Days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Xi Jinping declared a “no-limits” partnership with Vladimir Putin. At the one-year anniversary of the invasion, Xi’s diplomatic and military engagements display resolute support for the Russian war, despite his recent gestures to broker peace.
This week, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko visited Beijing on a three-day trip, in a move that many in the West view as a new sign of China’s support for Russia. Austin Ramzy and Ann M. Simmons from The Wall Street Journal reported on Lukashenko’s visit to Beijing and his close cooperation with Xi:
Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Moscow’s closest ally, sought to cement the partnership between their two nations as Minsk seeks more help for its sanctions-hit economy while endorsing Beijing’s efforts to cast itself as a peacemaker in the Ukraine war.
[…] On Wednesday, while sitting down for talks with Mr. Xi, Mr. Lukashenko praised Beijing’s efforts on Ukraine and stated his commitment to supporting China’s proposal on international security, which he has earlier called a “new and original initiative that will have far-reaching effects in the world.”
[…] Mr. Lukashenko told Mr. Xi that Belarus was interested in deepening cooperation with China in the sphere of technological development. He proposed the creation of joint ventures in the sphere of machine tools, electric transport and the production of parts for agricultural machinery in both countries. [Source]
Many analysts highlighted the curious timing of the visit. “The only way that Xi would bother to meet with [Lukashenko] right now would be because something larger is at stake for Beijing and it likely has to do with the war in Ukraine,” said Katsiaryna Shmatsina, an expert on Belarusian politics at Virginia Tech university. As Joe Webster wrote in his China-Russia Report on Wednesday, “Beijing’s economic support for Belarus could implicitly subsidize the war”:
Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko’s impromptu visit to Beijing and meetings with General Secretary Xi, other officials, and Chinese corporations may be another indicator that Beijing is increasingly willing to back Putin more overtly, albeit indirectly, by extending assistance to Minsk.
While Lukashenko appears unlikely to enter the conflict as a combatant, there is a significant risk that Beijing could use Minsk as a cutout for economic and potentially even military assistance for Moscow. Minsk is clearly supporting the war (it allowed Russian troops to invade Ukraine from its territory) and is under Western sanctions – but it is not a combatant. The PRC may be trying to exploit Belarus’ nominally neutral status, find fissures in sanctions, and bolster Putin economically or even militarily. [Source]
There have been growing signs of military cooperation between the three countries. In a joint statement released last year, Lukashenko and Xi pledged to “further expand practical cooperation in every sphere between the two militaries,” and during this week’s visit they agreed to “deepen cooperation” on military personnel training and fighting terrorism. Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that customs records showed “Chinese state-owned defense companies shipping navigation equipment, jamming technology, and jet-fighter parts to sanctioned Russian government-owned defense companies.” Last week, Der Spiegel obtained information ostensibly revealing that the Chinese and Russian militaries have been negotiating the transfer of strike drones and aircraft parts:
According to that information, the Russian military is engaged in negotiations with Chinese drone manufacturer Xi’an Bingo Intelligent Aviation Technology over the mass production of kamikaze drones for Russia. The revelations create a new urgency in the debate over possible Chinese military support for Russia.
Bingo has reportedly agreed to manufacture and test 100 ZT-180 prototype drones before delivering them to the Russian Defense Ministry by April 2023. Military experts believe the ZT-180 is capable of carrying a 35- to 50 kilogram warhead.
[…] In a further step, Bingo reportedly plans to deliver components and know-how to Russia so that the country can produce around 100 drones a month on its own.
China apparently already had plans last year to provide the Russian military with much more substantial support than previously known. According to information obtained by DER SPIEGEL, companies under the control of China’s People’s Liberation Army had planned to deliver replacement parts for Russia’s SU-27 fighter jets and other models.
DER SPIEGEL has learned in its reporting that plans had apparently already been made to falsify shipping documents to make the parts for military aircraft appear to be replacement parts for civilian aviation. [Source]
Independent confirmation of this information remains elusive. When reached for comment this week, the Chinese company said: “Bingo Intelligent has no commercial contact with Russia.” Several days before the Der Spiegel article emerged, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that China was “strongly considering providing lethal assistance to Russia,” but the U.S. government has not yet publicly provided any specific evidence. Dennis Wilder, a former CIA Deputy Assistant Director for East Asia and the Pacific, suggested on China Talk that Chinese military assistance to Russia would be difficult to track: “If I’m the Chinese and I think about artillery shells, here’s what I think: ‘If I don’t put my factory markings on the shells, and I ship them on some of these rail cars that go constantly between China and Russia, how are the Americans going to figure this out? How are they going to know that these are my shells?’”
