Thousands of miles from the cities that Russia is bombing in Ukraine, China has been studying the war.
In an indirect struggle between two superpowers on the other side of the world, Beijing sees a source of invaluable lessons on weapons, troop power, intelligence and deterrence that can help it prepare for potential wars of its own.
In particular, Chinese military analysts have scrutinized the fighting for innovations and tactics that could help in a possible clash over Taiwan, the island democracy that Beijing wants to absorb and the United States has at times pledged to defend.
The war is a “proving ground,” they say, that gives China a chance to learn from successes and failures on both sides. The New York Times examined nearly 100 Chinese research papers and media articles that deliver assessments of the war by Chinese military and weapons-sector analysts. Here is some of what they have covered:
With an eye on China’s development of hypersonic missiles, which can be highly maneuverable in flight, they have analyzed how Russia used these weapons to destroy an ammunition bunker, a fuel depot and other targets.
They have studied how Ukrainian troops used Starlink satellite links to coordinate attacks and circumvent Russian efforts to shut their communications, and warned that China must swiftly develop a similar low-orbit satellite system and devise ways to knock out rival ones.
They have argued that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia deterred Western powers from directly intervening in Ukraine by brandishing nuclear weapons, a view that could encourage expansion of China’s own nuclear weapons program.
Ukraine has offered “a new understanding of a future possible world war,” Maj. Gen. Meng Xiangqing, a professor at the National Defense University in Beijing, wrote in the Guangming Daily newspaper, in January. He also wrote: “Russia’s strategy of nuclear deterrence certainly played a role in ensuring that NATO under the United States’ leadership did not dare to directly enter the war.”
Pentagon officials have said that Russia’s troubled invasion serves as a stark warning to China against risking a war over Taiwan, which lies about 100 miles off its coast. Russian forces have been dogged by shortfalls of weapons and ammunition and failures in intelligence, resulting in stalled advances and the heavy loss of soldiers’ lives. Some Chinese analysts have been blunt in their views of how Russia has foundered.
“The shortcomings that have been exposed in the Russian military’s logistics and supplies should be a focus for us,” said an article in a magazine published by China’s agency for developing major military technology. It said that China had to prepare for similar challenges “when we consider future sea crossings, the seizure of islands,” and other hazard-filled operations — an implicit reference to taking Taiwan.
Ultimately, though, studying Russia’s mistakes may bolster the China’s conviction that it could prevail in a possible conflict, said foreign experts who study the People’s Liberation Army. China’s official military budget of $225 billion is nearly three times as big as Russia’s, and China’s vast manufacturing and technological capacity means it can produce plenty of advanced drones and other weapons that Russian forces have lacked.
“They’re going to try to roll those lessons into their training, officer education and doctrine, which is undergoing a revision right now,” said Joel Wuthnow, a senior research fellow at the National Defense University in Washington who has studied how the People’s Liberation Army may be learning from the war in Ukraine. “This was a wake-up call that things may look easy in field training and on paper, but when you meet the enemy, things get very messy very quickly.”
China has not fought a major war for 40 years, since Deng Xiaoping sent forces into neighboring Vietnam, and its military scholars study other countries’ conflicts with a particular diligence. The war in Ukraine is especially significant for China because it involves an indirect contest pitting Russia, a close partner of Beijing, against the United States and its allies supporting the Ukrainian forces.
China is “close to this war in a way that wasn’t true of the Iraq or even Afghanistan wars,” said Lyle J. Goldstein, an expert at Defense Priorities, a think tank in Washington, who has been studying Chinese assessments of the war in Ukraine. “They see themselves potentially in Russia’s shoes in more or less going to war against America.”
Some Chinese experts have said that Russia’s difficulties marshaling enough infantry troops suggest that China needs to keep its ground forces strong and large, even while it expands those of sea and air. Russia’s experience showed that “a great power must maintain ground forces of a reasonable scale, otherwise it will lose its advantage on the battlefield,” Wu Dahui, a former military researcher now at Tsinghua University in Beijing, wrote this year.
Russia’s failures in supplying its forces with swift, reliable intelligence about Ukrainian movements have also prompted Chinese analysts to urge People’s Liberation Army forces to learn how to better use drones, communications and satellites in battle
“Russia wasn’t able to scale up different operations, partly because of the lack of intelligence coordination and sharing,” said Bonny Lin, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “China may now try to engage in exercises that are a much larger scale of complexity.”
More broadly, Russia’s troubles in Ukraine appear to have hardened official Chinese views that Beijing, like Moscow, is the focus of a United States-led campaign of “hybrid warfare” that includes economic sanctions, technological bans, information campaigns and cyberattacks.
“The United States and West have seized on this conflict to engage in the total political negation, all-out diplomatic suppression and full cultural isolation of Russia,” Gao Yun, a researcher at China’s Academy of Military Sciences, one of the elite institutions that shapes war planning, wrote in the People’s Liberation Army’s main newspaper. “As well as fierce clashes of blood and fire on the battlefields, the combat in the realm of information and perceptions is equally intense.”
As Ukraine’s successes mounted, Chinese military analysts have focused on the equipment and intelligence that NATO countries have provided Ukraine to help fight Russian forces. China was most likely monitoring the thousands of Stinger, Javelin and other missiles that Ukraine has acquired, and weighing what would happen as Taiwan built up its stocks, said Mr. Goldstein, who also teaches at Brown University.
“I believe that the Chinese are watching all this very carefully and adding the numbers up and making a calculation,” he said.
Another fixation of Chinese military analysts has been Ukraine’s use of Starlink, the satellite service operated by SpaceX, with some suggesting that Beijing should establish a similar system of its own.
Starlink has helped Ukrainian forces maintain communications and direct attacks even where digital infrastructure has been wiped out. Chinese military analysts have blamed the inability of Russian forces to cut Starlink for its troubles on the battlefield. Starlink satellites are cheaper to launch and operate than traditional satellites. Inspired by Ukraine, Taiwan has also begun studying the technology.
“Faced with the threat of Starlink,” Chinese rocket and military researchers said in a study, “we must develop and build our own low-orbiting satellites.”
Chinese army engineering scientists, in a paper also cited in a recent Reuters report, suggested that the United States could use such technology in a conflict with China. “Not a moment can be spared in developing ‘soft kill’ and ‘hard kill’ measures against low-orbit satellite arrays,” the scientists wrote. In other words, ways to sabotage or destroy them.
Chinese military analysts appear to also be drawing lessons relevant to Beijing’s nuclear buildup. They have argued that Mr. Putin’s nuclear threats were effective in keeping President Biden and NATO from directly entering the war. In a potential invasion of Taiwan, Beijing would consider how it might deter Washington, which has pledged to help the island defend itself, and could directly intervene in a military conflict.
“From this it can be seen that nuclear forces are how a great power displays its stature,” two Chinese rocket researchers wrote in one article about Russian strategy.
China has denounced the use of nuclear weapons in the war and vows that it would never initiate an attack with nuclear weapons. Even so, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, indicated last year that China will keep expanding its nuclear arsenal, which now has over 400 warheads, still far fewer than the number held by Russia or the United States.
China’s nuclear arsenal could grow to about 1,000 warheads by 2030, according to the Pentagon. Mr. Putin’s menacing gestures may set an example for Chinese leaders, said Mr. Wuthnow of the National Defense University.
“My main worry is a miscalculation” over nuclear threats, Mr. Wuthnow said. “Xi could come to believe that the U.S. and its allies could be easily sidelined in a Taiwan conflict. But this would likely be an error in judgment.”
Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting.