China’s top military minds have been paying close attention to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, watching the war’s every turn as Beijing continues to develop its armed forces.
Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, has vowed to take over Taiwan as part of his ambitious plan for “national rejuvenation” even if it means using military force – a move that could lead to a war with the United States, which has promised to defend the island nation from invasion.
While the Chinese military is the world’s largest, with more than two million soldiers serving in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), it remains largely untested – its last major war was a failed invasion of Vietnam in 1979 that lasted less than four weeks.
Under Mr Xi, however, the PLA has undergone dramatic modernisation, in recent years testing hypersonic missiles and conducting increasingly complex military drills in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, corners of the world that Beijing claims as its own territory.
So rapid is the pace of China’s military modernisation, in fact, that US military officials have warned that China could soon surpass the US in some areas, including even in naval power – an area where Washington has been unchallenged since the Second World War.
With the conflict in Ukraine laying bare the difficulty of conducting large-scale offensive operations, a Reuters review of almost 100 articles in more than 20 Chinese defence journals shows what Chinese academics, researchers and military thinkers have learned from the war.
Though it is unclear how seriously Beijing’s military and political elite are taking the observations published in these papers, they offer rare insight into thinking within China’s military-industrial complex and show how the war in Ukraine might shape an eventual Chinese attack on Taiwan.
Here are seven lessons China has learned from the Ukraine war.
Starlink, a network of satellites providing internet from orbit to users on the ground developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, has helped Ukraine’s forces to communicate securely while under attack from Russia.
Ukraine has also used the network for military purposes, including controlling drones.
Chinese researchers have pointed out that the US and Western nations may use the network in a similar way during possible future hostilities in Asia.
“Starlink is really something new for them [China] to worry about; the military application of advanced civilian technology that they can’t easily replicate,” said Collin Koh, a security fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
As such, China should find ways to shoot down or disable Starlink, according to a September article by researchers at the PLA’s Army Engineering University.
Chinese state media has also said that China, which for many years has prioritised becoming more self-reliant in advanced technology, will begin building its own constellation of low-earth orbit satellites to rival Starlink later this year.
Chinese military minds were less worried by one of the most effective weapons in Ukraine’s arsenal, however.
One article, published in October by two researchers at the PLA’s National Defence University, analysed the impact of the US-supplied Himars rocket artillery systems that helped turn the tide of the war last year and have inflicted heavy losses on Russian forces.
“If Himars dares to intervene in Taiwan in the future,” the researchers wrote, “what was once known as an ‘explosion-causing tool’ will suffer another fate in front of different opponents.”
The article highlighted the strengths of China’s own advanced rocket system and reconnaissance drones, noting that Ukraine’s success with Himars relies on its allies sharing targeting information via Starlink.
However, Chinese military officials will have noted how devastating precision artillery, such as from Himars, and other missile fire can be. With increased precision, the need for extensive and industry-heavy logistic supplies of ‘dumb’ – or unguided – munitions is minimised.
Ukraine’s Western allies have provided thousands of advanced shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, including the Javelin and N-Law weapons that have been responsible for destroying hundreds of Russian armoured vehicles.
China must therefore boost its ability to defend its tanks, armoured vehicles and warships, according to an article in a journal published by China’s State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence.
China will also have noted how, in the early weeks of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukrainian anti-tank teams became adept at attacking the logistic tail of Russian tank columns, prioritising the trucks supplying tanks fuel and ammunition.
Once these relatively lightly-armoured vehicles were destroyed, the Russian tanks ran out of fuel and could be picked off at will.
China must invest more in developing drones, which will play an important role in future wars, according to an article in a tank warfare journal published by Norinco, a giant Chinese state-owned defence company.
Russia has used relatively inexpensive Iranian-made drones to attack Ukrainian cities and infrastructure, while Ukraine’s forces have rigged commercial drones with explosives to wreak havoc on Russian positions.
China is already home to the world’s largest drone manufacturer, DJI.
The company insists it is not a military company and opposes the use of its drones for such purposes. It halted sales to both Russia and Ukraine in an effort to ensure its products couldn’t be used in combat, but DJI drones have been used in battle by both Ukraine and Russia.
The US Defence Department recently blacklisted DJI for having alleged links to the Chinese military.
Though they have been utilised to great effect by both sides in the conflict, the drawbacks of drones will not have gone unnoticed in Beijing.
Drones are affected by weather, terrain and distance between operator and air vehicle. The control signal must be sufficiently robust so as not to be degraded by electronic warfare systems and the air vehicles themselves should be able to manoeuvre in order to survive.
After a slow start, Ukraine’s air defence units have developed the ability to destroy most of the Iranian-made Shahed 136 drones fired by Russia.
Chinese observers see outdated tactics and the lack of a unified command structure as being behind many of Russia’s military failures in Ukraine.
China should therefore ensure its command and control is fail-safe.
China has, in recent years, reorganised its military to tackle this particular problem and ensure that there is a clear line of command and communication back to Beijing in the event of physical conflict.
Streamlined communication will be key in disseminating orders and making clear what troops ought to do next.
What is unknown about the Chinese military structures however, is how top-down the whole system is.
Russia does not allow low-level commanders on the ground – those who usually have the best idea of what’s happening in the heat of battle – to make decisions for themselves.
All actions have to be cleared by senior commanders, which often takes so long that the situation has changed by the time any new orders are received.
In contrast, Ukraine has modelled its military on the Western way of warfare, where tactical initiative is encouraged by those with the best awareness of the situation as long as the wider plan is achieved, regardless of how junior the individual is taking the vital decision.
Some of the articles reviewed by Reuters focused on the Ukrainian resistance, including partisan sabotage operations from inside Russia and the use of the Telegram messaging app to gather intelligence from civilians.
Like Russia, China relies on railways to move its troops and weapons, potentially making them vulnerable to attack by saboteurs.
Ukraine has turned asymmetric warfare to its advantage by finding ways to be more nimble, an example that Taiwanese forces would hope to emulate in the event of a Chinese invasion.
Much of the partisan activity seen in Ukraine is based on the practice and experience of the Special Operations Executive, set up by Britain in the Second World War to encourage action behind enemy lines.
Many of these lessons have stood the test of time and are employed as a way of allowing civilians to pass messages on troop numbers and locations into the military system.
China will be concerned such networks may already be starting to form in Taiwan in anticipation of an attack.
China should be ready to withstand a wave of disapproval similar to that faced by Russia when it was criticised and ostracised by the West following its invasion of Ukraine, researchers at the PLA Information Engineering University concluded in a February article.
Russia has also had to adapt to numerous waves of punishing economic sanctions imposed by the US and other countries.
China is likely carefully studying the unified response from the West, which could provide a blueprint to how the US, UK and other nations would react if it were to spark physical conflict.
To prepare for the global backlash that would follow an attack on Taiwan, China should “promote the construction of cognitive confrontation platforms” and closely censor information online, in order to prevent Western information campaigns from influencing its country of 1.4 billion people during a conflict.
News and information in China is already very tightly controlled, with anything that runs counter to government propaganda quickly scrubbed from the internet.