Russian officials have raised increasingly frustrated requests for greater support during discussions with Beijing in recent weeks, calling on China to live up to its affirmation of a “no limits” partnership made weeks before the war in Ukraine began. But China’s leadership wants to expand assistance for Russia without running afoul of Western sanctions and has set limits on what it will do, according to Chinese and U.S. officials.
Moscow has on at least two occasions pressed Beijing to offer new forms of economic support — exchanges that one Chinese official described as “tense.” The officials familiar with the talks spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.
They declined to share specifics of Russia’s requests, but one official said it included maintaining “trade commitments” predating the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, and financial and technological support now sanctioned by the United States and other countries.
“China has made clear its position on the situation in Ukraine, and on the illegal sanctions against Russia,” said a person in Beijing with direct knowledge of the discussions. “We understand [Moscow’s] predicament. But we cannot ignore our own situation in this dialogue. China will always act in the best interest of the Chinese people.”
China is in a bind as it seeks to help its most important strategic partner, which started a war that Beijing did not anticipate would now be entering its fourth month, Chinese and U.S. officials said. They said that President Xi Jinping has tasked his closest advisers to come up with ways to help Russia financially but without violating sanctions.
“That has been difficult,” said a senior U.S. official. “And it is insufficient from the Russian standpoint.”
The U.S. official said that China has tried to find “other opportunities” diplomatically, and through joint military exercises, to bolster Russia. Last week, Russia and China flew strategic bombers over the Sea of Japan and East China Sea while President Biden was in Tokyo, wrapping up his first trip to Asia. It was their first joint military exercise since the invasion of Ukraine and a pointed signal of the growing strategic partnership between Moscow and Beijing.
“What China is trying to do is to be with Russia, signal neutrality publicly and not be compromised financially,” the U.S. official said. “Many of those goals are contradictory. It’s hard to fulfill them at the same time.”
The Russian embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
China has called for an end to the war but has refused to join a global consortium of countries in imposing sanctions on Moscow, instead laying blame for the conflict on the United States and NATO expansion in Europe.
“For a long time, China and Russia have maintained normal cooperation in the fields of economy, trade and energy. The problem is not who will help Russia bypass the sanctions, but that normal economic and trade exchanges between Russia and China have been unnecessarily damaged,” said Liu Pengyu, spokesman for China’s embassy in Washington.
Liu added that the sanctions brought about a “lose-lose” situation for all parties and made “the already difficult world economy worse.”
Beijing’s public support for Russia has not faltered. China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, on Wednesday reaffirmed its commitment to Moscow during a virtual meeting that was also attended by his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. Wang said China is willing to work with Russia to promote “real democracy,” alluding to a Chinese foreign policy goal of countering what it has described as U.S. hegemony in global politics.
Russia has not requested “weapons and ammunition” to support its war, the Chinese officials said, but declined to comment on whether Russia had requested other items that could be used in military operations including technology and supplies.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that the United States has not seen any “systematic effort” by China to help Russia evade sanctions, nor has it seen any significant military support from China to Russia.
Blinken, speaking at a Council on Foreign Relations event commemorating the centennial of Foreign Affairs magazine, noted a “remarkable exodus of companies from Russia” as a result of the invasion — 7,800 companies, Blinken said, that “didn’t want their reputations to be at risk by doing business in Russia.”
The sanctions themselves did not drive the exodus, Blinken said. “It was really companies deciding on their own that they were not going to do business as usual in a country that was committing this kind of aggression. That’s something I think that China also has to factor in as it thinks about its relationship with Russia.”
China has balked at helping Russia evade sanctions, fearing the United States and it allies could cut China off from critical technology, including semiconductors and aerospace equipment, as well as target its financial system, a Beijing official said. Shipments of high-end Chinese technology to Russia — including smartphones, laptops and telecommunications equipment — have plummeted since the war began.
Nonetheless, the Chinese maintain that the U.S. and Western sanctions are illegal and that China will continue to do business with Russia. “The Chinese side is willing to fulfill its commitments to the Russian side, and is doing that when suitable conditions are met,” said the person in Beijing familiar with the discussions.
Asked about U.S. warnings that China would face consequences if it aids Russia, the person said, “The true reason is to sow discord between the Chinese side and the Russian side … that will not happen. They will not succeed in undermining the China-Russian relationship.”
The Chinese official noted, however, that the war in Ukraine had dragged on much longer than expected, and Beijing has made clear to Moscow that an end to the conflict would allow China more leeway to oppose sanctions and grow business ties inside Russia in the wake of the exodus of foreign firms.
Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said, “I think that the hope of the United States and Europe is that China will be forced to choose [between siding with Russia or with the West] and that it will make the right choice. But China has competing interests, and it will be virtually impossible to compel them to place their long-standing support for territorial integrity and sovereignty above their relationship with Russia.”
Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center, said, “The whole purpose of standing with Russia is they want Russia to work with them in strategic alignment against the U.S.” But by abiding by Western sanctions, after all the public support it has given Russia, Beijing runs the risk of undermining its relationship with Moscow.
A second Chinese official said that discussions among high-level officials have emphasized fast-tracking Russian ventures inside China to cement closer ties while minimizing the risk to Beijing. And open source documents show that Russian-linked projects inside China are forging ahead.
Domestic Chinese bidding documents show that financing for new construction on the strategically significant Russia-China Eastern Route gas pipeline has continued since the war began, with fresh purchases for materials and machinery earmarked for the southern leg of the project. It is expected to provide 18.9 billion cubic meters of Russian gas to China’s economically vibrant Yangtze Delta region by 2025.
China’s Institute of Atomic Energy in April also purchased new services and equipment from Russian nuclear engineering firm OKBM Afrikantov for the Russian-built China Experimental Fast Reactor nuclear project near Beijing, documents show. In the same period, it purchased new supplies and services from Russian state atomic energy firm Rosatom for the Tianwan Nuclear Power Plant, a landmark Sino-Russian project under construction in China’s Jiangsu province.
Municipal and provincial governments have also been directed by Beijing to launch projects to expand trade and financial ties with Russia, according to the Beijing officials and domestic bidding documents filed in China.
“Based on the comparative advantages of location and resources, we will analyze the favorable factors and obstacles of regional cooperation between Dalian and the Russian Far East … so as to promote the high-quality economic development,” stated one May 19 document outlining funding for research into investment opportunities in Russia for the northeastern Chinese manufacturing and port hub of Dalian, which is located close to the Russian border.
Chinese officials also said senior leadership had called for new investment and trade with Belarus, which has been targeted with financial and defense sanctions linked to its supporting role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Bidding documents and contracts issued in April and May show Chinese companies continued to make shipments to the China-Belarus Industrial Park, a logistic hub outside Minsk, Belarus, that was created as part of strategic agreement between the two countries. Over half of the companies in the park are financed by China, according to data released in Chinese state media in May.
Further bidding documents released on May 20 outline plans by a subsidiary of state-owned technology giant China Electronics Technology Group (CETC) to launch a $30 million project for a China-Belarus joint research laboratory that will study and test of electromagnetic pulse (EMP) equipment — a technology with military applications. The project includes an 11,000-square-foot research base and an array of EMP equipment.
CETC and its subsidiaries have already been placed on the U.S. Commerce Department’s Entity List, which restricts exports to listed companies, for their cooperation with the Chinese military.