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Chinese strategy in Ukraine
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Since the start of Russia’s invasion, China has maintained its “strategic partnership” with Russia, but has refrained from providing any military assistance. What explains this strategy?
At the end of President Xi’s March visit to Moscow, the following exchange took place between the Chinese and Russian leaders:
Xi: “Change is coming that hasn't happened in 100 years. And we are driving this change together.”
Putin: “I agree.”
Xi: “Please take care, dear friend.”
Putin: “Have a safe journey.”
One could hardly imagine dialogue more indicative of a friendship “with no limits”. Indeed, the exchange would seem to vindicate Zbigniew Brzezinski’s 1997 warning that “the most dangerous scenario” for the US would be “a grand coalition of China, Russia, and perhaps Iran … united not by ideology but by complementary grievances”.
So why has Chinese support for Russia during the “special military operation” been, at best, lukewarm? Why has China sat back and allowed its ally’s military to be significantly degraded – to the delight of foreign policy hawks in Washington?
China abstained on the two UN Resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion and calling for it withdraw (in contrast to Belarus, Syria and North Korea – all of which voted “against”). It has also refrained from providing Russia with the kind of military assistance that could have tipped the balance in the latter’s favour. The Chinese may have provided Russia with non-lethal assistance, though officials insist that they “stand firmly stand on the side of dialogue and peace”.
One potential reason why China has not supplied lethal aid to Russia is that the US has threatened severe economic sanctions for doing so. These threats undoubtedly enter into Chinese calculations. Yet they have much less bite than the threats against Russia. Why? The US does a lot of trade with China, so sanctions would hurt both countries. Of course, if China did supply lethal aid to Russia, the US would have to follow through on its threats, though doing so would come with significant costs.
But even in the absence of America’s ultimatum, I don’t think China would have supplied lethal aid to Russia – for four reasons.
The first is that China is trying to position itself as a peacemaker in the conflict, unlike the US which it has accused of “pouring weapons into the battlefield”. This is part of a global strategy on China’s part to undermine America’s role as global hegemon and present itself as a more enlightened alternative (even though China’s own “peace plan” is heavily tilted toward Russian interests).
The second is that China stands to benefit from the prolongation of the conflict, so long as Russia doesn’t face total defeat. “One could argue the Chinese have a vested interest in this war going on and on and on,” notes John Mearsheimer. The longer the war lasts, the longer the US will remain “pinned down” in Europe to the detriment of its focus on Asia, and the longer stocks of key weapon systems like stingers and javelins will remain depleted.
The third is that a weakened Russia will be more dependent on China (in the same way that that a weakened Europe will be more dependent on the US). Thanks to Western sanctions on Russian energy, Russia has less bargaining power as an exporter, so its remaining customers have been able to buy at a discount. This is true in the diplomatic sphere too, where Russia’s isolation from the West has given the Chinese even more leverage over their “junior partner”.
The fourth is that China wants to spilt the Western alliance by reducing Europe’s willingness to join a US-led economic or military confrontation over Taiwan. Fuelling a conflict in Europe’s backyard would undoubtedly work against this objective: if China went ahead and supplied lethal aid to Russia, European leaders would find it much easier to sell a hawkish China policy to their populations.
At the present time, China’s dovish approach seems to be paying off. A recent poll found that only 11% of Europeans see China as an “adversary”, and 62% say their country should “remain neutral” in a war over Taiwan, with another 5% saying “support China”. (By contrast, 55% of Europeans see Russia as an “adversary”.)
Overall, China has navigated the Ukraine crisis in accordance with its long-term strategic interests, balancing support for Russia against other vital considerations. If the war at some point transitions to a frozen conflict, as seems likely, China will emerge as one of the main geopolitical “winners”. The US will be a secondary winner, while Europe, Russia and Ukraine will all be losers.
The one scenario that would spell trouble for China is if Ukraine gained the upper hand and managed to inflict a major defeat on Russia (which is by no means impossible). This could lead to regime change in Moscow and the end of the Sino-Russian strategic partnership. Or worse, it could spark the break-up of the Russian federation, creating huge instability on China’s borders.
Hence if Russia looked to be on the cusp of defeat, I think China would forgo the benefits of “neutrality” and immediately supply lethal aid to its ally. Short of this, however, I don’t expect Chinese policy to shift. They can’t tolerate a defeated Russia but can easily live with a weakened one.
Image: People’s Liberation Army Air Force Pilots, 2018
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