Why China Backtracked on Military Assistance to Russia and Why the Policy Will Stick

Why China Backtracked on Military Assistance to Russia and Why the Policy Will Stick

This successful example of the United States practicing coercive diplomacy is worth paying attention to.

A major crisis in U.S.-China relations has just been averted. Speaking on April 14 at a news conference with the visiting German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang issued an assurance: “Regarding the export of military items, China adopts a prudent and responsible attitude. China will not provide weapons to relevant parties of the [Ukraine] conflict, and [will] manage and control the exports of dual-use items in accordance with laws and regulations.”

This episode is a textbook case of deterrence theory in action. It is a successful example of the United States practicing coercive diplomacy to deter China from providing military aid to Russia. The Biden administration directly warned China on several occasions not to provide Russia with military assistance. And after careful and repeated consideration over slightly more than a year, China has weighed the costs and benefits and complied with the threat.

A Year of Warnings

This U.S. diplomatic success came close to failing. The recent alleged leaking of intercepted U.S. intelligence records by Jack Teixeira, a member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, has provided us with some insight. According to a February 23 U.S. intelligence summary of Russian “signals intelligence,” China’s Central Military Commission had “approved the incremental provision” of weapons and wanted it kept secret. Yet at some point between that date and April 14, Beijing changed its mind.

To best understand then why China opted not to arm Russia, it is necessary to highlight the critical role of a series of direct U.S. warnings to China that taken place for more than year.

The first warning occurred during National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s March 2022 meeting with Yang Jiechi, the then-Director of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Foreign Affairs Commission. According to Sullivan, “we are communicating directly, privately to Beijing that there will absolutely be consequences for large-scale sanctions evasion efforts or support to Russia to backfill them.”

The warning was repeated by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to then-Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi at the United Nations in September 2022. A State Department readout for that meeting stated that Blinken “reiterated the United States’ condemnation of Russia’s war against Ukraine and highlighted the implications if the PRC were to provide support to Moscow’s invasion of a sovereign state.”

A few months later, at the 2023 Munich Security Conference (taking place between February 17 and 19), Blinken repeated the message. A senior State Department official privy to the actual conversation briefed reporters that Blinken “was quite blunt in warning about the implications and consequences of China providing material support to Russia or assisting Russia with systematic sanctions evasion.”

In deterrence, threats need to be accompanied by credible assurances that, if the warning is adhered to, restraint will ensue. The readout for Sullivan’s March 2022 meeting “underscored the importance of maintaining open lines of communication between the United States and China.” Similarly, the readout of Blinken’s September 2022 meeting indicates that he conveyed to Wang that “the United States remains open to cooperating with the PRC where our interests intersect.” And at the February 18, 2023 meeting, the readout noted while “the United States will compete and will unapologetically stand up for our values and interests…we do not want conflict with the PRC and are not looking for a new Cold War. The Secretary underscored the importance of maintaining diplomatic dialogue and open lines of communication at all times.”

Observations of Chinese Behavior

Washington’s consistent warnings to Beijing seem to have worked. But will China stick with this policy? Before that can be addressed, it is worth noting two preliminary observations.

First, no embargo is watertight. A variety of factors—ranging from profit seeking by individuals employed by the Chinese state, the historically porous borders of the twenty-first century, and the role of third parties—suggest that the transfer of a non-outcome determining level of dual-use Chinese technology on the battlefield would eventually occur no matter what. Indeed, declassified information released by the Biden administration in late February 2023 demonstrates that dual-use Chinese navigation, radar, drone, and electronic communication jamming equipment has reached the Russian military. There may even be other transferred equipment, such as high-level semiconductors, which simply hasn’t been detected.

