The conventional wisdom as to how China stands to gain from the war in Ukraine goes like this: the United States will be distracted and bogged down in Europe for years to come, unable to focus on the strategic rivalry with Beijing as planned, while Russia will be reduced to a Chinese dependency. An isolated and increasingly desperate Vladimir Putin will be forced to sell his natural gas, coal and oil to China on whatever terms it offers, and Beijing will be able to watch from a safe distance as the old Cold War battle lines are redrawn and Moscow and Washington tear each other apart.
“China is clearly the victor of this whole affair,” the former Kremlin adviser Sergey Karaganov told the New Statesman columnist Bruno Maçães in an interview on 28 March. “I think the biggest loser will be Ukraine; a loser will be Russia; a great loser will be Europe; the United States will lose somewhat… and the big victor is China.”
Prominent Chinese scholars have also argued that the country stands to benefit from the crisis. Russia’s war in Ukraine marks the end of the international order established after the Second World War, wrote Zheng Yongnian of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen in an article on 25 February, the day after the conflict began. “As long as we don’t commit terminal strategic blunders, China’s modernisation will not be cut short,” he reasoned. “On the contrary, China will instead have the ability to play a more important role in the process of building a new international order.”
But China has done a poor job so far at positioning itself as a credible, neutral observer. The spectacle of Chinese officials repeatedly urging both Russia and Ukraine to exercise restraint, as though the latter was not fighting for its very survival, would be laughable if the circumstances were not so tragic. Likewise, the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s praise on 30 March for Moscow’s efforts to “prevent a large-scale humanitarian crisis” in Ukraine sounded absurd – to put it charitably – given that Russia has so clearly caused that crisis. Its military was bombing Ukrainian cities and killing civilians even as he spoke.
“China cannot pretend to be a responsible great power but close its eyes or cover its ears when it comes to a conflict that obviously makes it uncomfortable,” said Josep Borrell, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs, on 5 April. “It knows very well who the aggressor is, although for political reasons, refuses to name them.”
At a virtual summit between the EU’s top officials and the Chinese leader Xi Jinping and its premier Li Keqiang on 1 April, the Europeans urged their counterparts to cease their tacit support for Russia and help bring the war to an end. But Xi showed no sign he had any intention of doing so, preferring to maintain close relations with Putin as a partner in their shared contest with the US. Borrell called the meeting a “dialogue of the deaf”.
Before the war in Ukraine, Beijing had hoped to drive a wedge between the EU and the US, preserving its relations with Europe as the strategic rivalry with Washington intensified, and to get a stalled EU-China investment pact back on track. The ratification of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, which was first proposed in 2013, was frozen in 2021 after China sanctioned several MEPs (in response to EU measures over Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang). But now the prospects for the deal going ahead appear remote, and the relationship between the US and its European allies looks more robust than it did a year ago.
While its partnership with Russia might yield a reliable source of energy supplies and agricultural exports, the US and the EU are China’s top trading partners. Beijing stands to lose valuable markets for its goods in both if it is seen to be acting as an accomplice or an apologist for Putin.
Ukraine itself was a valuable source of military technology for Beijing, having supplied China’s first aircraft carrier and jet engines for its air force. The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, had positioned his country as a “bridge to Europe” for Beijing and signed a major deal last year that would have seen Chinese companies building Ukrainian infrastructure. All of which is now at risk.
Then there is the massive increase in defence spending that European countries have undertaken in response to Russia’s actions, and the rejuvenation of Western alliances such as Nato, which has labelled China a “systemic challenge”.
“It will be a life-and-death battle between those for and against Western democracy,” predicted the Shanghai-based scholar Hu Wei in an article published on 12 March, which was swiftly censored in China. “The unity of the Western world under the [new] Iron Curtain will have a siphon effect on other countries: the US Indo-Pacific strategy will be consolidated and other countries like Japan will stick even closer to the US.” There are also implications for Beijing’s ambitions towards Taiwan, where the defence ministry has begun studying Ukraine’s asymmetric warfare tactics to better prepare a defence of the island against the possibility of any future Chinese attack.
The war in Ukraine has galvanised China’s rivals and reinvigorated Western alliances. It has catalysed an urgent discussion of Taiwan’s defensive capabilities, plunged the economy of the European Union, one of China’s biggest trading partners, into uncertainty, and exposed Beijing to accusations that it is enabling Russia’s atrocities. In return, China gets a partner who is becoming a global pariah, a good deal on Putin’s natural resources, and access to the rapidly deteriorating Russian economy, which was only around the size of Italy’s to begin with. While it is true that China stands to lose less than some others in this conflict, it is hard to call that much of a win.
[See also: Xi could stop Putin’s war in Ukraine. Will he?]