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Russian invasion hints at China’s future strategies

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We all sometimes fantasize about how we would spend the money if we won the lottery, but we may not realize how much those fantasies reveal. Ultimately, there is surprising information contained in these musings. Pattern Break Analysis, a method I explore in my bookA sense of the enemy, is the study of how dramatic and unexpected events expose underlying factors. If you won the $100 million jackpot, would you quit your job immediately or just carry on as usual but with a few more vacations? It is our behavior around these breakthrough moments that can reveal what truly motivates us. If we know how it works, we can learn something about ourselves. And if we apply these tools to strategic adversaries, we can also learn how they act.

In my study of how historical figures tried to understand their enemies, I found that the most successful, like Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi or German chancellor Gustav Stresemann, had a method. They focused on an enemy’s behavior around game-changing moments to find clues to that enemy’s key drivers. The current crisis in Ukraine is such a moment. This offers us an important lesson not about how Russian President Vladimir Putin thinks, but about how Chinese leaders act.

If Beijing begins to take further dramatic and intensified steps to protect itself from possible Western sanctions, it could be a significant hint that it is serious about a possible future annexation of Taiwan. Or it could portend another aggressive move that would trigger harsh Western sanctions. In fact, Beijing is already stepping up its economic inoculation efforts.

We all sometimes fantasize about how we would spend the money if we won the lottery, but we may not realize how much those fantasies reveal. Ultimately, there is surprising information contained in these musings. Pattern Break Analysis, a method I explore in my bookA sense of the enemy, is the study of how dramatic and unexpected events expose underlying factors. If you won the $100 million jackpot, would you quit your job immediately or just carry on as usual but with a few more vacations? It is our behavior around these breakthrough moments that can reveal what truly motivates us. If we know how it works, we can learn something about ourselves. And if we apply these tools to strategic adversaries, we can also learn how they act.

In my study of how historical figures tried to understand their enemies, I found that the most successful, like Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi or German chancellor Gustav Stresemann, had a method. They focused on an enemy’s behavior around game-changing moments to find clues to that enemy’s key drivers. The current crisis in Ukraine is such a moment. This offers us an important lesson not about how Russian President Vladimir Putin thinks, but about how Chinese leaders act.

If Beijing begins to take further dramatic and intensified steps to protect itself from possible Western sanctions, it could be a significant hint that it is serious about a possible future annexation of Taiwan. Or it could portend another aggressive move that would trigger harsh Western sanctions. In fact, Beijing is already stepping up its economic inoculation efforts.

Beijing’s economic protection measures cover areas from global currency exchange to international supply chain controls. As Zongyuan Zoe Liu showed, China has hardened its shell by ensuring that its main oil suppliers, such as Russia, Iran and Venezuela, accept the Chinese yuan as a means of payment, thus freeing itself dependence on the dollar. In 2019, China held stakes in 101 ports around the world, including 16 in Europe, giving it the potential to disrupt the flow of goods to the United States in the event of a clash. Liu details several ways that Beijing has been pursuing for years, but she interprets them as largely defensive. US analysts must ask whether these measures are purely defensive or are they being taken in view of Beijing’s own aggressive actions? One way to approach the problem is to ask what other states would do. The other biggest economies in the world, Japan, Germany, Britain, France or Italy, are not getting tougher in this way, probably because they have no intention of acting. so as to trigger massive sanctions against them.

In strategic thinking, breakthrough moments are when normal routines are turned upside down and standard operating procedures are completely overturned. It can be any dramatic event, from a nuclear disaster to a massacre, a sudden spike in violence or even a peaceful revolution. Basically, these are events exogenous to the enemy in question, incidents that the adversary did not create himself. So Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would not be a watershed moment for her or Putin, but it certainly was for the rest of the world.

The unprecedented economic sanctions that accompanied Putin’s war are a particularly strong example. A distant war in Europe might not directly affect Beijing, but the financial repercussions undeniably do. The scope and scale are unprecedented. The United States has already frozen Iran’s foreign exchange reserves, but the seizure of Russian assets has occurred at much larger levels and in capitals across Europe and beyond. Even more striking was the voluntary withdrawal of hundreds of private companies from Russia. No government agency has ordered these companies to withdraw. They opted out, losing billions of dollars in the process. More than any other aspect of the sanctions, this element of voluntary sacrifice by corporate bodies will have captured Beijing’s attention.

Chinese leaders may have been equally surprised by the unified response from democratic nations. The many divisions between NATO and EU allies have often made concerted action difficult. But the Russian invasion proved so unacceptable to the Europeans that they reacted with uncommon singularity. Even historically neutral Switzerland has joined anti-Russian sanctions and declared itself opposed to Putin’s war. And beyond Europe, Singapore, which rarely takes sides, has unequivocally taken the side of the West, with its foreign minister call Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a clear and flagrant violation of international norms. Solidarity between the most advanced economies against aggression is one more marker of this moment of rupture.

Chinese leaders have found that their erection of genocidal labor camps in Xinjiang has drawn strong sanctions from the United States, and China’s brutal crackdown on protests in Hong Kong has also led to a harsh Western response. But those reactions were costs that Beijing seemed willing to bear. Until Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Beijing could have convinced itself that an invasion and annexation of Taiwan could be achieved at a high, albeit acceptable, price. This calculation must now be rethought.

Seeing how vulnerable Moscow has been to both the freezing of its foreign exchange reserves at Western central banks and the withdrawal of companies, Beijing now knows that it too could be similarly targeted. And while its currency is not in jeopardy, fear of global economic isolation could accelerate long-running trends.

Significant pattern breaking moments are relatively rare. When they arrive, we must take note of them. We must remember that the key is not to seek behavior change. Instead, it’s about scrutinizing the behavior, whatever it is, around those precious moments. Because even if someone’s behavior remains the same, that in itself gives important insight into what they might do next.

The views expressed are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the Naval Postgraduate School, the United States Department of Defense, or the United States Government.

Sources

1/ https://Google.com/

2/ https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/07/01/ukraine-russia-war-china-taiwan/

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