On Ukraine, China Prioritizes Its International Ambitions
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of a full report. To read the entire analysis with endnotes, click here to download the report as a PDF.
This report evaluates China’s position on the war in Ukraine and support for Russia, how this position and Beijing’s proposed form of peace relates to China’s international interests, and whether China is likely to provide lethal aid to Russia. Information about the author, Devin Thorne, can be found at the end of the report.
Recently renewed allegations that China is considering providing lethal aid to Russia contrast starkly with Beijing’s calls for peace and continued assertions that it is “objective and just” regarding the war in Ukraine. Based on a review of China’s perspective on the war and what its leaders likely hope to achieve, Insikt Group judges that relations between China and the United States and Europe will almost certainly remain at odds for the duration of the war. Although China’s position suggests there are areas of potential collaboration on peace, Beijing is likely pursuing a strategy of using a peace settlement to shape how future international crises are addressed, which contains elements that are almost certainly unacceptable to the US and others.
China’s leadership almost certainly supports Russia — politically, rhetorically, and by allowing trade in dual-use goods to continue — to further its own strategic agenda, specifically the preservation of an important partner in the creation of a more multilateral international system. China’s leadership very likely wants a peaceful end to the war. However, China’s leadership very likely does not support a peace deal that conforms to, and returns to the status quo of, the current international system as led by the US and legitimizes coercive Western measures used against Russia (namely, sanctions) that could be levied against China in the future (such as in a Taiwan scenario).
Despite its support for Russia’s position, it is unlikely that China’s leadership will approve the export of lethal aid to Russia. Such a decision will likely be judged too costly in light of other goals, such as stabilizing relations with the US and Europe and avoiding sanctions. The decision to provide lethal aid likely hinges on whether China’s leadership judges that, in the short-to-mid term, stable (if not good) relations with the US and Europe are necessary. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping’s personal relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin also has the potential to inform how he weighs the available options. China’s leadership has likely not yet made a decision to provide lethal aid, and as of this writing, has not (based on publicly available information) exported lethal aid to Russia. If China’s leadership does decide to export lethal aid to Russia, the US and European response will very likely lead to a serious deterioration in relations with China for the foreseeable future.
- China’s leadership almost certainly supports Russia politically, rhetorically, and by allowing trade in dual-use goods to further its own strategic agenda.
- China’s leadership very likely seeks a peaceful solution to the war, but not at the expense of its vision for how the international order should address future crises.
- It is unlikely that China’s leadership will allow Chinese companies to provide to Russia what the US and Europe deem lethal aid.
- If China’s leadership decides to export lethal aid to Russia, the US and Europe will almost certainly impose consequences that would very likely lead to a serious deterioration in relations with China for the foreseeable future.