Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 upended the post–Cold War landscape in Europe and around the globe. Since the war started, one key question has dominated debate among observers: how Beijing views Russia’s military aggression and the conduct of the war. What was initially termed a “strategic partnership” between Beijing and Moscow has now blossomed into a friendship with “no limits.” The term “alliance” has even creeped into the conversation to describe the two countries’ close relationship.
Such assumptions raise questions about China’s true motivations in supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and how the conflict may influence views of Russia in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) going forward.
Using primarily Chinese-language sources, this paper examines PRC calculations on Sino-Russian relations in light of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. It seeks to ascertain whether the prevailing narrative among pundits in Washington and other global capitals — that Russia and China are closely aligned in the diplomatic, military, and economic spheres — is shared by Chinese foreign policy analysts and scholars.
While the two countries share certain overlapping interests, this paper finds that increasing unease among some Chinese scholars over the trajectory of the war and the ramifications of aligning too closely with Vladimir Putin’s Russia animates policy debates in Beijing more than is generally assumed. In fact, negative factors — such as fear of a Russian collapse, instability along China’s periphery, and acceleration of U.S.-led containment measures as result of the war in Ukraine — may be motivating China’s calculus in aligning with Moscow as much as, if not more than, positive, proactive factors, such as the creation of an alternate anti-“West” coalition. Furthermore, China’s unconditional support for Russia’s war of aggression may be wavering, as Beijing seeks ways to bring about an end to the conflict.
These findings imply that, rather than pursuing some grand “axis of power” campaign aimed at toppling the Western-led global order, as some in the United States have suggested, Beijing’s alignment with Moscow is as much a function of a lack of policy alternatives as it is a unified alignment of power and interests.
Thus, while negative factors can serve as powerful motivations for alignment in international politics, they also present opportunities for leverage for countries seeking to neutralize coalitions that undermine their interests.
As a result, policymakers in Washington and Brussels should understand the significant vulnerabilities of the China-Russia bilateral relationship and consider policies with these nuances in mind.
Ukraine Testing China’s Policy of “Non-Alignment”
Since the conflict in Ukraine started in February 2022, China has juggled competing objectives. On the one hand, it has called for an end to hostilities through dialogue and cessation of hostilities. On the other hand, it continues to consolidate and enhance an already close strategic partnership with Russia. Bilateral trade has risen precipitously, both countries have maintained sustained and frequent diplomatic contact, and bilateral military exercises have increased in scope and scale. Meanwhile, Beijing has straddled a precarious line in its relations with the United States, the European Union (EU), and Russia, attempting to promote its “neutral role” in ending the conflict while moving ever-closer to Russia’s position on the war.
Since February 2023, China has taken a more proactive stance in mediating the conflict. First, on the anniversary of the invasion, China released a 12-point “peace plan,” called “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis,” that proposed a political solution to hostilities. Then, in late March 2023, Xi Jinping visited Russia, his first international meeting since his reelection as president during the National People’s Congress earlier that month. The meeting solidified the two countries’ close relations at a critical time of escalating violence in Ukraine and cemented China’s position as one of Russia’s most trusted diplomatic and security partners. Finally, in late April 2023, a long-awaited phone call took place between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The phone call marked China’s most concrete step as a mediator of the conflict.
However, China’s efforts, while seemingly well intentioned, may have backfired. Beijing’s 12-point position paper on Ukraine could be interpreted as an attempt to justify Russia’s rationale for invading Ukraine. For example, the second point states that “legitimate security concerns” need to be “taken seriously and addressed properly,” adding, “the security of a country should not be pursued at the expense of others.” This could be understood as support for Russia’s narrative about the causes of the conflict, juxtaposed with other diplomatic statements around the world condemning Russia for its actions.
Not surprisingly, the response in Europe, a key audience for Beijing’s peace plan, was largely negative. Soon after the 12-point plan was unveiled, for example, the European Commission called it “misplaced” and claimed that it “implicitly justifies Russia’s invasion.” In April 2023, the EU’s foreign policy chief argued that China’s peace proposal was a “blatant violation” of China’s United Nations commitments. As expected, the response from Washington was similarly negative.
These responses likely came as no surprise to policymakers in Beijing. However, they underscore the challenge that China faces as it elicits support from the international community to lead a coalition to bring about peace in Ukraine.
Strengthening U.S. Containment of China
One theme that has emerged in PRC elite discourse is the notion that the war in Ukraine offers the United States and NATO (The North Atlantic Treaty Organization) an opportunity to form new anti-China security partnerships in Asia, undermining China’s security position in the region.
