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China looks to learn from Russian failures in Ukraine

With its ground troops forced to pull back in Ukraine and regroup, and its Black Sea flagship sunk, Russia's military failings are mounting. No country is paying closer attention than China to how a smaller and outgunned force has badly bloodied what was thought to be one of the world's most powerful armies.

China, like Russia, has been ambitiously reforming its Soviet-style military and experts say leader Xi Jinping will be carefully parsing the weaknesses exposed by the invasion of Ukraine as they might apply to his own People’s Liberation Army and his designs on the self-governed island of Taiwan.

“The big question Xi and the PLA leadership must be asking in light of Russian operations in Ukraine is whether a military that has undergone extensive reform and modernization will be able to execute operations that are far more complex than those Russia has undertaken during its invasion of Ukraine,” said M. Taylor Fravel, director of the security studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Russia's armed forces have undergone an extensive process of reform and investment for more than a decade, with lessons learned in combat in Georgia, Chechnya, Syria and its annexation of Crimea helping guide the process. The Ukrainian invasion, however, has exposed weaknesses from the top down.

Experts have been collectively stunned that Russia invaded Ukraine with seemingly little preparation and lack of focus — a campaign along multiple, poorly-coordinated axes that has failed to effectively combine air and land operations.

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Soldiers have been running out of food, and vehicles have been breaking down. With losses mounting, Moscow has pulled its bloodied forces away from the capital, Kyiv, to regroup. Last week, the guided-missile cruiser Moskva sank after Ukraine said it hit the ship with missiles; Russia blamed the sinking on a fire on board.

“It's very hard to see success at any level in the way that Russia has prosecuted the campaign,” said Euan Graham, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies based in Singapore.

President Vladimir Putin, who has been closely involved in Russia's military reform, did not even appoint an overall commander for the operation until about a week ago, apparently expecting a quick victory and grossly misjudging Ukrainian resistance, Graham said.

“It's a very personal war on his part,” Graham said. “And I think the expectation that this would be a cakewalk is obviously the biggest single failure.”

Putin's decisions raise the question of whether he was given accurate assessments of the progress of military reform and Ukrainian abilities, or was just told what he wanted to hear.

Xi, also an authoritarian leader who has taken a personal role in China’s military reform, could now be wondering the same, Fravel said.

“Xi specifically may also wonder whether he is receiving accurate reports about the PLA’s likely effectiveness in a high intensity conflict,” he said.

China has had no recent major conflict by which to gauge its military prowess, having fought its last significant engagement in 1979 against Vietnam, said David Chen, a senior consultant with CENTRA Technology, a U.S.-based government services firm.

“The wakeup call for (China’s) Central Military Commission is that there are more unknown factors involved in any such campaign than they may have anticipated,” Chen said.

“Russia’s experience in Ukraine has shown that what may seem plausible on paper at the Academy of Military Science or National Defense University becomes much more complicated in the real world.”

Xi, the son of a revolutionary commander who spent time in uniform himself, began undertaking military reforms in 2015, three years after assuming leadership of the Central Military Commission.

Total troop strength was reduced by 300,000 to just under 2 million, the number of officers cut by a third and a greater emphasis given to non-commissioned officers to lead in the field.

China’s military has a tradition of respect for initiative from lower-ranking soldiers dating from its revolutionary origins, said Yue Gang, a Beijing-based military analyst. By contrast, Russian forces in Ukraine have shown weaknesses where decisions have had to be made on the front lines, he said.

“Chinese soldiers are encouraged to put forward their thoughts and views when discussing how to fight,” Yue said.

China's seven military districts have been reorganized into five theater commands, the number of group armies reduced and the logistics system reorganized to boost efficiency. The ratio of support to combat units was increased and a greater emphasis placed on more mobile and amphibious units.

Xi has also sought to end rampant corruption in the military, going after two former top generals shortly after taking power. One was sentenced to life in prison and the other died before his case was concluded.

China's military is highly opaque and outside the purview of civilian judges and corruption investigators, so it's difficult to know how thoroughly the organization has been exorcised of practices such as the selling of commissions and kickbacks on defense contracts.

For Xi, the military's primary mission remains to protect the ruling Communist Party, and he has followed his predecessors in fighting back hard against efforts to have the military shift its ultimate loyalty to the nation.

Xi's overriding political focus could mean the lessons he draws from the Ukraine conflict are off base, Graham said.

