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China has a fateful choice to make on Ukraine

Xi Jinping has called Vladimir Putin his best friend. But now the Russian leader is in urgent need of help from China. Putin’s army is bogged down in Ukraine and running short of ammunition.

Should Xi prove that he is a friend indeed by supplying Russia with weapons? China’s decision will say a lot about how it sees the future of the world.

A choice to supply Russia with weapons would suggest that China believes that intensified rivalry with the US is unavoidable — and perhaps desirable. By contrast, a decision not to give Russia weapons would indicate that China still believes that tensions with the US are manageable and that globalisation can be saved.

Influential voices in Beijing fully understand the risks of supplying Russia with the crucial munitions that Moscow’s forces are running short of — such as artillery shells and drones. In the Financial Times last week, Zhou Bo, a former colonel in the People’s Liberation Army, wrote: “If Beijing takes Moscow’s side in the conflict, then we are already in the dawn of the third world war.”

Put like that, a Chinese decision to supply Russia with weapons sounds inconceivable. And yet the US government believes that there is a serious debate under way in Beijing — and that China may ultimately make this fateful decision.

The reason that Xi might decide to dramatically increase support for Putin goes back to the “no limits” partnership announced by the Russian and Chinese leaders in February 2022 — three weeks before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

More important than the announcement of the partnership was the shared analysis that underpinned it. Putin and Xi laid out a common understanding of the world. They both see the US as the central threat to their countries’ ambitions and political regimes. Fighting back against American power is the common task that unites them.

Xi has visited Putin more than he has visited any other world leader. The worst-case scenario for him would be the fall of Putin and his replacement with a pro-western leader. That still feels like a remote possibility. But, even if Putin remains in power, a humiliated and weakened Russia would make the US look resurgent and China more isolated. Some in Beijing argue that once Russia had been dealt with, America would turn on China.

There are two further reasons why China might risk propping up Putin. The first is that Xi’s closest advisers might have more faith than Zhou that China can control the escalation risk. They will argue that, once Washington understands that Beijing will not let Moscow lose, the west will push Ukraine to make a peace settlement on terms acceptable to Russia.

The second reason why China might risk a global conflict is bleaker. Nationalists in Beijing may believe that outright confrontation with the US has already begun. The CIA says that Xi has already instructed the Chinese military to be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027. Joe Biden has said several times that the US would defend Taiwan, if it was attacked.

Of course, there is a difference between China developing the capability to invade Taiwan and making a firm decision to attack. But if the gloomier western analysts are correct — and China is moving closer to invasion — then it would make sense for Beijing to support the Russian war effort. If the west has to keep pouring military resources into Ukraine, it might have less available to defend Taiwan.

However, the downside for China of supplying Russia with weapons are also clear. The anti-China mood in Washington, already very powerful, would go into overdrive. Every form of pressure that the Americans could think of would be exerted on China. The restrictions on technology exports that are already in place would be supplemented by much broader sanctions.

Beijing would also lose any hope of driving a wedge between the EU and the US. Chinese military support for Russia would be seen as a direct threat to the security of Europe. EU restrictions on trade and investment ties with China would surely follow swiftly.

The Chinese know that western corporations and consumers are too dependent on them to attempt a complete economic decoupling. But if trade with the west dropped by even 30 per cent, the results would be felt in higher unemployment in China — which would worry a government that is acutely sensitive to displays of popular unrest.

For that reason, China may choose an uneasy compromise. It will continue to present itself as a neutral peace broker in Ukraine, assuring visitors like Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, that it has no intention of supplying Russia with munitions. Meanwhile, it may attempt to funnel weaponry to Russia indirectly, perhaps through third countries such as Iran or North Korea. The president of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, visited Xi in Beijing last month — the first visit to China by an Iranian president in 20 years.

But a policy of covert or deniable Chinese military support to Russia is no magic bullet for Beijing. It might be too restricted to turn the tide of the war in Putin’s favour. And it would still be vulnerable to detection by the US.

Indirect Chinese military support for Russia could ultimately be a circuitous route to the same destination: direct confrontation with America.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

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