Russia might invade Ukraine. What will China do?

Foreign Affairs

As the second Ukraine crisis unfolds will Beijing “lean to one side”?

Illustration for SupChina by Alex Santafe

China-Russia relations may be at a critical juncture. In recent weeks, a Russian invasion of Ukraine has become an imminent threat: Russian military forces are amassed along the Ukrainian border; Putin and other officials have consistently issued provocative rhetoric for months, perhaps in an attempt to move domestic audiences on to a war footing; and Russian diplomatic efforts appear designed to create pretexts rather than advance negotiations. In 2014, in what may now become known as the first Ukraine crisis, Putin openly annexed Crimea and barely attempted to conceal an invasion of the Donbas. Since then, Kyiv’s improving military capabilities vis-à-vis Moscow and, perhaps more importantly, Moscow’s proxies in the Donbas have alarmed the Russian leadership. What level of support would Beijing offer Putin in a second Ukraine crisis?

As Beijing hosts a tense, politically charged Winter Olympics, and Moscow and Beijing inch closer to a massive natural gas pipeline deal, the ongoing crisis in Ukraine could prove to be the most defining bilateral (and, indeed, geopolitical) event in 2022. The stakes of a second Ukraine crisis would be much higher than the first. This time, Putin expects much more support from his Chinese partners. The P.R.C.’s failure to provide Putin with sufficient backing could damage Beijing’s interests within Russia and possibly even imperil the ruling regime. On the other hand, the CCP’s open support for Putin in a West-Russia confrontation would further consolidate opposition to the P.R.C. within Europe and the West, strengthening arguments for economic decoupling. Beijing will attempt to walk a tightrope in a second Ukraine crisis, but it will likely “lean to one side” more than it did in 2014.

The first Ukraine crisis and the Power of Siberia

China’s balancing act in the first Ukraine crisis provides key insights into its current decision-making process. Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas in 2014 transformed Russia’s relationship with both the West and China. While Western-Russian tensions had been growing since (at least) the Iraq War, 2014 marked an abrupt and probably permanent rupture between Putin and the West. The U.S. and its European allies levied sanctions against Putin’s inner circle while enhancing NATO’s counter-invasion capabilities in Europe. Putin, in turn, began opposing Western interests more openly and intensely while drawing closer to Beijing, which largely shared Moscow’s insecurities and suspicions.

In May 2014, shortly after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Beijing and Moscow agreed to construct the Russia-to-China Power of Siberia natural gas pipeline (PoS), laying down an important symbolic and substantive marker in their relationship. The first crisis exposed limits to China-Russia ties, however, as Beijing’s support for Putin was often heavy on rhetoric but light on substance. Xi signed the PoS agreement with Putin in 2014, but Russian firms were (reportedly) stuck with providing project financing; Chinese banks also largely complied with the West’s post-Crimea/Donbas sanctions. Still, the PoS pipeline accelerated Russia’s economic pivot to China.

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Economic dependency: A (mostly) one-way street

Since 2014, economic trade between Russia and China has reinforced political ties. Russian exports to China rose from ~$42 billion USD in 2014 to ~$57 billion USD in 2020 on the Eastern Siberia Pacific Ocean (ESPO) I & II crude oil pipeline capacity expansions, as well as initial volumes from the PoS natural gas pipeline. By 2020, exports to China accounted for about 4% of Russian GDP, more than double their pre-Crimea levels. Russian exports earnings from China will be even higher in 2021 due to sharp year-over-year increases in commodity prices and higher export volumes.

While the Russian economy is increasingly dependent on its large southern neighbor, the reverse is not true – at least not when measured by GDP. China exported nearly as much to Mexico in 2020 as it did to Russia, and China’s exports to Russia accounted for only 0.3% of its 2020 GDP – which was actually down from 0.5% in 2013. Still, raw economic figures downplay Russia’s economic influence vis-à-vis China.

Russian energy provides important energy security assurances for Beijing. While a significant percentage of China-Russia energy trade is conducted from Primorsky Krai via marine traffic, overland crude oil, natural gas, and coal imports from Russia largely cannot be intercepted by the U.S. or its allies and partners, increasing Beijing’s crisis flexibility and resilience. Indeed, in 2020, Russia supplied 15% of China’s crude oil import volumes and 9% of its pipeline natural gas import volumes. With U.S.-P.R.C. tensions continuing to rise, the CCP values the assurance of Russian energy supplies much more highly today than in 2014.

