If China Starts Arming Russia in Ukraine, It Will Be Time for Truth or Consequences

Despite outward appearances of a communist regime in search of a coherent response to Vladimir Putin’s aggression, a clear strategy is starting to emerge through the fog of war.

The Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, and the Chinese defense minister, Wei Fenghe, watch a joint military exercise August 13, 2021. Vadim Savitskiy/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, file

ZURICH — The Biden administration, via National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, is cautioning that Communist China could face consequences if it assists Russia with its invasion of Ukraine. So far the consequences are unspecified. 

The warning comes amid signs that Moscow has asked Beijing for military assistance. Beijing denies the reports, suggesting that they are “disinformation” conducted by America and her allies. 

It is indeed unlikely that Beijing would openly commit to arming Russia, opting instead to continue with its seeming meandering approach to the Ukraine crisis. Yet this does not mean that Chinese weaponry could not still find another way into the conflict. 

Despite outward appearances of a communist regime in search of a coherent response to Vladimir Putin’s aggression, a clear strategy is starting to emerge through the fog of war. Any confusion in this regard is but a testament to the effectiveness of its propaganda.

Its propaganda effort featured an article in the New York Times over the weekend suggesting that the communist government in China should mediate an end to the crisis. The article was written by Wang Huiyao, president of a “nongovernmental” think tank in Beijing. 

Another essay, written by a prominent Chinese scholar, Hu Wei, also made its rounds over the weekend, and is fueling hopes that Beijing might be recalibrating its position on Ukraine. The essay outlines possible conflict scenarios and suggests that President Xi should distance himself from Mr. Putin. It also calls on China to resolve the aggression. 

Surely with such sentiments percolating among scholars in China, the government in Beijing would be foolish to deepen its support of the Kremlin. See how that works? 

In the 19 days since the war began, Moscow and Beijing have been inching closer together and discovering the boundaries of their “no limits” friendship with “no forbidden areas of cooperation.” Just hours after President Putin sent his tanks into Ukraine, Beijing announced that Russian wheat — previously barred over concerns of fungal contamination — was disease-free and large-scale imports to China would begin.

This lifeline followed the signing, in February, of a 30-year contract for Russia to supply natural gas to China and an agreement to deepen energy cooperation. Significantly, the agreement is to be transacted in euros rather than the dollar, the usual currency of the resource markets.

Beijing has since agreed to widen the trading band between the renminbi and the Russian ruble to boost Sino-Russian trade. It has abstained from condemning Russia at the United Nations, and has accused the West of fanning the flames of war.

While Mr. Xi might have reservations about some aspects of Mr. Putin’s strategy, he likely also recognizes the strategic role that the war in Ukraine plays in advancing his and Mr. Putin’s “new world order” and in laying the foundation for his likely and eventual invasion of Free China.

While Beijing might then overtly deny sending arms to bolster Moscow’s efforts, support could well find its way through other channels. The makeup of the People’s Liberation Army is in this regard instructive.

As much as it is a military and defense force, the People’s Liberation Army is also a diversified industrial conglomerate. Its arm sales companies — the four largest of which are the Aviation Industry Cooperation, China Electronics Technology Group Cooperation, China North Industries Cooperation, and China South Industries Group Cooperation (and their many subsidiaries) — have strict “cash and carry” policies. 

It is partly on this basis that Chinese chlorine bombs and chemical warheads found their way to Syria. It is also partly on this basis that North Korea has been able to build a 5G network with mobile phones based on the Android operating system. There, personnel of the People’s Liberation Army maintain a hold on the coal and arms trades in and out of the country. Army personnel are also known to go into business for themselves.

I witnessed this strategy in action first-hand in Ethiopia in 2010 while researching China’s political and economic engagements with that Horn of Africa country. My research then brought me into contact with a joint venture between China North Industries Corporation and an Ethiopian construction company based in Addis Ababa.

Officially, the venture was engaged in Ethiopian real estate and construction. Unofficially, it transferred to the Ethiopian National Defense Force more than 500 items of military machinery and equipment, including armored vehicles, artillery, ammunition, and enough 155mm propulsion howitzers to outfit a decent sized army.

It is not difficult to imagine Chinese military support finding its way to Russian troops in Ukraine in a similar way. Beijing could well be unaware or — having ascertained the strategic value of such assistance — given its blessing. During the last major Sino-Russian military exercise in August, Russian troops were taught how to operate Chinese weaponry.

In this regard, much of the learning has already been done. 

In the event that such arms transfers are discovered,  we might yet discover what consequences Mr. Sullivan has in mind. 

The New York Sun

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