What Does Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine Mean for China-Russia Relations?

A ChinaFile Conversation

As Russia piles up casualties in Ukraine while its economy collapses at home, the democratic world appears—at least for now—more united than ever. Russian firms are scrambling to adjust to the country’s status as an international pariah, while big brands are withdrawing rapidly. But it is unclear just where China stands. Beijing is ardently proclaiming its neutrality, even as the U.S. claims it responded positively to requests for military aid and China’s media promotes conspiracy theories about U.S. bioweapons in Ukraine. What lessons is China taking from Russia’s experiences, especially over a future invasion of Taiwan? Will China move to decouple further from the West, or seek greater leverage to avoid Moscow’s fate? —The Editors


Despite the voices in and outside of China calling for China to overhaul its current Russia policy and recalibrate its relations with Russia, a major shift of position is unlikely for two reasons. First, abandoning Russia does not solve or alleviate China’s most important external national security challenge, which remains the United States. In fact, strong voices in China advocate against abandoning Russia because the U.S. offers no rewards for doing so; they fear China is next on the list after Russia. At a minimum, Russia’s existence alone is both a counterbalance and a strategic distraction that draws U.S. focus to Europe. Abandoning Russia, and mitigating its threat to the West, could very well leave China to face the full attention and force of a hostile U.S. later—alone.

Another reason for China’s persistence on the current policy course is domestic. Even if China were to adjust its policy toward Russia, as many believe China will, it will not happen during the Ukraine War. The reason is simple: It is simply too close to the February 4 Joint Statement issued by Xi and Putin. Such a prompt change of policy direction would inevitably raise questions about the wisdom of Xi’s decision to take the position in the first place. The 20th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, scheduled for this fall, is where Xi is expected to break the established succession tradition in the Party and ink his third term. Given the discontent within the Party and the country, a reorientation of China’s policy toward Russia would equates a tacit admission of a policy mistake; that is simply untenable in Chinese politics today.

Unlike China’s initial struggle to respond to the repercussions of the Russian invasion, the Chinese policy community is currently prone to the view that the war presents an opportunity for China. China is not a party to the conflict, this is not Chinese territory, and China’s ties with Russia are seen as the leverage to charter a middle way approach between Russia and the West. The war is believed to have increased China’s leverage vis-à-vis the U.S., created a dilemma for the U.S. between its Russia policy and China policy, and deepened the security anxiety in the Asia-Pacific region about U.S. abandonment.

Ukraine presents the first major stress test for the China-Russia “no limits” partnership. Moscow and Beijing will assess the real value of their relationship vis-à-vis their economic, diplomatic, and strategic interests with the global West. For Russia—now squarely on a path to a prolonged cold war-style confrontation with the West—its dependency on China for economic, technological, political, and diplomatic support will grow proportionally to its isolation from the West. For China, there will be much more at stake. We can be sure that ideological sentiment of contempt for the United States alone will not drive China’s policy decisions. China will unapologetically use its hard-headed and self-interested policy approach to Russia’s engulfment in its most significant crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union to derive the maximum benefit for its long-term foreign policy objectives.

A Russia weakened by war and sanctions but not chaotic and unstable suits China’s long-term interests. Russia’s isolation will further push it into a position of a junior partner in the relationship, while increasing its economic and strategic dependency on China. China will likely have already factored in Russia’s unpredictability and tendency for aggression. While the Ukraine crisis pushes the boundaries of China’s assumptions about Russian volatility, it does not fundamentally change Beijing’s long-term calculus. Friendly, economically-dependent, resource-rich Russia provides China with a valuable and expansive strategic “backyard” needed for its long-term competition and possible confrontation with the United States.

Neither will China damage its significant economic connectivity with the West for Russia. At the moment, it is doing very little to help Russia, apart from diplomatic and rhetorical support. But it has the means to do more if the situation changes. China can throw an economic lifeline to Russia through its banks and home-grown financial systems, increase the import of Russian commodities and weapons (at significantly more favorable prices than before the war), and—in the event of Russia’s economic collapse—provide an economic rescue package. Beijing estimates that it can avoid Western sanctions through the sheer power of the Chinese economic leverage and covert channels with Moscow. It may also deem the sanctions a tolerable price to pay for Russia’s loyalty and dependency. However, if the war and the Western response escalate, China will recalibrate its commitments to Moscow. The possible triggers for Beijing might be Russia’s use of chemical or biological weapons and massive civilian casualties.

China is learning valuable lessons from the Russia-Ukraine war. First and foremost, China will most likely conclude that a forced “reunification” with Taiwan in the near future and with the current balance of power in East Asia will not be achievable. A military invasion of Taiwan would be far more complex militarily and even less predictable than Ukraine. The risks of drawing the United States and its allies into a conflict over Taiwan are also higher. Secondly, China will accelerate policies of reducing dependency on the West’s financial systems, technologies, and resources, a task well under way but which will be difficult to achieve in the short to medium term, given China’s exposure to Western markets, capital, and technologies. Finally, China will learn from Russia’s mistakes on the battlefield, in diplomacy, and in the information space. We can reasonably expect that China will as diligently study the war in Ukraine as it did the collapse of the Soviet Union—a study that influenced China’s trajectory in the 1990s and led to its emergence as a global power.

