How far is China willing to go in its support for Russia in Ukraine crisis?

China will face international criticism and severe sanctions if Beijing supports Russia in its aggression against Ukraine. Is Chinese President Xi Jinping aware of the high cost that Beijing would pay?

In a meeting of high-level government officials in Rome, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan conveyed Washington’s concerns about the strengthening of bilateral cooperation between China and Russia over the Ukraine crisis to China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi, a Chinese Communist Party Politburo member.

With Russia facing resistance from the Ukrainian military and suffering a blow from economic sanctions, the United States might be concerned about the possibility of China going ahead with military support to Moscow. Russia has reportedly asked China to provide Moscow with weapons such as surface-to-air missiles and drones.

The U.S. side has warned that China would pay a severe price for its assistance to Russia. Sullivan is believed to have told Yang directly that China, like Russia, could face severe sanctions.

Against this backdrop, China has simply criticized the reports about Russia’s request for assistance as “false information.” If Beijing does not have the intention of providing weapons to Moscow, it should clearly show its will to refuse such a request.

Yang reportedly said the Chinese side did not want to see the situation in Ukraine coming to this point, stressing Beijing’s position of calling on all parties to exercise restraint. Words criticizing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine were absent. Such a stance means that China is effectively complicit in the situation.

At a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin held before the Russian invasion, Xi issued a joint statement declaring there was “no ceiling” to strategic cooperation between the two countries. The move appears to be based on the belief that Beijing’s cooperation with Russia is essential to achieve the Chinese goal of becoming the winner in its competition with the United States.

However, Russia’s inability to gain control of Ukraine swiftly and the deepening chaos occurring in the conflict are miscalculations also on Xi’s part.

China’s emphasis on its relationship with Russia has been undermining international confidence in its diplomatic principles of respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity in accordance with the U.N. Charter.

In addition, if sanctions are imposed on China due to its ramped-up support for Russia, and its economy sinks, Xi’s strategy of establishing a long-term regime at the National Congress of the Communist Party this autumn could collapse.

Russia has attacked urban areas in Ukraine, increasing the number of civilian casualties. The possibility of Russia using chemical and biological weapons or even launching a limited nuclear attack has also been pointed out.

How long will the Xi administration continue its unbounded cooperation with Russia for the sake of competing with the United States? The stage at which China can simply wait and see what happens has long passed. Beijing has apparently entered a phase in which it is preparing to revise its policy course.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on March 16, 2022.