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China Has Options to Arm Russia Indirectly. But Does It Need To?

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China Has Options to Arm Russia Indirectly. But Does It Need To?

There are safer ways for Beijing to address Russian munitions shortages in Ukraine than sending Chinese weapons to the frontlines.

China Has Options to Arm Russia Indirectly. But Does It Need To?

Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu speaks during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, Apr. 16, 2023.

Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

Hostilities between Russia and Ukraine appear set to enter a new phase, with Kyiv planning major offensives into Russian-held territories, including the Crimean Peninsula, using large quantities of newly supplied Western equipment. With the evolving situation on the battlefield, the potential for China to play a greater role in the conflict has continued to be widely speculated in the West.

In February and March renewed claims were made by both European and U.S. analysts and officials that Beijing may be planning to provide Russia with armaments. U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby announced on February 24 that there were “indications that China may be considering the provision of lethal capabilities to Russia,” although “we haven’t seen them move in that direction.” The tone from Europe was at the time considerably more alarmist, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy referring to preventing China from providing armaments to Russia as “priority number one.”

U.S. President Joe Biden himself stated, however, that he did not anticipate China would provide arms to support the Russian war effort, and Chinese government sources strongly dismissed claims that such actions were under consideration.

A number of claims regarding Chinese material support for the Russian war effort have been highly questionable – a leading example being a report from the Wall Street Journal in February that parts for Su-35 fighters were being supplied to Russia. China only operates two dozen of the aircraft, while Russia has over five times this number and continues both production and export of the class, which itself has not seen significant attrition in Ukraine. Thus, claims of China selling back some of the relatively few parts it has for the Russian-built aircraft appear highly dubious. As Russian armaments in Chinese service are primarily higher-end assets designed for anti-ship or aerial warfare operations, which are not the kinds of assets that have seen widespread use in Ukraine, prospects for China selling back the Russian weaponry it has remain limited, as the case of the Su-35 illustrates.

Should Chinese-built armaments be provided to Russia for use on the Ukrainian front, the high chance of their capture – intact or otherwise – would risk providing irrefutable evidence that Beijing had abandoned its position of principled neutrality. It would also leave Chinese armaments at high risk of being compromised by Western powers, as has been the case for a range of weapons already captured in Ukraine, from Iranian drones to Russian T-90M tanks – all of which will be studied in detail to provide information on supply chains, the state of industry, and possibilities for developing countermeasures. This, the reputational damage from supporting military offensives widely seen as illegal, and the risk of further polarizing relations with key trading partners in the West, particularly at a time of growing apparent divisions within the Western world over China policy, make it unlikely China would provide weapons for use by Russia in Ukraine.

Although Beijing has indicated disapproval of Moscow’s military intervention, the common hostility the Western world has shown both countries, and the fact that Russia remains one of the leading major economies and military powers outside the Western sphere of influence, makes it imperative for China to avoid alienating its neighbor and demonstrate its reliability as a strategic partner. Since the Western world’s next war after Ukraine may well be in East Asia targeting China, abandoning Russia as tens of billions of dollars’ worth of Western weapons, as well as large contingents of NATO personnel including combat troops, are all deployed to Ukraine to target Russia’s military, risks weakening China’s position significantly. A Russian defeat at NATO and Ukraine’s hands, particularly one Moscow sees Beijing to be complicit in by withholding support, is very much against the Chinese interest – despite the disdain with which China may hold its neighbor’s decision to launch a war.

Beijing’s dilemma regarding how to balance the strategic importance of preventing a Russian defeat with maintaining its principled neutrality and ties with the West could potentially be solved by a creative policy on arms transfers. One of the most straightforward options would be to work with countries less susceptible to Western pressure, namely those already under sanctions such as Iran and Myanmar, which field large arsenals compatible with Russia’s own. Such states may be much more willing and able to make substantial arms transfers to Russia if these are quickly replenished by sales from China. Iran, for example, would be much more likely to consider parting with its hundreds of Russian-supplied T-72 tanks if they are quickly replaced by more modern Chinese VT-4 or Type 96 tanks. Since Russia’s shortages lie primarily not in complex systems such as anti-aircraft missiles or fighter jets, the kind of equipment it needs – such as artillery shells, tanks, and armored vehicles – can be sourced widely.

North Korea is potentially the most optimal candidate, with its ground forces being significantly larger than those of Russia, particularly in key areas such as artillery and its stockpiles accordingly being vast, although a United Nations arms embargo on Pyongyang means China would be unable to openly replenish North Korean stocks should they be depleted by transfers to Russia. This means of indirectly supporting Russia would hardly be unprecedented, and indeed would mirror how South Korea has indirectly armed Ukraine by providing very rapid and sizable arms shipments to Poland from late 2022, which in turn allowed the Polish Army to divert much larger portions of its old arsenals to aid packages for the Ukrainian military. Seoul has similarly more recently agreed to supply large quantities of munitions to the United States under agreements specifically intended to allow its ally to send more of its own stockpiles to Ukraine.

Beyond working with third parties, a more high-risk option also remains that China supplies armaments exclusively to Russian units operating outside the Ukrainian theater. This would avoid most of the dangers from arming Russia, and make any arms transfers far more difficult to prove, while allowing Russia to divert armaments from units elsewhere in the country to the Ukrainian front as these units re-equip with Chinese weapons. Unlike Ukraine, which is able to pour all the weapons it receives into the war effort, Russia is widely reported to have conserved much of its arsenals so as to avoid being left defenseless in the event of a potential wider war with NATO – the possibility of which Russian officials have widely alluded to.

Particularly for high impact asymmetric systems such as tactical ballistic and cruise missiles, but also for many more basic assets such as artillery shells, depleting stocks in Ukraine would seriously limit Russia’s ability to fight Ukraine’s sponsors should tensions in Europe further escalate. Chinese supplies could thus allow more of Russia’s current arsenals to be used in Ukraine, while its new weapons from China could be conserved only for use in the event of a broader NATO-Russian war. Russian units have notably gained growing experience operating Chinese equipment during increasingly closely integrated joint exercises, and any equipment provided could potentially be leased and returned to China after Russia’s own defense sector catches up with demand, even if after the war’s end.

Ultimately while most non-Western countries have remained neutral in the Russian-Ukrainian War, moves by some – most notably South Korea – to indirectly arm Ukraine by rapidly and very heavily arming its sponsors could well provide a model for China to do the same should Russia’s arms inventories appear to be growing too dangerously low. Nevertheless, over a year into the war the need for such assistance remains in question. With Russian industry showing some signs of success in recovering its massive but much deteriorated Soviet era productive capacities, exports of dual use equipment such as machine tools and electronic components, and possibly provision of technical expertise, could well be more than sufficient to keep Russia in the fight and retain its gratitude without the need for any arms exports.

While the number of non-Western countries sanctioning Russia remains negligible, with only Japan, South Korea, and Singapore having done so and to limited degrees, China’s position as the only major high-tech economy outside the Western sphere of influence, and as the world’s leading industrial base, has already made its neutrality a major thorn in the side of Western economic warfare efforts. The diversity of Chinese industry already provides Russia with access to a wide range of products that Western-aligned countries would otherwise monopolize, from advanced semiconductors and electronics to electric cars and 5G infrastructure. Such trade has been far more valuable to Russia’s strategic position than any arms shipments could be. Neutrality, continued trade in civilian and dual use goods, and possibly some provision of technical expertise to help modernize Russia’s own defense industry, can thus likely go more than far enough for Beijing, removing the need to consider risking even very indirect means of providing armaments.