China could aid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Here’s why experts say that isn’t likely

Click to play video: 'War in Ukraine: Russia reportedly asks for China’s help'
War in Ukraine: Russia reportedly asks for China’s help
WATCH: Russia is leaning on China for military and economic supports, according to the U.S., spawning fears a wider, global conflict is on the horizon. Heather Yourex-West explains the impact of the Chinese government's potential involvement, and why the stakes are also high for Beijing – Mar 14, 2022

China supplying Russia with military equipment — or financial support — to aid its invasion of Ukraine could have a serious impact on the conflict, experts warn. But it’s unlikely China will grant the reported Russian request, which Chinese leadership has denied they even received, and the Kremlin says was never made.

“I don’t think China can afford to be a full-throated backer of Russia,” said Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

“Russia’s becoming increasingly isolated. It’s almost like a very large North Korea at this point. China doesn’t need that bad press.”

U.S. officials warned a top Chinese official on Monday about Beijing’s support for Russia in the Ukrainian invasion, even as the Kremlin denied reports it had requested Chinese military equipment to use in the war.

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The day before, a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, told the Associated Press that Russia had requested support from China, including military equipment, to continue its attack on Ukraine.

Here’s what we know about the likelihood that China will grant it — and what that would mean for Ukraine, and the world.

China support could 'massively' change war

There are a number of ways China could impact the conflict. With the second largest economy in the world, the superpower state has some serious financial clout — and it could use that influence to tip the scales of the conflict.

But so far, without much outside help, the invasion “has not been a piece of cake” for Russia, Haring said.

“There’s fuel shortages, there’s food shortages and there’s big problems with morale.”

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Russia has faced serious losses as it continues its attack on Ukraine, now in its third week. The Russians have lost a number of tanks, helicopters, and other material, according to the Associated Press — and while Ukraine is outmanned by the Russian forces, it is has a number of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.

The fog of war can make it difficult to discern the true figures, but Forbes estimates that, as of two days ago, the Ukrainian army had destroyed $5 billion worth of Russian military equipment. According to the General Staff of Ukraine, about 2,593 units of Russian equipment had been rendered useless.

China could help fund Russia’s invasion, help the nation skirt around sanctions, and arm a military that’s increasingly running low on supplies, to name a few options.

Click to play video: 'Russia-Ukraine conflict: How Canada continues to put pressure on Moscow'
Russia-Ukraine conflict: How Canada continues to put pressure on Moscow

Still, it would be difficult for China to actually send sufficient equipment to the region to make a difference anytime soon, Perry said. The equipment would have to travel thousands of kilometres, and on top of that, would need to arrive in the right part of Ukraine at the right time.

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“It doesn’t make sense just to provide…your best pieces of equipment if the people you’re trying to give it to would need a lot of time to figure out how to actually make it useful,” Perry added.

However, what could have a much bigger impact is China providing financial support. The Russian stock market has remained closed since Feb. 25. Perry warned once it does re-open, it will likely make clear that sanctions from Western nations have “tanked” the Russian economy.

This could cause Russia to lose civil control, as its citizens watch the ruble plummet, he warned.

Financial aid could help to blunt that financial blow, former foreign affairs minister John Manley said.

“They are on the edge of catastrophe because they are failing to earn any international income. That’s why the ruble has fallen 40 per cent,” he said.

“Any financial support from China, even to acquire the essentials of life from the Chinese, will be of assistance to them.”

If China were to throw its full military and financial support behind Russia, it would change the conflict “massively”, according to Perry.

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“The Russians have really been left with very little outside support, and certainly nothing on the scale of what China could provide, if it actually wanted to,” Perry explained.

Without outside support, Russia’s resources appear to be dwindling — but Perry said China’s “hefty checkbook” would be a massive jump in support compared to what the Kremlin has received from places like Belarus.

Will China support Russia?

While China’s support could fundamentally change Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it would come at a cost — one that experts aren’t sure China is willing to pay.

Russia has faced the weight of massive sanctions from the West that have crippled its economy and isolated the nation. China might not want to risk those sanctions being extended to its own citizens, warned Charles Burton, a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

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“China does not want to be drawn into Western sanctions and blocked from access to Western markets or access to Western technology,” he explained.

While Western states are much more reliant on China’s economy than they are on Russia’s exports, the U.S. has warned that China would face consequences on the international stage if it grants the reported Russian ask.

U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN that the Americans are “communicating directly, privately to Beijing” that there will “absolutely be consequences” if China helps Russia to evade sanctions or backfill supplies.

However, China doesn’t want Russia to lose this war, either. If Russia fails in their invasion of Ukraine, it sends a signal that China might face similar pushback — and potential failure — should they opt to invade Taiwan to take control of that region, or move in on areas of the arctic they’ve been eyeing, Burton said.

Click to play video: 'U.S. pledges more help for Ukraine as Russian troops move to encircle Kyiv'
U.S. pledges more help for Ukraine as Russian troops move to encircle Kyiv

Further complicating the issue is China’s view of Russia. China has a makeshift partnership with Russia on various issues, including when China touted its ties to Russia in response to Western condemnation of China’s treatment of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region.

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China has also been one of few countries to avoid criticizing Russia for the invasion of Ukraine. The Chinese abstained on UN votes censuring Russia, and it has opposed economic sanctions against Moscow.

“China and Russia will maintain strategic focus and steadily advance our comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era,” said Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying wrote on Twitter last week.

Beijing has also made shows of support through perpetuating pro-Russia disinformation, such as the debunked suggestion that the U.S. is running dangerous bioweapons labs in Ukraine. Hua shared that conspiracy theory just last week, and hinted at it again on Monday.

But that partnership isn’t without its limits. China does not see Russia “as an equal” by “any chance,” Manley explained.

“China will see this as an opportunity to have a subservient state on their borders from which they can extract resources,” he said.

That means China might see some benefit to the conflict in Ukraine dragging on and continuing to weaken Russia, according to Burton.

“The longer this action goes on, the greater benefit to China, in terms of weakening Russia and forcing Russia to become subordinate to China, because Russia will need to have access to Chinese financial markets,” he said.

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“On the other hand,” Burton added, “I think China wants to see the West put in its place by Russia.”

Regardless the extent to which China decides to support Russia, one thing is clear, Perry said: China will be watching.

“I would think the Chinese would be watching what’s happening in Ukraine with laser-like focus to actually see what the level of Western resolve is in terms of supporting an independent and democratic political entity.”

— With files from The Associated Press

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