On Thursday, as Russian bombs exploded across Ukraine and global leaders condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin for the invasion, China didn’t join the chorus.
During a news conference, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying declined to call Russia’s attack an invasion. The history of the conflict was “complicated,” she said. In a call between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, Wang reiterated China’s respect for “sovereignty and territorial integrity” — a veiled word of support for Ukraine — while also saying that Russia had “legitimate concerns” regarding security issues.
Beijing’s response reflects the strong and growing partnership that China and Russia have forged. In an early February joint statement, Presidents Xi Jinping and Putin said the friendship between their countries had “no limits” and agreed to a set of economic and trade deals.
Russia-China experts say those deals, and the solidarity Xi offered Putin at their summit on the sidelines of the Beijing Winter Olympics, likely emboldened Putin.
“I think China’s potential economic support for Russia plays a very important role in Russia’s decision-making. It was not a coincidence that Russia just signed multiple megadeals with China,” said Cheng Chen, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Albany. “Russia has been trying to ‘sanction-proof’ its economy in the past years, but these measures wouldn’t be effective without the support of an economic powerhouse like China.”
China’s leaders may not have condemned Russia’s attack, but they didn’t fully back the invasion either. It’s an approach that reflects China’s foreign policy priorities: deepening a bond with Russia, standing against Western democracies and demonstrating its commitment to upholding sovereignty and national borders — all while trying to maintain economic ties with the West.
It’s a balancing act that was already precarious before the invasion. Now, as much of the world rallies in support of Ukraine, it may just have gotten a lot harder.
The newly strengthened partnership
Xi and Putin’s Olympic meeting marked a new height for the Russia-China relationship. “This relationship is not formalized,” said Chen, “but increasing coordination and cooperation across multiple political, economic and military dimensions show that they have an extensive and deepening relationship.”
That’s due in part to Xi and Putin’s mutual admiration, experts said. But changing geopolitical winds and strong economic interests have also driven the two countries closer.
Russia and China share a common grievance over what they see as Western aggression and hegemony. “China and Russia perceive the U.S. as a common enemy,” said Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center. “So, my enemy’s enemy is my friend.”
That helps explain another boost Xi gave to Putin in Beijing: a pledge to oppose the “further enlargement” of NATO, a key priority for Putin. China has parroted Russian rhetoric on NATO and Ukraine since their summit, saying the West had backed Russia into a corner by expanding the alliance eastward.
China may be hoping for a geopolitical quid pro quo — namely, that Russia will reciprocate when it comes to Taiwan, which China has long sought to “reunify” with the mainland. “China wants Russian support on the Taiwan issue, especially in case of a possible future crisis,” Joseph Torigian, an assistant professor of international service at American University, told Grid. “For that purpose, it wouldn’t be useful if Moscow believes China did not provide support on Ukraine.”
The two countries also have complementary economic needs: China’s huge demand for Russia’s rich natural resources and Russia’s need for China’s large market and investment, particularly as it faces fresh waves of sanctions.
Trade between the two countries reached a record high in 2021 of nearly $147 billion. Russia is more reliant on China as a trade partner, but Russia is a critical source of fossil fuels for China. That dependence may be one more reason China is avoiding criticism of Russia’s aggression.
In 2021, Russia was China’s top oil supplier after Saudi Arabia and its No. 3 natural gas provider. According to Chinese customs data, fossil fuel products accounted for more than $50 billion in Chinese imports from Russia last year. And China’s reliance is only expected to grow — a major new gas deal was signed during the Xi-Putin summit, and Russia plans to double its gas exports to China by 2025.
For China, borders also matter
While China has stood by Russia, it has simultaneously broadcast its long-standing commitment to sovereignty. That’s a clear nod of support for Ukraine.
Protecting sovereignty and noninterference in other countries’ affairs are long-standing principles of China’s foreign relations. Beijing invokes these principles to ward off what it sees as foreign intrusions into debates on Xinjiang, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other territories and issues it considers domestic affairs. The importance China attaches to sovereignty and territorial integrity has only grown under Xi’s rule, as China seeks to project strength along its borders.
“Beijing also has no desire to publicly support a Russian land grab, given its deep-seated concerns that others may employ similar logic to undermine Chinese territorial sovereignty,” wrote Center for Strategic and International Studies China experts Bonny Lin and Jude Blanchette in Foreign Policy this week.
China refrained from recognizing Crimea as part of Russia after the 2014 annexation and didn’t weigh in on the status of regions in Georgia that Russia recognized as independent in 2008.
It’s important to note that China interprets the principle in ways that suit its interests. “China is hardly a credible opponent of territorial revisionism,” wrote Lin and Blanchette. “Look no further than its actions in the East China and South China Seas, its behavior on the Indian border, and its appetite for Taiwan.”
Relations with the West: hanging on by a thread
There’s one other reason China has refrained from full-throated support for Russia: It doesn’t want to rupture ties with NATO countries. Tensions between China and the West are already high, and China recognizes the importance of maintaining economic relations with its biggest trade partners — the U.S. and EU.
“To the Chinese, the relationship with the U.S. is far more important, economically, than their relationship with Russia. And they don’t want to expose themselves too much,” Anders Aslund, one of the leading experts on the Russian economy, told Grid’s Joshua Keating, referring to the risks of lending Russia economic support.
But again — it’s not that simple. China’s foreign ministry rarely misses a chance to take shots at the U.S., and a Wednesday news conference on the Ukraine crisis was no exception. “A key question here is what role the U.S., the culprit of current tensions surrounding Ukraine, has played,” Hua, the Chinese spokesperson, said. “If someone keeps pouring oil on the flame while accusing others of not doing their best to put out the fire, such kind of behavior is clearly irresponsible and immoral.”
Coming as it did on the eve of war, the comment was unlikely to win hearts and minds in the United States.
Can China maintain the balancing act?
As the Ukraine crisis spirals, China’s tenuous position is sure to be tested further.
“Bluntly, Beijing will not be able to have all three of these simultaneously,” wrote Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Vice President Evan Feigenbaum on Twitter, “so it will have to jettison one or another of these goals and maybe shift from day to day.”
An immediate test: its response to the first installments of sanctions imposed this week against Russia. China called these “illegal,” a view that aligns with China’s long-standing opposition to sanctions.
Pressure will come from Washington and European capitals to stand against the Russian aggression, and from Moscow to honor whatever commitments were made at the Putin-Xi meeting. “It is very likely that Putin understood that he could count on China,” Chen said, “for an economic lifeline in the event of Western sanctions.”
On Thursday, just hours into the war, the world got one hint of China’s approach. China’s customs agency announced that the country would lift restrictions on wheat imports from Russia, executing a deal made during the summit.
“It is a minor gesture,” said Chen, “but the timing shows that China is ready to back Russia up economically to an extent.”