Summary: Beijing will likely continue to offer Moscow an economic lifeline to avoid sanctions due to the “No Limits” friendship between the two nations. However, Beijing likely will not contribute direct military assistance to Moscow in the form of weapon sales or troop deployment due to fear of sanctions from Western powers.
Background: On 4 February, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping held a summit and announced a “No Limits” friendship between their nations. On 24 February, Putin announced a “special military operation” in Ukraine sending in troops and launching missiles against the country. Despite sanctions on Moscow and widespread condemnation of the attack by Western powers, Beijing offered Moscow an economic lifeline and refused to condemn the attack on Ukraine.
Historic Alliance: The “No Limits” friendship between Moscow and Beijing likely stems from historical economic cooperation between the two countries and a common adversarial relationship with Western powers. Moscow and Beijing have historic economic and diplomatic relations going back to the signing of a treaty in 2001 establishing their relations with each other. Beijing relies heavily on Moscow for its grain and energy needs. In return, Moscow receives needed capital to fund its economy. Additionally, both countries see this economic and diplomatic cooperation as a way to challenge what they see as threats from Western powers. This economic cooperation manifested in several ways, including the expected completion in August of a railway bridge between the two nations. Beijing’s trade with Moscow rose by 12% in March according to the South China Morning Post. Both the historical cooperation and economic benefit indicate that Beijing will likely continue to provide Moscow with an economic lifeline.
Fear of Sanctions: Beijing likely sees providing military support to Moscow as potentially undermining its relationship with other countries. Other countries like Australia stated intent to sanction Beijing if it provides Moscow with military support for its invasion of Ukraine. Despite its “No Limits” friendship with Moscow, Beijing likely does not want sanctions placed on it or to otherwise undermine its economic relationship with Western powers, according to Evan Mederios speaking on NPR. Beijing likely fears sanctions from Western powers that would halt its economic recovery from the pandemic.
Outlook and Implications: Beijing likely will continue its economic activity with Moscow as a means of supporting the “No Limits” friendship between the countries and to meet its energy needs. Despite the “No Limits” friendship, Beijing will likely not provide Moscow with military support due to fear of sanctions which would stall its economic recovery from the pandemic. Going forward, Beijing will likely continue its current course of action with regards to Moscow and the conflict in Ukraine in a bid to remain neutral. Beijing probably sees the spread of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other Western alliances as a threat, and this likely motivates it to, while not directly encouraging Moscow, turn a blind eye to its invasion of Ukraine. This action of ignoring the invasion by Moscow seems particularly likely given Beijing and Moscow’s historic alliance.