“No Limits” Has Limits
In the war in Ukraine, the China-Russia relationship is a wildcard. The notion persists, going back to the Putin-Xi meeting in Beijing just before Putin launched his war on Ukraine, that as they declared) their “strategic cooperation partnership” has “no limits.” In fact, China is Russia’s most important partner, but within certain limits. On one hand, China is a major purchaser of Russian oil and is one of Russia’s key trade partners overall. Russia and China continue to conduct joint military exercises to demonstrate their solidarity as strategic partners. Xi Jinping and other top Chinese officials have unfailingly supported Russia’s argument that NATO is responsible for the war. They have nothing to say about Putin’s war crimes and crimes against humanity. Chinese leaders may believe that a Russian defeat would leave China alone against Western pressure, whereas a Russian victory of some sort would strengthen Beijing’s diplomacy, especially among developing countries. Some observers also speculate that China’s ambition to reunify with Taiwan would be fed by a Russian victory, though I dispute that.
On the other hand, the limits to the partnership are significant, though we should not go so far as China’s ambassador to the European Union, Fu Cong, who recently stated that “‘No limit’ is nothing but rhetoric” (https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/05/world/europe/eu-china-embassador-russia-fu-cong.html). One limit is that China has never condoned Russian territorial seizures from Ukraine, and to the contrary has more than once indirectly criticized Russia by condemning attacks on independent countries. Second, major Chinese firms have been reluctant to challenge US sanctions on Russia for fear of being sanctioned themselves. Third, China claims it has never supplied Russia with military hardware, though various reports indicate that China has sent Russia so-called nonlethal military assistance such as spare parts and equipment. Let’s examine that last point further.
US Concerns and China’s Response
Chinese military aid to Russia is a matter of US concern. In February, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, indicated that he had evidence that Beijing was “considering providing lethal support to Russia in its aggression against Ukraine.” Blinken said he warned Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official, that there would be serious consequences were that to occur. It now appears that Blinken’s warning was based on US intelligence intercepts of Russian communications in which the expectation was raised about receiving Chinese weapons in covert shipments (https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2023/04/13/russia-china-weapons-leaked-documents-discord/). Other US officials (unnamed) disputed that report: “We have not seen evidence,” said one, “that China has transferred weapons or provided lethal assistance to Russia. But we remain concerned and are continuing to monitor closely.” And President Biden himself was unconvinced, saying on March 24: “I’ve been hearing now for the past three months about China’s going to provide significant weapons to Russia. They haven’t yet — doesn’t mean they won’t — but they haven’t yet.”
The Chinese response to these warnings has been unequivocal: “It’s the U.S., and not China, that has been incessantly supplying weapons to the battlefield, and the U.S. is not qualified to issue any orders to China,” the foreign ministry spokesman said in late February. (Charles Buckley, “China Says U.S. is ‘Not Qualified’ to Issue Orders on Arms,” NYT, February 20, 2023.) Chinese military aid to Russia has never been mentioned in any of the final statements following meetings between Russian and Chinese leaders. Indeed, “no limits” was not repeated when Putin and Xi had their most recent meeting in March. Their final statement was chock full of laudatory statements about Sino-Russian peace, friendship, and mutual support. But Ukraine was barely mentioned. Russia gave its support to China’s peace plan for the war. The statement also said: “Resolving the Ukraine crisis requires respecting every country’s just security concerns and preventing their becoming a confrontation between camps and throwing fire on oil. Both sides emphasize that responsible dialogue is the best path to steadily resolving problems” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, March 22, 2023, Chinese text). Nothing was said about upgrading their military cooperation or suggesting that China and Russia are now in a security alliance.
The evident US strategy is to use warnings to China as a means of deterring weapons shipments. But China’s restraint may be due less to US warnings than to self-interest: Why become party to a war in which China has no direct security interests, and which would risk coming under US trade sanctions and other pressures from US allies? In a word, relations with the US and allies such as Japan, Australia, and NATO are already very bad; there’s no compelling reason to worsen them. Still, relations are worsening. The European Union is considering imposing sanctions on Chinese companies that are supplying Russia with dual-use goods, such as microchips for missile guidance systems. As Politico’s China Watcher reports on May 9, most of these companies are based in Hong Kong. China’s response contains the usual implicit threat, this from a foreign ministry spokesman: “If the report you cited is true, the EU move will erode mutual trust and cooperation with China and sharpen division and confrontation in the world, which is extremely dangerous. We call on the EU not to take that wrong course. Otherwise, China will take resolute measures to safeguard our legitimate and lawful rights and interests.”
Might China’s Policy Change?
China’s stance on sending weapons to Russia is subject to change, however. US intelligence reportedly believes that the change will most likely come if Ukraine or NATO carries out attacks inside Russia. But I think the more likely occasion relates to US policy on Taiwan: The closer the US comes to diluting the longstanding policy of strategic ambiguity on defending Taiwan, and instead supports Taiwan’s status as an independent country, the more likely is China to become Russia’s military partner in the war. Right-wing Congress members who are pushing not only for more military aid to Taiwan but also for ditching strategic ambiguity don’t speak for official US policy, but their rhetoric is surely being followed closely in Beijing. When a senior Congressman such as Michael McCaul of Texas says, while leading a Congressional trip to Taiwan, that “If Ukraine doesn’t win and Russia is successful, they see the bullseye turning to them [China’s neighbors],” and that “the US stands with you and will protect you,” he’s asking for trouble (https://www.politico.com/news/2023/04/15/mccaul-taiwan-china-00091601).
Bottom line: If US China policy continues down the path of strengthening political and military ties with Taiwan, China will very likely start sending weapons to Russia. And if a Chinese attack on Taiwan should ever occur, it most likely will be the result of US policies that provoke it, by crossing China’s red line on Taiwan independence.