Ukrainian soldiers in their trenches preparing to face Russian forces in Irpin, Ukraine
Ukrainian soldiers man their trenches in anticipation of a Russian assault on Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
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Escalating war in Ukraine raises the stakes for China’s balancing act with Russia

China faces growing economic and geopolitical risks from the intensifying war in Ukraine as it attempts to preserve its relationship with Russia without alienating the West.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin have forged a relationship they say has “no limits.” But the grinding war in Ukraine is increasing pressure on China to disavow Putin’s aggression or face international condemnation that could upend its own strategies in challenging the U.S. for global superiority.

Since the start of Russia’s invasion last month, China has publicly settled on neutrality and avoided voicing outright condemnation or support. Beijing has sent humanitarian assistance to Ukraine while being sympathetic to Russia’s security concerns. Chinese officials have expressed concerns about a war that has devastated cities and created more than 2 million refugees, but have blamed the U.S. and NATO for its escalation.

China’s aim at preserving its deepening relationship with Russia without alienating the West is becoming tricky, if not untenable. The longer the war continues, the greater the risk for political and economic fallout from a conflict that is more resonant of a bygone Cold War than the new world order in which Beijing sees itself as the lone power rivaling Washington.

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“There’s a danger for China that it will sound ever more hollow,” said Jonathan Hackenbroich, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. “I think it’s clear to many where China is standing here. And it’s not with the West.”

China in recent years moved to take advantage of former President Donald Trump’s strained relations with Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization by courting a stronger partnership with Berlin, Paris and London. It was another indication that Xi regarded the U.S. as a fading global force at a time of a rising Asia. Beijing also increased trade and investments with Ukraine, which President Volodymyr Zelensky once touted as China’s “bridge to Europe.”

Those links have faltered, however, as China has clashed with European countries on a range of issues including trade, human rights and the self-governing democratic island of Taiwan, which China claims as its territory. As China has aligned itself more closely with Russia — regarding it as an ally to blunt U.S. global influence — its position is likely to estrange Europe further.

Residents evacuate their apartment building in Irpin, Ukraine.
Residents evacuate their apartment building damaged by Russian missile strikes in Irpin, Ukraine.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

“Once the dust has settled, questions will be asked of China’s intentions toward Taiwan, and of China’s role in enabling Putin to cause such havoc,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London. “The age of innocence in Europe toward China is drawing to a close.”

Though China has defined its relationship with Russia as a strategic partnership, Beijing is a more powerful global player, a fact that unsettles Moscow, especially as China makes gains in Central Asia. Still, the two sides met early last month and described their bond as mutually beneficial and all-encompassing. As Russia has grappled with the toll of its military setbacks, Putin has requested military and economic aid from China, according to media reports and U.S. officials.

“We’re going to watch that very closely,” said a senior U.S. defense official, who declined to share intelligence on the matter. “If China does choose to materially support Russia in this war, there will likely be consequences.... We’ve already seen China’s tacit approval.”

China could potentially help ease economic pressure from the slew of stringent sanctions levied against Russia by the U.S. and NATO allies. China opposes the use of sanctions and has criticized their effectiveness as a tool to punish Putin, even as Moscow’s backing of separatist regions in Ukraine contradicts China’s respect for national sovereignty.

U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan met Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi on Monday in Rome to discuss the war in Ukraine, tensions with North Korea and China’s escalation in the Taiwan Strait. Pressed repeatedly on China’s willingness to support Russia’s economy, which could default this week under the pressure of sanctions, a senior administration official spoke only in broad terms:

“We do have many concerns about China’s alignment with Russia at this time, and the national security advisor was direct about those concerns, and the potential implications and consequences of certain actions,” the official said.

China will have “to be very cautious not to be on the receiving end of those secondary sanctions if they take the risk of helping Russia out,” said Li Mingjiang, an associate professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore who specializes in Chinese foreign policy.

Given China’s multiple interests, Ukraine has hoped Beijing could act as a peacemaker, after several rounds of talks between Ukrainian and Russian officials failed to clinch a cease-fire. On Monday, the two countries began their fourth round of negotiations.

A quick resolution to the conflict in Ukraine could reduce the geopolitical backlash against China, Li said. Heightened tensions in Europe could also take some political and security pressure off China, and allow it to further fortify its relationship with Russia, a major energy supplier, to challenge U.S. hegemony.

The war has underscored the prospect that Putin’s actions have again drawn U.S. attention to Europe even as President Joe Biden — like Barack Obama before him — has wanted to shift focus to the Asia-Pacific rim. That leaves China a freer hand in the region.

“It’s almost inevitable now that the United States will have to deal with two assertive powers, Russia and China,” Li said.

China’s flagging economy is also vulnerable to the shocks of wartime inflation, with prices of energy, agriculture and other raw materials already surging. The added headwinds come at a particularly sensitive time for Xi, who is expected to pursue an unprecedented third term in power this year. If Xi drifts too close to Putin, he could further alienate Europe and the U.S. and jeopardize China’s growth.

At the National People’s Congress in Beijing this month, Chinese officials set a goal of 5.5% GDP growth for the year, the lowest growth target in more than three decades. Still, it struck analysts as an ambitious figure, and signaled the government’s willingness to utilize monetary policy to bolster the economy.

“The key focus for Chinese policy this year is to leverage up and support growth,” said Larry Hu, chief China economist at Macquarie Group, adding that government policies could help ease some of the Ukraine-related constraints. “I think the direct impact is manageable.”

Despite China’s calls for peace, analysts said it was unlikely that the country would make meaningful headway as a mediator, given Xi’s implicit support for Putin. Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi described China’s relationship with Russia as “rock solid.”

“China’s first priority is to not significantly undermine Russia,” Li said. “This conflicts with some other Chinese objectives, but this is No. 1.”

Times staff writer Eli Stokols in Washington contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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