In their warnings that the U.S. will impose “consequences” if China provides assistance to Russia, U.S. officials have declared they are watching China’s actions closely. “Actions speak louder than words,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said on several occasions. The U.S. is absolutely right. What matters is not what China says but what it does. The size of the Russian economy is smaller than that of Guangdong province. Should China decide to actively assist Russia’s war effort, it may not be enough to turn the tide, but it will contribute to prolonging the fighting, inflicting more humanitarian losses, and escalating tensions further. What China does matters.

However, the U.S. does not abide by its own words. Washington frequently judges and criticizes China based on what officials say or fail to say, rather than on what Beijing does. So far, there is no evidence that China has provided military assistance to Russia. Quite the contrary. Very early on in the war, China limited Chinese financing of certain transactions with Russia. Sinopec, one of the largest energy companies in China, suspended negotiations to invest in Russia. The day after his virtual meeting with Joe Biden, Xi Jinping signed an executive order tightening procurement regulations of military equipment. Coincidence? Maybe, but we cannot rule out that there may be a connection.

U.S. officials have not acknowledged any of these decisions. Instead, they choose to highlight China’s reticence to condemn Russia and its propagation of Russian falsehoods on biochemical weapons in Ukraine. These are deplorable, but are they more important than the things China has chosen not to do—so far, refusing to assist Russia’s barbaric war.

Let’s get our priorities right. The clear, present, and mortal enemy of the West is Putin, the man of hubris who also has his finger on 6,000 nuclear warheads. This is a man coddled by the U.S. under the previous administration, while U.S.-China relations deteriorated. Second, U.S. officials would be wise to do everything possible to maximize a wedge between China and Russia. It is high time to revisit the Nixonian principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” There are two things the U.S. can do immediately. One is to encourage and support President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to reach out to President Xi Jinping and to welcome Ukraine’s proposal to create a future security arrangement for Ukraine that also includes the Chinese.

Let’s immediately drop the extremely unhelpful rhetoric that the war represents an existential struggle between democracy and autocracy. It is unwise to rekindle the ideological bond between China and Russia at any time, but especially now.

Finally, the U.S. is relentless in issuing threats of economic sanctions, but it should couple those statements with appeals to the principles and visions that China has adopted and embraced. One such principle personally advocated by Xi Jinping is establishing “a community with a shared future for mankind.” The moment to do so is now.

China sees the unified international response to Russia’s war in Ukraine as a cautionary tale for its own ambitions in challenging the Western-led liberal order. In particular, since the start of the war, one of the themes that has emerged in Chinese popular and selective media reflections about the conflict is that of strengthening China’s economic, technological, and military self-sufficiency. By bolstering its own internal capabilities, China hopes to protect itself from the devastating outcomes faced by Russia because of harsh sanctions imposed by the West. More immediately post-invasion, China has practiced some caution in its economic relations with Russia to ensure it doesn’t get reprimanded for bypassing Western sanctions. Rather than rescuing Russia from the sanctions regime, therefore, China seems to be staying on the sidelines and abiding by new restrictions.

When it comes to Taiwan, it’s hard to determine whether Russia’s war might sway China’s stance. On the one hand, the drastic isolation of Russia from the international system may preempt China from pursuing unification with Taiwan in the near-term. On the other, in popular discussions on Chinese social media platforms, a number of comments have drawn comparisons between Ukraine and Taiwan, advocating for the Chinese government to take the disobedient, pro-Western Taiwan back into China’s orbit. High-level Chinese officials have subsequently clarified that Taiwan is not Ukraine, as Taiwan is already part of China. Some of the extreme nationalistic comments have also been censored. The assertive sentiment vis-à-vis Taiwan, however, is there and has possibly been emboldened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Another point to consider is whether the international community could effectively isolate China in the way it has done with Russia. China’s market is much larger and would be more difficult, if not impossible, to cut ties with. The Chinese government must be aware of that, and therefore might not see itself in the same league as Russia when it comes to enduring pressures from the West.

As for its potential to decouple from the West, I think China will continue to tread the line of criticizing the West for sparking this conflict while generally abiding by the sanctions and offering limited material and support to Russia. Ideologically, China continues to advocate for questioning and diminishing Western (and especially American) hegemony. In order to contest the U.S. in the long-term, however, China is likely to avoid direct confrontation and isolation. It will play by the rules while harboring the ambition to transform them. Rhetorically, China appears to side with Russia, but in practical terms, China is always seeking to further its own interests. For now, these interests include selective engagement with the West.

