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Explainer: China’s increasing role in Russia’s war against Ukraine

by Thaisa Semenova March 2, 2023 3:43 PM 8 min read
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese leader Xi Jinping pose during their meeting in Beijing on Feb. 4, 2022. (AFP via Getty Images)
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Just days before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last February, China’s leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a “friendship without limits,” agreeing there would be no “forbidden areas of cooperation.”

Unsurprisingly then, Beijing did not condemn Russia’s all-out war against Ukraine that began on Feb. 24, 2022, nor did it join the West in sanctioning Moscow to punish it for its full-scale aggression.

Instead, increased trade between the two countries has eased the impact of the Kremlin's banishment from the global financial system — China and Russia hit a new record high in total trade in 2022, reaching $190 billion, according to Chinese customs data.

The two countries’ naval forces have also engaged in joint military drills in the East China Sea since last February. Xi told Putin in December he was ready to “increase political cooperation” with Russia.

In recent weeks, the U.S. has publicly stated it believes China has already provided non-lethal military assistance to Russia and is now considering sending lethal aid to assist Russia’s war effort in Ukraine further.

Nevertheless, Beijing has publicly maintained that it is a neutral party to Russia’s war in Ukraine, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi saying that it has “consistently upheld the fundamental principles of objectivity and impartiality, without favoring one side or the other, or adding fuel to the fire, still less, seeking selfish gains from the situation.”

Here’s what we know about China’s involvement in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

How does China view Russia’s invasion?

Yurii Poita, head of the Asia-Pacific section at the Ukrainian research Center for Army, Conversion, and Disarmament Studies, says that although China has not publicly taken sides in the war, Ukraine’s victory is considered as contrary to Chinese national interests in Beijing.

“If Ukraine wins, it means the United States win in terms of geopolitics,” he told the Kyiv Independent. “Then China can forget about its dominance in Taiwan,” referring to China’s territorial claims to its island neighbor, which it sees as part of mainland China. Taiwan maintains its independence.

Poita says that China is preaching an alternative vision to the U.S.-led world order and has been actively seeking to erode the U.S. presence both in Europe and in Asia. Ukraine’s full victory in the war thanks to U.S. support has the potential to bolster American alliances and send a clear message to the world about U.S. power.

“On the contrary, if Ukraine loses, no one will trust the Americans anymore, it would be a very serious blow to the image,” he added.

Petro Shevchenko, analyst and PhD student at Jilin University in China, says that China could decide to provide Russia with lethal aid due to its confrontation with the U.S., looking to influence the balance of power in the world.

“China is egocentric and looks at anything through the lens of its grand strategy. It wants to return to the status of a great power and a great empire,” he said.

Beijing may also be worried about the potential consequences of Moscow's defeat, including an internal crisis inside Russia, regime change, or even the collapse of Russia into several states.

In the case of the latter, China would have to face long-term issues at its borders as the control of Russia's nuclear arsenal would become uncertain, according to Poita.

Has China provided military aid to Russia?

According to the U.S., Chinese companies have already provided non-lethal support to Russia. While U.S. officials have not explicitly said what type of non-lethal assistance China has provided, sources told NBC news that the aid could have included gear or body armor.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Feb. 23 said that Chinese companies had provided Russia with dual-use items, meaning those that can be used for both military and civilian purposes, but did not give examples or evidence that the Chinese government had approved the support.

Chinese exports to Russia of microchips and other electronic components and raw materials, some with military applications, have also increased since Moscow invaded Ukraine, according to a report by the Center for Advanced Defense Studies nonprofit.

Over the past week, Blinken said the U.S. now believes that China is considering supplying Russia with deadly weapons to help it in its war in Ukraine.

Russia has repeatedly requested drones and ammunition from China since the beginning of its invasion, CNN reported citing sources familiar with U.S. intelligence.

“We've been watching this very closely,” Blinken told CBS.

The U.S. is trying to deter China from going forward with sending lethal aid to Russia by making the information public, similar to what it did in the months leading up to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, according to CIA Director Bill Burns.

On Feb. 27, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan put forward the dilemma China faces.

"From our perspective, this war presents real complications for Beijing. And Beijing will have to make its own decisions about how it proceeds, whether it provides military assistance," Sullivan stressed. “If it goes down that road, it will come at real costs to China,” he said.

Shevchenko said that if China were to supply Russia with lethal aid, it would likely do it in a “shady and secretive way,” for example, through third countries like Belarus, Iran, or North Korea.

Chinese support of Russia could also include transferring military technology or having some kind of joint military venture on Russian territory, he explained.

Beijing strongly denies any plans to provide deadly weapons to Moscow, blaming the U.S. and NATO for spreading what it called “false information.”

“NATO should stop smearing China with unfounded speculations on Ukraine, abandon the old Cold War mentality of zero-sum game and bloc confrontation, and stop the fomenting confrontation,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said.

