More than a month has passed since Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine. Contrary to expectations, the Russian military massively underperformed against Ukrainian resistance. The invading forces lost momentum after the second week and at present are making few noteworthy territorial gains. On March 25, the Russian high command announced the goals of the conflict’s first phase were accomplished and the Russian military would focus on the Donbas region’s “liberation” – a scaled-down war objective from the initial “denazification” and “demilitarization” of Ukraine, or the overthrow of Ukraine’s government and destruction of the Ukrainian military.
The invasion stunned the world and its reverberations are still being felt. The Chinese leadership, closely following the situation, are surely drawing lessons from Russia’s misadventure. This article offers three speculations on what possible lessons China’s leaders have learned from the event, particularly in areas of elite politics, foreign policy, and military affairs.
Elite Politics: The Threat of Personalism
China’s governance depends on happenings at the elite level. Although official propaganda and nationalist influencers have been pumping out pro-Russian narratives to rail-up the population against the American bogeyman, the dozens of political elites who run China most probably have a more clear-eyed view of the situation. Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine showed how devastating personalism can be when collective leadership is replaced by a system revolving around one man who faces no checks and balances. To avoid his wrath, Putin’s subordinates supplied false information that reinforced his misperceptions, thus perpetuating the vicious cycle that eventually led to military aggression.
Facing Xi Jinping’s attempt to personalize Chinese politics over the past decade, the Ukraine debacle likely reinvigorated elite factions in China that oppose personalism. An indication of resistance against Xi’s centralization of power manifested itself during a March 28 Politburo meeting when Ying Yong, a confidant of Xi who took up the mantle of Hubei provincial party secretary at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, was removed from the post and sent into early retirement. This came as a surprise to many, as Ying was expected to take on higher roles in the political and legal affairs system that oversees China’s vast network of order and secret police.
Ahead of the 20th Party Congress that will take place later this year, the disastrous results of Putinism in Russia will give Xi’s opponents additional incentives and justifications to counter similar moves toward personalism in China. While Xi’s power consolidation is unlikely to be derailed and he will remain China’s paramount leader, the new Politburo and its Standing Committee will continue to reflect factional diversity rather than domination by Xi loyalists.
Foreign Policy: Caution Over Combativeness
The war in Ukraine has ramifications for how China interacts with the world as well. Amid the war, China has chosen to play both ends against the middle. In other words, let the West and Russia weaken each other while China leverages its position to reap the most benefits, which is to significantly elevate its standing in the Sino-Russian partnership and to seal deals with the West in exchange for not providing concrete support for the Russian war effort.
Recent statements by Chinese diplomats show China is putting on different performances depending on its audience, while continuing a balancing act. When meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi played up the rhetoric of China and Russia’s “no limit” friendship. However, when speaking to Americans, the Chinese envoy to Washington D.C., Qin Gang, underlined there is a “bottom line” to Sino-Russian ties, the “purposes and principles of the U.N. Charter, the international law, and basic norms governing international relations,” thereby distancing China from Russian actions.
In the end, China will pursue its interests rather than jumping on the bandwagon of any camp. That means diplomacy going forward would require a lot more careful handling, as irrational moves come with high costs for Beijing. The war’s lesson for Chinese foreign policy is to choose caution over combativeness. The rising “wolf warrior” faction within the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, personified by the ministry’s caustic spokesperson Zhao Lijian, will likely lose influence during the war and old guards who favor traditional diplomatic practices will gain strength due to the sensitivity of this period.
At the end of the day, diplomacy is the art of calculation, deliberation, and deal making. China must navigate a complicated situation to maximize its national interest during trying times. Therefore, Chinese foreign policy for the rest of the war will veer on the side of caution.
Military Lessons: A Fresh Self-Assessment?
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which has been learning from other nations’ wars since its last war in 1979, must have been be shocked by the incompetence of the Russian military. What seemed like a powerful war machine suffered a systematic breakdown, including desertion, mutiny, self-harm by officers and soldiers, a shocking number of Russian generals killed in action, collapse of its C4ISR network, etc. This showed the Russian military has been rotting for years and was far from war-ready.
While such failures can be blamed on leadership, strategy, logistics, or morale, at the end it all became a testament to the half-baked Russian military reform process. That will make the PLA high command take a second look at its own reforms. Although the PLA reforms went further than the Russian project, how the PLA would actually perform in a war remains a mystery. PLA war games are insufficient to test the military’s genuine capability because they remain scripted. While its primary mission is defending the party-state, the PLA must be ready for a conflict that could threaten regime legitimacy, such as a Taiwan Strait contingency.
Consequently, if Xi and the PLA HQ learned the right lessons from the war in Ukraine, we will see the elevation of more professional officers – rather than Xi’s political allies – to the PLA high command at the next Party Congress. Also, there should be a reassessment of the PLA reform and redesigning modernization programs to avoid the mistakes of Russian military reformers. Given that corruption has destroyed the Russian military from within, the PLA anti-corruption campaign could potentially intensify to take down more corrupt individuals that sap military effectiveness.
The war in Ukraine is shaping up to be a conflict with wide-ranging ramifications for the international community. Participants and observers of the conflict are all drawing lessons as the war evolves. China, a great power with global influence, is taking note and rethinking its strategy. As outlined above, the war has important lessons for Chinese elite politics, foreign policy, and military affairs.
The fast-approaching 20th Party Congress will shape Chinese politics for the next five years or more. Lessons from the war in Ukraine could have lasting effects for how Chinese leadership think and act in the meantime.