Indeed, bilateral economic ties are often determined by the domestic political necessities and foreign policy preferences of both regimes, not market forces. The Power of Siberia likely doesn’t provide positive net present value for China or (especially) Russia, and an additional natural gas pipeline called the Power of Siberia-2 (PoS-2) almost certainly suffers from even worse fundamentals due to the looming energy transition. Indeed, China’s deployment of solar, wind, green hydrogen, and electric vehicle resources could displace or even replace all of its Russian commodity imports over the long term. Nevertheless, the two sides could reach an agreement over PoS-2 due to the alignment of their short-term domestic and geopolitical interests. Beijing and Moscow are willing to organize trade ties around a shared external threat.

Compatible objectives, shared adversaries

Putin and the CCP have drawn closer since 2014 also due to shared threat perceptions and changing capabilities. Both Moscow and Beijing continue to regard constitutional democracies as an obstacle to their geopolitical ambitions and, more importantly, a threat to their domestic political regimes; this perception has only hardened since 2014. At the same time, it is increasingly clear that the Russian political leadership values domestic regime continuity over Russian geopolitical power or status (the well-being of the Russian people is a very distant concern). Putin’s diminished geopolitical ambitions and willingness to accommodate Chinese power, paired with growing economic dependency on the Chinese market, have significantly reduced (but hardly eliminated) China-Russia tensions. Meanwhile, Xi’s hostility to constitutional democracy and China’s growing comprehensive national power have sharpened tensions between the free world and the P.R.C. Beijing and Moscow see a commonality of aims, while habits of cooperation are expanding amid a shared antagonist. More so than in 2014, Moscow and Beijing share common purposes and adversaries.

Both Putin and the CCP have become more overtly hostile to the existing international order since the first Ukraine crisis of 2014. From the atrocities committed in Syria in 2016 to the overt political interventions in Western democracies, Putin is increasingly willing to break rules and directly challenge the free world. Beijing has operated more cautiously, but it has frequently – if only tacitly and quietly – supported Putin’s actions. And, of course, Beijing’s relationship with the U.S. has become increasingly hostile due to the CCP’s censorship and obfuscation about the spread of COVID, the Taiwan issue, the suppression of Xinjiang and Hong Kong, threats of war against the Philippines, attempts to economically coerce U.S. allies, and much more.

Putin and the CCP have strengthened bilateral ties amid their increasingly antagonistic relationship with the U.S. and its allies and partners. Moscow and Beijing claim that their “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era” is “unprecedentedly high”; Beijing now also states that the two sides are “all-weather friends.” While a formal alliance appears unlikely, the two sides are coordinating political, diplomatic, informational, and even military efforts in ways that would have been unthinkable seven years ago.

Consequences of a second Ukraine crisis

The ongoing crisis in Ukraine will be a defining moment in the Russia-China relationship in 2022. Beijing and Moscow could drift into a quasi-military alliance, with profound implications for their relations with the free world. Alternatively, Beijing’s lack of economic and/or political support for Moscow in a second Ukraine crisis could conceivably imperil the Putin regime (while mitigating risks for Western-Chinese economic ties). Putin’s attendance or non-attendance at the Beijing Winter Olympics may reveal Beijing’s choices.

Putin is currently slated to travel to Beijing in early February to attend the games, but the timing and logistics of the trip could be extremely awkward for both sides, particularly if Russian troops escalate in Ukraine sometime in January. Would Xi host Putin after another aggressive action vis-a-vis Ukraine? Would Putin really leave Russia amid its most serious foreign policy crisis in the post-Soviet era? A post-escalation summit would certainly mark a new epoch in China-Russia relations – but a nadir in Beijing’s relationship with the West. Putin may therefore face pressure from Beijing to delay escalation in Ukraine until after his Olympics trip, or to cancel his attendance.

China-Russia relations appear headed for a critical juncture due to a potential second Ukraine crisis. In the event of a crisis, Beijing may offer greater support for Putin than in 2014 while maintaining some distance, due to its need for functional economic ties with Europe and North America. China and Russia will likely be much more aligned in any second Ukraine crisis, but China’s support for Putin is subject to limits. Beijing will attempt to balance its posture in a second Ukraine crisis with the awareness that the next few months could determine the next decade for China-Russia relations.