One year later: How Russia came to fail in Ukraine, battle after battle

What could happen if China did provide lethal weapons to Russia?

If Beijing were to deliver weapons to Moscow, the impact on the situation on the battlefield in Ukraine is still hard to predict, according to experts, as the type and amount of weapons that China could deliver are also uncertain.

Experts suggest that the West should maintain pressure on Beijing and emphasize that the delivery of weapons would have severe consequences.

In an interview with NBC News on Feb. 19, Blinken warned top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi that providing lethal aid to Russia "would have serious consequences in our relationship.” The U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, called the lethal aid supply "a red line" in an interview with CNN on the same day.

Poita said that the EU needs to highlight the potential economic damage to China's relations with the bloc if it continues to support Russia's war in Ukraine.

“And it should not be just vague statements. The EU has to show China that providing Russia with lethal aid may lead to the suspension of joint projects and trade, or China may lose access to the EU markets, IT sector, etc.,” Poita said.

Poita also believes that NATO should announce the start of the procedure for Ukraine’s membership in the alliance.

“China perceives Ukraine as part of the post-Soviet world and thus as belonging to Russia’s sphere of influence. Launching the procedure towards membership in NATO would indicate that the West sees Ukraine as an integral part, and not just a buffer zone,” the expert said.

In other words, “all actions against Ukraine will be considered as actions against the West.”

What is China’s vision to end Russia’s war in Ukraine?

On the one-year anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, China outlined its vision for the “political settlement” of the war, calling for peace talks.

The Chinese foreign ministry issued a 12-point plan for peace. The document calls for ceasing hostilities and resuming peace talks, noting that China will “continue to play a constructive role in this regard.” The plan does not explicitly call on Moscow to withdraw its troops from Ukraine.

Shevchenko said that “if China wanted to stress that it is necessary to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, it would say that Russian troops must be driven out.”

The proposal also calls on all parties to respect the sovereignty of all nations, safeguard nuclear facilities, facilitate grain exports, and protect civilians and prisoners of war. It urges abandoning “the Cold War mentality” and “stopping unilateral sanctions,” rhetoric frequently used by Beijing to criticize the West’s response to Russia’s war.

The outline also says that all parties should “oppose the pursuit of one’s own security at the cost of others’ security, (and) prevent bloc confrontation,” language China has used to potentially justify Russia’s alleged reasoning for invading Ukraine as being necessary for Russia’s security.

According to Shevchenko, convincing Ukraine or the West of its vision was never likely the main goal for China. By presenting the plan, Beijing wanted to save face amid criticism for its stance on the invasion and portray itself as a global peacemaker.

“Ukraine’s interests were not taken into account in this vision. At the moment, only Russia is ready to accept China’s plan because freezing the war and moving to the negotiation table favors its goals,” he said.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Feb. 21 that Chinese leader Xi Jinping is planning to visit Moscow for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the coming months as part of a larger effort to promote these proposed multilateral peace talks.

Timeline of Russia's all-out war in Ukraine, month by month

How have Ukraine, US, and EU responded to China’s vision?

President Volodymyr Zelensky voiced his opinion on China's proposed peace plan during a press conference on Feb. 21.

"We have our document, our peace formula, which a large number of states has already backed, and we expect further support for it... I think it is important to have one position," Zelensky said.

Ukraine’s 10-point peace plan, which Zelensky introduced at a G20 summit meeting in November 2022, includes the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory, the establishment of a Russian war crimes tribunal, the release of all prisoners and forcibly relocated people, and the prevention of ecocide.

The West has met China’s vision with skepticism. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz openly criticized China's proposed peace plan as it does not include the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory.

"From my perspective, there is no recognizable line that says: Russian troops must also withdraw," Scholz said of the plan during a visit to India on Feb. 25.

Scholz admitted that the condemnation of the increased risk of nuclear weapons included in the plan was "remarkably correct." However, he said that there can be no "dictated peace Russian-style."

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also cast doubt on China's proposed peace plan, pointing to China's failure to explicitly condemn the Russian invasion.

U.S. President Joe Biden also dismissed the Chinese plan, noting that it would likely only work in Russia’s favor.

“If Putin is applauding it, how could it be any good?” Biden said. “I’m not being facetious. I’m being deadly earnest.”

“I’ve seen nothing in the plan that would indicate that there is something that would be beneficial to anyone other than Russia if the Chinese plan were followed,” he said.

Biden also questioned the idea that Beijing could negotiate peace for Russia’s full-scale war.

“The idea that China is going to be negotiating the outcome of a war that is a totally unjust war for Ukraine is just not rational,” Biden said.


Note from the author:

Thank you for taking the time to read this story. For over a year, our team has been putting all our efforts into bringing you quality journalism to keep you informed about Russia's war against our country. This story is particularly important as it sheds light on China's increasing role in Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine and what risks that may pose.

If you find our reporting valuable, we encourage you to consider becoming the Kyiv Independent's patron. Thank you again for your support.

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