By NOAH ROTHMAN *
For months, political observers have been confronted with growing evidence that the formerly durable consensus in the West around the need to support Ukraine in its defense against Russia’s war of territorial expansion is eroding. This developing trend has been met with both trepidation and jubilance, depending on the observer’s political affinities. The risks associated with drawing a potentially fallacious straight-line projection into the future notwithstanding, the trend is real, and no one can afford to ignore it.
And yet, Ukraine’s supporters aren’t the only parties adjacent to this conflict who are losing patience with it. American officials warn that they are prepared to release intelligence indicating that China may soon provide Moscow with material support for its war, and the five-alarm reaction this prospect is generating in Western capitals suggests it may be imminent. If China went ahead with what the United States alleges it intends to do, that would transform what is already the largest land war in Europe since 1945 into a proxy conflict between the world’s great powers. But by even seriously considering Vladimir Putin’s request for aid, the Chinese Communist Party has also signaled its growing unease with the course of the war.
Moscow’s requests for support from Beijing are not new. U.S. officials revealed as early as last March that the Kremlin had asked China to provide both economic assistance to offset the effect of Western sanctions and offensive weaponry, though American officials declined to elaborate on the platforms and ordnance Russia had requested. At the time, the U.S. sent the clearest possible signal to China that Washington would respond to substantial expressions of support for Russia’s war with consequences, perhaps broadening the Russian sanctions regime to include Chinese targets. At the time, that warning worked as it was intended. But American officials now believe the deterrent effect of that threat is deteriorating.
Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken informed attendees of the Munich Security Conference, including his Chinese counterpart, that Washington believes “China is considering providing lethal support to Russia in its aggression against Ukraine.” Subsequent reporting indicates that the weapons Beijing is willing to provide Russia include so-called “kamikaze drones” similar to those Moscow has received from Iran. Der Spiegel details a sophisticated strategy in the works to falsify shipping manifests as a way to circumvent Western proscriptions on the transfer of both Chinese and European technology to Russian hands.
The news that China is on the verge of augmenting its covert involvement in the war on the European continent must be considered in tandem with Beijing’s overt efforts to play peacemaker.
“China called for a cease-fire and peace talks between Ukraine and Russia in a vaguely worded proposal released Friday,” the Associated Press reported today. In its proposal, the People’s Republic has tried to take every possible position on the conflict. It remains a “neutral” party, but it has a “no-limits friendship” with Russia. It supports the “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries” but attacks the West for “fanning the flames” of the war Russia started expressly to violate Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Beijing’s twelve-point blueprint for peace in Europe, which would freeze the conflict in place and see all Western sanctions lifted immediately, has been summarily disregarded by Western officials.
Analysts believe the statement is designed to be a “public relations” maneuver, but this gesture’s intended audiences aren’t in the West. American and European officials “worry that the Chinese proposal may get some traction in the global South, which has largely resisted calls to join sanctions against Russia,” Bloomberg News reported. As Center for Strategic and International Studies analyst Lily McElwee told the Financial Times, the urgency of China’s appeal should be viewed within the context of China’s own ambitions. “China fears that the international environment is souring for its global aims, and it sees the global south as a useful partner,” she noted.
Indeed, the handful of rising powers with irredentist ambitions in their neighborhoods — China, as well as India, Turkey, and others — have been exhibiting signs of frustration with Vladimir Putin’s handling of the conflict for some time. By September 2022, the Kremlin had been warning for months that any threat to its sovereign territory would force it to use all the means at its disposal in self-defense, including nuclear weapons, when it illegally annexed four Ukrainian oblasts Russia did not even fully control. The enlargement of what Russia regarded as its sovereign territory didn’t intimidate anyone into backing down, and the futility of it all irritated Russia’s tacit backers. Their prestige, too, was in some ways bound up with the Russian war effort. And Russia had suddenly compounded its failures on Ukraine’s battlefields with its humiliating inability to terrorize Ukraine’s supporters into submission.
China’s supposed peace overture is also likely a product of its increasing unease with how its junior partner in Eurasia has prosecuted the conflict, to say nothing of the implications a Ukrainian victory would have for its own ambitions. “Beijing’s peace diplomacy may also be aimed at helping Russia find a way out of the conflict that would avoid disaster for the Putin regime,” the Financial Times reported. Beijing cannot dictate the terms of an armistice to Putin if Putin is not dependent upon China for economic and material support. If, however, the Kremlin tethers itself to Xi Jinping’s purse strings, Moscow is likely to find that the arrangement comes at a cost.
Beijing is not in the business of being embarrassed. Certainly not by what it regards as its future satrapies, which are too besotted with their glorious pasts to recognize the inevitability of their future servility. China will certainly not have its methodically planned ambitions for its own territorial expansion derailed by an actor as heedless as Putin. Ukraine’s supporters may be losing their patience for Russia’s war of choice, but they’re not alone.
*NOAH ROTHMAN is a senior writer at National Review. He is the author of THE RISE OF THE NEW PURITANS: Fighting Back against Progressives’ War on Fun and Unjust: Social Justice and the Unmaking of America. @noahcrothman