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As Russia presses its attack on Ukraine, the US is watching China's moves around Taiwan 'like a hawk'

Christopher Woody   

As Russia presses its attack on Ukraine, the US is watching China's moves around Taiwan 'like a hawk'
  • Russia's attack on Ukraine continues to draw international attention and condemnation.
  • As Russia presses that attack, US officials in the Pacific have watched China closely, looking for signs it means to attack its neighbor Taiwan.

As the US rushes to aid Ukraine and reinforce its neighbors following Russia's attack, US officials have also been watching China closely, looking for signs that Beijing is capitalizing on turmoil in Europe to strike Taiwan.

Beijing regards democratic Taiwan as a breakaway province and has vowed to unify it with the mainland, by force if necessary. Chinese pressure on the island has increased in recent months, most visibly in its military flights into Taiwan's air-defense identification zone, a self-declared area that is not territorial airspace.

In early February, as the Winter Olympics began in Beijing, Taiwan reported that a small civilian aircraft from mainland China flew around one of its islands, which Taipei suspected was a test of its defenses.

That activity declined during the Olympics but increased after it ended on February 20, according to Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, head of US Pacific Air Forces.

"That was all very predictable, that we expected their activity across the straits of Taiwan picked up right after the Olympics, but it essentially went back to historical norms," Wilsbach said told reporters at the Air Force Association symposium on March 3.

On February 24, the day Russia launched its Ukraine war, nine Chinese aircraft flew into Taiwan's ADIZ. Those flights have taken place nearly every day since then, though the number of aircraft each day has been lower.

Between February and March, China has been "pretty quiet," Wilsbach said, "but I'll tell you, I'm watching them like a hawk."

"I haven't seen anything so far, but that doesn't mean they haven't talked about it internally and it doesn't mean that they won't try something," Wilsbach added. Taiwan also hasn't seen any "unusual" military deployments by China, the island's defense minister said this week.

Watching carefully

China's official response to Russia's invasion has been cautious, avoiding criticism of Moscow but not endorsing its actions. Chinese officials also avoid comparisons of Ukraine and Taiwan, which imply a view of Taiwan as sovereign and with a right to territorial integrity, according to Yun Sen, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at the Stimson Center.

Inside and outside of China, however, some of have seized on events in Ukraine to bolster their arguments regarding Taiwan.

Chinese nationalists, Taiwanese advocates of greater investment in self-defense, and proponents of an explicit US security commitment to Taiwan have argued that the US declining to send troops to Ukraine "has set a damaging precedent" for whether the US would defend non-allies, Patricia Kim, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, said this week.

US officials and other experts stress that events in Ukraine don't presage a Chinese attack on Taiwan, citing their distinct geography, the different attitudes toward such action by leaders in Moscow and Beijing, and the differing commitments expressed by the US, where the Biden administration has ruled out sending troops to Ukraine but repeatedly indicated it would respond directly to an attack on Taiwan.

Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told lawmakers this week that "Taiwan and Ukraine are two different things completely."

During a House Intelligence Committee hearing, Berrier said the US's "deterrence posture in the Pacific puts a very different perspective on all of this" and that Chinese leadership "is watching very, very carefully what happens and how this plays out."

At the same hearing, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and CIA director Bill Burns both said the response to Russia's attack on Ukraine had surprised Beijing and reinforced its perceptions of what Haines described as "the seriousness with which" the US would respond to "an infringement on Taiwan."

Oriana Skylar Mastro, an expert on China's military and foreign policy at Stanford University and the American Enterprise Institute, wrote this month that while Chinese leader Xi Jinping is watching events in Ukraine, "his calculus for whether to use force against Taiwan is shaped primarily by domestic factors, not foreign ones."

Xi's "views about US power and resolve and about the likely international response to an invasion of Taiwan probably remain unchanged," Mastro wrote. "If anything, China's desire not to invite comparisons with Russia at a time when the world is united against Moscow will lengthen its timeline for taking control of Taiwan, not shorten it."

'Wars are hard'

In hearings this week, Adm. John Aquilino, the head of US Indo-Pacific Command, said his command was "still trying to learn what President Xi Jinping has learned from" events in Ukraine but described Russia's attack on Ukraine as "a real wake-up."

"We have to look at this and say, 'Hey, this could happen,' and I have a sense of urgency to execute the missions the secretary [of defense] has assigned, which is to prevent this conflict," Aquilino said, citing "posture initiatives" that are pursuing a "more forward" and "more robust" position in the region.

The concentration of power and exclusion of dissenting views that Xi and his inner circle have pursued in recent years may influence their assessments of recent events, creating "ideological blinders," said Jacob Stokes, a fellow focused on US-China relations at the Center for a New American Security.

Russia's military struggles in Ukraine should prompt caution in Beijing, Stokes said, as China's military hasn't fought a war since 1979.

"One takeaway should be for Beijing is that wars are hard and that even a country that that gets to start one at a time and place of its choosing doesn't ultimately get to control the outcome," Stokes said this week.

Chinese leaders have studied foreign wars closely, drawing lessons to apply as China's military expands and modernizes. Beijing's study of events around Ukraine will likely affect how it plans for military action against Taiwan and how it prepares for the backlash that would bring.

"The glass half-empty view," Kim said, is that recent events "will simply add more fuel to Beijing's efforts to de-risk its own supply chains, to reduce its reliance on foreign components, and its overall vulnerability to Western sanctions as it prepares for future contingencies and looks toward long-term strategic competition with the United States."


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