Considering that Xi Jinping has stated repeatedly that China wants to collaborate with other countries in global governance and build a “community of common destiny,” Beijing has been playing a marginal diplomatic role in responding to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Chinese officials have floated the idea of their country serving as a “mediator,” but so far Israel and Turkey have been the most active go-betweens, while China largely has stuck to the sidelines.

The China-Russia strategic partnership may have no limits, but People’s Republic of China (PRC) Ambassador to the U.S. Qin Gang states that the “bottom line” for China-Russia relations is the UN Charter. This has put China in an untenable position: China claims to support the territorial integrity of states as proclaimed in the UN Charter, and PRC officials have even stated that they recognize Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The PRC has never officially recognized Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Yet PRC officials also have not publicly opposed Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, and the term “invasion” is absent from authoritative commentary. To the contrary, China abstained on the two UN resolutions condemning it and officials have spoken about Russia’s “legitimate security interests.”

While rejecting any comparisons between Ukraine’s struggle to maintain its sovereignty and the future of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as a renegade province, PRC officials use Ukraine’s example to warn Taiwan against expecting direct U.S. military aid. Zhu Fenglian, spokesperson of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the PRC State Council, emphasizes that in Afghanistan and Ukraine the U.S. has proven to be an unreliable ally, primarily concerned with its own geopolitical interests. Wang Wenbin, Deputy Director of the PRC Foreign Ministry Information Office, contends that U.S. officials link Taiwan to Ukraine because of Washington’s ulterior motive to create a crisis in the Taiwan Strait and warns the United States against “playing with fire.” Chinese commentary has a similar message on sanctions: that they will boomerang and hurt the countries imposing them.

However, the lessons some PRC scholars draw about Russia could equally apply to China and its future intentions for Taiwan. Feng Yujun, a prominent Russia scholar at Fudan University, noted in Southern China Weekend that Putin made his move in Ukraine sensing a strategic opening. Feng added that while Russia has downplayed the impact of the sanctions, they would be a “huge blow” to the Russian economy. Like Putin, Xi has often stated that China faced a moment of strategic opportunity, but it remains to be seen if the unexpectedly united and substantial response by the West to the Russian invasion of Ukraine will cause PRC leaders to rethink their risk calculations regarding Taiwan.

Chinese policymakers will be digesting the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for many years. While Beijing will wish to protect itself from vulnerability to similar sanctions, the unanimity among advanced economies for the sanctions and export controls on Russia should serve as a clear warning to China. China relies heavily on foreign technology and access to a dollar-centric global economy, and will for the foreseeable future. De-Americanizing supply chains would not be easy, but it would be far easier than excising European, Korean, Japanese, and other components as well. Similarly, diversification from the U.S. dollar would not make Beijing’s currency reserves sanction-proof, as other top currencies that joined in financial sanctions on Russia could also target China. Thus, Beijing is likely to tread carefully, continuing to thread the needle of denouncing sanctions while quietly avoiding actions that could bring the weight of the pro-Ukraine coalition against it.

Beijing must have noticed that the “Fortress Russia” strategy to sanction-proof Russia’s economy, including large reserve accumulation and a push for self-sufficiency, not only did not work but may have backfired. Moves to diversify reserves in other currencies than U.S. dollars failed. Every major reserve currency-issuing nation (excluding China) froze Russia’s Central Bank reserves held in their countries, amounting to almost half of Russia’s total reserves. Russia’s economy is not nearly as sophisticated as China’s, but the collapse in Russian industry and technology we are likely to see unfold over the coming months as export controls and sanctions cut off foreign imports suggests it is not possible to have a modern economy and autarky. While Beijing’s attempts at self-sufficiency, heightened amidst the trade war with the Trump Administration, are seeing some results and will certainly intensify, China will remain far from independent on key inputs like semiconductors.

Fortress Russia could not achieve full self-sufficiency. At the same time, its success at reducing interdependence bred a hidden vulnerability by reducing the cost for the pro-Ukraine coalition to subject Russia to more draconian sanctions. The less business and finance is intertwined with Russia, the less uncertainty and lost business sanctioning countries face. Thus, Beijing might learn that efforts to decouple from advanced economies might make it more likely to end up a target of sanctions, by reducing their ultimate cost to those who may sanction it.

The unity and breadth of the coalition, which includes the U.S., the EU, Japan, Korea, Australia, the U.K., and others has been a surprise to Russia and likely to China, which may force it to rethink its prior assessment on how divided and weak many U.S. allies and partners are. Still, Beijing will temper any warnings; there are crucial differences between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and any potential invasion of Taiwan. First, unlike Ukraine, only a dozen or so countries currently recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation. Beijing also knows that it would be much harder to sustain a coalition to sanction a major Chinese financial institution than it has been to sanction less internationally interconnected Russian banks. China’s key role in strained global supply chains may also make it confident that the coalition would not risk hitting it with the kind of draconian export controls aimed at Russia.