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Chinese Support for a Russian Attack on Ukraine Cannot Be Cost-Free

Beijing backing Moscow should trigger a rethink of China-European relations.

By , director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and , a senior trans-Atlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Asia program.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a photograph during their meeting in Beijing on Feb. 4. Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

In 2014, China’s extension of economic and political backing to Russia after its annexation of Crimea was limited. Beijing signaled support for Moscow, for example, by signing energy, trade, and finance deals as well as a currency swap worth $25 billion. But while the Power of Siberia pipeline moved ahead and Putin’s inner circle benefited from access to Chinese money, many of the other agreements remained on paper. China condemned U.S. and European sanctions on Russia, but Chinese commercial banks abided by those sanctions to avoid being cut off from U.S. financial markets and the international banking system. In his political pronouncements, Chinese President Xi Jinping was careful not to swing openly behind Moscow at the expense of China’s relationships in Europe or to risk being labeled a fellow aggressor.

2022 is different. The Sino-Russian relationship is vastly closer. The joint statement between Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin accompanying the meeting in Beijing bears no resemblance to the past’s wary language. China’s backing of Moscow’s positions on the European security order are unusually explicit, especially given such high stakes. The United States and Europe cannot allow Chinese support of an aggressive Russia to come without costs.

The consequences of Beijing’s backing are already material. By some accounts, Moscow has reduced force levels on its borders with China and Mongolia to their lowest levels since 1922, enabling major troop transfers from its eastern military district to Belarus. Russia’s ambassador to Beijing has said the two countries are already studying ways to mitigate the impact of potential Western sanctions—a skill set that is already far more developed than in 2014 thanks to eight years of cooperation. There is clear diplomatic coordination, and Chinese propaganda now mirrors Russia’s, describing NATO expansion as the looming conflict’s source as well as repeating disinformation about a large-scale buildup of Ukrainian troops. If China provided a partial safety net for Russia from its 2014 economic fallout after the fact, this time, Beijing is acting as a more open enabler of Moscow’s aggression in Europe even before a possible invasion happens.

In 2014, China’s extension of economic and political backing to Russia after its annexation of Crimea was limited. Beijing signaled support for Moscow, for example, by signing energy, trade, and finance deals as well as a currency swap worth $25 billion. But while the Power of Siberia pipeline moved ahead and Putin’s inner circle benefited from access to Chinese money, many of the other agreements remained on paper. China condemned U.S. and European sanctions on Russia, but Chinese commercial banks abided by those sanctions to avoid being cut off from U.S. financial markets and the international banking system. In his political pronouncements, Chinese President Xi Jinping was careful not to swing openly behind Moscow at the expense of China’s relationships in Europe or to risk being labeled a fellow aggressor.

2022 is different. The Sino-Russian relationship is vastly closer. The joint statement between Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin accompanying the meeting in Beijing bears no resemblance to the past’s wary language. China’s backing of Moscow’s positions on the European security order are unusually explicit, especially given such high stakes. The United States and Europe cannot allow Chinese support of an aggressive Russia to come without costs.

The consequences of Beijing’s backing are already material. By some accounts, Moscow has reduced force levels on its borders with China and Mongolia to their lowest levels since 1922, enabling major troop transfers from its eastern military district to Belarus. Russia’s ambassador to Beijing has said the two countries are already studying ways to mitigate the impact of potential Western sanctions—a skill set that is already far more developed than in 2014 thanks to eight years of cooperation. There is clear diplomatic coordination, and Chinese propaganda now mirrors Russia’s, describing NATO expansion as the looming conflict’s source as well as repeating disinformation about a large-scale buildup of Ukrainian troops. If China provided a partial safety net for Russia from its 2014 economic fallout after the fact, this time, Beijing is acting as a more open enabler of Moscow’s aggression in Europe even before a possible invasion happens.

