Keeping China out of the Ukraine conflict

#CriticalThinking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for emerging security challenges at NATO

This week United States President Joe Biden has been in Brussels for the NATO summit and meetings with EU and G7 leaders. Ukraine is clearly the dominant theme. The agenda for all three meetings has, by and large, written itself.

The top priority has been demonstrating the unity and resolve of the transatlantic democracies in opposing the Russian invasion of Ukraine and ensuring that Putin and his regime pay the highest possible price for their unprovoked aggression. The war in Ukraine may go on for a long time and sustaining the course of economic pressure on Russia, isolating the Putin regime and providing assistance to Ukraine may prove even more important than the immediate flourish of gritty resolve that the allies showed in the first month of Russia’s “special military operation”.

Biden has committed the US to a permanent military presence on NATO’s eastern flank. This, together with the establishment of four new multinational battalions in the Black Sea region, will be welcome news to NATO member states, who now see themselves on the front line of Moscow’s ambition to reconstitute a Tsarist sphere of influence, if not a new Tsarist empire in eastern Europe. The US has announced new sanctions against Russia, particularly targeting the State Duma, and has urged the European allies to go further and faster in reducing their oil and gas purchases from Moscow. Washington’s offer to supply more of its liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe and build the infrastructure to increase its export volumes could make life easier for European allies to transition more rapidly from dependency on Russia than has seemed possible or even probable up to now.

The US is also encouraging the allies to keep up their supply of lethal weapons to Ukraine and to ramp up their production of anti-air and anti-armour missiles, so as to ensure that the supply does not dry up at just the moment when the Ukrainian forces are pushing the Russian forces back and regaining territory. At the NATO summit, the United Kingdom announced that it was sending a further 6,000 missiles to Kyiv, Sweden 5,000 and Germany 2,000. All very helpful to Ukraine. But given the intensity of the fighting these supplies will be used up in mere weeks.

Yet Biden also put a fourth priority on the table this week as the final leg of a successful strategy to ensure that Putin loses in Ukraine, both militarily and politically. This is keeping China out of the conflict.

The border agreement has benefited Putin

Biden has made clear over the past few weeks that the US will not put its troops on the ground in Ukraine nor its fighter jets in its airspace. So, in pursuing this fourth goal, Biden is following a time-honoured precept of conflict management: if you are not intervening in a war, then it is vital that you prevent other powers from intervening in support of the other side. Some readers of this analysis will be reminded of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s when France and the UK laboured intensely in the League of Nations to enforce an arms embargo and policy of neutrality vis-à-vis the conflict, only to see Mussolini and Hitler send their troops and air forces to support the nationalists under Franco. Needless to say, Franco won and then imposed an iron fist on Spain for the next 40 years. Could China now come to the rescue of Russia?

In recent days, Washington has publicised intelligence that indicates that Putin, faced with setbacks and stalemates in his Ukraine campaign, has turned to Beijing for help. According The New York Times, Putin has sent Chinese President Xi a long shopping list of military equipment, including drones, surface-to-air missiles, armoured vehicles, secure radios, logistics and even ready-to-eat meals to feed the Russian forces in Ukraine that are already suffering from lack of food and fuel. In addition, Russia is looking for financial assistance, access to the Chinese bank payment clearing system as an alternative to the SWIFT system that has been largely blocked by Western sanctions, and the use of Chinese shipping, ports and supply chains. Even before the invasion, Russia had signed deals with Beijing to supply more oil and gas, as well as the timber and raw materials that fuel the Chinese economy. Russia has also offloaded much if its wheat surplus onto the Chinese market, given China’s own poor harvest last year. Now Putin is hoping for advance payment from Xi for these exports to help cushion the blow of Western asset freezes and disinvestments.

The question is, will Xi grant Putin the help that he wants? At first sight, the answer would seem to be yes, as Xi has invested heavily in his relationship with his fellow authoritarian. Beyond factors like personal chemistry and the tactical support that the two strongmen can give each other in defying international criticism, there are three strategic reasons why Russia’s friendship is useful to China.

