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Opinion Xi Jinping doesn’t want to wind up on the losing side in Ukraine

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in June 2019. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)
6 min

Russia has a lot more people, a larger economy and a more powerful military than Ukraine. By all rights, it should have crushed Ukraine at the start of the war. That this didn’t happen — and that the war is now heading into its second year with Kyiv in a good position to regain more lost ground — can be explained in no small part by the reality that Ukraine has many allies and Russia does not.

The Kiel Institute for the World Economy estimates that the United States and Europe have pledged roughly $100 billion in military and economic aid to Ukraine since the Russian invasion. That includes increasingly sophisticated military equipment ranging from Patriot air defense systems to the Leopard 2 and M1A2 Abrams tanks that were promised last week.

Russia needs foreign help, too. It’s running low on everything from artillery shells to drones to missiles. But only two rogue states that we know of — Iran and North Korea — have so far been willing to provide the Kremlin with military equipment. Advantage, Ukraine.

Russia’s biggest missing military supplier is China — the world’s largest exporter of high-tech goods and the fourth-largest exporter of weapons. Beijing could play the same role for Russia that the United States is playing for Ukraine. If that were to happen, the odds of a Russian victory would rise exponentially. But that hasn’t happened, suggesting that, in practice, there are sharp limits to the “no limits” friendship that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping proclaimed just a few weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.

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Far from going all in on Putin, Xi is trying to balance between the West and Russia — thereby creating a potential opportunity for the Biden administration.

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China has been happy to continue trading with Russia on advantageous terms. China and India have replaced Europe as the major purchasers of Russian oil and gas, which have fallen in price because of Western sanctions. In return, according to researchers at Silverado Policy Accelerator, China has become the Kremlin’s largest source of imports — in particular the semiconductors that Russia needs to manufacture both civilian and military equipment. Because Apple and Samsung stopped selling smartphones to Russia, China stepped in and captured 70 percent of the Russian market in the third quarter of 2022. This two-way trade indirectly subsidizes Putin’s war effort — and, in the case of microchips, could enable Russian arms production.

But remember: China also had a robust economic relationship with Ukraine before the invasion. Indeed, as noted by my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Zongyuan Zoe Liu: “By 2019, China had replaced Russia as Ukraine’s largest trading partner, becoming the top importer of Ukrainian barley and iron ore, while Ukraine overtook the United States as China’s largest corn supplier.”

Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told me that “China wants to see prolonged war in Ukraine, because it will divert the West from China while China is getting energy at low prices from Russia.” Maybe, but China has not been happy about the economic disruptions caused by the Russian invasion. As the largest lender to low-income nations, China has to worry about being repaid by countries that have seen their economies battered by soaring commodity prices.

Chinese diplomats have privately been telling the Europeans that Xi did not know of the Russian invasion in advance and had to scramble to evacuate 6,000 Chinese nationals in Ukraine. Xi has also publicly expressed “questions and concerns” about the Russian invasion and told Putin not to use nuclear weapons.

As an unsentimental practitioner of realpolitik, Xi does not want to wind up on what could be the losing side. The Financial Times reports, based on conversations with Chinese officials, that “China now perceives a likelihood that Russia will fail to prevail against Ukraine and emerge from the conflict a ‘minor power,’ much diminished economically and diplomatically on the world stage.”

In other words, a defeated Russia might not be a very useful future ally for China — another country that has few friends in the world. And China, as the world’s largest trading nation, cannot afford to become as isolated as Russia has become. That helps to explain why Beijing is reaching out to Europe and trying to ratchet down animus with the United States — for example, by sidelining one of its most noxious “wolf warrior” diplomats.

In an intriguing article this month in Foreign Policy, two scholars at the Stimson Center — former intelligence officer Robert A. Manning and China expert Yun Sun — argued that the Biden administration should take advantage of Xi’s ambivalence about the war to woo him away from Russia. They suggested that “China’s early offer to mediate in the Ukraine crisis should be probed” and that “the United States has little to lose by testing the proposition that new opportunities may be opening up that are sufficient in allowing U.S.-China cooperation on Ukraine.”

Paul Heer, a 30-year veteran of the CIA and former national intelligence officer for East Asia, told me he agreed there was a “potential opportunity” here: “Putin has become an embarrassment to Xi, if not yet a net liability.” But the question is what kind of quid pro quo can Washington offer? “Beijing isn’t going to side with us against Moscow simply because it’s the right thing to do,” Heer pointed out. “What’s in it for China to do so?”

There’s the rub — and one potential downside of growing U.S. animosity with China. Continuing what Donald Trump started, President Biden has been ramping up economic pressure on China — to include blocking the export of the most advanced microchips and microchip-manufacturing equipment. He is giving the impression that the goal of U.S. policy isn’t just to counter China’s military threat but, as noted by Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman, to stop China’s economic rise.

To coax China into being more cooperative on the war in Ukraine and other pressing issues such as North Korea, Heer told me, “We would need to convince the Chinese that we are at least as interested in the potential for peaceful coexistence and strategic cooperation as we are in pursuing our systemic strategic rivalry.” But, in the current atmosphere of spiking tensions, that’s “a very tall order.”

So, it’s doubtful that the United States can persuade China to become a partner in ending the Ukraine war. But at the very least the Biden administration can continue pressing China not to provide military equipment to Russia. As long as China stays largely on the sidelines, Ukraine will have a fighting chance to prevail.