Some factors still limit Beijing’s support for Russia. China has commercial interests in Ukraine, a critical National Party Congress to worry about later this year, and other relationships in Europe that matter to its interests. Some of the sanctions being contemplated would not be easy for Beijing to circumvent. For example, applying the Foreign Direct Product Rule—the measure that hit Huawei’s access to crucial components—would hurt many Chinese companies supplying Russia, given their continued dependence on chips designed using U.S. tools and software. Most Chinese banks already tread carefully around the post-2014 financial sanctions, and what is now being contemplated for the Russian banking sector goes well beyond that.

Yet explaining Moscow and Beijing’s growing closeness primarily with reference to its limits is as unhelpful as it was during the Crimea crisis, when some analysts confidently predicted that Russia would never sell advanced weapons to China nor conclude major energy deals. With its back against the wall, Moscow reassessed and concluded that it made more sense to put some of its long-standing concerns aside.

Now, it is China that is most notably pushing beyond some of its prior inhibitions. In a wider strategic context where Beijing sees itself in an intensifying rivalry with the United States, consolidating a partnership with Russia is now worth the price of some unhappy European leaders and modest potential economic costs in Ukraine.

At a minimum, it is now prudent for the United States and Europe to anticipate the two nations growing even closer. In areas such as joint weapons development, China and Russia are already entering new territory. This week’s joint statement made clear that direct forms of backing in each other’s strategic theaters of concern cannot be ruled out a priori. Chinese policy banks can also offer more expansive financing than they did in the years following the Crimea annexation, when this was only accessible to a restricted group. Relying on differences over Central Asia, Russian anxieties about its Far East, or Chinese concern for reputational damage to pry the sides apart has proved to be wishful thinking.

Any proposal for how to change this calculus must start from the premise that China’s ties with Moscow are hard to snip. To be sure, differences exist, but they cannot be used to drive a wedge between them. Appeals to Russian pride about being the “junior partner” or to China’s supposedly inviolable commitment to state sovereignty have been equally ineffectual. Meanwhile, arguments for a “reverse Kissinger” that would strike a deal with Moscow to counterbalance Beijing have actively contributed to Russia’s sense that if China is now the more important strategic focus, revisiting the post-Cold War security order in Europe on more advantageous terms might now be possible. Some of these attempts to address the challenges posed by a tighter Sino-Russian partnership have the effect of reinforcing its logic while making other problems worse in the process.

U.S. threats of robust sanctions enforcement can certainly affect how Chinese technology and financial sector actors deal with Russia. But much of the impetus at the political level will have to come from Europe. Leaders across the continent need to be clearer with Beijing that facilitating Russian moves will come at a significant price for Sino-European ties. In the balance now is not just the threat to Ukraine itself but a wider Russian attempt to reshape the European security landscape. If that is not sufficient grounds to put Beijing on watch for its handling of the situation, it is hard to see what would be. This need not involve any delusional hope that China will help Europe de-escalate the crisis, just that Beijing should not actively exacerbate it.

As a first step, European leaders should echo the recent warning by U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan that Chinese support for a Russian invasion of Ukraine would have costs for Beijing. These statements should be followed by intra-European deliberations on measures that could be taken to signal to China the kinds of damage that its decisions would impose. Although there are measures that can target specific Chinese individuals and entities that mitigate sanctions’ impact, more important would be a broader reappraisal of the already fraught Sino-European relationship. A rhetorical step could include the European Union formally stating, as the German Social Democratic Party’s paper laid out, that systemic rivalry with Beijing is now foundational for European policy, limiting any scope for partnership and conditioning the nature of the EU’s economic competition with China.

This would vary from revisiting how Europe approaches Beijing’s own redline issues to visibly upgrading the scope of European military partnerships and presence in the Indo-Pacific and undertaking a more comprehensive overhaul of European technology interactions with China than would otherwise have been contemplated.

It is possible that these warnings will have no significant effect on China’s behavior. That would itself be indicative that compartmentalizing the risks that Europe faces from China and Russia no longer makes sense and the wider rebalancing of Europe’s China policy underway in recent years needs to assume greater urgency. Beijing’s approach to its own partners and allies is entering a new phase, and Russia now tops that list, even if that means associating with its military adventurism. Europe needs to get ready.

Bonnie S. Glaser is director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Andrew Small is a senior trans-Atlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Asia program.

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