Will China risk arming Russia in the Ukraine war?

A Moscow victory would align with Beijing’s cherished goals of reshaping global politics and power

China is considering sending weapons and drones to Russia, according to information Washington declassified last month. Military aid would directly help Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

This public disclosure, after the United States Navy shot down a Chinese balloon that allegedly was spying, further heightened existing tensions between Washington and Beijing.

It also comes as Russia is facing mounting costs in its war on Ukraine – both financially and in human lives. These setbacks have pushed Moscow to seek help where it can find it.

Russia has tried to secure weapons and other military support from allies such as North Korea and neighboring country Belarus. President Vladimir Putin has also turned to neutral nations such as India and China to whom it can sell its oil and gas and bring in more money.

China has not publicly announced a decision to give military aid to Russia. But based on my research, I’m certain Moscow would welcome any assistance China could offer.

Beijing’s decision about whether to get involved in the Ukraine war will be carefully calculated, such as long-term benefits, risks, and the influence of Western powers.

Military aid

Still, I think that China’s choice in supporting Russia or not chiefly comes down to two considerations:

How the Ukraine conflict will affect China’s overall growth in world politics, and its interest in invading Taiwan.

Massive military aid to a struggling army is not cheap. The US spent over US$75 billion on aid to Ukraine in 2022. But despite the costs of war, China is considering supplying Russia with military hardware for various reasons.

Economically, Beijing’s interests include money, energy, and trade opportunities. During the Cold War, the US successfully drove a wedge between the two countries. However, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Moscow and Beijing grew closer and became economically interconnected.

Since Russia first launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine more than a year ago, China has appeared to maintain a “pro-Moscow” neutrality.

Top diplomat Wang Yi outlined China’s line on the Ukraine war. Photo: nato.int

That is, China is officially neutral and not contributing to the conflict, but its government officials are still echoing Russia’s war narrative and propaganda while ignoring what Ukraine is telling the world.

China has criticized Western interference in the war. It has also proposed a peace plan for the conflict, which does not actually call for Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine.

So far, Beijing has stopped short of sending military aid. Reversing course would be a substantive departure from China’s previous policy of official neutrality.

Russian success in Ukraine would align with China’s goals of reshaping global politics and power and could help facilitate Beijing’s rise as an economic and military leader.

In February 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Winter Olympics in Beijing.

They issued a joint document calling for reshaping global politics. The lengthy statement details shared values and a vision for a world without the US as a major leader, and where China and Russia gain more control and influence.

Only option

Their foreign ministers met earlier this month and Beijing released a statement that reiterated this point, saying that the two countries “have maintained sound and steady development, setting a new paradigm for a new type of major-country relationship.”

Political scientists and human rights scholars do not consider Russia or China to be democracies or politically free. But both countries have lauded their own views of “democracy” and say they stand opposed to a world where the US asserts its version as the only option.

Another reason China may want Russia to succeed in Ukraine is that victory would give Beijing more external support in any plans to take Taiwan or other territories. The democratic island off the coast of China is considered a breakaway province by Beijing.

If Russia had won the Ukraine war as quickly as it initially planned, this might have paved the way for China to attempt a similar invasion of Taiwan. But there was no quick victory.

Yet a prolonged Russia-Ukraine conflict may present a new kind of opportunity for China in Taiwan by diverting US money, military resources, and attention away from the island.

China’s Navy has conducted ‘live-fire’ drills in the Taiwan Strait. Photo: PLA Daily

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang argued this week, that because Washinton sells arms to Taiwan, this justifies Beijing selling weapons to Russia.

Some critics have noted that American aid to Ukraine makes it harder for the US to justify defending Taiwan if China attempts to take the island by force.

While an invasion appears unlikely in the short term – and some experts say such a move would be disastrous for Beijing – both Beijing and Washington have a vested interest in the fate of Taiwan and the surrounding region.

The US and China have made moves to establish an enhanced military presence in the South China Sea region. China has increased its display of military force surrounding Taiwan.

Washington recently announced it would deploy troops and military equipment in the Philippines, a strategic military base that is close to Taiwan.

Beijing warned

In the past few months, the Biden administration and other Western powers have cautioned China that it should not get involved in the Ukraine conflict.

Earlier this month, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz publicly warned Beijing that there would be consequences if it intervened. Given that China has not yet officially stepped forward to support Russia, these efforts appear successful.

Yet research has shown that countries intervene in conflicts when they think their interests may be affected and when they can make a difference. This could be a factor that pushes China to become more involved in Russia’s battle.

Michael A. Allen is a Professor of Political Science at Boise State University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.