Will China help Russian troops? Ukraine war is the first big test of the countries’ budding military ties

Last August, thousands of Russian and Chinese soldiers spent five days racing tanks, launching heavy artillery, flying fighter jets, and trying out new military technology in China’s western Gobi desert. Military exercises between China and Russia have become increasingly common in recent years, but the August war games were the first time Russian soldiers participated in such drills on Chinese soil. It was also the first time Russian soldiers used Chinese weapons, according to Russian officials. Chinese state media said the exercise marked a “new height” in the strategic partnership between the two countries and their militaries.

Now, Russia’s war in Ukraine has raised the prospect of Russian soldiers using Chinese weapons in actual combat. On Monday, U.S. officials told the Financial Times, the New York Times, and the Washington Post that Russia has asked China for military assistance to support its attack on Ukraine. China’s foreign ministry said Monday that Russia never asked China for military equipment and that the reports were “malicious disinformation” deliberately spread by U.S. officials.

China’s response preceded a major meeting on Monday between senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi and U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Rome. Neither side released details on what the seven-hour conversation entailed, but the meeting included a “substantial discussion of Russia’s war against Ukraine,” according to the White House’s readout of the meeting.

After the meeting, the U.S. sent cables to allies in Europe and Asia that said China had signaled an openness to providing military assistance to Russia, according to the Financial Times. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told the Financial Times on Monday that the White House has “deep concerns with China’s alignment with Russia.”

China and Russia have developed a close military alliance in recent years, and weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed that the friendship between the two countries had “no limits.” But experts say a deepening relationship with Moscow has backed Beijing into a corner: Beijing does not want Moscow’s war effort in Ukraine to completely fail, but it also has little interest in supporting Moscow—militarily or otherwise—to the point that Chinese aid provokes punishment from the U.S. and Europe.

The relationship

Russian arms exports to China have largely characterized the countries’ military relationship—not the other way around.

From 2016 to 2020, China bought $5.1 billion worth of Russian arms, purchases that accounted for 77% of Beijing’s total arms imports during the period, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). In that time frame, China was second to India in purchasing Russian arms: It bought 18.1% of Russian arms exports compared with India’s 23%—and its haul represented a 50% increase from the previous five years, according to SIPRI. China buys advanced weapons systems, missiles, submarine technology, and helicopters from Russia, according to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, while Russia imports key weaponry components like “machine tools and electronic components” from China.

Smoke rises from a Russian tank destroyed by Ukrainian forces on the side of a road in Luhansk region on Feb. 26, 2022.

The significance of the arms relationship goes beyond warcraft, says Drew Thompson, a former official for the U.S. Department of Defense and visiting senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. “A primary motivation for both countries to [deepen military ties] was not just to build their interoperability and military capability, but political signaling to both their own domestic audiences, political leadership, and to other countries that their relationship is close,” he says. From a political standpoint, the alliance indicates that Moscow and Beijing have shared security interests, Thompson says. “China-Russia military cooperation is inherently political…War-fighting is the secondary objective,” he says.

The China-Russia relationship stretches back decades, but the two sides have grown especially close as Xi and Putin have amassed more power and become more isolated from Western democracies, says Ian Chong, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore.

“The deepening of America’s presence in the Indo-Pacific, the empowering of certain security partners within the region with countries like Japan and Australia, and the continued assistance to Taiwan, may very well have compelled Xi Jinping to turn to Russia,” says Chong. Since Xi came to power in 2012, the two countries have increased in-person military cooperation, like war games and joint exercises, in addition to upping arms sales.

In 2018, Russia held its largest military training operation since 1981, and analysts at the time were surprised that Russia invited Chinese soldiers to take part because it was an honor usually reserved for the closest of allies. Over the years, Chinese military leaders have shown public reverence for Russia’s military capabilities, even as China’s own military surpassed Russia’s in size.

“Chinese leaders hold Russian armed forces in very high regard as they have recent combat experience, which Chinese leaders think is a shortcoming of their force. They think the Russians have been lately winning wars,” says Peter Layton, a senior analyst at the Griffith Asia Institute at Australia’s Griffith University.

But China’s admiration for Russia’s military may have waned in recent years as China’s own military might has improved to match—if not eclipse—Russia’s, says Layton. That power shift is one reason China may be less interested in directly assisting Russia in Ukraine. “The Chinese are starting to feel they are at least equal to the Russians [with regard to military technology],” Layton says. Chinese leaders are also likely taking note of the Russian military’s blunders in Ukraine, he says. “It seems likely Chinese admiration for Russian military prowess is dropping by the day.”

Chinese help

There are obvious upsides to China supporting Russia’s military operation in Ukraine.

In exchange for helping Moscow stave off a military collapse, China “may get more access to Russian energy and minerals and things like that,” says Chong.

If China backed Russia militarily, it’s unclear what shape that support would take.

The Financial Times reports that Russia asked China for surface-to-air missiles, drones, intelligence-related equipment, armored vehicles, and vehicles used for logistics and support. CNN, meanwhile, reported that Russia asked for prepackaged meal kits to use as rations for its soldiers.

Experts say Beijing is far more likely to provide Moscow with items like food than heavy weaponry. “China has its limits,” says Thompson. “Beijing wants to avoid high-profile, big ticket arms sales to Russia in the midst of a conflict,” he adds. China wants to protect itself from secondary sanctions from the West, prevent its weapon technology from being passed on to foes like India, and avoid being dragged directly into the conflict.

But Thompson says China could provide Russia with ammunition, spare parts, or other non-weaponry to bolster Russia’s military effort.

“They’ll take measured, calculated steps to maintain their neutrality, perhaps, while still supporting Russia in ways that are critical for Russia’s military success,” Thompson says.

Still, J. Michael Cole, a senior fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute and Chinese military expert, says that any assistance to Russia—however subtle—would infuriate the U.S. government.

“If China were to provide military or economic assistance to the Russians…there would be serious consequences for China,” Cole says.

Sullivan, the U.S. official, said Sunday that there would “absolutely be consequences” for China for “large-scale sanctions evasion efforts or support to Russia to backfill them.” Cole said it’s unclear what sanctions or other tools the U.S. and its European allies would use to counter China’s support, but he expects a strong response. “The message the U.S. wants to send to Beijing is, ‘We do not want to see the emergence of a quasi-alliance between Russia and China,’” says Cole.

Chinese officials are tight-lipped about their plans. How much support China will lend to Russia’s war in Ukraine in coming days and weeks remains a mystery.

“The million-dollar question right now…is what kind of calculations the regime in Beijing is making,” says Cole. “They have not fully shown their cards as well as to which side they are backing.”

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