foreign interests

Why China Probably Won’t Send Military Aid to Russia

What are friends for? Photo: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Russia is asking China to provide military assistance to its war effort in Ukraine, according to U.S. officials. Vladimir Putin’s regime has reportedly asked its allies in Beijing for surface-to-air missiles, drones, “intelligence-related equipment,” armored vehicles, and nonperishable military food kits, among other items.

From one angle, this is an encouraging development for opponents of Russian imperialism. Less than one month into a war of conquest against a minor power, Moscow is already struggling to provision its military with basic supplies and concluding that it lacks the hardware necessary to secure victory.

From another angle, however, Russia’s request signals the impending coalescence of an authoritarian bloc powerful enough to dictate Ukraine’s defeat and challenge the West’s broader security goals.

Which view is more accurate depends, in part, on how Beijing chooses to respond to Moscow’s entreaty.

In recent days, U.S. officials have reportedly learned that China is “open” to providing military assistance to Russia, although they remain uncertain whether a firm decision has been made. On Monday, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan held a seven-hour meeting in Rome with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, much of which was devoted to the crisis in Ukraine. The U.S. left that discussion believing that China has “already decided that they’re going to provide economic and financial support” to Russia and the “question really is whether they will go further,” according to an official who spoke with The Guardian.

That question has no consensus answer. Politico’s Alexander Ward and Joseph Gedeon report that most of their sources say that “Beijing has made the decision to assist Russia.” And some foreign-policy analysts contend that China will provide Russia with whatever aid it needs, as Beijing and Moscow share a commitment to “destroying the Western security architecture.

Yet other experts insist that there are hard limits on China’s solidarity with the Putin regime. For its part, China is publicly disavowing support for the Russian invasion, calling for restraint on all sides and declaring that “China is not a party to the crisis.”

If the CIA can’t discern Beijing’s intentions, I certainly can’t either. But while Xi Jinping’s plans remain hazy, his regime’s best interests look clearer. The Chinese Communist Party has a strong economic and political incentive to avoid exposing itself to western sanctions, and providing offensive weaponry to Russia’s army would guarantee such sanctions. Meanwhile, Beijing is all but certain to retain Moscow’s allegiance, even if it refuses to pony up surface-to-air missiles; the Kremlin is not in a position to turn down a friendship with China, no matter how one-sided or fair weather it might be. For these reasons, it would not make much sense for China to provide military aid to Russia.

If China’s foreign policy were determined solely by its national economic interests, then the conflict between Russia and the West would pose no conundrum; Beijing would simply align with the latter. Dealings with the U.S. and European Union composed more than a quarter of China’s total trade in 2020, while exchange with Russia accounted for just 2.5 percent. Today, roughly 35 percent of China’s exports go to Americans and Europeans. And the Chinese economy is in no position to weather a sudden drop in export demand.

As Bloomberg’s Shuli Ren notes, the CCP is currently struggling to meet its growth target of 5.5 percent. In the past, the party has leaned on domestic real-estate construction to reach its GDP goals. But this was always a recipe for a housing bubble, and the past two years have witnessed that bubble’s burst. In February, home sales among China’s 100 largest developers were 47.2 percent below their mark from the same time last year, while new construction is down 33 percent.

Meanwhile, China’s failure to provide its population with an effective COVID vaccine has led it to rely on draconian public-health regulations — and now, in the face of Omicron, to suffer a major COVID outbreak. Both of these developments have been devastating for small businesses, whose average sales were running about 30 percent below their pre-pandemic level before the current public-health crisis.

With domestic consumption and construction ailing, China cannot achieve its growth objectives absent a booming export sector. And maintaining strong export sales to the West is not a purely economic concern. This year, a record 10.8 million Chinese students will graduate from university and enter the white-collar labor market. Yet the CCP’s recent crackdown on the tech sector — combined with real-estate’s collapse — has eliminated a large swathe of employment opportunities for this cohort. Highly educated, underemployed young people are the stuff that revolutions and dissident movements are made of. The CCP has wisely set an urban unemployment target of 5.5 percent or lower. It cannot achieve that in the face of sanctions that block its firms’ access to western consumer markets.

