As the war in Ukraine rages on and China faces growing pressure to end its diplomatic tap dance around the conflict, Beijing is increasingly shifting its attention toward providing humanitarian aid and brokering peace talks between Russia and Ukraine. But although Chinese officials continue to insist on Beijing’s neutrality on what it describes as “the Ukraine crisis,” China’s refusal to take a side may come at a high cost.
At the moment, Western observers are even worried that China might begin to actively back Russia in the conflict. Russia has already turned to China for military hardware and aid in the weeks since the invasion of Ukraine, according to reports from The Washington Post and Financial Times. The items Moscow requested from Beijing include surface-to-air missiles, drones, armored vehicles, and logistics and combat service support vehicles, as well as prepackaged, nonperishable military food kits. Meanwhile, U.S. officials have reportedly told their European and Pacific allies that China has signaled its willingness to oblige Russia’s request. Both Beijing and Moscow have denied the claims.
But the concerns that China directly assist Russia—or, as some have portrayed it, come to Russia’s rescue—in the Ukraine war are overblown, according to many experts who argue that Moscow’s request is being taken out of context. Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote on Twitter that the request is likely just one aspect of ongoing negotiations that preceded Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, rather than an emergency appeal for assistance in an ongoing war. Similarly, Vasily Kashin, an analyst of Chinese military affairs at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, notes that a transfer of military assistance would likely not have an immediate impact on combat operations in Ukraine or elsewhere, as military hardware typically takes several months to deliver and requires a considerable period of training, adaptation and integration into existing weapons platforms in order to be ready for use in combat.