4 lessons China should take from Ukraine: Pentagon policy chief


Chinese military officers celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON: When discussing the world’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, US officials have been up front that they are aware China is watching, and they’re hopeful that the strong signal of support for Kyiv will dissuade Beijing from plans to invade Taiwan.

Today Colin Kahl, the undersecretary for defense for policy, underlined that idea, saying, “Potential adversaries and aggressors everywhere else in the world are looking at the global response in Ukraine.

“If I’m sitting in Beijing, I think the fundamental question to draw is, you know, 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 they did in the case of Ukraine,” Kahl said at an event hosted by the Center for a New American Security. “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.

“So I hope that that’s soaking in, in Beijing and elsewhere,” he said.

During the event, moderator Richard Fontaine asked Kahl for his assessment of what lessons Beijing may be taking away from the last four months of conflict in Europe. While stressing that “we don’t have perfect visibility, obviously, into how PRC and PLA leadership are talking about this,” Kahl did offer up four items Chinese leaders may be keeping mind.

First, “I suspect they are surprised at the quality of US and Western intelligence, relative to their own intelligence capabilities,” Kahl said, noting that the indications are the Chinese did not believe Russia actually planned to invade Ukraine. “That was an intelligence failure for the PRC. And so I think they’ll have to work through what the implications of that are.”

Second, and relatedly, “I suspect they are surprised by the degree to which the United States and other Western democracies were effective in the information domain” by pushing out warnings about Russia’s intentions. PRC leadership is “very focused on kind of winning the propaganda contest and shaping the information environment, and I suspect they believe they’re much better at it than then Western democracies are.” The fact the US was able to declassify information, make it public on a global scale, and then have it be verified by facts on the ground runs counter to that internal narrative of information superiority, and “is something they likely took note of.”

Third, Kahl said he expects China’s military to be studying intently lessons of how a superior military can be stymied in an offensive operation. “The Russians on paper looked like the second-best military in the world the day that they invaded Ukraine,” he said. “And yet, you know, the logistical difficulties, the difficulties with morale, the difficulties with training, the difficulties with planning, the difficulties with doctrine, and the tenacity and creativity of the Ukrainians to leverage advanced asymmetric capabilities” all worked to counter that.

“I think one lesson of that is you can spend hundreds of millions of dollars on military modernization,” he continued. “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.”

Finally, Kahl said China was “likely surprised” by how the advanced economies around the world, not just in Europe, responded with sanctions and export controls at a high level including “measures that create some damage to our own economies.” He highlighted how nations in the Indo-Pacific agreed to sanctions efforts because of Ukraine as sending a signal of democracy versus autocracy.

Elsewhere in his comments, Kahl said that the China and Russia threats “will merge” more closely in the future, as Russia, with few places to turn to in the world, continues to align with China. As to the outcome in Ukraine, Kahl said that “Our sense is [Putin] has not changed his overall objective” to capture all of Ukraine, but added that “I do not think the Russians have the capacity to achieve those grandiose” goals.

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