Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping
China has tried to have it both ways since Russia invaded Ukraine a month ago.
It abstained from key votes at the United Nations criticizing Russia’s actions, avoided directly labeling President Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine an “invasion,” amplified Russian disinformation and repeatedly laid blame for the war at the feet of the United States and NATO.
At the same time, Beijing has also largely complied with sanctions against Russia, made repeated, if vague, calls for a negotiated settlement to the hostilities and provided humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.
But make no mistake: The worse it goes for Russia in Ukraine, the more China will step up its support for the Putin regime.
Beijing’s uneven diplomatic strategy may seem to stem from a desire to achieve multiple, often conflicting aims, most notably to forestall a deterioration in relations with Europe.
Not all objectives are weighted equally, however, and as the war enters a more protracted and destructive phase, China’s primary goal is coming into focus: to ensure that Russia retains its status as Beijing’s key strategic partner, even if this necessitates paying serious economic and diplomatic costs.
Beijing will see the prospect of a Russian defeat as a direct threat to its own territorial security and ability to compete head-to-head in the geopolitical rivalry with the United States — and China simply can’t allow that to happen.
To see why Beijing has a direct stake in the war’s outcome, it’s critical to understand how its relationship with Russia has evolved since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and how China views the global security environment evolving over the next three to five years.
Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China and Russia have experienced significant friction and mutual mistrust. The nadir of the relationship came in 1969, when the two communist powers nearly engaged in a nuclear war.
Since 1989, however, Beijing and Moscow have systematically addressed the major points of contention in their relationship, including any lingering territorial disputes. In 2001, the countries signed the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation, and after Chinese leader Xi Jinping assumed power in 2013, cooperation has expanded to include joint military exercises, efforts to reform global governance and technology sharing.
For example, the two countries continue to develop a satellite navigation system to rival the United States’ GPS, and in January, Russia and China, along with Iran, held a series of naval drills in the Indian Ocean.
This growing symbiosis was formalized on Feb. 4 in a joint statement issued during Putin’s visit to Beijing at the start of the Winter Olympics (Xi’s meeting with Putin then was his first with a world leader since February 2020, when he appeared with the Mongolian prime minister in Beijing).
Stretching more than 5,000 words, the joint statement encapsulated a shared worldview between two authoritarian powers and two autocratic leaders. The global order is undergoing “momentous changes,” the statement read, which include a “transformation of the global governance architecture and world order” and “global challenges and threats growing from day to day.”
But perhaps more important, the joint statement articulated a shared grievance that the United States and its allies threaten Chinese and Russian interests and global aspirations. NATO, the document states, promotes an “ideologized cold war approach,” while the U.S. “Indo-Pacific strategy” endangers the “peace and stability in the region.”
Before Russia had even invaded Ukraine, then, Beijing had come to see Moscow as a critical security and strategic partner in the growing power rivalry with the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia. More to the point, Russia is China’s only real military and strategic partner.
Although tensions exist in the bilateral relationship, not least because of the growing economic gap between their economies, the broader geopolitical chessboard draws Moscow and Beijing together. What’s more, Putin and Xi have a close relationship — they’ve met in person or virtually nearly 40 times in the decade that Xi has been in power.
The war in Ukraine has undoubtedly thrown Beijing off balance, and Chinese officials certainly didn’t want Putin to invade in the first place, but the basic math underlying this strategic partnership with Moscow has not changed. Indeed, the war has only consolidated Beijing’s central logic for supporting Russia, given the recent demonstration of Western diplomatic unity, the overwhelming power of U.S.-led sanctions and the reinvigoration of NATO.
The former editor of the Chinese nationalist Global Times newspaper, Hu Xijin, argued in recent commentary that “if the U.S. pursues extreme strategic coercion against China, with Russia as a partner, China will not fear a U.S. energy blockade, our food supplies will be more secure, as will [our supplies] of many other raw materials.”
In a speech last weekend, China’s vice foreign minister Le Yucheng drew a straight line between NATO in Europe and China’s own security concerns, warning that just as Moscow’s actions in Ukraine were a direct consequence of NATO expansion, any actions by NATO in the Asia-Pacific region would provoke similar consequences, and thus, the “crisis in Ukraine is a stern warning.”
Beyond the substantive reasons underlying China’s support for Russia, there is also Beijing’s unwillingness to be seen as submitting to the U.S. demand that it back away from Moscow. As one Chinese Russia expert at the Shanghai International Studies University observed, “If China goes along with the U.S. against Russia, it will not only greatly strengthen the anti-Russian camp, but will also be a huge boost to the U.S. ‘leadership.’ ”
The key question now is just how far Beijing will go to support Moscow. While Xi would like to maintain good relations with Europe and avoid a further deterioration in the U.S.-China relationship, the fate of Putin and the Russian state directly implicates China’s core security interests.
Not only would the prospect of a beaten and broken Russia activate China’s fears of instability along their shared 2,500-mile border, but it would also create uncertainty about the future leadership and geopolitical orientation of the Russian government. If Putin were eventually to fall from power, would his successor remain aligned with Beijing?
So the more anxious Beijing becomes about the war and Putin’s personal position in power, the more likely it is to step up support by providing direct economic assistance, mitigating the impact of sanctions and even supplying military equipment.
Clearly, China’s preference is to avoid secondary sanctions in response to any support — access to the international market and the U.S. dollar remains critical for China’s economy and its continued rise. But Beijing could pursue means of support that are difficult to track, such as facilitating Russia’s access to U.S. dollars via offshore accounts, or by directing state-owned enterprises and even private companies to increase their purchases of non-sanctioned Russian goods and services.
If China does decide to supply Russia with military assistance, it would likely seek to avoid equipment and hardware that would flagrantly violate international law and sanctions or be easily traceable, and instead provide spare parts, ammunition or certain dual-use items that aren’t yet sanctioned.
But critically, the decision to provide aid to Russia would be driven primarily by Beijing’s assessment of how Russia is faring in the war, rather than a desire to avoid paying economic or diplomatic costs. Unfortunately, it is difficult to imagine that Beijing is watching the conflict unfold without growing more nervous by the day: Russia has failed to achieve any of its major military or political objectives.
In just the past week, the Russian military has escalated its offensive to include a wider number of indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets, and President Biden is also now warning of “clear signs” that Putin is considering using chemical weapons. Domestically, Putin has begun to purge his inner circle, arresting some within the security services and senior officials in the national guard.
Beijing will see this as a sign that Putin’s grip is weakening, and as the sanctions continue to decimate Russia’s economy, anxiety in China is only likely to grow.
Some analysts suggest that China may well see Russia’s recent weakening in the wake of sanctions as a net positive, as it shifts the balance of power in the relationship in Beijing’s favor. A tangible benefit of such a shift would be Beijing’s ability to demand more favorable terms in buying Russian energy.
While it’s true that Beijing leveraged Moscow’s economic and diplomatic isolation after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 to gain better terms in several large energy deals, the security environment for China in 2022 is far more contentious than it was in 2014, and Moscow’s true value is its ideological orientation and military capabilities as much as its energy stores. Xi does not want a weak Russia for a security and strategic partner.
If Beijing turns toward and not away from Moscow as the war grinds on and the extent of human suffering increases, the basic trajectory of China’s relations with the West will undergo a profound shift toward open rivalry.
It would be comforting to think that the prospect of such a disastrous turn would be enough to dissuade the Chinese leadership from traveling down this path. Unfortunately, though, Beijing’s geopolitical outlook for the next decade — much like Washington’s — includes conflict and friction as defining features.