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China looks to learn from Russia's shortcomings in Ukraine


Some military experts thought Russia would make greater gains when it invaded Ukraine more than seven weeks ago. NPR China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch says one group of observers in China is watching the battlefield shortcomings for lessons.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: The Chinese People's Liberation Army, or PLA, regularly drills with the Russian military, like in this exercise in China last summer, covered by state TV.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Artillery forces are practicing with their weaponry.


RUWITCH: Many of China's weapons today are Russian or based on Russian platforms, and there are strong institutional and cultural links. Despite a period of tension between Beijing and Moscow at the height of the Cold War, relations are now as good as they've ever been.

DAVID FINKELSTEIN: This is a military that they have put on a pedestal for many years.

RUWITCH: David Finkelstein is a retired U.S. Army officer and China specialist at the think tank CNA.

FINKELSTEIN: Not only did they learn from them in the 1940s, '50s and '60s; they were also a much feared enemy in the 1960s and '70s.

RUWITCH: The PLA has always looked up to and respected Russia's armed forces.

FINKELSTEIN: They do think that the Russian military is extremely strong, so they've got to be scratching their heads, saying, what is going on here?

RUWITCH: Analysts say the Russian military appears to have underestimated the enemy. Its logistics have been shambolic. Its troops were poorly prepared. And coordination has been lacking. Su Tzu-Yun with Taiwan's Institute for National Defense and Security Research thinks all this will give the PLA pause in one of its biggest missions and one that some say has parallels to Ukraine.

SU TZU-YUN: (Through interpreter) I think the PLA will have less confidence in its ability to invade Taiwan. After all, Russia is the No. 2 military power in the world, and they're experiencing this kind of military loss in a land war. If the PLA conducts an amphibious landing in Taiwan, the challenge will be even greater.

RUWITCH: Others say it's not so clear-cut. The PLA has modernized its force in recent decades, and in 2016, Chinese leader Xi Jinping launched sweeping organizational reforms that happened to take aim at some of the very problems Russia has faced, like joint operations coordinating air, land and sea forces. Oriana Skylar Mastro is an expert on China's military and security policy at Stanford University.

ORIANA SKYLAR MASTRO: What they're actually learning, we can't really assess that because we don't know how the PLA is going to perform, and they don't know.

RUWITCH: That's because China's last shooting war was in 1979, when it invaded Vietnam and was pushed back. So far, PLA-affiliated media have been quiet about how it's processing the Ukraine war, but there has been some writing offering hints.

MASTRO: They're not taking away from it - oh, the Russians have problems; we're going to have problems. They're taking away from it - wow, our reforms have really gotten us to the point where we would perform so much better than the Russians.

RUWITCH: Still, she says, the Ukraine war will help the PLA sharpen its edge. Lyle Goldstein agrees. He's a specialist on China's military at the think tank Defense Priorities. He says there's a lot to take stock of, from the performance of certain weapons to tactical decision-making and even how key battles unfolded. For instance, the PLA may want to take a close look at Russia's helicopter assault on the Kyiv airport at the start of the war, which reportedly didn't go so well.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: That would be very similar to what China would try to do in Taiwan.

RUWITCH: He suspects they'll also take a keen interest in Ukraine's coastal defense on the Black Sea.

GOLDSTEIN: One reason why Russia did not undertake a amphibious assault against Odesa seems to have been that the Ukrainians cleverly put in the water several hundred sea mines. So I think the Chinese will be thinking very hard - how do you deal with that?

RUWITCH: In Taiwan, meanwhile, the military will also be thinking very hard and learning its own lessons from the Ukraine war.

John Ruwitch, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.