Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 28 November 2023



Xi should learn from Ukraine’s battlefields

The Times

Taiwan’s election in the coming weeks is said, by the opposition at least, to be a choice between war and peace. The logic is simple: the opposition parties favour a closer working relationship with mainland China and will therefore be wary of provoking Xi Jinping.

By contrast the favourite from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, Lai Ching-te, champions Taiwan’s distinctive identity, its claims to nationhood and close ties to the United States. If he wins, Taiwan will be a thorn in Xi’s side.

Lai could be beaten, even without the anticipated covert Chinese interference, if the two opposition parties could only agree on a joint candidate for president. Last week, at an embarrassingly mismanaged press conference in Taipei, they failed to do that.

Why does this local spat matter to the rest of the world? It’s this: Xi’s hopes of a peaceful takeover of Taiwan will shrink if Lai becomes president. And Beijing applying military force becomes more feasible.


The election on January 13 could become the first big geopolitical crisis of 2024, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza notwithstanding. The San Francisco summit between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping may have briefly improved the tone of the conversation between the US and China but, apart from the restoration of a military hotline, there has been no substantial progress on making Taiwan less of a flashpoint.

Is war creeping closer to Taiwan? Is China, as some US analysts believe, going to build up its forces and be ready for an invasion in 2027? Or is it prepared to go earlier, calculating that the US is already overstretched and distracted?

The decision has not been taken, it seems, and Xi will certainly watch carefully to see if a victorious President Lai turns into an openly defiant leader. But the fine-tuning of Xi’s big decision — open war, covert war or a prickly status quo — is changing almost daily. It is influenced by his intelligence analysts’ assessment of US intentions.

Is Biden able or willing, Xi will need to know, to fight a three-front war? The US has fought such wars before but its defence industry has always been able to outproduce its opponents. Now the talk around Ukraine is of American and western ammunition shortages; the defence of Taiwan would burn up huge amounts of bullets, shells and fighter aircraft. Resupply would be a problem for the west.

America, in other words — under this president, or the next — might think twice about mounting a large-scale challenge to a Chinese invasion. China’s navy is already bigger, in overall numbers, than the US fleet. It is growing by the equivalent of the size of the French navy every four years.

There are other considerations. The San Francisco summit revealed that any attempt by the US and its allies to deploy sanctions against China anywhere near the size and potency of those being applied against Russia would lead to a massive disruption of the global economy. China is a major holder of US debt, a power that can be weaponised. And despite the tough talk, the dollar value of American trade with China rose to a record high in 2022.

American engine-makers operate dozens of factories in China, soy bean farmers in the upper Midwest sell billions of dollars of beans to China to feed their pigs. You can take effective punitive action against Russia for its invasion but sanctions against China for a Taiwan invasion could turn out to be an act of self-harm for the US and not just in an election year.

All this could tip Xi in favour of early military action against Taiwan. What he calls the “reunification” with Taiwan is central to his promise of a national rebirth; he seems to see it as an essential completion of his legacy. But what if he loses the war, the first significant Chinese war since the 1970s?


The Russian campaign in Ukraine should be flashing warning signs. Russia, according to intelligence estimates, has lost more than 300,000 troops; the past six weeks have been particularly bloody. Even with China’s huge population, those kind of losses would be enough, in a country whose attitudes were shaped by a one-child policy, to trigger dissent.

Covid lockdown kicked off popular protests; mass deployment of the country’s young men could have a similar impact. Russia’s war has shrunk its global influence, exposed weaknesses in the military and prompted a mutiny by mercenaries. Not encouraging signs for a political friend wondering whether he should sharpen his sabre.

There have been plenty of criticisms of the Biden administration and most of his European allies for withholding potentially war-winning weaponry from the Ukrainians. But there is another strategic lesson from American behaviour which Xi should take on board. It’s that the US is still ready to support long wars, that it has the strategic patience, and can even claim this to be a kind of victory over aggressor states and their increasingly exhausted leaders.

Ukraine may not have won its land back but it has trapped Vladimir Putin in an unwinnable war; he can only move backwards. The Chinese military calculation on Taiwan is almost certainly based on an economic blockade followed by cyber-blackout, a long-range bombardment and an amphibious attack. That would have to be carried out unfeasibly quickly before the US became involved and transformed the terms of battle.

The Russians have shown how not to run a blitzkrieg. Now Xi should draw the conclusions, confine his troops to barracks and concentrate on making his people as happy and as free as they are in Taiwan. A great many mothers will thank him for it.

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