The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ukraine helped build China’s modern military, but when war came, Beijing chose Russia

The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning, purchased from Ukraine, participates in a 2019 naval parade near Qingdao. (Mark Schiefelbein/Pool/AP)

When Ukraine asked China for help in bringing about a cease-fire after Russia invaded, it was calling on a country whose modern military Kyiv had helped build.

Ukraine has supplied Beijing for years with critical military technology that it couldn’t get elsewhere, including China’s first aircraft carrier, technology for its naval antimissile radar, and advanced jet engines. It’s also a key supplier of agricultural products such as corn and sunflower oil to China.

“China would not have even a single operational aircraft carrier in service today, if not for that help,” said Sarah Kirchberger, the head of the Center for Asia-Pacific Strategy and Security at Germany’s Kiel University.

This history helps explain why Beijing might feel a bit awkward about the invasion, but China’s dependence on Russia outweighs its relationship with Ukraine, and Beijing has publicly backed Moscow. Ukraine also has been tilting away from China in recent years as it angled to join NATO, the Western military alliance.

China touts ‘rock solid’ ties with Russia as it offers to mediate Ukraine conflict

“Russia is far and away the most important arms supplier to China,” said M. Taylor Fravel, the director of the security studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Where Ukraine has really helped China has been in the area of jet engines, as well as some ship engines and air-to-air missiles.”

There has been disappointment in Ukraine that years of partnership with China have not resulted in stronger support from Beijing during the invasion.

“There was this expectation that if we had Chinese enterprises and Chinese investment in Ukraine, that would prevent Russia from escalating,” said Sergiy Gerasymchuk, the deputy director of the Foreign Policy Council’s Ukrainian Prism, a think tank in Ukraine. “There were expectations that Russia wouldn’t shell enterprises belonging to China.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian criticized March 9 the military alliance of European and North American states, as Ukrainians continued to flee. (Video: Reuters)

Gerasymchuk said that while there were still hopes in Kyiv that Beijing might intercede toward a cease-fire, “the level of trust is much lower” after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s public alignment with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in February.

There has, however, been a shift in recent years on the part of Ukraine, with policymakers increasingly viewing China as a “challenge” rather than as a strategic partner, said Yurii Poita of the Asia-Pacific section at the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies in Ukraine.

“Now Ukraine can observe who is a real friend in this very critical situation,” he said, “and we can assess that China is not a friend. It’s not an enemy, but not a friend. It’s somewhere in between.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated Monday that Russia was his country’s “most important strategic partner.” China abstained from a U.N. vote to condemn Russia’s invasion.

In a statement to The Washington Post on Tuesday, the Chinese Embassy in Washington said Beijing’s position on Ukraine was consistent.

“China attaches great importance to the strategic partnership established between China and Ukraine in 2011,” the embassy said. “All countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity should be respected and upheld.”

China, however, has not condemned Russia’s invasion — or even called it that — and has blamed the United States and NATO for the conflict.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, China and Ukraine courted each other, if warily. Cut off from United States and E.U. arms sales since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, Beijing found Ukraine willing to sell it certain advanced military technologies that Russia wouldn’t sell to China for competitive reasons. Ukraine viewed China as a vast market opportunity for its defense suppliers and a regional counterbalance to Russia.

As China hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008, Chinese media cited the Kyiv Post in reporting that a Ukrainian research institute had supplied antimissile equipment to protect the Games. The reports said the Aegis-like radar system also was being use in Chinese warships.

Kirchberger said this phased-array radar system was a crucial capability for a modern navy. “A ship can be placed in an area, and it can secure the entire airspace around it,” she said.

Beijing and Kyiv’s strategic partnership cooled after 2014, as Ukraine prioritized joining NATO in the aftermath of Russia’s first invasion. As Ukraine sought to align more closely with the United States and E.U., it has pushed China to arms’ length, including nixing a 2017 attempt by a Chinese company, Beijing Skyrizon Aviation Industry Investment, to purchase Ukrainian aerospace company Motor Sich, one of the world’s most advanced makers of military aircraft engines.

“The United States helped to stop this deal,” Poita said. “As far as very sensitive and advanced technology, Ukraine doesn’t transfer it to China. It’s prohibited, it’s absolutely prohibited, because for Ukraine, the relationship with NATO and allies is crucial.”

Beijing Skyrizon has filed an application with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, seeking $4.5 billion in compensation from Ukraine over the scuttled Motor Sich deal.

While Ukraine looked westward, Russia and China cemented a closer bond, leading to their joint declaration on Feb. 4 that the relationship had “no limits.” Kirchberger said one result of this closer partnership has been that in recent years, Moscow has become more willing to sell more advanced military equipment to Beijing.

The full shape of China’s military cooperation with Ukraine is difficult to confirm because that realm largely exists behind closed doors. Even Chinese state media has commented on the scant information disclosed about an apparently important defense relationship.

“It’s as if both sides are purposefully avoiding the military industry cooperation and don’t raise a word about military trade. But in actuality, China is the largest customer of Ukraine’s military industry,” the state-run Global Times wrote in 2015.

Some of the most critical military deals between the two countries have taken place under hazy circumstances. The purchase of an incomplete aircraft carrier, the Varyag, had been a cloak-and-dagger affair, according to a South China Morning Post interview in 2015 with Xu Zengping, the Hong Kong-based businessman who had negotiated the sale.

Xu, a former Chinese military basketball player, told the newspaper he had gone to Ukraine with a cover story in 1998 that he wanted to turn the aircraft carrier into the world’s largest floating hotel and casino. When he finally managed to tow the hulk back to China years later, he delivered it to China’s military. In 2012, it would be commissioned as the Liaoning.

China also obtained from Ukrainian weapons dealers half a dozen air-launched cruise missiles that can be fitted with nuclear warheads, Ukrainian prosecutors said in 2005, alleging that they had been smuggled out of the country and sold illegally. Officials loyal to former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma were implicated in the weapons sales.

In more recent years, Ukraine has curbed its sale of advanced weapons to China but joined Beijing’s Belt and Road infrastructure development program. Ukraine also remains in China’s sphere of influence in some ways: Last summer, Ukraine made waves when it retracted its signature from a U.N. statement to condemn China’s human rights violations in the Xinjiang region. The Associated Press, citing diplomats familiar with the matter, reported that China threatened to withhold Chinese coronavirus vaccines from Ukraine if Kyiv didn’t make the retraction.

Gerasymchuk said Ukraine has tried to follow Germany’s model in continuing economic partnerships with China while drawing a line at security issues.

“The United States and the West are our main friends, but it does not prevent us with trading with China,” he said. “We’re emphasizing close transatlantic ties, but since we depend on China in economic terms, we are sitting on the fence.”