Moscow has secured drones and munitions supply from Iran and North Korea, but only China could truly bolster its warfighting capabilities. Beijing appears to have delivered some technology and parts, but many Chinese scholars urge caution about the next steps.
New Revelations Open up Questions About China’s Military Role in Ukraine
The Wall Street Journal has reported that Chinese exporters have supplied components of weapons systems and dual-use technology to sanctioned Russian defense companies during the ongoing war in Ukraine. Beyond the previously known semiconductors, Chinese entities have allegedly delivered communications jamming technology, navigation equipment for helicopters, radar parts for antiaircraft systems, and even parts for fighter jets. Some companies, like Sinno Electronics, have now been sanctioned by the US for such deals. Others had already been under sanctions, and might have seen little additional risk in fulfilling old contracts. In general, China has mostly continued with the military-technical cooperation policies of the preceding years irrespective of the war.
The key question is whether China will escalate supplies to meet Russia’s war needs, even as Russia’s war effort stumbles and Western nations step up their support for Kyiv. Will Beijing deliver more and new tech and parts? Will it supply Russia with complete weapons systems and ammunition?
This article attempts to provide an initial prognosis. It draws on three key trends in recent debates on Beijing-Moscow ties in China’s foreign policy community. These can be gleaned from publications on three central platforms and aggregators of foreign policy debate in China since the onset of Ukraine’s counteroffensives in September 2022: aisixiang.com (ties to Peking University), cfisnet.com (ties to former Chinese diplomats), and cn.chinausfocus.com (ties to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, partly in English, partly external audience). Both mainstream academics and think tankers from China’s elite institutions are represented there.
China’s Foreign Policy Experts Urge Prudence on Russia’s War
First, the Chinese foreign policy community now puts a good deal of distance between their country and Russia. Scholars notice the “no limits-partnership” having quietly faded from official Chinese discourse, as Moscow fundamentally shifted its approach to the West to “confrontation only,” and chose war as an “irrational” and “costly” way to struggle. Experts stress the overwhelming condemnation of Russia’s war beyond the West, by the UN General Assembly (UNGA), the International Court of Justice (ICJ), and in the latest G20 summit statement. Chinese experts note that even allied Eurasian countries have distanced themselves from Moscow, fear a repeat of Russia’s approach, or resent Moscow for not honoring its Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) obligations. Chinese analysts see an isolated Russia, greatly weakened in power, influence, and capacity for action.
According to scholars in China, Moscow’s war violates Beijing’s economic interests. It has caused food (and general) inflation and insecurity, damaged the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (e.g., transcontinental rail connections to Europe), and undermined globalization. While China sees investment opportunities in Russia, experts worry that China’s investment interests in Europe are being seriously harmed. China’s trade with Russia may be growing, but it only amounts to a quarter of trade with the US, with which China enjoys a huge trade surplus as opposed to the deficit with Russia.
More crucially, China’s scholars see the war as undermining their country’s geopolitical and diplomatic interests. They view the UN as already weakened, while Moscow goes against Beijing’s approach of adjusting the international system from within, and shaping favorable global public opinion. Instead, more countries are seeking accession to military blocs (as NATO expands again), Transatlantic unity including on China is growing and Europe is rearming and gaining energy independence from Russia. Meanwhile, Beijing’s relations with Europe suffer, while that is the “last thing China wants,” given the fierce standoff with the US. The war also has sparked a renewed divide and security issues with Japan and South Korea. The worsened security environment helps Tokyo to mobilize societal support for increasing military power, stigmatize China, and push for UN Security Council (UNSC) reform. Some Chinese experts also believe that escalation in the Korean peninsula cannot be excluded, and “some countries” may now even develop nuclear weapons to enhance their security.
Secondly, China’s foreign policy experts still insist that the war does not change Beijing’s fundamental strategic outlook, nor will it hinder a gradual tightening of relations with Moscow. Scholars argue that the US has not adjusted its geostrategy, keeping its focus on the Indo-Pacific, and on China as its key adversary and the only real long-term structural challenge, without letting Russia distract it. Chinese analysts underline the importance of strategic trust between Beijing and Moscow, as the two jointly oppose the expansion of an increasingly global NATO. Debates on the studied Chinese platforms also continue to portray Russia as a necessary part of the newly emerging governance structures for a multipolar order, where the G20, BRICS grouping, and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) should be further strengthened (and the Eurasian Economic Union also has a role).
China’s foreign policy community comes to the conclusion that bilateral ties with Russia have not been impeded, and sees lots of opportunities going forward. Scholars observe a relationship continuing as “normal,” with steady development towards a further strengthening. The experts note that bilateral dialogues and coordination in multilateral settings have not been interrupted, and trade volumes have jumped by a third (“parallel imports” via Eurasian allies may protect Chinese companies from secondary sanctions going forward). Meanwhile, authors discern a shift in Russian strategy from “looking east” to “turning east”, as the leadership in Moscow repeatedly commits to China, and actively seeks both economic development and national security from its neighbor. In this scenario, Beijing stands to gain in further cheap energy supplies, broader economic cooperation, and stronger support against the US.