What is clear, however, is China’s recent diplomatic outreach to autocrats supportive of Russia. Lukashenko’s visit comes just two weeks after Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi spent three days in Beijing at Xi’s invitation, marking the first visit to China by an Iranian president in 20 years. (Iran has provided Russia with drones and missiles.) Last week, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi met Putin in Moscow for a high-profile visit, the first by a Chinese official in his role since Russia’s invasion. “There’s been a clear push by Beijing, Moscow, Minsk and Tehran to demonstrate a narrative that says ‘We have other options, and we’ll put them on proud display — you can sanction us all you want, and it doesn’t matter,’” said Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London.
The Chinese government has attempted to project an interest in ending the war. On the anniversary of the Russian invasion last week, China released a 12-point position paper that “offers [a] path to peace.” The paper, which elaborated on the CCP’s standard talking points about the “Ukraine crisis,” was widely viewed as being heavily biased towards Russia. Nonetheless, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed a desire to discuss the proposal in a meeting with Xi, who has yet to meet—or even hold a phone call—with Zelensky, despite the Ukrainian government’s repeated invitations. Xi’s reticence has undermined efforts to portray himself as a peacemaker, especially as he prepares to meet Putin in Moscow this spring. As Giacomo Bruni and Ilaria Carrozza argued in The Diplomat, China’s position paper was largely meant to deflect criticism rather than present concrete steps to end the conflict:
In the end, the position paper predictably offers nothing new in terms of its rhetoric. China continues to walk the fine line between its support for Russia and its attempts at not deteriorating its already fraught relations with Western countries; it repeats ad nauseam the same points that Beijing always expresses internationally, including respect for state sovereignty and international law; and most importantly it does not advance any concrete or practical solution to the conflict. The paper’s main objective rather seems to appease the West and keep at bay some of the criticism for China’s inaction and continued support for Putin. [Source]
If anything, Xi appears content to let the war continue. Phelim Kine wrote in Politico’s latest China Watcher newsletter that “China may be winning the war,” and “an end to hostilities would risk the strategic and economic windfall that Beijing has reaped from Russia’s war on Ukraine over the past 12 months.” He added, “[The Sino-Russian] relationship is relegating Russia to the status of a Chinese client state which could pay Beijing long term geostrategic dividends.” On the Sinica podcast, Evan Feigenbaum observed: “If China were interested in showcasing its disapproval or of projecting opprobrium onto Russia’s actions, it would not be basically looking for every conceivable seam in here to basically have its cake and eat it.” Patricia M. Kim expounded upon this symbiotic relationship this week in Foreign Affairs, noting that while China and Russia cannot be split, their coordination has limits:
Beijing’s resolve to maintain ties with Moscow is partly practical. Chinese leaders want to keep their nuclear-armed neighbor and former rival on their side as they look ahead to intense, long-term competition with the United States. But China’s alignment with Russia is not only a matter of realpolitik. Beijing sees Moscow as its most important partner in the wider project of altering a global order that it perceives as skewed unfairly toward the West. In this order, according to the Chinese and Russian line, the United States and its allies set the rules to their advantage, defining what it means to be a democracy and to respect human rights while retaining the power to isolate and punish actors for failing to uphold those standards. Beijing and Moscow purport to seek a “fairer,” multipolar order that better takes into account the views and interests of developing countries.
[…] But Beijing’s and Moscow’s conflicting priorities and the latter’s generally dismal prospects limit the pair’s ability to revise the existing global order in a truly coordinated and radical way. Western leaders should nevertheless accept that efforts to push Beijing to cut its ties with Moscow are likely to fail. In the near term, the United States and its allies should focus instead on preventing the partnership from veering down a more destructive path by taking advantage of Beijing’s strong interest in the preservation of global stability. More broadly, Washington and its allies should recognize that China and Russia are channeling real disaffection with the existing international order in many parts of the world—and should get to work bridging the gap between the West and the rest. [Source]
Outside of Zhongnanhai, not all Chinese views are supportive of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Some Chinese writers and media personalities have been supportive of Ukraine and even critical of Beijing’s relationship with Moscow, as Irene Zhang noted this week. “On the anniversary of the Russia-Ukraine war, we see that every single step Russia has taken so far lands on a painful point for China,” wrote one nationalist blogger on WeChat. In the British Journal of Chinese Studies, and later in an interview with The China Project, Kristy Amber Bryant argued against a monolithic “Chinese Perspective” on Ukraine:
There are a number of contributing factors that explain why it is problematic to stereotype China’s position as Russia’s ally and, for the most part, these are overlooked in favour of maintaining the dangerous East versus West, authoritarianism versus democracy binary. This essay raises concern with the trend of essentialist takes on particularly sensitive issues and contexts, like the war in Ukraine, and argues for more reflexivity, meticulous scrutiny of sources, and nuanced analysis so as to account for greater nuance in academic interpretations and beyond. Highlighting the issue of ununified and variable official statements and mainstream media and the rising popularity of alternative sources, particularly social media influencers, this piece argues for more consideration regarding the diversity of voices within China. [Source]