|So it’s meaningful that Xi was willing to get behind the “no limits” language. But it’s also pretty clear that when did, he wasn’t expecting Putin to go ahead with an invasion of Ukraine. And when that happened, Putin put Xi in an extremely awkward position.
Xi has made it clear that, with the way he sees the world redividing into blocs—what he calls the “great change unseen in a century”—China can’t do without Russia. Among other reasons: If there were to be a war with the United States in the Pacific, China would need land corridors to access energy and rare minerals, in order to keep its economy functioning. China doesn’t have many other close partners—apart from Pakistan, North Korea, Laos, and Cambodia. So when Putin invaded Ukraine, Xi couldn’t just abandon him.
At the same time, the U.S. has threatened credibly that, if China provided Russia with any lethal aid or formal support, China would become subject to direct sanctions—and probably indirect sanctions as well. Depending on how U.S. retaliation were designed, it could badly set back China’s tech sector and potentially even destabilize the Chinese banking system. And Washington could threaten to send more weapons to Taiwan.
So China has tried to play both sides of the conflict, maintaining an ambiguous position that leans toward Russia. In the meantime, the relationship between China and Russia has deepened, with Russia becoming more dependent on China as a buyer of Russian energy and a supplier of Chinese microchip technology.
Still, we shouldn’t overstate China’s willingness to follow Russia into the Ukraine sinkhole. China has other considerations to attend to, including managing its relationship with Europe. And so far—while it’s provided Russia with all kinds of assistance short of lethal aid—there’s a threshold Beijing has refused to cross.
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