The costs of China's 'no limits' support for Putin: did Beijing get played with the Ukraine invasion?

The Chinese-Russian friendship was to have "no limits," the two declared in a joint statement on Feb. 4. But these days, Chinese President Xi Jinping may not be enjoying China's support for Russia as much.

Chinese President Xi Jinping may not be enjoying his support for Russia as much these days

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin talk during their meeting at the Beijing Olympics. The two presidents have vowed to support each other. (The Associated Press)

With a smile and a practised 'zdravstvuyte', Chinese President Xi Jinping looked genuinely happy to say hello to Vladimir Putin in Beijing last month. After all, the Russian president was the only major leader to travel to the opening of China's Winter Olympics in Beijing. Their embrace was deepening.

Indeed, the Chinese-Russian friendship was to have "no limits," the two declared in a joint statement on Feb. 4, as they pledged each other's support no matter what.

At the time, Xi may have enjoyed watching Moscow rattle Washington and other capitals with its military buildup on Ukraine's borders and Putin's implicit threat to invade. Russia's moves could be useful in exploiting rifts in the West.

There could also be lessons for China if it ever decided to invade Taiwan, the self-governing island Beijing calls its own and has threatened to take by force.

But today, Xi may not be enjoying its "no limits" support for Russia as much.

War unified the West

The war has unified the West, giving NATO's military alliance new resolve. In China's own backyard, Japan's former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe raised what was once unthinkable — arguing Tokyo should consider inviting the U.S. to station nuclear weapons there "to protect Japan and the lives of its people in this reality."

The current government rejected the idea, but it was enough to prompt a warning from Beijing for Japan to "stop provoking trouble."

There is Western unity also in the unexpected severity of its economic sanctions on Moscow; sanctions which have forced some big Chinese banks to stop doing business with Russia and brought instability to world markets and the trade that China relies on. 

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And Moscow has been mostly isolated at the United Nations in New York, where China finds itself one of the very few voices defending Russia, in the company of international pariahs like North Korea, Belarus and Syria.

"China is starting to look a lot more uncomfortable" in this role, said UN observer Richard Gowan, with the NGO Crisis Group.

Like Russia, Beijing has refused to call the war in Ukraine an invasion, instead sticking to Putin's narrative that he's executing a "special military operation" that "will not conduct missile, air or artillery strikes on cities." That's been repeated at official briefings, and any public criticism on Chinese internet has been targeted by censors. 

When asked about China's traditional advocacy for every nation's "state sovereignty and territorial integrity," at the end of February, Chinese officials said the situation in Ukraine is "complex" and Russia's "legitimate security concerns" — its fears of NATO's eastward expansion — need to be considered.

China tones down support

Still, Gowan said Beijing has realized this is a "bad look" at the UN, and has toned down its support for Russia. It was initially expected to join Russia in vetoing the Security Council's condemnation of Moscow, but the position turned into an abstention after negotiations with the United States over wording.

It abstained once again in a similar General Assembly vote a few days later.

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"My impression in late February was that the Chinese were caught quite off guard by what was going on," Gowan said. "They became distinctly defensive, distinctly reactive."

Did Xi know that Putin was preparing to invade Ukraine when they agreed to co-operate? Beijing isn't saying, but some China observers say there are signs it was not informed.

'China was, in fact, played'

"China was, in fact, played," wrote Yun Sun, director of the China program at Stimson Center, a U.S. think tank on international security.

She points to China's lack of preparedness in getting its own people out of Ukraine. The embassy in Kyiv didn't even start to register the more than 6,000 Chinese citizens in the country until the day after Russian tanks were rolling in and missiles were falling, she wrote.

China has since had trouble getting them out, even asking for Ukraine's help.

Chinese evacuees from Ukraine arrive at Lanzhou Zhongchuan International Airport in Lanzhou in northwestern China's Gansu Province on March 6, 2022. China has had trouble getting its citizens out of Ukraine since Russia's invasion. (Du Zheyu/Xinhua/The Associated Press)

Beijing thought Putin's military buildup was "bluffing and coercion," she wrote, designed to negotiate with the West from a position of strength, because that's the way China itself would act. Instead, Xi fell for Putin's "manipulation," Sun wrote.