“Xi Jinping will always apply a political solution because he's not a military specialist or an economic specialist,” Graham said. “I think the military lessons have to go through a political filter, so I'm not sure that China will take the lessons that are abundant and on show for everyone to see.”

The stated goal of China's military reform is to “fight and win wars” against a “strong enemy” — a euphemism widely understood to refer to the United States.

China has pumped huge amounts of money into new equipment, has initiated more realistic training exercises with force-on-force scenarios, and sought to reform its fighting doctrine by studying American engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo.

Gen. David Berger, the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, said in a forum in Australia last week that Beijing would be watching the Ukraine conflict closely.

“I don't know what lessons they will learn but … they're focused on learning, without a doubt, because they've been doing that for the last 15 years,” he said.

Berger stressed the need for strong coalitions in the Pacific as a way to keep China's ambitions toward Taiwan in check.

China claims Taiwan as its own, and controlling the island is a key component of Beijing’s political and military thinking. In October, Xi again reiterated that “reunification of the nation must be realized, and will definitely be realized.”

Washington’s longstanding policy has been to provide political and military support for Taiwan, while not explicitly promising to defend it from a Chinese attack.

Like Putin’s assessment of Ukraine, Xi’s China does not appear to believe that Taiwan would try to put up much of a fight. Beijing routinely blames its problems with the island on a small group of hardcore independence advocates and their American supporters.

The entirely state-controlled Chinese media, meanwhile, draws on the imagined narrative that Taiwan would not willingly go to battle against what it describes as their fellow Chinese.

Now, the quick response by many nations to impose tough, coordinated sanctions on Russia after its attack on Ukraine, and the willingness to supply Ukraine with high-tech weaponry could make Xi rethink his approach to Taiwan, Fravel said.

With “the rapid response by advanced industrialized states, and the unity they have demonstrated, Xi is likely to be more cautious over Taiwan and less emboldened,” he said.

Conversely, the Ukraine experience could prompt China to accelerate its timetable on Taiwan with a more limited attack, such as seizing an outlying island, as a real-world test of its own military, Chen said.

“A sensible course would be to mature the PLA's joint institutions and procedures through ever more rigorous exercises,” Chen said.

“But as the world has witnessed, a central leader with a specific ambition and a shortening timeline may short-circuit the process in reckless fashion.”

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Ukraine army denies claims Lysychansk is ‘encircled’

The Ukrainian army on Saturday rejected claims that Moscow-backed separatists and Russian forces had surrounded the key eastern city of Lysychansk, but said heavy fighting was ongoing on its edges.
“Fighting rages around Lysychansk. (But) luckily the city has not been encircled and is under control of the Ukrainian army,” Ruslan Muzytchuk, a spokesman for the Ukrainian National Guard, said on Ukrainian television, after a separatist spokesman made the allegations earlier in the day.
Capturing the city would allow the Russians to push deeper into the wider eastern region of the Donbas, which has become the focus of their offensive since failing to capture Kyiv after launching their military operation in Ukraine in late February.
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Across the Donets river from Lysychansk, the Russians seized the neighboring city Sievierodonetsk last week.
Andrei Marotchko, a spokesman for the separatist forces, earlier told the TASS news agency: “Today the Luhansk popular militia and Russian forces occupied the last strategic heights, which allows us to confirm that Lysychansk is completely encircled.”
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China adds $45 billion in stimulus to pay for infrastructure projects

China announced another stimulus measure to finance infrastructure projects, part of its push to drive investment and increase employment in the second half of this year as the economy starts to recover from the effects of Covid lockdowns.

The government will raise 300 billion yuan ($44.8 billion) to finance infrastructure projects by selling financial bonds and other methods, the State Council chaired by Premier Li Keqiang decided Wednesday, according to a report by the official Xinhua News Agency.

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Those bonds are usually sold by policy banks. The money will be used to replenish the capital of major projects such as new types of infrastructure, the statement on Thursday said.

These types of financial tools can help expand effective investment, drive employment and facilitate consumption and allow China to stick to its stance of “not flooding the economy with stimulus or over-printing money,” the meeting concluded, adding that this will help banks achieve a better match between their loans and deposits and improve the transmission of monetary policy.

The People’s Bank of China will take the lead to support China Development Bank and Agricultural Development Bank of China to raise the funds via financial bonds, according to a late Friday report by Financial News, a newspaper published by the central bank.

The top economic planner will come up with a list of projects for the investment, in collaboration with other agencies and state-owned enterprises, it said.

