With the war in Ukraine entering its second year, China is weighing whether to dramatically escalate the conflict by supplying Russia with arms, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said.
Blinken told media outlets over the weekend that the Chinese government is considering providing Russia with both weapons and munitions.
“The concern that we have now is based on information we have that they’re considering providing lethal support, and we’ve made very clear to them that that would cause a serious problem for us and in our relationship,” Blinken told Margaret Brennen, host of the CBS News show Face the Nation, in an interview that aired on Sunday.
Blinken told China’s top diplomat Wang Yi on Saturday that if China provided Russia with lethal assistance, it would have “serious consequences” for the relationship between the two countries.
Blinken added that President Joe Biden gave Chinese President Xi Jinping the same message shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine last year.
“I’m not going to lay out what the consequences would be,” Blinken told reporters on Monday during a news conference in Turkey. “But I think China understands what’s at risk were it to proceed with providing material support of that kind to Russia.”
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So far, the Chinese government does not seem to be intimidated by Blinken’s diplomatic warning. Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s foreign affairs ministry, told reporters on Monday that China refuses to be lectured by the United States on this issue.
“It is the U.S., not China, that has been pouring weapons into the battlefield,” Wang said during a news conference. “The U.S. is in no position to tell China what to do. We would never stand for finger-pointing, or even coercion and pressurizing from the U.S. on our relations with Russia.”
From Blinken’s comments, it is not clear whether the U.S. government believes China is considering sending Russia spare parts for Russian-made military equipment, munitions, or weapons systems such as tanks and fighter aircraft, said Dean Cheng, a China expert with the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., and the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, a public policy research institute in Arlington, Virginia.
It is possible that China may want to demonstrate that the West cannot have a double standard to justify its own military aid to Ukraine while criticizing any possible Chinese assistance to Russia, Cheng told Task & Purpose.
“I do think that with the West supplying munitions and full-blown weapons systems, it’s awfully hard to seriously persuade Beijing: You don’t get to do that.”
The Chinese government is also concerned that if the West defeats or geopolitically humiliates Russia in Ukraine, Western countries will believe they could use a similar approach to thwart a Chinese invasion of Taiwan at little cost, he said.
“I think that the Chinese propaganda isn’t completely propaganda when they say: ‘Russia is our strategic partner – not ally – but the fate of Russia is tied to the fate of China,’” Cheng said. “‘We would face a West that is triumphant; that believes its own propaganda; that thinks that it can use a variety of tools to break challengers to the Western hegemony, as you did in Serbia, as you tried to do in Syria, as you did in Libya. We’re not going to let you do that – not China.’”
If China ultimately decides to arm the Russians, it has the ability to provide Russia with crucially needed munitions, including 122mm and 152mm artillery shells along with rockets for BM-21 Grad and BM-30 Smerch Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, said Hlib Parfonov, a defense analyst who works with the Jamestown Foundation think tank in Washington, D.C.
In the opening days of the war, Russia’s attempt to capture Kyiv failed spectacularly when a 40-mile column of Russian military vehicles became stuck approaching the Ukrainian capital, providing a target-rich environment for Ukrainian troops armed with anti-tank weapons.
The Chinese could send the Russians trucks to replace some of their losses from the failed drive on Kyiv as well as armored vehicles such as the Type 86 infantry fighting vehicle, a Chinese version of the Soviet BMP-1, Parfonov told Task & Purpose.
Such an influx of Chinese arms and equipment could allow the Russians to launch offensive operations in northern Ukraine as well as the south and southeastern parts of the country, he said.
In addition to buying artillery shells and rockets, Russia could also purchase Chinese-made armed drones, which are very popular among developing countries because they are capable aircraft and much cheaper than American-made drones, Timothy Heath, a senior international defense researcher at the RAND Corporation.
Russia is already using Chinese drones for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions in Ukraine, and the Russians have also modified some of those drones to fire weapons, Heath told Task & Purpose. China could also sell Russia drones that are specifically designed to carry ordnance.
“Something else that would be useful for them – it’s not really a weapon per se – but all the microchips and electronic components that are needed to make precision-guided munitions, I think the Russians would really be interested in that because they’re desperately low on actual precision-guided munitions and they can’t make them without those components, which they have to get from China or the West – and the West has shut that down.”
It is less likely that the Chinese government would provide Russia with tanks, missile launchers, and aircraft because it would be much more difficult for Beijing to conceal sales of major Chinese military equipment, especially if it gets captured, he said.
Heath said he does not believe the Chinese have decided yet whether they will sell weapons systems and munitions to Russia,
The Chinese government has long claimed that it has not provided weapons to Russia or Ukraine, and Beijing is expected to release a proposed peace plan later this week that is intended to end the conflict.
If the Chinese government provided arms to Russia at this moment, it would mark a huge escalation of their involvement in the conflict as well as a major deterioration of China’s relationship with the United States, Heath said.
“That move would put the world on a path to a confrontation between a U.S-led bloc of countries and a China/Russia axis that seemed increasingly willing to use arms to kill Americans – or at least U.S. allies and partners,” Heath said.