Others disagree. "I think they did know about Putin's ultimate goal," said Jakub Jakobowski, an expert in Russia-China relations at the China program of the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw. Beijing chose to support Russia anyway because it saw potentially huge strategic benefits for China, he said.

If Russia succeeds in achieving its goals, then China wins because the West will be weaker. If Russia fails then it's susceptible to China's "gravitational pull," he said, relying on Chinese financial help and possibly military aid.

"Russia then becomes a super big North Korea that falls into the Chinese sphere," Jakobowski said.

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Taiwan has been paying attention

Taiwan is another reason why China is watching Russia's invasion of Ukraine closely — drawing important lessons from Moscow's successes and failures, and the world's reaction, should Beijing ever send troops to invade the democratic territory it claims but does not rule. It's unlikely to happen soon, but Xi has not ruled out taking the island by force.

So, Taiwan has also been paying attention. 

"Let me say this from the bottom of my heart," said Taiwan's Foreign Minister Joseph Wu in a news conference, "You have been an inspiration to the Taiwanese people in facing threats and coercion from authoritarian power."

The Taipei government has joined the West in its sanctions against Russia, denying it key technology produced on the island — sophisticated semiconductors hard to find elsewhere.

Young people have voiced their support in street demonstrations.

A man holds a poster as he joins a group to protest against the invasion of Russia in solidarity with the Ukrainian people in front of the Representative Office of the Moscow-Taipei Coordination Commission in Taipei, Taiwan, on Feb. 25, 2022. (Chiang Ying-ying/The Associated Press)

"I think China is watching Ukraine, trying to decide if it's worth invading Taiwan," one young protestor told a reporter from Reuters. 

There are significant differences between the two situations. Militarily, China is even more powerful than Russia, though it's been four decades since its forces have been tested in a real war. 

Taiwan is also not like Ukraine. It is surrounded by water, making it more difficult to invade. It has already armed itself against a Chinese attack and has much stronger commitments from the U.S. to help than Ukraine ever did.

Washington signals support for Taiwan

Washington has pursued a policy of so-called "strategic ambiguity," refusing to commit to Taiwan's defense so it doesn't threaten China but constantly signalling its support through the sale of warplanes, missile systems and other advanced weapons worth more than $15 billion US in the last five years alone. 

Just last week, a high level delegation of former American military officials and diplomats arrived in Taipei, headlined by former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. As a private citizen, he said what those in the administration cannot.

It is time "to offer Taiwan America's diplomatic recognition as a free and sovereign country," Pompeo said at a forum organized by a think tank in Taipei. 

China dismissed it as "babbling nonsense" from a has-been politician. 

But J. Michael Cole says there's little doubt it is taking notice of Washington's growing commitment to Taiwan, and the West's unified response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Cole is a Taipei-based China specialist affiliated with Canada's Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

"Deterrence is key when it comes to Taiwan," he said. "So if China believes that the United States and possibly Japan would intervene in a Taiwan contingency, that certainly reduces markedly the risk that Beijing would launch hostilities."

Popular resistance could be a deterrant

Another deterrent could be the scale of popular resistance to a Chinese invasion, occupation and ultimately, rule. 

Russia has been slowed down significantly by the determination of Ukrainian citizens who have taken up arms, and that defiance may yet keep Moscow from governing the territory directly even if it does prevail militarily.

"I have absolutely no doubt that the Taiwanese, if they were to face a threat to their survival or their way of life, they would do exactly what we're seeing in Ukraine," said Cole. "The cost for China would be humongous."

Lessons learned for Beijing, as it considers the costs and benefits of its "no limits" friendship with Moscow, and the fallout.

LISTEN | The parallels between Russia and Ukraine, and China and Taiwan:


Saša Petricic

Senior Correspondent

Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. He has spent the past decade reporting from abroad, most recently in Beijing as CBC's Asia Correspondent, focusing on China, Hong Kong, and North and South Korea. Before that, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem through the Arab Spring and wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya. Over more than 30 years, he has filed stories from every continent.