If China does go ahead and supply weapons to Russia, experts believe that this would be ‘crossing the Rubicon’ in terms of China’s relations with the US and Europe.

On Thursday, 141 member countries of the United Nations General Assembly voted in favour of a resolution demanding Moscow withdraw its troops from Ukraine and end the fighting there, a year after Russia launched its invasion. Only 7, including Russia, voted against the resolution. China was one of the 32 that abstained along with India. Writing on social media, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the resolution was a “powerful signal” of unflagging global support for Ukraine.
The vote came after numerous reports of war crimes committed by Russian forces, including summary executions, torture, rape and other acts of sexual violations against Ukrainian citizens. In one of the most disturbing examples of sexual violence, the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on Ukrainereportedin September that the ages of victims of sexual assault ranged from 4 years of age to over 80. “Perpetrators raped the women and girls in their homes or took them and raped them in unoccupied dwellings”, said the UNHCR.
Ukraine is investigating more than 58,000 potential war crimes, while theAssociated Press has independently verified653 incidents (at the time of writing) which appear to violate the laws of war. Some of these were massacres that killed dozens or hundreds of civilians, which in total could account for thousands of individual war crimes. Russia continues to deny that any of itsforces have committed atrocities, just as the Kremlin denied any intention of invading Ukraine a year ago, at the time its forces were gathering on Ukraine’s borders.
Despite all this, it’s believed that China, Russia’s “friend without limits”, is preparing to provide the Kremlin with lethal weapons.
During a broadcast on NBC last week, following the Munich Security Conference, US Secretary of State Antony Blinkensaid that the United States was very concerned that intelligence reports show that China is considering providing lethal support to Russia in its aggression against Ukraine.“I make clear that this will have serious consequences in our relationship”, he said. China reacted quickly, with a Foreign Ministry spokesperson accusing Blinken of spreading disinformation. But there are indications that Blinken may have even understated the growing military cooperation between Moscow and Beijing.
On Thursday, the German newspaper Der Spiegelreported that it had information that Russian officials were engaged in negotiations with the Chinese drone manufacturer Xi’an Bingo Intelligent Aviation Technology over the mass production of kamikaze drones for Russia. Currently, the dronemost commonly employed by Russia in Ukraine is the Shahed-136, manufactured in Iran. Both the Kremlin and Teheran dispute its use in the war, despite indisputable evidence.
It’s reported that Bingo has agreed to manufacture and test one hundred ZT-180 prototype drones before delivering them to the Russian Defence Ministry by April. By coincidence, the design of this unmanned aerial vehicle is rather similar to the Shahed-136, both carrying 50 kilogram warheads. The Russian army has already deployed hundreds of the Iranian drones, used to target residential buildings, power plants and district heating systems in Ukraine, often resulting in mass civilian casualties. Shaheds are built in a military factory in Isfahan, but it’s believed that Iran has provided Russia with designs and equipment so that they can be made in Russia. Bingo also plans to deliver components and know-how to Russia so that the country itself can produce around 100 armed drones a month.
China’s military support to Russia is not limited only to drones. Der Spiegel also reports that companies under the control of China’s People’s Liberation Army plan to deliver replacement parts for Russia’s SU-27 fighter jets, which are currently increasingly difficult to obtain. These would be sent using falsified shipping documents, so that parts for military aircraft appear on schedules to be replacement parts for civilian aircraft, a covert methodused to avoid possible sanctions.
The United States has already cracked down on some of the Chinese companies and organisations supplying goods and services to Russia. In January, it imposed sanctions on a Chinese company that had provided satellite imagery to the Wagner mercenary group, which continues to play a large role in the battle for eastern Ukraine. In December it added two Chinese research institutes to the list of entities that supply the Russian military, restricting their access to US technology. Last Thursday, ahead of a meeting of G20 finance ministers in India, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen offered a dark assessment of Russia’s economy and warned China of the consequences of helping Moscow.“We have made it clear that providing material support to Russia would be a very serious concern to us”, she said.
If China does go ahead and supply weapons to Russia, experts believe that this would be a“crossing the Rubicon” in terms of China’s relations with the US and Europe. It would mark the point officially where Ukraine becomes a proxy-war and the world divided into fixed blocs. To date, China has struck a delicate balance between supporting its ally and not angering the world, and many believe that as long as it can drive a wedge between Europe and the US, it will exercise restraint in its relations with Russia. Should weapons be delivered, however, it would be a sign that Xi Jinping has assessed that relations with the US are so damaged that sending weapons won’t change things that much, even though the Biden administration has called such a move a “red-line” in its relations with Beijing.
Xi Jinping’s government is already bankrolling the Kremlin, underwriting the war by boosting imports of Russian oil, gas and agricultural products shunned by the West. It’s building a new gas pipeline to China from Russia and supplying dual-use technology, such as reconnaissance drones, supposedly for civilian use but used by Russia in the war. Last week, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi met Vladimir Putin in Moscow to re-affirm their “ongoing co-operation”, while denying any intentions of the transfer of weapons. What else they discussed remains a secret.
Even the darkest days of the simmering conflict between the former USSR and NATO cannot compare to the cataclysm threatening to engulf the world if China gives arms to Russia. If the time does come, it will redefine global politics in a way we haven’t seen since the height of the Cold War.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.