China and the war in Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine presented China with a dilemma in how to support Moscow in its European ambitions while maintaining Kyiv as a trading partner. Samuel Cranny-Evans reports.

China President Xi Jinping (top) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (bottom), pictured in 2023, are negotiating a difficult diplomatic path. Credit: Shutterstock/KurKestutis

C hina has pursued a carefully curated position on Russia’s war in Ukraine, stressing that it is not a party to the conflict and making clear that it would not provide lethal aid to Russian forces. However, economic ties between Beijing and Moscow have expanded rapidly since February 2022, and there are growing signs that China’s industry is providing vital capabilities that maintain Russia’s war machine.

China and Ukraine built a thriving trade relationship following the latter’s independence from the USSR. By 2021 China accounted for 14% of Ukraine’s imports and 15% of its exports, making Beijing the country’s largest single trading partner after the EU.

In 1998, Chinese investors had also bought the Varyag, a Soviet-era aircraft carrier that had been left incomplete in the Mykolayiv shipyard since 1992, from Ukraine. It was turned into the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and commissioned in 2012.

Elsewhere, in 2015 a Chinese company called Skyrizon Aviation indicated that it was interested in procuring Motor Sich, a Ukrainian company that manufactures engines for helicopters and jets. The US subsequently became concerned and intervened, leading to arbitration and legal disputes that were live in 2021, but not before the company was able to acquire shares in Motor Sich.

Ukraine also joined China’s Belt and Road initiative in 2014, while there is also direct rail link from Ukraine to China, and Huawei was contracted to help improve cybersecurity in Ukraine in 2020. Chinese state food conglomerate COFCO Corp funded and built a grain terminal at Nikolaev Sea Port in 2016 - a separate grain terminal at Nikolaev was attacked by the Russians in June 2022.

China remained one of Ukraine’s largest trading partners in the January-February of 2023, although the value of that trade had fallen by 30%, according to the China Brief, published by Dezan Shira and Associates.

Beijing using Ukraine to further anti-US stance

China’s business interests in Ukraine were relatively clear by February 2022 and have continued, which is indicative of how Beijing has sought to carefully balance relations between the two warring parties. However, its geopolitical position has shifted from 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea.

The Chinese leadership at the time remained quiet, although analysis from UK's Royal United Services Institute indicated that it was in part concerned by the heavy-handed approach. However, in 2022 and 2023, Beijing has leveraged the war in Ukraine to support its message that the US perpetrates conflict and discontent to serve its own purposes, and that includes the war in Ukraine.  

China’s military support for Russia has been decidedly minimal, especially when compared with Iran and North Korea

- Brigadier Neil Budd, British Army

China President Xi Jinping has also declared his own peace plan for Ukraine, which some might argue represents how China might hope to be treated in the event of an invasion or forcible action against Taiwan. At a geopolitical level, Beijing has used the war to further its anti-US narratives and position itself as a potential - albeit unlikely - bringer of peace.

Its geoeconomic policies towards Ukraine have also remained stable, although there is growing evidence that Chinese companies are supporting Russia’s war and in several important ways.

In line with its geopolitical narrative, Beijing has publicly refused to provide lethal aid to Russian forces in Ukraine. When the US accused China of doing so in March 2023, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry said: “It is not China that supplies weapons to the battlefield of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, but the US.”

However, some evidence of Chinese small arms ammunition has been reported on by the Telegram-based Clash Report, albeit rounds that were produced in 1967. The origin of that ammunition is unclear.

However, in February 2023 Beijing was considering the provision of drones and ammunition to Russia, according to US intelligence sources interviewed by CNN. They stated at the time that China was leaning towards providing lethal aid, and leaked reports later that month claimed that China had approved the incremental provision of lethal aid, but there have been no definitive indications of aid provided since.

And yet, in June of 2023 reports emerged that China’s Poly Technologies had shipped thousands of tonnes of propellant to Barnaul Cartridge Plant in Russia, the New York Times (NYT) said.  

China has cultivated its Ukrainian ties for several years, with Xi Jinping pictured here during a during a meeting with then Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in 2017. Credit: Shutterstock/Drop of Light

The shipments had taken place on two occasions in the previous year and provided enough propellant for 80 million rounds of small arms ammunition, according to the NYT. The Russian armed forces are expanding, which will - at the very least - impose a training burden and demand for small arms ammunition. But it is worth noting that in 2011, the US Armed Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan were estimated to be using 1.8 billion rounds per year - which included training demands.

Nonetheless, it indicates that even with the ability to produce 80 million rounds of ammunition, it is unlikely that the two shipments covered by the NYT have made a very significant contribution to the Russian war effort.  

China playing the long game

The above is indicative of China’s overall approach: a commercial relationship that equips Russian forces but is unlikely to significantly alter the outcome of the war or provoke international condemnation. A similar case was reported on by Politico in July, which covered multiple instances of Russian companies importing body armour and helmets from Chinese companies.

A Russian company called Silva filed declarations for 100,000 bullet proof vests and 100,000 helmets from Shanghai H Win, Politico’s report states. Politico also claimed to unearth orders for night vision optics totalling $11 million.

This suggests that some equipment used by Russian troops in Ukraine may have originated in China, however it is worth noting that much of this equipment was likely paid for by the Russian state or other supporters, as Politico was able to trace it using trade logs, it was not supplied as ‘aid’ by Beijing.

It is likely that the most impactful way in which China has assisted Russia is through the provision of microchips and drones. The latter has evolved over time with a move away from systems like the DJI Mavic series, towards custom builds that still rely upon Chinese components.  

A Russian Orlan-10 drone on display in the Volgograd region, Russia, in 2021. In military service such systems could now be using Chinese microprocessors. Credit: Shutterstock/AnBoris

Russian volunteer groups have claimed that they have travelled to China to secure supply chains for their production of FPV and regular drones to supply the Russian armed forces. In May 2023, DJI restricted the use of civilian drones for both sides in Ukraine, however export data showed that by July, Russia had imported more than $100 million worth of drones from China, which is 30 times more than the same data for Ukraine, Politico states.

In addition, Russia has begun using Chinese chips in its more modern military systems such as the Orlan-10 and some of its armoured vehicles - possibly the BMD-4M or BMP-3 - in place of the western chips that were used before. It may also be possible that Chinese chips are used in Russian missiles and enable the continued bombardment of Ukrainian cities.

 However, it is important to note that there are many sources of chips into Russia and that its distribution and supply networks are robust and well-established since sanctions were first placed in 2014.

Overall, China’s military support for Russia has been decidedly minimal, especially when compared with Iran and North Korea. It has been deliberately limited and low profile. The economic support provided to Russia in the form of increased trade and imports of Russian goods far outweighs the impact of Chinese material support.

That said, if China were to decide to properly support the Russian military with munitions - especially missiles and artillery calibres - it could make a very significant contribution to Russia’s war effort. It seems that, for the time being, Beijing is more concerned with its strategic goal of reducing US influence on the global stage and is using its stance on Ukraine to that end.