Thirdly, Chinese international relations scholars recommend to neither escalate support, nor to turn on Russia, and are cautious about a Chinese peacemaking role. They consider joining the West unwise. The US would supposedly just pocket a Chinese condemnation of Russia, quickly turn on Beijing right after the war, all the while China would lose its strategic partner in Moscow. Chinese experts also note Russia’s supposedly neglected and legitimate security interests, and condemn Western sanctions for allegedly causing energy and food security crises and supply chain issues – though sanctions are a learning opportunity for China on the potential risks it could face from the West.
At the same time, Chinese analysts emphasize that Beijing has already done a lot for Moscow and should focus on its own interests. Russia should not expect more than maintaining the trend towards gradually expanded ties, also given international pressure and risks for China. Both escalation and a long war are not in Beijing’s own interests. Scholars underline China’s support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, call on their government to clearly oppose the Russian use of nuclear weapons, and hope Russia may demonstrate “the responsibility of a major country” to find a way towards peace. On mediation, Chinese experts claim that Beijing cannot change Moscow’s hardline position, that the time for talks may only come after further Ukrainian victories or even a change in the domestic situation in Russia, and that China should ideally cooperate with the EU on such efforts (or rather support a bilateral dialogue between Brussels and Moscow).
The Second Year of the War Will Likely See Chinese Policy Continuity
Beijing’s past policy choices and official rhetoric may at first appear to run counter to some of the above expert debates, and scholars’ role and influence deserves a note for context. China’s leadership has echoed the Kremlin on NATO causing the war, condemned Western sanctions, abstained or voted with Russia at the UN, expanded energy and overall trade ties, saw some of its companies step in where Western counterparts left Russia, called to further “enhance strategic coordination” in December 2022, and continued joint military exercises and patrols. Such steps may not fully reflect experts’ concerns about the war’s negative impact on China’s interests, but they do reflect advice to not turn on Russia, and stay the course on gradually tightened relations, while not letting Moscow expect more than that.
Official statements of course also have a different function than expert publications. They do not intend to inform and guide the Chinese leadership, but rather to shape domestic and international sentiment in favorable ways.
China’s soon-to-be-announced “peace plan” might be an interesting case in point. China’s top diplomat Wang Yi’s reveal of the upcoming Chinese initiative at the Munich Security Conference surely pleased some in the room, won points in the Global South, and may also be well received at home.
The actual “plan,” which is yet to be seen, may still reflect Chinese scholars’ caution on a mediation role for Beijing. China is unlikely to suggest taking the lead in the process, provide much detail or address some of the core issues that would need to be discussed in a comprehensive peace settlement: the issue of new international borders or a Russian withdrawal, credible and robust security guarantees for Ukraine and a UN peacekeeping mission as a buffer. Perhaps Beijing will merely repeat some generalities, call for Ukraine-Russia negotiations that somehow build on the ideas from peace talks in March 2022, suggest having an armistice now and negotiating about territorial questions over the next fifteen years or so, and urge EU-Russia dialogue on the regional security order. The new concept paper on China’s “Global Security Initiative” which only generally notes that major countries should mediate where needed and wanted, hints that the peace plan may be similarly vague.
China’s foreign policy (and international law) scholars often provide “background analyses and policy advice” to the Chinese authorities. They are also called upon via secondments, consultative committees, or study sessions, and appear to intend for their work to inform and guide policy. The Chinese leadership’s eventual policy choices are of course influenced by many other factors, and may be more or less in tune with experts’ recommendations. Nonetheless, scholars can influence the leadership’s views, and their work is less coded than official statements, provides a window into policy debates, and demonstrates the extent of tolerated discourse in China.
It, therefore, bears noting that should President Xi drastically escalate support for the Russian invasion, and allow substantial deliveries of weapons systems or ammunition, he would utterly discard his mainstream scholars’ wisdom. No matter what Xi might personally think, this finding would speak against him taking such a step. As one of the most consequential foreign policy decisions of the last thirty years, this may also be a question of domestic political risk management.
Accordingly, it appears unlikely that the Chinese government and Chinese defense companies will dramatically expand the quality and quantity of their supplies to satisfy Russia’s war needs in 2023. Such deliveries would likely prolong the war and escalate it, by motivating the West to provide more destructive and long-range weaponry to Ukraine in response. This kind of support by China is also not needed to help Putin retain power in Russia, and uphold the strategic partnership between Beijing and Moscow. The Russian leader controls the discourse in his country, and can sell almost any feasible outcome of the war as a victory. Putin has made that much easier still by framing the conflict as a courageous defense against the West, not an attempt at conquest and subjugation of a smaller neighboring state. Chinese propaganda, diplomatic, and (especially) economic support can further facilitate his continued rule.
Instead, the Chinese side will probably continue its 2022 policies of fulfilling pre-existing contracts on defense technology and arms components, and using the market opportunity to export more dual-use goods. Some new deals in these fields may follow, but Chinese entities will still try to manage economic risks due to the threat of secondary sanctions by the West. Doubling down on supporting an invasion with economic and geopolitical downsides is not in line with China’s mainstream experts’ policy recommendations, and would indeed hardly be in China’s national interest. Beijing may be more willing to accept a weakened partner in Moscow, one that is highly dependent on it and can be used as a tool against Washington.