Illustration: Craig Stephens
Bruce Elleman
Bruce Elleman

How Russia’s war in Ukraine increases the threat to China’s border and economy

  • Russia’s war performance reflects badly on China, a major buyer of Russian arms, even as it risks an energy-led recession in Europe that will hurt Chinese trade
  • But the greater danger is that a war-weakened Russia will expose China’s border as military frictions throughout Central Asia, largely kept under wraps by Moscow, reignite

Back in February, President Xi Jinping may have thought that, no matter which way the Russian-Ukrainian war went down, China would come out ahead. If the invasion succeeded, it would be a blow to Nato and the American-led global order; if it failed, it would be an even bigger blow to Russia, drawing it closer to Beijing. But Xi may be getting more than he bargained for.

Russia’s war in Ukraine is far from over. It could go on for months, even years. Oil and gas shortages in Europe could trigger a recession, and Chinese imports would be among the first sectors to take a hit. This would hurt China’s already ailing economy, beset as it is with bank failures, a real estate bubble just beginning to pop, and the departure of Western companies fleeing the business-unfriendly zero-Covid-19 policies.

To make matters worse, Moscow’s war performance also reflects on Beijing, one of the largest buyers of Russian arms. Two-thirds of China’s arms imports come from Russia, a trade worth about US$15 billion in 2017.

Seemingly all of Russia’s weapons systems have performed egregiously in the Ukraine theatre – including “pop goes the weasel” tanks that self-destruct with a single hit, an almost total lack of effective Russian air cover over the battlefield, and the sinking of the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s flagship Moskva, which Ukraine claims it achieved with ground-based truck-transported Neptune missiles.

This does not speak highly for China’s military prowess, tied as it is to Russian imports. Which one of China’s 20 neighbours would fear it now?

The longer the war continues, the weaker Russia will become. Assassinations of President Vladimir Putin’s allies and enemies alike are increasing, many described as accidents or suicides by officials. Political dissent is rising, including increased public calls for Putin to resign. Some military pundits in the West are even predicting a Russian collapse within five years.

Ukraine minister warns SE Asia from buying ‘poor quality’ Russian arms

The chance for domestic chaos will almost certainly increase over time, as competing factions fight to take power from an ever more lame-duck Putin. A war-torn failed state along the thousands of kilometres that make up China’s border with Russia is definitely not what Xi was bargaining for. Military frictions throughout Central Asia – largely kept under wraps until now by Moscow – are also beginning to break out.

War between Armenia and Azerbaijan or between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, renewed civil conflict in Chechnya, not to mention rising tensions among Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, could soon turn much of Central Asia into a war zone.

Beijing would have no choice but to reallocate ever scarcer financial resources away from its navy and air force, and return to a Cold-War-era heavily militarised Chinese border, with the People’s Liberation Army once again taking the largest bite out of the military pie.


Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin speak in person for first time since Russia invaded Ukraine

Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin speak in person for first time since Russia invaded Ukraine

These are terrifying scenarios. Lest it be forgotten, since the end of the Cold War in 1991, China has profited more than any other country from peacefully joining the global order: enormous increases in trade, foreign investment into China, and greater interaction with the world – including a boom in Chinese overseas tourism – were all the result of Beijing backing the global order, not opposing it.

But these heady days of double-digit growth might be over for good. Three factors now threaten China’s success story: first, Beijing’s insistence on controlling all of the South China Sea and Taiwan; second, its lumbering Belt and Road Initiative; and, third, the possibility of greater militarisation along its northern borders.
Rather than being satisfied with allowing all countries to use the sea lines of communication in the South China Sea equally, as supported by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Beijing has insisted that the entire region is China’s “historic waters”. It has built multiple island bases in the middle of the South China Sea, to try to assert its sovereignty.


Indonesia and Japan boost naval security ties amid concern over China’s South China Sea actions

Indonesia and Japan boost naval security ties amid concern over China’s South China Sea actions
Such a policy is bound to fail. None of China’s immediate neighbours, in particular Vietnam, can allow Beijing to call the shots. The US Navy, while not taking sides in the regional territorial dispute, is determined not to let any country undermine the freedom of the seas. This includes, most importantly, any Beijing threat to attack Taiwan, though this may be less likely now because of the all-too-public military failure of Russian-made weapons’ systems.
The Belt and Road Initiative has also slowed amid the pandemic, which put Chinese investments overseas largely on hold, if not cancelled altogether. Hundreds of billions of dollars are likely to have been wasted on infrastructure projects that will never be completed, or will be finished with great cost overruns. Many countries are demanding a renegotiation of their belt and road debt and projects.

But the most important threat is still the potential for a massive remilitarisation of the lengthy Chinese border. Should this happen, Beijing’s 30-year experiment with sea power might truly be at an end. If history shows us anything, it is that land powers – and make no mistake, China is still one of the world’s greatest continental powers – cannot afford to ignore their border security.

Rather than presenting a winning or at least neutral outcome, the Ukraine war has exposed a rapidly declining Russia facing civil war and possible dissolution, which would raise enormous threats for China. By backing Putin last February, Xi may have bitten off more than he can chew.

Bruce Elleman is William V. Pratt Professor of International History at the US Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island. The opinions expressed in this article are strictly his own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US government, US Navy, or US Naval War College