August 3, 2023

IntelBrief: How Does China View Russia’s Ongoing War in Ukraine?

Sergei Karpukhin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File

Bottom Line Up Front

  • While falling short of providing lethal aid, the People’s Republic China (PRC) continues to support Moscow’s war in Ukraine by providing Russia with drones, helping it skirt sanctions, and offering other logistic, technological, and material support.
  • While the Chinese Communist Party has been vocal in calling for peace, Beijing has not publicly offered concrete steps to achieve this goal, though it did have some high-level engagements with Ukraine in the spring.
  • Various forms of Chinese support enable the Russian war apparatus to better withstand Western-led sanctions and coalition export restrictions designed to drive up the cost of war in Ukraine.
  • High-level diplomatic exchanges between China and Russia thus far include a March meeting between Presidents Putin and Xi in Moscow, Putin’s talks with PRC Defense Minister Li Shangfu in April, and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin’s May trip to China, where he spoke with Xi.

On July 27, the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a declassified intelligence report delineating how the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has supported Russia’s war in Ukraine since February last year. Previous U.S. government statements have noted that the PRC has so far refrained from providing Russia with what is commonly referred to as lethal aid — weapons and munitions. However, it is clear from the ODNI report, media reporting, and other research reports that the PRC has facilitated economic, technological, logistical, and material support for Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine. Recent reporting by Politico detailed Chinese shipments of bulletproof vests and helmets, thermal optic sights, and even drones that can be used to direct artillery fire. And while some of this support could likely be ascribed to the “no limits” partnership between the leaders in Beijing and Moscow, some of it also stands to benefit the PRC, including discounted energy imports and battlefield testing of military technologies like drones.

Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022, PRC leader Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have walked a tightrope concerning the war, neither publicly condemning nor supporting Russia’s actions. Instead, the CCP has been vocal in calling for peace, with Xi speaking with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky by phone in April and China’s envoy for Ukraine traveling to the country to meet with Zelensky in May. In public, however, China has not offered concrete steps to achieve its professed peace goal. An official Chinese government position paper aimed at settling the conflict, for example, did not offer tangible solutions for achieving a ceasefire or opening negotiations between the two warring parties when it was published in February. Beijing has consistently blamed “NATO expansion” and Western arms transfers to Ukraine for exacerbating hostilities. Last month’s ODNI report outlines five areas of PRC support for the war: helping Russia to circumvent sanctions, inhibiting U.S. export controls, facilitating technology transfers for intelligence and military activities, engaging in economic and financial activities that alleviate the effect of sanctions, as well as material, technical, and logistical support provision for entities involved in the war. While these forms of support fall short of providing lethal aid, such as weapon transfers, it is evident that the PRC’s actions enable Russia’s aggression and in many cases, attempt to provide top cover.

U.S., NATO, and European leaders have warned Xi that weapon transfers to Russia would have severe consequences. In February 2023, CIA Director William Burns revealed to the public that CCP leadership in Beijing was considering providing lethal aid to Moscow while U.S. and NATO officials simultaneously warned the PRC publicly against such actions. While the type of support the PRC provided to Russia to date may still serve as a counterbalance to Western support for Ukraine, China alone appears incapable of helping Russia overcome its lost access to Western markets or those of U.S. partners when it comes to certain advanced technologies. For example, while PRC semiconductor exports to Russia have increased by 19 percent between February and September 2022 compared to the same time period in 2021, some of the countries Russia was most reliant on for semiconductors before the war now actively support its opponent. Three of the five biggest exporters of semiconductor devices to Russia in 2021 – Germany, the United States, and the Netherlands – are major supporters of Ukraine, while a fourth – the Philippines – is a growing regional partner of the U.S. mission to counter China in Asia. Additionally, as the ODNI report notes, “the PRC is still unable to make advanced chips that are competitive with U.S. and Western options.”

The report also states that PRC state-owned defense companies have exported fighter jet, radar, jamming, and navigation technology to Russia. In addition, an estimated $12 million worth of drone and drone parts have been shipped from the PRC to Russia as of March 2023. Taken together, this form of support enables the Russian war apparatus to better withstand the Western-led sanctions and coalition export restrictions that are designed to significantly drive up the cost of war in Ukraine and ultimately make it unbearable for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kremlin disinformation narratives propagated by the CCP and CCP-backed/aligned actors also aid in shaping the narrative surrounding Russia’s war, especially in countries outside of Europe. However, it is important to note that reports suggest several high-profile private and state-owned Chinese companies, including Huawei and UnionPay, have opted to limit their exposure to the Russian market since 2022 out of fear of secondary sanctions. Some reporting suggests that the CCP has issued warnings to Chinese state-owned enterprises of the risk of secondary sanctions for doing business in Russia.

The Sino-Russian alignment and the “no limits” friendship between Beijing and Moscow have been further reiterated during recent diplomatic exchanges. In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in March and PRC Defense Minister Li Shangfu in April, while Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin traveled to China in May for a series of high-level discussions with Xi and other officials. The heavily discounted energy imports from Russia benefit China’s economy and make Moscow even more dependent on Beijing as a major client, further confirming Russia’s role as China’s junior partner. Exporting dual-use technology destined for the Russian military also allows the PRC to test components it may one day deploy in a different theater of war. Studying and engineering sanctions and export control circumvention will serve the CCP in the future if they find themselves the target of secondary sanctions or even at the other end of a coordinated sanctions regime. Several recent research papers by Chinese scholars have analyzed how the United States utilizes sanctions and what possible policy countermeasures could be adopted by the CCP to mitigate their impact. One popular recommendation calls for cementing the renminbi as a major, if not the primary, currency of international trade. Lastly, in its current phase, Russia’s war in Ukraine distracts Western leaders from events in the Indo-Pacific, especially the Taiwan Strait. Nonetheless, a future Chinese invasion of Taiwan is likely now the most common topic for wargames and military simulations from Washington to Tokyo.