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China Eyes Risks and Rewards of US-Russia Standoff Over Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping via videoconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Dec. 15, 2021. The Kremlin said Xi supported Putin's push to get Western security guarantees precluding NATO's eas

China is watching with growing interest as Russia and the West face off over Ukraine. With more than 100-thousand Russian troops deployed on the Ukrainian border, there is growing concern among Western nations that the Kremlin is planning an imminent invasion. Moscow has denied any such plans.

Western nations have threatened unprecedented economic sanctions against Moscow if it invades Ukraine. If cut off by the West, could Russia look east, to China, for help? Professor Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, says Beijing is ready to step in.

“China under Xi Jinping has a clear policy of making the world safe for autocrats. And China under Xi Jinping also believes itself to be a leading socialist country now and it has a soft spot for former socialist countries. So, Russia under (President Vladimir) Putin ticks two boxes that make Russia very deserving of Chinese support.”

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“The policy I think China is likely to take is to do whatever they can to help the Russians to face up to the economic sanctions that the U.S. and Europeans may impose on Russia. (However) I think economic links between Russia and China are not really strong enough to replace any break of economic links between Russia and Europe,” Tsang told VOA.

Moscow-Beijing coordination

Beijing is engaged in its own territorial disputes in Asia and has offered political support for Moscow.

“This foreign policy coordination will definitely increase,” says analyst Dmitry Suslov of Russia’s National Research University in Moscow. “Because from the Russian perspective, intensification of the military partnership between Russia and China is precisely one of the major pains which Russia can inflict to the United States and NATO in order to compel them to compromise,” Suslov said at a recent panel discussion on Ukraine, organized by the London-based policy group Chatham House.

NATO states are mulling increased troop deployments in eastern European member states to deter Russia. The United States has put further 8,500 troops on alert for possible deployment to Europe.


China is closely watching NATO and America’s response to any Russian invasion, says security analyst Julie Norman of University College London. “Even though there’s these troop deployments to Eastern European states, no states are talking about directly sending troops into Ukraine itself to defend it. And of course, China’s taking note of that, with some of their own territorial disputes in their own areas,” Norman told VOA.

Taiwan is China’s biggest territorial dispute — and there is a risk of miscalculation as Beijing watches events unfold in Ukraine, says Steve Tsang.

“The Chinese seeing the Americans and the Europeans talking big but not doing very much about it… would embolden them over Taiwan and potentially miscalculate what the American response to a crisis over Taiwan might be.”

China’s Belt and Road

Despite their mutual rivalry with the United States, China's and Russia’s interests don’t always align. China has also invested billions of dollars in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, which could be at risk in the event of any conflict.

Beijing’s multitrillion-dollar "Belt and Road" initiative’ cuts through several former Soviet bloc states, including Ukraine. A direct rail and ferry freight link opened in 2016, linking China with Illichivsk port on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast via Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, bypassing Russia.

Ukraine is a major exporter of grains to China. By 2025, Beijing and Kyiv aim to increase bilateral trade by 50 percent, to $20 billion per year. China has also funded infrastructure projects, including a new metro line for Kyiv. If Russia invades Ukraine, could Beijing’s investments in the region be at risk? For now, China is showing little concern, says Tsang.

“The more immediate impact on the Belt and Road initiative would in fact be the Russian military intervention in Kazakhstan. And the Chinese government have actually shown that they are quite relaxed and comfortable with that. To them, it’s more important to support authoritarian states and autocrats to stay in power than for some of them to be closer to Russia than to China, at the moment. Over the longer term, things may change,” Tsang said.

In the short term, analysts say, China is keen to keep a lid on the simmering tensions for at least the next few weeks, as it prepares to host the Winter Olympics starting February 4.