Zhang Xin, deputy director of the Center for Russian Studies at East China Normal University, writes in a recent essay that “there is real concern within China that the negative security spiral and risk escalation that has been unfolding for more than two decades between Russia and the U.S./NATO in Europe may be replicated in the Asia-Pacific.”1
A July 2023 study by the European Council on Foreign Relations, featuring off-the-record views of a wide swath of Chinese academics and strategists, echoes this sentiment. Chinese scholars predict that the war in Ukraine will spur “a rapid military build-up in the Indo-Pacific” and believe that Washington is using the crisis to “build more connections between its allies in the Indo-Pacific and the Euro-Atlantic region.”2
Other Chinese scholars have written about their expectation that the war will result in the United States “increasingly focusing on countering China” and that it will “make Russia, heavily sanctioned by the West, a ‘strategic burden’ for China, with the aim of impeding China’s own development.”3
Unraveling Global Security Institutions
Another theme expressed by Chinese academics is a fear that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will bring about cleavages in the global security architecture. One academic has termed this phenomenon “exclusion politics.” As this scholar sees it, Russia’s unilateral use of force may “encourage other dissatisfied countries to withdraw from international systems and rules, based on their own national interests, potentially triggering a ‘domino effect’ that could seriously harm the international institutional framework.”4 He adds that “exclusion politics” is “unlikely to successfully address complex political challenges, and extreme isolation does not achieve its objectives or desired effects. While exclusion may appear persuasive in rhetoric, it is shortsighted in both political and practical terms.”5
Russia’s Poor Military Performance
Beijing is increasingly worried about the poor military competency of the Russian military. As Alicia Bachulska and Mark Leanard highlight in their 2023 study, “almost all of the [Chinese] intellectuals interviewed remarked on Russia’s poor military performance” and “worried about the danger of a military defeat leading to regime change in Moscow.”6 An article in PLA Daily — China’s largest military-run newspaper — offers frank criticism of the “shortcomings” in Russia’s military that were exposed during its “special military operation” in Ukraine. For example, the article highlights “insufficiencies in Russian military’s informatized combat capabilities,” resulting in the “traditional tactics of mechanized warfare still being followed in special military operations.”7
As the war drags on, Chinese strategists are concerned that Russian military defeats may push Putin to adopt increasingly escalatory and provocative strikes against Ukraine, possibly exposing Russia to international condemnation and isolation. As long as Russia’s behavior does not become an unmanageable political liability, most Chinese strategists expect Beijing to continue to provide Moscow with an economic and diplomatic lifeline. However, such support is tempered by concerns about Russia’s poor military performance on the battlefield and may evolve as the stalemate in Ukraine sets in.
China is Being “Duped” by Russia
Finally, there are some voices within China that are outright critical of the invasion and skeptical of how China’s support for Russia benefits China’s interests.
In May 2022, former Chinese Ambassador to Ukraine Gao Yusheng expressed rare public criticism of Putin’s actions in Ukraine. He faulted the Putin regime for “considering the former Soviet Union as its exclusive sphere of influence” and “violating the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of other former Soviet states,” which resulted in “the greatest threat to peace, security, and stability in Eurasia.” Gao added that “the so-called revitalization of Russia under Putin’s reign is based on a false premise” and that “it’s only a matter of time before Russia is fully defeated.”
PRC scholars have echoed similar views. One claims that China has been the victim of a “hybrid war” waged by Russia, including Russian attempts to manipulate Chinese state-affiliated media and social media as well as efforts to “dupe” Chinese leaders into appearing more supportive of the war than they intended.8 Feng Yujun, director of the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, sees Moscow as an “irrational actor,” largely driven by a victim mentality and “imperial longings.” He claims that Russian foreign policy has exacerbated antagonisms between liberal and conservative forces in countries around the world, leading to a subsequent deterioration in the international environment. His views suggest that Moscow’s irrationality could one day become a liability for Beijing.9
This analysis has attempted to provide a window into how a segment of Chinese strategists view Sino-Russian relations since the conflict in Ukraine. Such debates inside China’s policy community provide insights into China’s conflicting interests over Ukraine and highlight the tenuous position in which Beijing finds itself as it aligns more closely with Moscow. While it remains true that a majority of voices in China support closer diplomatic and military relations with Russia, another set of voices appear to exhibit concern and unease over the trajectory of the Russian war in Ukraine and how the war might negatively affect China’s interests.
Based on this analysis, a few initial observations can be made about China’s overarching views on Sino-Russian relations since the war in Ukraine.
