “If the US does something provocative, China may be forced to take action even though China’s military readiness is not as good as expected.”
In addition to Biden’s own statements about Taiwan being seen as a threat by Beijing, the administration has sent former senior officials to visit the island. A bipartisan group of legislators i traveled there in aprila week after China expressed outrage over reports that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California would also visit, plans she scrapped after testing positive for COVID-19.
“Many in DC seem to think that the combination of the Western response and Russia’s poor performance in Ukraine will give China pause in considering a move on Taiwan. I think this is an illusion. Taiwan is not optional for China, it’s a question of when,” a former diplomatic official with extensive experience in China told US News.
“The United States can delay the Chinese calendar or we can speed it up. Those are the options,” says the official. “Unfortunately, we are currently engaged in the latter.”