In the first place, security along China’s northern border allows Beijing to shift its military spending from its army to its navy and challenge the US in the Indo-Pacific. In 1969, there were military clashes between the Soviet Union and Mao’s China as both countries disputed islands and the border demarcation along the Amal and Ussuri rivers. Yet in 1989, they signed a treaty agreeing on the border, which resulted in a less strategically vulnerable China and allowed China to focus on power projection in the East and South China seas. This also includes building up the long-range missile, maritime and amphibious capabilities to launch an invasion of Taiwan, as well as turning the reefs and shoals occupied by Beijing in the South China Sea into permanent Chinese military bases. Moreover, the border agreement has benefited Putin in that he has been able to transfer military units from the Far East to fight in Ukraine.

China has given Putin a good deal of rhetorical support

Secondly, Russia has become, as said already, a primary supplier of energy, food and raw materials to China, including fertiliser, nickel, uranium, zinc, palladium and iron ore. Russia has also transferred considerable amounts of military technology in aircraft designandjet engines, as well as ship-building expertise, including in aircraft carrier design and submarines. The technology also extends to satellites and space exploration. Moscow and Beijing have been working on a mission to the Moon in 2024. If Russia emerges weaker and isolated after the war in Ukraine, with many of the sanctions remaining in place, Beijing will be able to drive some hard bargains for its Russian imports, given that Moscow may well be shut out of other markets. A weakened Russia as junior partner is in China’s interest. Russia has the added advantage of being contiguous to China so that supply chains and transportation routes are secure in contrast to road and rail routes across the Middle East and Central and South-West Asia, and the more easily disrupted and extended maritime links. .

Finally, Putin has value to Beijing as a spoiler, frustrating the efforts of successive US administrations to pivot fully to the Indo-Pacific and strategic competition with China. Whether it was Trump having to fend off accusations of Russian interference in the US elections and collusion with his own election campaign, or Biden now having to confront Russia on NATO’s borders, Putin is a timely agent of diversion for Xi. The additional troops, aircraft, ships and equipment that Washington is sending to Europe to bolster NATO’s eastern flank – many of which will remain permanently and possibly for several years – cannot be sent to Guam, the Philippines or Japan. Putin’s interventions in Syria and Libya or his use of Wagner Group mercenaries in the Sahel keep the Pentagon and the US intelligence agencies focused on Moscow and divert assets away from tracking China. Having the US fighting on several fronts is clearly a core Chinese interest. 

In deciding whether to assist Russia, Xi may also feel constrained by the joint statement that he signed with Putin on 4 February when the latter visited Beijing ahead of the opening of the Winter Olympics. This was not the first joint statement, as Moscow and Beijing have been churning out these texts since 2001. Yet the latest iteration is certainly the longest and most detailed. It states that there are no limits to China-Russia cooperation and covers the whole gamut of security, foreign policy, science and technology, economic cooperation and forming a common stance towards the rest of the world.

Putin would undoubtedly have informed Xi of his intention to invade Ukraine while he was in Beijing, as not to do so would constitute a serious breach of trust. But Putin might not have revealed the full extent of his “special military operation”, nor his ultimate war aims in Ukraine. This would be a delicate issue as China has invested heavily in Ukraine as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It has spent $1.7bn in building a deep port basin in Odessa and in Ukrainian agriculture, transport and technology projects, including in the health and aviation sectors. So China has much to lose as Moscow destroys the infrastructure associated with these projects. Yet faithful to the joint statement, China has given Putin a good deal of rhetorical support. Xi has said that China is ‘on the right side of history’ in backing Russia, and Beijing has refused to condemn Russia or refer to the war in Ukraine as an invasion. It has followed the Moscow line in blaming NATO and its policy of enlargement for the confrontation and supported Russia’s failed attempts to pass a UN Security Council Resolution on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine, which does not mention Russia’s responsibility for causing this catastrophe.

