Putin’s military is experiencing humiliation in Ukraine. But Taiwan cannot breathe easy. Because Beijing is strong where Moscow is weak, and the war over the island nation would look different than invading Ukraine.
Will he or won’t he? It is unclear whether Xi Jinping really wants to annex Taiwan or whether Beijing is content with the status quo after all. The regular gestures of intimidation are intended to discourage Taiwan from gaining too much independence. From Beijing’s point of view, the island state is nothing more than a breakaway province. But even just to intimidate Taiwan, Beijing needs a credible military option. Western experts estimate that the military debacle that Xi Jinping’s buddy Putin is experiencing in Ukraine will also dampen China’s ambitions. On the one hand, that’s right.
Ukraine shows impressively that an inferior but modernly equipped, trained and motivated army is not that easy to defeat. And even small devices such as man-portable anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles can stop highly armed troops.
On the other hand, the scenarios “Moscow vs. Kyiv” and “Beijing vs. Taipei” cannot be compared. And it is to be feared that the Chinese military will study the mistakes of the Russian army and learn from them. Having said that, China’s military is currently unable to conquer Taiwan if the US were to defend the island.
Putin’s old-school tank army
Putin used outdated and poorly maintained tanks and guns for his invasion. There were plenty of them, but there is a lack of anything that even remotely has to do with modern electronics. Even fighter planes don’t even have an integrated navigation system. Pilots have to find civilian outdoor navigation systems through crowdfunding and improvise them in the cockpit. Chats show infantrymen getting drones with night vision capabilities in the same way. There is also a lack of communications equipment to rival the Starlink system used by the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
The Chinese People’s Army will certainly not have this “technical” deficit. It is only worth remembering that China is by far the largest producer of civilian drones and produces a wide range of military drones. China’s massive production capacity for electronics of all kinds raises concerns that Beijing can arm its troops with many more deadly tech gimmicks than any other country in the world. There is also a cost advantage: in many areas, China’s armament knows no boundaries between civilian and military production. The army uses the civilian production lines to procure equipment cheaply. Beijing’s planners are unfamiliar with the Western way of handcrafting military equipment in small numbers. It can be assumed that Beijing generally has to spend far less money than Western countries for the same armaments. So should China go to war, there should be no shortage of anything that can be associated with AI, smart or autonomous.
If Taiwan were to be invaded, the build-up of troops would in any case be fundamentally different from the force that Russia assembled to invade Ukraine. As a reminder, Moscow deployed troops along the Ukrainian border for almost six months before the invasion. These were essentially armored and mechanized units. Since Taiwan is an island, such an approach is unthinkable. All invasion troops and their materiel must be brought in by sea. Likewise the replenishment. Despite the upgrade of the Chinese Navy, that would be an extremely challenging task. Especially when the fighting drags on and more and more troops have to be supplied by sea. It’s not impossible. After the Normandy landings, the Western Allied troops were also supplied by sea. The last leg only went across the English Channel, but most of the goods from the USA had to be brought across the Atlantic beforehand.
Landing on an island
The Taiwan Strait is about 180 kilometers wide. Before an invasion can take place, Beijing would have to completely eliminate its air force and long-range weapons on the island. A task that Putin’s military has so far failed to do. And which in the future every invasion force will probably have to crack. How so?
The Ukrainian strategy was not to immediately throw these valuable weapons into a hopeless fight, but first to protect them from the attack and hide them. When helicopters and missiles are hidden in halls and tunnels, they give no target. The enemy may think they control the airspace, only to be in for a nasty surprise the next day. This hide and seek game is difficult to counter.
Taiwan is also a high-tech country. The armed forces will have no problem hiding weapons and soldiers around the country, but will network the scattered units in a way that enables them to take joint action. With such a defense, an attacker will never be able to disable all ranged weapons before beginning the actual invasion. China’s fleet would therefore have to reckon with serious losses.
Mangel an Infantrymen
Beijing, on the other hand, can easily avoid another problem facing Putin’s army. Russia’s troops have high firepower and a lot of heavy equipment. Forced into infantry combat in urban terrain by the Ukraine, it quickly became apparent that the Russians lacked infantrymen. A problem that Moscow finds difficult to solve as long as a general mobilization is to be avoided.
Due to the size of the population alone, Beijing should be able to provide enough soldiers in the event of an invasion. But these must also be brought to Taiwan.
Lessons from Ukraine
The idea of occupying a country with parachutists in a surprise attack is unrealistic. Beijing will certainly have noticed that the training of the teams and their leaders is of central importance. Russia has demonstrated that there is a training deficit with conscripts and contract soldiers with only a few years of service. China is also likely to share the “rust problem” with Russia. The army and navy use a lot of old equipment. In Ukraine it was shown that these oldies fail en masse with poor maintenance. Beijing’s officers have to reassess the value of the old device.
A war at sea
Ultimately, it is unlikely at all that the military decision will be brought about by a risky ground invasion. The surrounding sea forms a protective wall for Taiwan, but it also makes the island vulnerable. Should Beijing block the airspace and sea area around Taiwan, the island would be completely cut off. Clever local defense by Ukrainian troops would not be an answer to this threat unless a Beijing soldier showed up on Taiwan’s beaches. This blockade would strangle the island, while at the same time Beijing could use long-range weapons to destroy the military infrastructure bit by bit. Russia is trying to do the same in Ukraine, but the ability to produce China’s cruise missiles and missiles is likely to be much higher than Russia’s. The worst-case version: Taiwan would be completely cut off from the world, with no civilian ship or plane putting itself in danger. Beijing’s jets and drones would be circling in the airspace over the island in search of victims.
With such a maneuver, Beijing would switch roles: Taiwan could not wait for the attack, but would have to actively seek the decision and destroy the blocking power. On your own, that would be hopeless.
With Beijing’s strategy like this, help could only come from outside. Ultimately, it would come down to whether the US would be willing to come to the aid of Taipei with its fleet and long-range aircraft. The decision would be made on the high seas. Then submarines, aircraft carriers, missile destroyers and jets count – the tanks and howitzers would be secondary. Such a scenario would have nothing in common with the war in Ukraine. It will become a threat for Taiwan if China’s navy becomes strong enough to confront the US Navy in a non-coastal area on the high seas.
The US Navy is still clearly superior when Washington deploys its entire sea power. But the United States does not hold all the trump cards. The United States has no base on Taiwan. Attempting to build one would probably lead to war. Other bases in the region such as Okinawa or even Guam are far away, and it is at least uncertain whether neighboring countries such as the Philippines will allow themselves to be drawn into an open war with China.
Beijing’s navy would currently not be strong enough against a determined USA. But what if there is a president in the White House who doesn’t want to take such a risk because of Taiwan. Focused on Ukraine: If Joe Biden had been willing to defend Ukraine by any means, Putin’s forces would have been defeated there long ago.