By all appearances, Xi Jinping’s regime is quite aware of this. On Monday, Chinese stocks suffered a historic sell-off, amid investor fears that western sanctions might be in the offing. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi sought to quell such anxieties Monday, reiterating that “China is not a party to the crisis, nor does it want the sanctions to affect China.”

To this point, Chinese firms have taken great care to avoid exposing themselves to secondary sanctions. Even state-owned companies have prioritized maintaining their access to western markets above abetting the CCP’s alliance with the Kremlin. This has led many China analysts to dismiss reports that Chinese military aid to Russia may be imminent. As Foreign Policy deputy editor James Palmer noted, “The Chinese civil-aviation industry has cut Russia off from spare parts out of fear of U.S. sanctions, they’re not gonna be sending them military drones.”

Of course, if great powers reliably prioritized economic growth above their geopolitical objectives, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would not have happened, nor would the U.S. and E.U. have punished that incursion with inflationary sanctions.

Beijing and Moscow share an aversion to the West’s attempts to exercise power and influence in Eurasia. They both disdain Washington’s weaponization of the dollar-based financial system, which has enabled the U.S. to impose economic blockades without the formal consent of the U.N., or any other multilateral body with Chinese and Russian representatives. Were China eventually forced to sever some of its economic ties to the West, Russia’s wealth of commodities would become indispensable to the CCP. For these reasons and more, Xi Jinping has made strengthening China’s alliance with Russia a top foreign-policy priority. Following his meeting with Putin in February, the two leaders signed a statement declaring that their partnership had “no limits.” During that head-to-head, Xi reportedly asked Putin to delay his invasion of Ukraine until after the Olympic Games.

So China seemingly consented to Russia’s adventure in Ukraine in advance. And since the conflict’s onset, the CCP has echoed the Kremlin’s propaganda, blaming NATO for the war and affirming the unsubstantiated allegation that the U.S. was operating biological-weapon laboratories in Ukraine.

This said, it is unlikely that Xi knew that Russia’s invasion in Ukraine would be a protracted, high-casualty war against a committed nationalist resistance, since, by all accounts, Putin himself did not know that. And echoing Moscow’s talking points is among the cheapest forms of solidarity available to the Chinese regime: If promoting anti-American propaganda was cause for crippling western sanctions, the U.S.-China trade relationship would have ended before it began.

Thus far, the CCP has struck a careful balance between its economic and geopolitical objectives, providing enough diplomatic support for Russia to maintain Moscow’s loyalty without extending the kind of aid that would cost its exporters western customers. It is hard to see why it would abandon this stance for Vladimir Putin’s sake. As western sanctions lay waste to Russia’s economy, and Ukrainian fighters shrink its armed forces, the Kremlin’s leverage over China has gone from slim to virtually nonexistent. Putin is not in a position to spurn an alliance with China if the latter withholds military aid. And even with Chinese assistance, Russia’s odds of successfully imposing a puppet government on Ukraine — as opposed to waging an endless counterinsurgency war in defense of a hollow client state — are minuscule.

Further, even if China decided to prioritize aiding Putin above minimizing its exposure to sanctions, Beijing still has plenty of weapons in its arsenal that are less incendiary than military aid. As Bloomberg’s Shuli Ren observes, there are myriad ways that China could ease Russia’s financial woes:

Beijing could buy some of Russia’s $130 billion hoard of gold held by the Russian central bank and pay for it in U.S. dollars. It could reactivate a currency swap line, which was established after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and serve as the lender of the last resort. It could also step up trade with Russia, buying more oil, natural gas, wheat and fertilizers. Even better, China could buy stakes in Russian energy and commodities companies[.]

China has yet to go even this far. The notion that it would now become drastically more willing to aid Putin’s cause — after Russia’s military badly underperformed expectations and an Omicron outbreak increased pressure on the Chinese economy — does not make much sense.

Then again, as Putin has taught us all in recent weeks, authoritarian rulers are capable of senseless things.

Why China Probably Won’t Send Military Aid to Russia