Beijing needs to hedge its bets

Yet at the same time, Beijing seems taken aback and even embarrassed by the scale of the war in Ukraine and the shockwaves it is provoking throughout the global economy. China has repeatedly called for a ceasefire and says that it ‘regrets’ the conflict. It has reiterated its well-known attachment to state sovereignty and non-interference as core principles of international relations. It has given humanitarian aid to Ukraine, although so far only a miserly $1.6mn. Moreover, it abstained in the votes condemning Russia’s actions in the UN Security Council and the General Assembly. It has offered to mediate, although so far without seeking to assume the proactive engagement shown by Israel and Turkey. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has asserted defiantly that “China will never accept any external coercion or pressure and opposes unfounded accusations,” but beyond Moscow-friendly rhetoric, Beijing’s actions thus far have been much more circumspect. China has denied that it is giving Russia military or financial support — at least thus far. So what will be influencing Beijing’s calculus behind the scenes?

Certainly, a point of influence will be the fear of secondary sanctions against China if it is found to be helping Russia, overtly and covertly. The Chinese leadership, like its Russian counterpart, will have been surprised by the unity of the transatlantic allies and the liberal democracies more broadly in standing up to Moscow and imposing far-reaching sanctions on Russia. The autocracies have long assumed that the democracies are too used to their creature comforts and too divided in their economic and business interests to go beyond symbolic sanctions and declarations of moral condemnation. Yet NATO has been revived, Germany is increasing its defence budget to 2% of GDP and spending €100bn on the modernisation of the Bundeswehr. The EU and North America have stood together in imposing severe pain on Russia’s financial system and international trade. They are tightening export controls and now even targeting Russia’s energy exports. International business is fleeing Russia, the ruble is collapsing and the stock market is seizing up. Not only the oligarchs but the entire Russian population is being impoverished in a way that could over time promote social unrest. The West is decoupling from Russia in a manner that is likely to be lasting and perhaps irreversible.

This is a strong message to Beijing. The Chinese have been trying to reduce their reliance on the dollar-denominated international trading and financial system for some years now so as to better withstand sanctions and Western anti-coercion responses to China’s trade practices. Yet the yuan is not yet an international trading currency nor fully convertible. Recently, China has asked Saudi Arabia to use the yuan rather than the dollar for its oil sales to Beijing, and Russia and China are moving their trade in commodities into euros. Yet Chinese economists calculate that it will still take several years before Beijing has financial autonomy from the dollar and the US banking system. It has massive assets in foreign banks and foreign currency. With extensive overseas investments, it is much more reliant on trade in advanced goods and services, and the smooth functioning of global supply chains than Russia, which is essentially a commodities exporter.

Moreover, China has witnessed the growing mood of firmness vis-à-vis Beijing in the US Congress, Europe and Asia. Already before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China was subject to a number of sanctions due to its treatment of its Uighur minority and clampdown in Hong Kong. The European Parliament has frozen approval of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment for nearly two years and is taking Beijing to the World Trade Organization for its economic bullying of Lithuania after the latter opened a Taiwan representation office in Vilnius. In a nutshell, China can no longer feel secure that the current Western resolve against Putin will not extend to China if it is seen helping Russia use force successfully in Ukraine and return Europe to Cold War confrontation. Beijing needs to hedge its bets. The signals of a common US-EU stance towards Beijing emerging from this week’s NATO, G7 and EU summits in Brussels will be key in influencing Xi’s calculus of the balance of risk and opportunity in siding with the Kremlin.

There are some restraints on China’s freedom of manoeuvre in assisting Russia

The Ukraine conflict has given more credibility to the notion of an epochal clash between liberal democracy and authoritarianism on the global stage. There were many sceptics of this narrative dear to the Biden administration before Putin’s invasion, but they will now have a harder time trying to refute the thesis that liberal democracy versus authoritarianism is the defining principle of global politics in the 21st century. Ukrainian President Zelensky has made this his central message in his emotional and effective speeches to the US Congress, the European Parliament and a multitude of other parliaments throughout Europe and Asia. He has framed Ukraine as the defensive bulwark of freedom and liberal democracy globally, and as the litmus test for peace and deterrence versus aggression and war.