Infrastructure projects are a key factor in determining how fast the economy can grow in the remaining six months of this year as other sources of growth such as housing and private consumption are still slowing.

President Xi Jinping pledged last month to strive to meet economic targets for the year, although Beijing’s Covid Zero strategy has caused analysts to cut their forecasts for annual growth to levels far below the official goal of around 5.5 percent.

The announcement lifted the share price of heavy equipment makers in the onshore market. SANY Heavy Industry Co. climbed 4.1 percent on Friday, Zoomlion Heavy Industry Science and Technology Co. gained 4.9 percent and Jiangsu Hengli Hydraulic Co. rose 1.9 percent, while the benchmark CSI 300 Index dipped 0.4 percent.

New Stimulus

The new stimulus can in theory leverage as much as 1.2 trillion yuan in credit from the banking sector and capital markets, based on the government requirement that the money should be at least 20 percent of overall investment, according to Nomura Holdings Inc. economists including Lu Ting.

But its impact in reality could be much smaller, and won’t be enough to plug an estimated 6 trillion yuan funding gap that the government has to fill if it wants to carry out its proactive fiscal policy, they wrote in a note Friday.

Local authorities are under huge financial stress this year due to the cost of Covid controls and tax cuts, as well as a slump in land sales that reduced a key source of revenue.

The new money is in addition to the 800 billion yuan the three policy banks were told in June to lend for infrastructure projects. That loan quota has already been allocated to the policy banks, local newspaper the 21st Century Business Herald reported Friday, citing sources it didn’t identify.

China Development Bank was allowed to boost lending by 400 billion yuan, Agricultural Development Bank of China’s quota for new credit was 300 billion yuan and another 100 billion yuan was assigned to the Export-Import Bank of China, the newspaper reported.

The development banks’ main source of funds is issuing bonds or loans from China’s central bank, although it hasn’t been announced where the money to finance these new loans will come from.

The size of the additional bonds is only a fraction of what the policy banks normally issue in a year. The banks sold a gross amount of 5.5 trillion yuan bonds in the interbank market last year, with a monthly average of 460 billion yuan, according to Bloomberg calculation based on Chinabond and Shanghai Clearing House data. Between January and May this year, they issued 2.3 trillion yuan in bonds.

The State Council, which is China’s cabinet, also vowed to implement a batch of investment projects that are aimed at increasing workers’ income and boosting their consumption.

These projects will have to spend more than 30 percent of central government funding on paying workers, up from 15 percent previously.

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UN condemns protesters’ storming of Libya’s parliament

A senior UN official for Libya on Saturday condemned the storming of the parliament’s headquarters by angry demonstrators as part of protests in several cities against the political class and deteriorating economic conditions.
Hundreds of protesters marched in the streets of the capital Tripoli and other Libyan cities on Friday, with many attacking and setting fire to government buildings, including the House of Representatives in the eastern city of Tobruk.
“The people’s right to peacefully protest should be respected and protected but riots and acts of vandalism such as the storming of the House of Representatives headquarters late yesterday in Tobruk are totally unacceptable,” said Stephanie Williams, the UN special adviser on Libya, on Twitter.
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Friday’s protests came a day after the leaders of the parliament and another legislative chamber based in Tripoli failed to reach an agreement on elections during UN-mediated talks in Geneva. The dispute now centers on the eligibility requirements for candidates, according to the UN.
Libya failed to hold elections in December following challenges including legal disputes, controversial presidential hopefuls and the presence of rogue militias and foreign fighters in the country.
The failure to hold the vote was a major below to international efforts to bring peace to the Mediterranean nation. It has opened a new chapter in its long-running political impasse, with two rival governments now claiming power after tentative steps toward unity in the past year.
The protesters, frustrated from years of chaos and division, have called for the removal of the current political class and elections to be held. They also rallied against dire economic conditions in the oil-rich nation, where prices have risen for fuel and bread and power outages are a regular occurrence.
There were fears that militias across the country could quash the protests as they did in 2020 demonstrations when they opened fire on people protesting dire economic conditions.
Sabadell Jose, the European Union envoy in Libya, called on protesters to “avoid any type of violence.” He said Friday’s demonstrations demonstrated that people want “change through elections and their voices should be heard.”
Libya has been wrecked by conflict since a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed President Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The country was then for years split between rival administrations in the east and west, each supported by different militias and foreign governments.
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