Over the past year, China has made the best of Russia’s war against Ukraine, emerging as one of the conflict’s few beneficiaries. It has styled itself as a measured peacemaker while gaining substantial leverage over Russia. Beijing has been Moscow’s most conspicuous and consequential backer in the war, pledging a “no limits” partnership with Russia shortly before the February 2022 invasion and helping keep Russia’s wartime economy afloat. Moscow’s growing reliance on China has been lucrative and valuable for Beijing—and this economic dependence will likely continue and deepen. China’s rhetorical commitment to “multipolarity” in geopolitics has encouraged many countries in the global South to remain aloof from the war, unwilling to rally to Ukraine’s cause. After crowing about its reconciliation of Iran and Saudi Arabia, China promotes its “peace plan” for Ukraine, an entirely unrealistic proposal that caters almost exclusively to Russia’s interests. (Notably, the plan does not require withdrawing Russian troops from Ukraine.) Whatever the flaws of this plan, it has still allowed Chinese leader Xi Jinping to present himself as a diplomatic mediator and to position China to play a part in Ukraine’s eventual reconstruction.
And yet, for all it has gained as a putative bystander, China may not be willing to stay on the sidelines indefinitely. A defeated Russia is not in China’s interest. The Kremlin is Beijing’s most important partner in opposing the U.S.-led international order. Despite their many differences, China and Russia have joined forces to advance an alternative order with their own rules of war and peace, financial centers, and multilateral institutions. “Change is coming that hasn’t happened in 100 years,” Xi declared in April at the end of a visit to Moscow. “And we are driving this change together.” A Russian humiliation in Ukraine would undermine this narrative, giving the United States greater latitude to focus its energies and resources on competing with China.
To prevent this outcome, China could throw Russia a lifeline beyond economic and moral support and supply its partner with lethal military aid. It could do so to prolong the war, to stave off a Russian defeat, or to speed up some Russian victory. Chinese support could be covert—designed, not to be discovered by U.S. intelligence. Indeed, China’s delivery to Russia of goods such as so-called hunting rifles, which have both civilian and military uses, arguably already constitutes such support. Or Beijing’s involvement could be overt. The public announcement of weapons deliveries would signal a formal alliance with Russia, and China’s entry into the war would open a new chapter in international affairs, turning the conflict in Ukraine into a truly global one and inaugurating a far more adversarial relationship between China and the West.
The United States, accustomed to watching China closely, has described providing lethal aid to Russia as a redline. Should Beijing cross this line, Washington has threatened severe repercussions (probably in the form of significant economic sanctions). U.S. officials should be firm and consistent in warning their Chinese counterparts against such a dangerous course of action. But they should also recognize that China will not be easily cowed by words or the threat of further U.S. sanctions.
In addition to the U.S. response, Europe is vital in deterring a more concerted Chinese intervention in the war. Despite the optics of French President Emmanuel Macron’s deferential visit to Beijing in April, China’s desire for access to the European economy remains a significant source of leverage for EU states. Even if China is convinced that it cannot repair relations with a hostile United States, it knows it has much to lose in Europe. To succeed, Europeans must make clear to China that any military support for Russia would incur a severe and united response from Europe. The United States and Europe should remind China that its participation in the war will not decrease Western support for Ukraine. Far from it, a Chinese entry will only spur further aid from the West, raising the costs and the stakes for all.
The Chinese Calculus
China has three broad interests regarding the war in Ukraine. The first is preventing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s downfall. Russia is a valuable asset for China, with Putin at the helm. It figures in China’s Cold War–style rivalry with the United States. It provides cheap energy and sizable markets for China. Beijing does not want Putin to be replaced by a less friendly leader, nor does it wish to see domestic instability in Russia induced by a lost war in Ukraine. The worst-case scenario, the fragmentation of the Russian state, could bring chaos to China’s borders, impeding China’s ability to trade with Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and Europe. Although Putin and Xi probably do not agree on how the war in Ukraine should end, they agree that an apparent Russian defeat would be intolerable.
China also understands that the war in Ukraine has ramifications for international order. Were the war to conclude on Western terms with a clear Ukrainian victory, the United States would define it as a triumph for its international order, rules, power, and diplomatic acumen. This would blow China’s aspirations for a new global order with Chinese (or Chinese-Russian) characteristics. But if, by contrast, the war were to drag on and continue to contribute to inflation and food insecurity worldwide, China could frame the conflict as evidence of the failings of the preexisting U.S.-led international order. Thirty years of American hegemony have led us to this impasse; China could argue while casting itself as a responsible stakeholder in its alternative international order. More prosaically, China is happy for the war to continue as it keeps U.S. attention and resources pinned to Europe, far from the Indo-Pacific.
China’s third interest, which may not be completely compatible with its second interest, is to have a meaningful stake in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine. Beijing is mainly content to let Russia, Ukraine, and the West exhaust themselves in the fighting, but it wants to have a say in the eventual peace process and the postwar economic landscape of Ukraine. China had a growing economic relationship with Ukraine before the war, and it will doubtless play an extensive role in Ukraine’s postwar reconstruction. Although Kyiv insists that its supporters in the war should be the primary beneficiaries of the opportunities that will come with the country’s revitalization, Ukraine may eventually turn to Beijing to help shoulder the enormity of its reconstruction needs. However lopsided, the peace plan Xi recently proposed to Putin in Moscow is a sign that China wishes to be both a mediator and an economic player in Ukraine; it wants to be at the table so that whenever the war ends, it can act on its economic interests. China will do what it can to win the peace.