First, fears of a Russian defeat and potential of the collapse of the Putin regime may be influencing China’s policy toward Ukraine. China’s foreign policy has always been preoccupied with the preservation of territorial integrity and stability near its borders above all other considerations. In this context, China is very much concerned about domestic instability in Russia that could spill over into Central Asia and Xinjiang.
Second, Chinese strategists fear that the war in Ukraine could strengthen U.S. and European measures to contain China and possibly undermine the global institutional framework for addressing global security challenges, such as the United Nations. China has paid close attention to the scope of economic sanctions imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine and noted the damage it has done to Russia’s economy.10 Beijing remains worried about the asymmetric advantage of economic weapons in the hands of major economies in the United States and Europe, and it is likely drawing parallels for a future scenario in which Beijing attempts to use force against Taiwan. Furthermore, China’s 12-point peace plan, while poorly received in EU capitals, does emphasize the need to respect the “principles of the United Nations Charter.”11 This emphasis, coupled with voices critical of the “politics of exclusion” that Russia is adopting by circumventing traditional mechanisms of dispute resolution, such as the United Nations Security Council, suggests concern among Chinese strategists over the health of global security institutions in the wake of Russia’s invasion.
Third, Chinese observers of the war in Ukraine worry about the military competence of a declining and potentially erratic Russia. Russia’s military setbacks are increasingly giving way to concern among some in China over the trajectory of the war. A Russian defeat in Ukraine would be detrimental to Chinese interests because of the corresponding loss of influence and power of Moscow on the world stage. On the other hand, a complete military “success” by Russia looks increasingly unlikely, given the stalemate that Russia and Ukraine currently find themselves in. This may explain recent efforts by China to bring about a political solution to the conflict.
Finally, Beijing is trying to stabilize the Putin regime while opposing what it perceives as Western encroachment against Russia, including in Ukraine. It is true that an important factor uniting China and Russia is a shared vision to align against a Western-dominated world order whose values and interests are increasingly seen as a threat to Beijing and Moscow. As one Chinese analyst explains, “among the major powers, Russia is probably the only one that is not opposed to China … So long as [Russia] does not side with the U.S., this will be a strategic success for China.”12 Even with its high-stakes gamble in Ukraine, Russia remains one of only a handful of great powers with the capacity and intent to align with China against the West and the Western-dominated “rules-based order.” This makes Beijing’s cozy relationship with Russia a partnership of necessity for Beijing as opposed to strategically opportunistic.
Simultaneously, however, a key finding in this paper is that Beijing’s support for Russia may be more brittle and vulnerable than is widely presumed, because of the high degree of uncertainty and risk associated with Russian belligerence and increasing international pressure on Moscow. As the war drags on and Beijing perceives a more united coalition of countries supporting Ukraine and punishing Russia, a drawn-out conflict that saps the region’s resources, drags down the global economy, and exposes China to culpability by supporting an increasingly erratic and unlawful war of aggression, China’s “no limits” partnership with Moscow may require adjustments. Voices expressing unease over China’s Russia policy may be a signal that change within the PRC government is on the horizon.
- Zhang Xin, “Chinese Perspectives on China–Russia Relations since 24 February 2022,” Russian Analytical Digest, no. 296, July 12, 2023, https://css.ethz.ch/content/dam/ethz/special-interest/gess/cis/center-f….
- Alicia Bachulska and Mark Leanard, “China and Ukraine: The Chinese Debate about Russia’s War and Its Meaning for the World,” Policy Brief, European Council on Foreign Relations, July 11, 2023, https://ecfr.eu/publication/china-and-ukraine-the-chinese-debate-about-….
- Zhao Minghao [赵明昊], “Analysis of the Impact of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict on Sino-American Relations” [俄乌冲突对中美关系的影响论析], Peace and Development [和平与发展], no. 3 (2022): 1–22.
- Gu Wei [顾炜], “Adjustment of Ukraine Crisis and Russia's Competition Strategy in the International System” [乌克兰危机与俄罗斯国际制度竞争策略的调整], Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, February 8, 2023.
- Bachulska and Leanard, “China and Ukraine.”
- “Russia Proposes New Plan for Military Reform” [俄罗斯提出军队改革新计划, PLA Daily, January 12, 2023, http://military.people.com.cn/n1/2023/0112/c1011-32605114.html.
- “Chinese Official Calls Sanctions on Russia Increasingly 'Outrageous,'” Reuters, March 19, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/chinese-official-calls-sanctions-russia-i….
- PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis,” February 24, 2023, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/zxxx_662805/202302/t20230224_11030713.html.
- Thomas des Garets Geddes, “The Art of Tasseography: China–Russia Relations as Viewed from China,” RUSI, May 30, 2023, https://www.rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/commentary/art-t….