On February 3, following the balloon incident, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled his trip to China. On February 18, he got a second chance on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. It didn’t go well.
After reprimanding China over the balloons "unacceptable violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law" – for which China offered "no apology" – and warning them that such an "irresponsible act must never again occur," Blinken "warned" China about the " consequences if China provides material support to Russia or assistance with systemic sanctions evasion."
American officials described the meeting between Blinken and Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Yi as "confrontational."
The day after the meeting, Blinken claimed that the US has "information that gives us concern that [China is] considering providing lethal support to Russia in the war against Ukraine." He said that China is "strongly considering providing lethal assistance to Russia."
The US has made similar claims before. In March 2022, US officials claimed that Russia had asked China for military equipment. They provided no details on the request nor on how they knew. That’s because they didn’t know. European and US officials told NBC that that accusation “lacked hard evidence” and that, in fact, “there are no indications China is considering providing weapons to Russia.”
China was not providing Russia with weapons or equipment support in the early days of the war. But it is not impossible that they could consider it.
China may already be providing Russia with support in the war in Ukraine. Despite Blinken’s twice repeated claim that "for the most part" China has only provided "rhetorical, political [and] diplomatic support to Russia," The Wall Street Journal already reported on February 4 that Chinese state-owned defense companies have sent “navigation equipment, jamming technology and jet-fighter parts to sanctioned Russian government-owned defense companies.” State owned and private Chinese companies have also sent other “dual-use goods” that could be used for commercial or military purposes.
Already at that time, State Department spokesman Ned Price warned that "there are and would be costs and consequences if we were to see a systematic effort to help Russia bypass the sanctions" and that “there would be consequences for the provision of lethal material that Russia could then use against civilians in Ukraine."
Though the provision of military equipment to Russia would be a change in China’s approach to Russia’s war in Ukraine, it would not be a change to long-standing Chinese policy.
China and Russia enjoy a very close comprehensive strategic partnership that "has no limits." But before China enjoyed a close relationship with Russia, it enjoyed a very close partnership with Pakistan. That relationship, like the China-Russia relationship, was in many ways closer than an alliance. The nature of China’s support for Pakistan during its several wars with India may be worth paying attention to.
In the 1971 Pakistan-India war, Andrew Small reports in The China-Pakistan Axis, China promised, in words that echo the State Department’s words today, to “continue to support Pakistan morally, economically, and politically.” They offered no possibility of military support by sending any of their armed forces. But they did send weapons and money. Small reports that China sent "a large shipment of arms to the Pakistani army in East Pakistan, the training and equipping of two additional divisions, and a further $100 million of assistance."
China’s policy allowed it to send weapons to its partner even though China felt its partner had caused the military conflict and brought it on itself. China has forcefully not blamed Russia for causing the current crisis or bringing it on itself.
The Russian-Chinese strategic partnership is not a military alliance. There is no mutual defense obligation. The partnership recognizes each country’s need to pursue its own interests. China would intervene military in the war in Ukraine only if the war in Ukraine threatened its own national interests. China would come to Russia’s aid only if China’s security interests were threatened. That could happen only if China sees an existential threat to its strategic partner. But that does not mean that China could not consider sending Russia weapons or equipment as it did for Pakistan.
The Russia-China strategic partnership "even exceeds an alliance in its closeness and effectiveness." It is not a military alliance, but it has reached a level approaching a "quasi-alliance relationship." The relationship now includes a very high level of strategic and military coordination and access. It is a relationship that "has no limits," that has "no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation’."
When Blinken warned Wang Yi of consequences if China provides material support to Russia, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs reminded the US that "[i]t is the US, not China, that has been pouring weapons into the battlefield" before responding forcefully that "[t]he China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination is . . . within the sovereign right of any two independent states" and that "[w]e do not accept the US’s finger-pointing or even coercion targeting China-Russia relations." Emphasizing the response to Blinken, foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin repeated the second point: "We would never stand for finger-pointing, or even coercion and pressurizing from the US on our relations with Russia."
The comprehensive strategic partnership between Russia and China "has no forbidden areas." China insists that the US will not pressure them into imposing limits on that relationship, including considering – if they are considering – sending weapons or military equipment to Russia as it did for Pakistan. Chinese policy rejects the sending of military aid in the form of troops to Russia in any event short of an existential threat to Russia. But history suggests that it may not prohibit the sending of aid, including weapons and equipment.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.