for decades Russia provides arms to China. From 2001 to 2010, it sent an average of $2 billion worth of funds per year, with transactions worth as much as $7 billion in 2015. The situation has now been reversed. Russia lost more than 9,400 pieces of equipment during its invasion of Ukraine, including more than 1,500 tanks. It is extremely low on ammo. The United States says it has intelligence that China is considering whether to supply Russia with weapons. This could change the course of the war. It would also trigger a deeper crisis in China’s relations with the US and Europe.
Since the first months of the war, Russia has repeatedly asked China for weapons. China has repeatedly objected, offering only non-lethal aid such as helmets and dual-use items such as aircraft parts. U.S. officials have not publicly disclosed details of what they believe China is considering.But on February 23rd Der SpiegelThe Russian Armed Forces are in talks with the Chinese company Xi’an Bingo Intelligent Aviation Technology for the purchase of 100 attack drones, a German magazine said. Russia has used the drones on the front line, since October, as part of regular raids on Ukraine’s power grid.
after one day Der SpiegelReport, Washington post U.S. officials were quoted as saying that China was considering firing artillery shells – the deadliest weapon in war. Both Russia and Ukraine use Soviet-caliber 122mm and 152mm shells in their artillery and scour the world for old stocks. But Russia has no friends to ask. It has cleared warehouses in Belarus. North Korea has offered some, but is wary of depleting its arsenal. And Iran has little to offer.
China has compatible shells. Lonnie Henley, a former employee of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, said little was known about the size and quality of its stockpile. But they are certainly enough to avert Russia’s looming shell crisis. This would make a big difference in a conflict where attrition is a key factor and relative rates of fire are sometimes decisive. Defense industries on both sides are struggling to ramp up production.
China has the power to tip the scales. It is the world’s fourth largest arms exporter. In the latest ranking of the world’s top 100 arms companies released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 8 companies rank among the top 20, second only to the United States. Sales at China’s top companies have grown significantly in recent years (see chart).
The war may also offer China an opportunity to realign and rebalance its defense relationship with Russia. For years, it imported Russian military technology, reverse-engineering much of it to create knockoff equipment. Between 2017 and 2021, 81% of its defense imports come from Russia, including engines for China’s newest stealth fighter jets.
Now it has the opportunity to become “a relatively equal industrial partner to the Russian defense industry,” said Michael Raska of the Rajaratnam Institute of International Studies in Singapore. China could help Russia circumvent Western sanctions by shipping high-tech components for drones, cruise missiles and other sophisticated weapons, rather than simply shipping basic equipment.In exchange, China may need technology to research and development-180, a Russian rocket motor for space launches (and possibly ballistic missiles). Submarine technology and jet engines would also be attractive leverage.
China’s leadership, however, is divided. It does not want to see Russia humiliated on the battlefield, especially at the hands of American rocket launchers and European tanks. Just weeks before the invasion, Russia and China celebrated their “unlimited” friendship. Some in Beijing may also like the idea of diverting American energy from the Indo-Pacific to Europe.
But there are reasons for restraint. According to a European official familiar with the matter, China is angry with the Kremlin that discussions about the arms sale have been taken up and made public by the United States. China wants to keep any support confidential. It knows that backing Russia’s actions would undermine its pretense as a neutral mediator — a one-sided Chinese peace initiative published on Feb. 24 was dismissed by Ukraine’s ally. It would also further poison relations with the US and provoke a backlash in Europe. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations United Nationsand Josep Borrell European UnionThe head of foreign policy has warned that lethal aid would cross a “red line”.
For now, China errs on the side of caution. Mr Borrell said China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, told him at a meeting on February 18 that China “would not supply arms to Russia”. Of course, Mr. Wang also claimed that China did not send weapons to belligerent countries, which is something China often does. But on Feb. 24, President Biden expressed confidence that Mr. Wang was honest about at least the first part. “I don’t expect China to make a major move to supply arms to Russia,” Biden said. If Russia’s battlefield positions appear critical in the spring or summer — when Ukraine hopes to attack — that endurance will come under enormous strain. ■
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