Propping Up Putin
The magnitude of these interests in the war ensures that China will not passively allow events in Ukraine to unfold however they will. Put negatively. China will go to considerable lengths to prevent the United States from succeeding in Ukraine. If the war continues to go badly for Russia, China will prop up Putin. Put positively. China will try to fit the war into its regional and international order vision. On the one hand, it will seek to expand commercial ties with Ukraine and Ukraine’s neighbors and, on the other hand, broaden the scope of action available to powers such as Russia that have flung off the rules written in Washington.
China could anchor itself in the war by making the risky decision to furnish Russia with lethal military assistance. Such support could be provided covertly. If this assistance went undetected or was not conclusively detected, China could still wear the mantle of peacemaker in Ukraine. So attired, it could drive a wedge between Europe and the United States—if Washington condemned Beijing for equipping the Russian war effort and took punitive measures, but Europe refused to follow suit. In the process, European countries, fearing Chinese economic retaliation, could leave Washington high and dry, fracturing the transatlantic alliance.
Whatever covert support China delivered to Russia—including drones, artillery shells, and ammunition—would not bring Russia victory because Russia has no coherent path to success in Ukraine. Chinese aid cannot fix the failures of Russia’s military leadership, the low morale among Russian troops, and the Kremlin’s impoverished strategic thinking. Yet material help from China could do a lot to prolong the war, give Russia tactical advantages on the ground, and convince a nervous Russian elite that Russia can continue fighting. Chinese assistance would increase Russia’s willingness to wage a long war, protecting Putin from the political vulnerabilities produced by his disastrous invasion.
Suppose China went a step further and overtly entered the war on Russia’s side, not attempting to conceal its weapons deliveries to Russia. Such a drastic move would represent China throwing the gauntlet to the United States and Europe, brushing aside trifling any Western threats of economic punishment. Chinese participation in the war would raise the stakes immeasurably for the United States and Europe. A Russian victory or partial victory with known Chinese support would make China a player in the broader landscape of European security. China’s joining up with Russia would demand more outstanding military commitments to Ukraine from the United States and European countries already struggling to maintain the Ukrainian war effort.
Overt support for Russia would fly in the face of public statements made by Chinese leaders since Putin launched his invasion, but there could be a strategic logic to such a bold move. China’s entry into the war would make the most sense as a preliminary distraction before a planned invasion of Taiwan months or years later. The resources that Western powers are forced to expend in Ukraine are resources they cannot immediately direct to Taiwan’s defense. Chinese participation in the Russian war effort would draw attention away from Taiwan and the Indo-Pacific. In this scenario, Ukraine’s battlefield configurations might not matter much to Beijing. China would hope that its involvement imposed costs on the West. It would not have to send a single soldier to Ukraine. (The West has already proved that the course of the war can be affected without involving its uniformed soldiers.) Beijing’s announcement of direct and long-term military support to Russia would be transformative.
But it could also be disastrous for China. Russia might still lose the war. So far, its military campaign has gone from failure to failure, and at every turn, Ukraine has outperformed expectations. With Chinese fingerprints all over the war, a defeat for Russia would rebound on its backer. Indeed, this concern has motivated China to stay on the sidelines. Officials have concluded that Putin’s folly and ineptitude may not merit more than symbolic and situational support. China’s Ambassador to the EU, Fu Cong, recently explained that China’s “no limit” friendship with Russia was “nothing but rhetoric.”
China could also stand to lose the very thing it has gained from the war, a privileged global position. China would join the ranks of pariah states such as Iran and North Korea by giving Russia its military support. It would worsen its already adversarial relationship with the West, for which it would pay a substantial economic price. And China would be less able to paint itself as a benign international presence in a world spinning out of control.
China’s aid would signal tacit approval of Russia’s many attacks on civilians and enable such war crimes. By helping wage war against a country that has done nothing to provoke China and with which China once had decent relations, Xi would set an ugly precedent and instill fear in countries farther afield from Ukraine. In seeking to undermine the West, he would make constructing a Chinese-led international order much harder.
Europe’s Trump Card
Whatever the risks of China’s joining the war, Xi will not be persuaded of anything he does not already believe about Russia and Ukraine. Western rhetoric will not deflect China from its three core interests in the war, and Xi is well aware that he will face sanctions should he cross Western redlines by giving Russia lethal aid. U.S. and European officials still need to drive this message in tandem, emphasizing that the United States and Europe will forge a comprehensive Western response to any Chinese entry into the war. They will present a united front with like-minded partners in the Indo-Pacific.
The Europeans, in particular, must communicate to China that their rejection of any Chinese deliveries of lethal weapons to Russia is a fundamentally European position and not merely the rhetoric of governments taking their cues from the United States. It should be stated repeatedly that the war in Ukraine is existential for Europeans, and impeding Chinese intervention is a fundamental European interest. By wading into the conflict, China would lose Europe. For their part, U.S. officials must impress on Beijing the United States’ patience and steely resolve in supporting the Ukrainian war effort. Demonstrating this fortitude and commitment to Ukraine’s cause should help Beijing see the risks of widening the war more starkly.