By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
The war in Ukraine is shaking the Chinese leadership’s faith in its own military buildup, threatening its geopolitical ambitions, and even rocking its political power base, according to a leading scholar in International Studies.
“The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been bad for China, and it’s likely to get worse,” said David Bachman, a professor in the Henry M. Jackson School at the University of Washington (UW), who specializes in Chinese Domestic and Foreign Policy, International Political Economy, Asian Politics, International Relations, and U.S.-China Relations.
Speaking at a panel co-sponsored by the Washington State China Relations Council on March 15, Bachman said the faltering war effort had alarmed President Xi Jinping and others, leading to a recognition that China is stuck in a disastrous situation as a result.
Among other consequences, Bachman said the poor performance of Russia’s military had led to a reevaluation of China’s own decades-long military modernization, since to a large extent it has been modeled on Russia.
“No one, including Xi Jinping, expected the Russian military to perform so poorly,” he said. “This, from the Chinese perspective, is what a modern military looks like.”
The failure of Russia’s military to quickly dispose of Ukrainian resistance is undermining Chinese confidence not only in Russia—but in itself.
“It’s also the modern military that the Chinese military practices with because the Chinese military hasn’t engaged in modern military combat in many, many years,” said Bachman.
He added, “China also buys Russian weapons. Are they not very good? What does this mean for China’s defense buildup? It’s raising real questions, I think, in military leadership and among China’s military defense complex.”
The Chinese were also shocked by Russia’s request for military and other supplies.
“The fact that the Russians felt the need to ask for Chinese equipment suggests how ill equipped and how ill prepared the Russians were to face the Ukrainians, raising doubts about Russia’s overall military and other competencies,” said Bachman. “So, are you linking yourself up with a sinking ship or not?”
Another lurching realization that came to the Chinese leadership was that it had profoundly underestimated the speed and solidarity with which the West would unite against Russia’s invasion.
“The rapidity with which NATO seemed to find a renewed sense of purpose and the casting of Ukraine as a conflict between autonomy and democracy was also a shock,” said Bachman. “More significantly, the EU, NATO, and others see this not solely confined to Russia. China policy is being reconsidered and potentially hardened.”
Even more stunning was “the breadth, depth and severity of the sanctions” imposed upon Russia, particularly the freezing of foreign exchange reserves.
“To put it in context, Russia had 640 or so billion dollars of foreign exchange. China has 3.25 trillion of which 1.06 trillion is sitting in US treasuries,” said Bachman. “So China has more to lose, and it is worried now about where its money is and what might happen to it.”
This comes at a time when China’s economy is suffering a severe slowdown and the country is facing the worst COVID outbreak since early 2020, calling into question the government’s fundamental approach to the pandemic—the “dynamic zero” coronavirus strategy.
At the same time, voices among influential academics and others are emerging to challenge China’s support for Vladmir Putin’s war, while there are signs that Xi’s leadership is also being challenged in subtle ways.
“They are not really perceptible on any tangible level but are clearly growing,” said Bachman.
Finally, China is realizing it may be facing hardening opposition in Asia, which could very well delay its hopes of subjugating Taiwan.
With the election of a pro-U.S. president in South Korea, and the strengthening of security ties between the U.S. and Japan and Australia, China fears a NATO-like alliance may be emerging—or even that NATO itself might be extending to Asia, bolstered by opposition to the war.
China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, spent an hour and a half complaining about such an eventuality during his session in the National People’s Congress earlier this month.
He and the Chinese government are worried that such a security structure “would apply to Taiwan,” said Bachman.
“So Taiwan in important ways is the beneficiary of this war and it may be one of the only ones,” said Bachman.
Meanwhile, support for Taiwan in the U.S. is higher than it’s been in 40 years, when the U.S. broke off relations with the island’s government for China. At the same time, Congress is showing increased support for Taiwan, including banning maps that include Taiwan as part of China, a highly sensitive issue to Beijing.
Both the quality and quantity of weapons sold to Taiwan will likely increase, said Bachman, as well as more overt training between Taiwan’s military forces and U.S. forces or those of other allied countries.
Earlier this month, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo visited Taiwan, calling for the U.S. government to formally recognize Taiwan as a country, a move that if actually adopted could be considered as a pretext for war on the part of China.
“The degree to which the U.S. is going to increase its support for Taiwan is going to be quite shocking, I think, to the P.R.C.,” said Bachman.
As for news reports that a number of Chinese imagine their country will emerge the sole victor from the war, Bachman called it “wishful thinking” as a result of lack of information, a by-product of the government’s tight control over the internet, media, and education.
Such thinking discounts many of the realities of the changing geopolitical order, as well as “the possibility that China will be subject to secondary or even primary sanctions” if it aids Russia in its invasion.
Such sanctions could include technology and the same financial measures taken against Russia, said Bachman.
But he cautioned China’s response would be punishing for the U.S., including cutting off pharmaceuticals, personal protective equipment, and electronics such as iPhones and iPads.
Nelson Dong, an attorney specializing in export controls, economic sanctions, national security and international trade and investment who moderated the panel, said, “The U.S. does have quite a bit of leverage, but it would come at a very, very high cost.”
Mahlon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.