Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping pose for a photo before their talks in Beijing on Feb. 4, 2022. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
5 min

China is considering sending lethal weapons to Russia’s forces in Ukraine, according to the Biden administration. That move, if Chinese leader Xi Jinping approves it, would be a terrible mistake, not only for international security and prosperity but also for Beijing’s own interests.

The world is already reeling from the effects of Vladimir Putin’s ruinous war. Until now, China has wisely kept its distance, paying lip service to its partnership with Russia while mostly adhering to Western sanctions. Its policy through the first year of Moscow’s war has been a shrewd straddle. Despite requests for weaponry from the Kremlin, China has so far sent only nonlethal aid, such as helmets and body armor. At the same time, it has reaped the benefits of Moscow’s international isolation by buying cheap Russian oil no longer flowing to Europe and increasing two-way trade with Moscow.

Mr. Xi has not condemned the Kremlin’s unwarranted war of aggression, but he has played a useful role nonetheless by warning Mr. Putin not to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. And last month China offered a so-called peace plan, which, for good reason, caused scarcely a ripple of interest. After all, it wasn’t an actual plan — no road map, no sequencing, no confidence-building measures — and Beijing is hardly a neutral party, having declared itself allied with Mr. Putin’s bloodstained dictatorship.

For Beijing to depart from its policy of pro-Russian neutrality would accelerate its spiraling hostility toward the United States and reposition China not only as a U.S. rival but also as a threatening adversary in the biggest conflict in Europe since World War II. Whatever else Beijing thinks it might achieve by replenishing Moscow’s depleted arsenals, it is clear that new weapons and munitions would enable Russia to spill more blood, pulverize more infrastructure, raze more cities and lay waste to more lives in Ukraine, the victim of Russia’s unwarranted aggression.

That would cast China as an international villain, and rightly so. Moreover, it would be hypocritical, making a mockery of China’s long-standing defense of the inviolability of sovereign borders and damaging its prestige in the Southern Hemisphere. It would likely anger India, Brazil and other developing countries that have tried to remain neutral.

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This is just one way in which a decision by Beijing to arm Russian forces in Ukraine would be irrational. It would also play havoc with China’s commercial relationships across the world, likely triggering a cascading series of punitive responses by Western countries that would compound Beijing’s already daunting economic problems. The Biden administration and its European allies have warned of such a response. French President Emmanuel Macron, who is scheduled to meet in Beijing with Mr. Xi next month, should transmit the message loud and clear, in coordination with his European and U.S. allies.

China’s long-term interests, mercantile and otherwise, depend much more heavily on the West than on Russia. Its trade with the United States and Europe would be vulnerable to sanctions if Beijing added fuel to the fire in Ukraine by shipping arms to Russia. The United States and its NATO partners are the destination, collectively, for more than a quarter of Chinese exports; other U.S. allies, including Japan and South Korea, account for at least another 10 percent. By contrast, Russia ranked No. 15 on China’s list of export destinations in 2021, accounting for just 2 percent of exports, although trade between the two countries has increased since then.

China is the world’s fourth-largest arms exporter. Shipping its weapons for Russian use in Ukraine would represent a major turning point both for the war and for Beijing’s own policy. Shortly after Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Beijing was considering such a pivot, the German magazine Der Spiegel reported that Russia was in talks with a Chinese aviation firm to purchase 100 attack drones, which Moscow uses against Ukraine’s electricity grid as well as troops in the field. The Post, citing U.S. officials, reported that Beijing is weighing whether to send artillery shells to Russian forces, whose stockpiles have run low after months of firing them at a rate often approaching 10,000 daily.

Why would Mr. Xi take that chance? One explanation is that the Chinese leadership, which has expressed growing exasperation with what it calls Washington’s policy of “containing” China, has decided on a strategic shift away from globalization and engagement with the West. That could accelerate the timetable Pentagon planners foresee for a possible Chinese attack on Taiwan and direct military confrontation with the United States. If that is the signal Beijing wants to send, equipping Russia with weapons to kill Ukrainians would be a major step toward achieving it.

Another possible explanation is that China, despite having expressed dismay at the war’s corrosive effects on international security and trade, might see prolonging it as advantageous, by diverting U.S. and European focus and resources. In fact, a protracted war, whatever its impact in the West, would have a greater effect in further depleting Russia, thereby diminishing its value as a strategic partner for Beijing.

Moscow’s disastrous, unprovoked invasion has exposed Mr. Putin’s regime for what it is — tyrannical, corrupt and puffed up. Bogged down in a war against an adversary with a third of its population and a tenth of its gross domestic product, Russia is hardly the formidable military power it bragged of being. If Mr. Xi imagined Mr. Putin would be a formidable counterweight to what he regards as the overbearing might of the United States, he should be disappointed. In fact, Russia has become an albatross for China, and doubling down by arming the Kremlin’s inept forces would only taint China’s standing in the world.

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