Will Beijing provide military aid to Moscow and what can stop it — NV expert survey

28 February, 03:25 PM
President of China Xi Jinping in military uniform during a visit to the Central Command of the theater of operations of the People's Liberation Army of China. Beijing, January 2018 (Photo:EYEPRESS via Reuters)

President of China Xi Jinping in military uniform during a visit to the Central Command of the theater of operations of the People's Liberation Army of China. Beijing, January 2018 (Photo:EYEPRESS via Reuters)

According to the U.S. State Department, Beijing is discussing the possibility of transferring of the weapons to Russia for the war against Ukraine. NV asked foreign analysts how likely such support from Russia is and what arguments China is using here.

The other day, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken made a statement that Beijing is considering providing lethal aid to Russia, including weapons and ammunition. At the same time, the high-ranking official warned that "serious consequences" are at stake if the aggressor country will be provided with weapons or obtain Chinese assistance in evading sanctions.

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After that, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, warned that if China entered into the alliance with Russia, a world war would begin.

In response to Blinken's statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China highlighted that China is not considering the possibility of providing lethal support to Russia for the war in Ukraine. Moreover, on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, the head of the Foreign Affairs Office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, Wang Yi, announced a peaceful initiative "for the political settlement of the crisis in Ukraine."

Today, the Russians are already using Chinese dual-purpose or civilian equipment on the front — in particular, Mavic drones and the AeroScope drone detection complex. Moscow also smuggles microcircuits and microchips through China. In January, the United States imposed sanctions on a Chinese company for providing satellite images of Ukrainian territories to the Wagner mercenary company, and several other companies were punished for violating the ban on the export of certain goods to Russia, U.S. officials said. The United States believes that China continues secretly supplying of Russia with non-lethal military aid — uniforms and body armor.

NV asked five foreign experts whether China will expand its support to Russia, under what conditions can China provide Russia with weapons, and what factors could prevent China from doing so.

According to Andrew Latham, a professor of international relations and political theory at Macalester College in Minnesota, the likelihood of China providing Russia with lethal weapons exists and is growing as Ukraine's military success progresses.

Until now, Beijing has been following a hedging strategy. It tried to limit its risks through balancing, and provided Moscow with only non-lethal assistance and economic and diplomatic support. China doesn’t want Putin to lose the war, and they certainly don't want to appear complicit in Washington's campaign of isolating Russia with sanctions, Latham explains. But, at the same time, China does not want to be involved in a proxy war with the U.S., so it is forced to stick to a middle course: "to maneuver between the Scylla of unconditional support for Moscow and the Charybdis of joining the Western sanctions regime," he explains.

Until now, this strategy has served Beijing well, but there is a risk that the achieved balance will be shaken. If it is assumed that Russia will lose the war, China may decide to increase its support and provide Moscow with lethal weapons to prevent its defeat, the expert believes. In his opinion, Beijing would welcome a quick and easy victory for Russia, but they do not object to a frozen conflict either.

"The lack of a decisive Russian victory in Ukraine does not harm China's geopolitical status too much," comments Lathem.

"But a decisive defeat of Russia is unacceptable for them, because it can significantly change the global balance of power in Washington's favor."

On the other hand, Rosemary Foote, professor and senior researcher at the Department of International Relations at Oxford University, considers China's provision of lethal weapons to the Russian Federation highly unlikely. If China decides to take such a step, it will harm its relations not only with the United States, but also with the countries of the European Union, she explains.  And for Beijing, which is currently worried about a slowing economy, this is highly undesirable.

"Xi Jinping is trying to deal with serious economic and social problems inside the country and cannot allow the new domestic or international disruptions to affect China's post-quake economic recovery," agreed Lawrence Reardon, professor of political science and coordinator of Asian studies at the University of New Hampshire.

The Chinese leader is also desperate to restore his international standing, tarnished by the full-scale Russian invasion of a sovereign country. After all, shortly before February 24, 2022, Beijing and Moscow declared a friendship "that has no borders." At that time, the Russian dictator did not warn China about his plans to attack Ukraine.

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"The Russians are generally good at disrupting of long-term foreign policy plans with China," Reardon notes, recalling how in 1950 Joseph Stalin asked Mao Zedong to help North Korean leader Kim Il Sung to organize a large-scale invasion of South Korea. This forced Mao to postpone plans to defeat the Nationalist forces in Taiwan.

The expert suggests that during his visit to Moscow, China's top diplomat, Wang Yi, conveyed to the Russian leadership the specific wishes of Xi, who is frustrated by the poor performance of the Russian army. And now the leader of the People's Republic of China will use any economic tools to convince Putin to go for a cooling of the conflict. Reardon considers it extremely unlikely that Beijing will provide military support to Moscow.

Feng Yujun, professor, the deputy director of the Institute of International Studies, and the director of the Center for Russian and Central Asian Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, also denies this possibility.

"China, as a responsible country, cannot supply lethal weapons to Russia," he claims.

But instead of providing arms, China could take more restrained measures — for example, to increase aid that would not trigger secondary sanctions from the United States and its allies, says Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London.

China's policy regarding the war in Ukraine is to declare neutrality, but support Putin and pay no price for it, he says. And after Blinken openly reminded China that providing the Russians with arms and munitions carries consequences — including secondary sanctions — the Chinese government is unlikely to cross that red line.

"Unless Beijing miscalculates and does not believe Blinken's warning, treating the Biden administration's claims about the 'consequences' as a bluff," Tsang suggests.

"But looking at how the US reacted to the spy balloon, it should be obvious to Beijing that Blinken is not bluffing."

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