China: long-waited ally of Russia or covert profiteer?
Recently, rumours about Chinese covert military support for Russia have emerged, as western analysts predicted. Based on recent diplomatic meetings, the signs hint at a potential shift in Sino-Russian relations, and geopolitics as a whole, with the two countries aiming to improve their status to more official terms. Whether this assessment proves conclusive or not is up for debate, but one question arises: if China is, in fact, assisting the Russian war machine or simply its state apparatus, why does that happen only now? What changed in the current balance of power that convinced the CCP to act?
Russia has been in a difficult situation in the conflict with Ukraine since the very beginning of the war, with the only times of relative improvement being the summer offensive, which culminated in late August, and the mobilisation draft in September, which brought in manpower the Russian Armed Forces were starved for. But after the Ukrainian offensives in Kharkiv and Kherson, alongside the gruelling siege of Bakhmut, which as of the beginning of March is still on-going, losses amounted both for the Russian Armed Forces and the paramilitary corps Wagner. It is unknown whether Russia needs aid at the very moment, and further unlikely that China would be willing to suffice Moscow's true shortages, such as high tech demands. Nevertheless, prospective action from Beijing indicates a certain change in the momentum of the war.
The underlying ambiguity of this topic is not why China could decide to provide support, no matter how or of what type. Rather, why was this decision not taken at the very beginning? Chinese diplomacy is the reason behind this employed strategy. Though attempts at questioning the world's unipolar status have been made constantly, China still seeks to reach parity and even outclass the United States, economically, technologically and/or militarily. Consequently, its foreign policy dictates that Chinese presence has to be ubiquitous globally, regardless of the stance taken. This explains the current affairs regarding Ukraine, where despite not being an outright supporter of Russia, China refrained from condemning any of the Kremlin's actions, while pointing to its main rival for bearing the blame of current tragedies. From the very start, CCP chose a position defined by neutrality, understanding the risks of aligning with either side. Furthermore, keeping the role of mediator open was an intrinsic element of such posture. By assuming seeming passivity, and observing how the conflict unfolded, Beijing allowed itself to collect data, assess scenarios and facts, learn of the capabilities of both sides, before making its move.
Currently, China has the potential to transform Russia into a mild proxy. By giving aid, Beijing’s regime simultaneously achieves two objectives: leverage over economic negotiations, with Russian increasing dependence on Chinese markets, as well as further engagement of the Western coalition in the conflict.
Though the first point is rather obvious, the relation between Russia and China is not as simple as eye meets. China is in a much better negotiating spot than before the war, as Russia lost its European market. At the EU's and Russia's expense, China will buy more resources, which it fundamentally lacks, such as LNG, gas, oil etc. in larger quantities at a cheaper price. If the support, humanitarian or military, is proven to be real and substantial, the odds of it being simple donations or generous loans, in the likes of the western coalition for Ukraine, are non-existent. Every piece of aid received by Russia from China will be accounted for, sooner or later.
Secondly, China can potentially change a lose-lose case in a win-‘win for now’ scenario, provided it plays its cards correctly. The status quo scenario, lose-lose, implies that no matter how the war culminates, Chinese interests are not furthered. Though unlikely, if Russia somehow pulls off a win, it will possess a better geopolitical situation in Eurasia, which consequently can result in advantageous grounds for discussion with the European Union. However, if Russia loses, the main rivals of China will have one less enemy or a much weakened threat, and the noose around China's economic neck will be tightened, with any bureaucratic gains in current Russia being in potential peril.
So how can the CCP turn the situation around? By providing aid, supporting Russia and prolonging the conflict, their increasing influence will ensure some form of compensation or gains, regardless of the conflict's outcome.
In the situation of Russia prevailing over Ukraine, the debt that Russia garnered throughout the war will have to be repaid, somehow. This can mean anything from technology being sold off to China, weapons and resources at smaller prices, to outright ownership of Russian assets, in the likes of Road and Belt initiative states. However, if Russia loses, China still enjoys a more comfortable post-war position, as its initiative over the Russian sphere of influence and resources has already been started, and will prevent the western nations from being the only actors to 'profit'. As such, even if China is left with either a battered US opponent for a convenient ally or no significant support from Russia at all, the state itself has the potential to more actively influence and engage in the next stage of geopolitics. That is why this scenario is 'win for now' – because with one less counterbalance to United States hegemony, China will have to double down its efforts to continue its rise and challenge the current superpower process already undergoing.
Another method of perceiving this behaviour can be obtained by analysing hypothetical scenarios of development of the war. Usually, ‘what if’ scenarios weigh little in terms of diplomatic power, since the events simply did not unfold as theorised, and the validity of any or all actions can be questioned. Nonetheless, by looking at a credible reaction of China if Russia would have been more successful can still provide insight. Depending on the success rate of Russia, mirrored by the public display of Western impotence or inaction, the Chinese response would not be necessarily proportional. Public backing of Putin and increasing build up on current agreements is not to be equalled with allegiance to Russia. CCP’s goal is to always maintain a position of strength and despite the final goal of this strategy is to strengthen a unitary bloc against the West, ceding the spotlight to a temporary friendly state would not be a feasible feat.
But since the conflict unfolded rather dramatically for Putin, Russia became a liability in the current world order, one that could drag China down and delay its progress. As such, instead of limping itself by tying to Russia's interests, the foreign policy of China dictated a passive stance, until the right moment to act. Whether this right moment is defined by explicit Russian weakness, or the preparation for a new round of high-stakes war, it is to be seen. The only certainty is that no matter what happens, Beijing will focus on securing its own interests, indifferent to whose expense geopolitically.