China has the ability to export blueprints and expertise to Moscow, which would shore up Russia's depleting defence capacity amid the Ukraine conflict.
China, the world’s second-biggest economy and military power after the US, has emerged as the biggest foil to Washington’s hegemony, recently brokering an unexpected normalisation deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two staunch rivals of the Middle East.
Under Xi Jinping, who received an unprecedented third term as the communist party-led country’s president, China is also seeking a more active role in the Ukraine conflict than staying on the sidelines.
But how does its active role in the Ukraine war play out? Some believe that China might play the peacemaker role in the conflict, while others point to recent indications coming from Washington, which claims that Xi might be preparing to provide military aid to close friend Putin.
“They are strongly considering providing lethal assistance to Russia,” said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month, citing the country’s intelligence sources. China denied the US assertion calling it “speculation”.
But experts doubt that the Asian giant would arm Russia in a substantial manner, as Beijing does not see any real benefit from sending heavy weapons to Russia at the expense of antagonising the West against China, which has strong commercial interests with Europe and the US.
“I would expect China to be very careful about arming Russia. I do not anticipate the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) embarking on an active policy to send weapons,” says Charlie Parton, a prominent expert on Chinese politics and the EU’s former First Councillor on China.
“But it is possible that some small quantities of useful Chinese items will find their way to Russia through the agency of Chinese companies. If these are exposed and publicised, the CCP will deny knowledge,” Parton tells TRT World.
Andreas Krieg, a defence analyst and a senior lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London, Royal College of Defence Studies, also thinks China will pursue a balancing act in its Ukraine policy without aggressively backing Russia.
“China can think about how it can support the Russian war effort more actively, even in the military domain, without directly delivering lethal aid,” Krieg tells TRT World. Krieg believes China would prefer going with softer options like investing in the Russian military industry to directly arming Moscow against Kiev.
“They could export blueprints and know-how to Moscow to allow them to build some of the weapons systems in Russia,” Krieg says, adding that it would allow China to maintain “nominal disassociation” on military support to Russia.
“So this is probably a more likely scenario where China will find a way to stay short of further antagonising the West while increasing its support for military and defence efforts in Russia,” Krieg adds.
The Chinese would not mind a prolonged conflict, even making sure that the war does not stop for the time being because Beijing benefits from the status quo, according to the military analyst. In this sense, staying neutral in the Ukraine conflict will serve Chinese interests in the long term, he says.
Both Russia and NATO, fierce competitors against China, are depleting their resources and consuming their bandwidth in Ukraine to achieve their objectives, says Krieg. The West-Russia confrontation in Ukraine has created a good opportunity for China to “get on with doing whatever it wants to do, building up its military and its international and global influence,” the analyst observes.
Even though some might argue that the Chinese might want to tip the balance a little bit in favour of Russia if Moscow was on the brink of failing or losing the war in Ukraine, that’s not currently the case, Krieg says.
In recent months, Russia appears to have the upper hand in the conflict – from Bakhmut to other eastern Ukrainian areas.
Against China’s balancing act, there is a weak argument favouring US intelligence claim that Beijing might take a confrontational approach against the Western alliance, according to Krieg.
The most powerful evidence of this approach could be the appointment of the hawkish Wei Fenghe as China’s new defence minister, Krieg points out. Wei, who has already been sanctioned by the US for arms deals with Russia, is not a typical technocrat coming from a military background.
“It would not be surprising if he were someone promoting greater export of Chinese weapon systems to Russia and or, at least, helping the Russians build arms inside of Russia,” says Krieg. Wei Fenghe is “very confrontational” when it comes to the West and is “probably an advocate who says ‘let’s take the risk’.”
This hawkish stance might also have no problem with sending Chinese drones to Russia, says the analyst. “It could obviously be a game-changer, particularly if these drones come in large quantities,” says Krieg. Russia has already acquired many kamikaze drones from Iran, an ally.
This belligerent Chinese approach might also be more receptive to Russian demands.
“If the war continues, Putin will have no option but to press Xi for weapons and munitions. This is because Russian industrial capacity cannot keep up with the attrition of combat losses. The Russian army needs munitions, missiles, tanks, and drones,” says Edward Erickson, a retired professor of military history at the Department of War Studies at the Marine Corps University.
In exchange for selling arms to Russia, China will receive cheap energy discounted well below the actual market value and as a result, “both nations benefit,” according to Erickson.
“A Russian defeat does not benefit China because it would enable America to shift military forces from Europe and the Middle East to the Pacific. I think the war will continue, so it is inevitable that China will arm Russia,” Erickson tells TRT World.
But arming Russia would come with a considerable cost and risk for the Chinese, as it would mean jeopardising its trade interests with EU and NATO members, according to Krieg.
It also undermines China’s soft power status across the globe, going against Beijing’s peacemaking narrative in which the country defends every individual country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, says Krieg.
By attacking Ukraine, Russia violated Kiev’s sovereignty and annexed territories, which violates the international law principle of territorial integrity.
Parton thinks similarly to Krieg. “The Americans have made it clear that if China or Chinese companies are discovered shipping weapons to Russia, there will be sanctions on those who facilitated the deals,” he says.
However, Erickson, a former American army officer, differs from both experts. “Except for sanctions, the West can’t really do much of anything should China arm Russia in a significant way. America and the EU already have some economic sanctions against China now, and more of the same will hurt the West as much as it hurts China,” he says.
Recently, two big American banks collapsed, brewing more uncertainty and revealing signs of a potential global financial crisis. Besides the Russian-Ukraine conflict, the global economy has already been jolted by a host of factors, according to Erickson.
“Therefore, any Western reaction against China will be primarily one of criticising Xi in the media and in the UN rather than actual punitive action.”