China is employing a well-trod tactic to try to outmaneuver the U.S. as it appears more ready than ever to start helping Russia gain new ground in Ukraine with weapons shipments.
The Pentagon on Wednesday pledged “consequences” for Beijing if it heeds Moscow’s desperate pleas for arms and ammunition but yet again stopped short of detailing how it would follow through on the stern but vague threat.
Spokeswoman Sabrina Singh delivered the cagey response during a press conference in which she demurred despite repeated requests for specifics.
“I don’t want to forecast any of those consequences,” she said.
It wasn’t the first such shadowy warning. In an interview that aired Sunday on CBS News, Secretary of State Antony Blinken referred to a “serious problem” if China looked to strengthen its alliance with Russia at this time.
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But analysts who study Chinese military tactics suggest the targeted ambiguity serves a larger purpose – that the vagueness of the U.S. threats is likely an attempt to preempt Beijing’s well-trod tactics of confounding Western restrictions.
“Once you get into what China can or cannot provide, the Chinese can always come up with ways to circumvent a specific list and the Chinese can be very creative,” says Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center think tank. “A broad statement covers all bases.”
The standoff has taken on new urgency with China’s Wang Yi, the most senior foreign policy official in the Communist Party, traveling to Moscow for meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week ahead of a reported visit by President Xi Jinping in the spring. The Russian military continues to suffer from embarrassing battlefield defeats, command failures and logistical shortfalls in Ukraine as the country on Friday marks one year since its invasion – and as a springtime offensive has reportedly already begun.
China has been debating on providing military support to Russia for months, particularly in mid-March when the evidence of Russian battlefield blunders and failures in Ukraine became readily apparent worldwide. Ultimately, it signaled disinterest in following through amid pledges from the U.S. and Western allies of prolonged military support.
U.S. intelligence also suggested at the time that China was alarmed by the brutality of Russian battlefield tactics, which human rights groups observe has only worsened in the months since.
That sentiment among decision-makers in Beijing, however, appears to have shifted, particularly as the threat of massive Russian losses appears more and more likely. Analysts believe China sees Russia as an irreplaceable economic and logistical partner, particularly if it, too, tries to execute a land-grab in the future on territory it considers its own – chiefly the independent island nation of Taiwan.
Chinese officials have publicly condemned the U.S. warnings, pointing to the billions of dollars worth of arms and financial support that the Biden administration has poured into Ukraine to bolster its defenses.
China has signaled an even more vociferous defense through more subtle outlets. The English-language Global Times newspaper, which is not a mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party but is aligned with its views, published an op-ed on Tuesday that in the same paragraph blasted U.S. assertions of potential arms shipment as “baseless” before characterizing such exchanges as a “normal interaction between China and Russia.”
U.S. officials and analysts believe the paper regularly publishes what officials in Beijing choose not to say publicly.
“What the Chinese will not want to see is a total defeat of Russia,” says Sun. “For them, it is not in China’s interest, and it is even destabilizing. Just recall how the fate of Germany after World War I sowed the seed for World War II and how the ending of the Cold War and the fate of Russia led to where we are today.”
The consequences of China’s providing weapons to Russia depend on what kinds of weapons systems they choose. And, if Ukraine begins launching offensive attacks into Russian territory, China may consider it even more necessary to help Russia engage in its own self-defense.
“My conclusion is China will not abandon Russia, but it doesn’t mean it will give Russia everything to help it win the war,” Sun adds. “If the war becomes one of Russia’s self-defense, the Chinese will see its assistance even as just and justified.”