In Chinese social media, and indeed the mainstream media, this point has been picked up by nationalist commentators, not normally friendly to the West, who worry that China is being sucked into this narrative by Putin in a way that will also isolate China, limit its options and force it prematurely to confront a newly recharged West before it is economically and militarily ready.

The nationalists know also that a military humiliation for Putin in Ukraine would make him politically vulnerable in Moscow. Putin’s fall would be a major blow to the image of the strongman which Xi cultivates as well. If Beijing comes to believe that Putin’s survival is at risk, it may make its mediation offer more active. Indeed several leaders, including President Zelensky and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan have appealed to China to put pressure on Moscow to stop the war. Yet if China’s intervention only offers Putin a face-saving exit via, for instance, immunity from war crime indictments, or if China introduces peacekeepers into Ukraine to freeze Russia’s occupation and its forces in place, Western interests and certainly Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence would be compromised.

So there are some restraints on China’s freedom of manoeuvre in assisting Russia. How can the transatlantic allies build on these to develop a successful strategy to keep Beijing on the side-lines of the Ukraine conflict?

Putin’s invasion has been a useful reality check for Xi

First is to stay united and stick to a common stance. This is not the moment for the EU to reprise old debates about being equidistant between Washington and Beijing – as a ‘third power’ – and assert its own distinct and autonomous foreign policy to balance competition and the defence of EU values with engagement. When the EU leaders hold their summit with President Xi at the beginning of April, they should deliver the same firm message that President Biden delivered to him in a recent phone call, which was also delivered by Jake Sullivan, the US National Security Advisor when he met his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, in Rome two weeks ago.

The second element is for the EU to join the US in rallying support for the sanctions against Russia in the UN and wider world, targeting their diplomatic efforts on those countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America that so far have chosen to sit on the fence. A joint approach where both Washington and Brussels use their respective relationships and levers of influence will be more successful than if they work in isolation. China prides itself on its good relations with countries in the G7 and non-aligned community. So the more it sees the EU and the US building a broad coalition beyond the Western liberal democracies to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, the more it will fear the harm to its own image as a champion of peace and development aid.

Next is to keep China on the TV screens and front pages of the international media. Beijing likes to operate in the shadows, where its actions will not attract scrutiny and criticism. So publicising China’s actions and using intelligence-driven operations and disclosures, as the US has done throughout the Ukraine crisis to keep its adversaries on the back foot, will force Beijing to react, and either acknowledge what it is doing or issue denials — as it did recently regarding Chinese weapon deliveries to Russia. It will again focus China on the reputational risk of being too close to Russia.

Finally, the Chinese have been studying Russia’s campaign in Ukraine closely. They have seen with alarm what happens when a military action is poorly prepared and executed, and when the invading country has not properly prepared itself economically to face the blowback of sanctions. It has seen the consequences of military planning based on false assumptions about the speed of progress and the adequacy of supply chains or the local and international reactions. Beijing has also seen how a determined popular resistance can frustrate a much larger invading force. So Ukraine’s plucky resistance, which has incurred great cost in terms of the physical destruction of the country, has probably won time for the people of Taiwan. China will now need to think how it can achieve the overwhelming military superiority and economic autarky needed for a successful occupation of Taiwan.

Putin’s invasion has been a useful reality check for Xi, but it has also bought time for the US and its allies to see what further assistance they can give to Taipei to enhance the country’s capabilities for resistance and resilience. If Xi is focusing first and foremost on Taiwan, then Putin’s invasion has not helped his cause, and siding with Putin will only make Taiwan’s unification with China by force of arms more costly and more risky.

Future historians may well conclude that keeping China out of the Ukraine conflict avoided a relapse into the Cold War and preserved the multilateral order and globalisation, despite the enormous harm that Putin has inflicted on both. The liberal democracies can survive Putin’s Russia as long as it remains an isolated pariah. This is now the task for Western diplomats and they should leave no stone unturned in trying to achieve it.

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