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A nation must think before it acts.
How will China respond to a potential Russian military escalation against Ukraine? Relations between Russia and China have intensified in recent years, with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping holding regular summits and the two countries’ militaries participating in joint exercises and cooperating in some defense industrial efforts. Ties between Moscow and Beijing are now closer than any time since the days of Stalin and Mao, driven by a shared perception that the United States is each country’s primary foreign policy challenge. One top Russian official told media in December 2021 that the relationship now “exceeds an alliance.” Chinese state media, meanwhile, have vocally backed Russia in arguing that the current crisis stems from the US “using NATO as a tool to cannibalize and squeeze Russia’s strategic space.”
The 2014 war in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea was an important factor driving Russia and China closer to each other, as Russia sought to reduce post-Crimea international isolation and as Beijing realized it could drive a hard bargain in its bilateral relationship with Russia on issues like energy. China’s response to the 2014 war, however, was generally to avoid taking sides. China accepted a narrative that placed blame on the West for causing the crisis, with top diplomats citing Western “foreign interference for causing the crisis,” but didn’t approve of Russia’s seizure of Crimea or its military actions in the Donbas. China abstained from voting on the key United Nations resolutions regarding Crimea, for example, and it still declines to recognize Crimea as Russian territory. Similarly, it verbally rejected US and European sanctions on Russia though it let Chinese firms, including the country’s big state-owned banks, abide by these sanctions to avoid being cut off from US financial markets and the international banking system.
Compared to 2014, however, China may find it more difficult to avoid involvement in an escalating crisis. Leaders in Beijing and around the world will see the US response to any military escalation against Ukraine as sending signals about whether the US could effectively respond to future crises in the Taiwan Strait or East or South China Seas. The success or failure of US efforts to impose meaningful costs on Russia if it escalates will be seen as a test of whether the US could do something similar in Asia. Moreover, after repeated summits between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, including Xi’s description of Putin as his “best friend,” China’s approach to Russia amid a crisis will also be interpreted as sending signals about China’s own capabilities and influence.
Because of this, China will not see a new phase of war between Russia and Ukraine as a peripheral issue in its foreign policy, even though China has no core issues at stake in Ukraine itself. China is most likely to be implicated in the crisis by potential Western sanctions on Russia, which in contrast to 2014 will impose substantially more pressure on Beijing to take sides. China’s decision either to adhere to new Western sanctions or to help Russia avoid them will shape escalation pathways and determine the magnitude of economic and political isolation that sanctions impose.
 Anton Troianovski and Steven Lee Meyers, “Putin and Xi Show United Front Amid Rising Tensions with U.S.,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/15/world/asia/china-russia-summit-xi-putin.html
 Global Times, Dec. 27, 2021, https://twitter.com/globaltimesnews/status/1475531946998603777
 Somini Sengupta, “Russia Vetoes UN Resolution on Crimea,” The New York Times, March 15, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/16/world/europe/russia-vetoes-un-resolution-on-crimea.html