Second, China has reason to provide military aid. In Beijing’s eyes, the notion that the United States—whose own State Department figures register $35.8 billion in security aid (as of April 4, 2023) to Ukraine’s war efforts against Russia—should issue warnings to China against aiding a belligerent in a conflict that is (in Beijing’s view) of Washington’s creation is the height of hypocrisy. That said, however sympathetic Beijing may be to Moscow, Qin Gang’s statement underlines the point that China has even more compelling reasons to exercise restraint. Accordingly, as long at the Putin regime’s survival is not at stake, Beijing will not provide Moscow with the military assistance necessary to turn the tide of the war.

China Will Keep Its Guns

Overall, China’s policy is determined by a political logic. As such, China’s restraint will likely continue. There are three specific political reasons for this.

First, Beijing understands the dangers of both escalation of the war in Ukraine and the risk of Chinese entanglement. Chinese policymakers are hard-headed realists who recognize the importance of balancing the competing imperatives of aiding Russia while avoiding getting involved in a conflict that attract the ire of the West and damage the pursuit of China’s own national interests.

Russia’s poor military performance in Ukraine has generated highly critical internal commentary in China’s strategic studies community. Specifically, the January 12, 2023 issue of the People’s Liberation Army Daily, China’s leading official military periodical, contains rare direct criticism. That such appeared in a reputable and authoritative paper provides a window into internal Chinese views. The conclusion is clear: Chinese strategists understand that the provision of a politically untenable level of military support would be needed to change the military outcome in Ukraine in Moscow’s favour. They are also keenly aware that Chinese military support seriously risks drawing Beijing into a quagmire created by the U.S.-led NATO alliance. Accordingly, Beijing draws a clear distinction between diplomatic and economic support for Moscow on one hand, and a policy of military support on the other.

Second, providing outcome-determining military aid to Russia would inevitably trigger economic sanctions from Brussels and Washington, jeopardizing China’s economic growth prospects. The CCP’s domestic political legitimacy, especially in the post-coronavirus pandemic era, rests on its ability to deliver a sustained return to robust economic growth, which will itself rely on continued trade with the EU and the United States. The EU and the United States were China’s top two trade partners in 2021, representing 13.7 percent and 12.5 percent of China’s trade, respectively.

But much more than trade volume is at stake. European technology is increasingly critical to the quality of China’s economic development. Following the drastic reduction in U.S. technology transfer after Washington’s move in 2017 from a policy of “engagement” to what is being called “strategic competition” with China, Beijing is depending on Europe as a reliable alternative source of technology. Military support for Moscow would jeopardize that access.

This reality explains the accommodating comments that Wang Yi—promoted to the post of Director of the CCP’s Central Foreign Affairs Commission in January 2023—made to the substantial constituency of European attendees at the Munich Security Conference in February this year. According to Wang, “we need to think calmly, especially our friends in Europe, about what efforts should be made to stop the warfare; what framework should there be to bring lasting peace to Europe; what role Europe should play to manifest its strategic autonomy.”

Third and finally, China is intent on projecting a more positive image of itself in world politics, especially after the coronavirus pandemic. In February this year, the Chinese Foreign Ministry released two significant documents. The first was a systematic critique of U.S. hegemony, highlighting Washington’s alleged abuse of its power to maximize its political, military, economic, technological, and cultural interests. The second was more positive, outlining Beijing’s Global Security Initiative (GSI)—a Chinese alternative to the U.S. model of world politics. As things stand, a Chinese decision to provide military support to Russia would torpedo the GSI by causing many states to view Beijing as a facilitator of the very hegemonic behavior it critiques the United States of.

A Success for Washington

On the issue of China’s provision of military aid to Russia, a policy of U.S. deterrence has succeeded: Beijing will continue its diplomatic and economic support for Russia, but exercise restraint on military support. The reasons for this policy continuation reflects a combination of factors: the dangers of a Chinese military commitment to Russia; a concern that military aid to Russia will trigger economic sanctions from Brussels and Washington; and the imperative to improve China’s international image.

Short of an unlikely “fall of Putin” scenario, Beijing will not provide Moscow with the military capabilities it requires. Russia, it seems, must make do with what it has.