Jul 21, 2022 - World

CIA chief: Putin's war on Ukraine forcing China Taiwan invasion rethink

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose during their meeting in Beijing, on February 4, 2022.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping during their February meeting in Beijing. Photo: Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

The Russian military's months-long war on Ukraine is influencing the Chinese government's considerations on "how and when" to invade Taiwan, CIA Director Bill Burns said Wednesday.

What he's saying: "I wouldn't underestimate President Xi's determination to assert China's control" over the self-governing island, Burns said at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. "He's determined to ensure his military has the capability to undertake such an action should he decide to move in that direction." 

Yes, but: Burns doesn't expect that an invasion is imminent. "The risks of that become higher, it seems to us, the further into this decade that you get," Burns said.

Driving the news: Burns said Russian President Vladimir Putin's "strategic failure" in Ukraine will have "unsettled" Beijing, with Russia's military experiencing significant losses.

  • "I think the Chinese leadership is trying to study the lessons of Russia's invasion of Ukraine," he said in the interview with NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell in Aspen.
  • "It probably affects less the question of whether the Chinese leadership might choose some years down the road to use force to control Taiwan, but how and when they would do it," Burns said.

The bottom line: "I suspect the lesson that the Chinese leadership and military are drawing is that you've got to amass overwhelming force if you're going to contemplate that in the future," Burns said.

  • "If there's one lesson I think they may be drawing from Putin's experience in Ukraine, it's you don't achieve quick, decisive victories with underwhelming force," he added.

The big picture: Taiwan separated from China in 1949 amid the Chinese Civil War and Beijing regards the democratically run island as a breakaway province.

  • Taipei has sought to reform its military as Beijing's threat of unification by force grows more tangible, Axios China reporter Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian notes.
  • The Biden administration has been pushing leaders in Taipei to buy defensive weapons from the U.S. and discouraging further sales of tanks and anti-submarine helicopters, which American officials believe would do little to counter a full-scale attack, per Allen-Ebrahimian.

The other side: Qin Gang, China's ambassador to the U.S., said at the Aspen event earlier on Wednesday that the ruling Chinese Communist Party's preferred option was "peaceful reunification."

  • Qin accused the U.S. of "hollowing out and blurring" its years-long policy of acknowledging that Beijing considers Taiwan as part of "one China," but opposes any attempts to change the island's self-governing, democratic status by force.

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