Is China’s XI having second thoughts about Putin’s war?

Steve Nystrom, Journal guest columnist

China’s President Xi Jinping is hearing something that he’s not used to hearing. Criticism from some current and former Chinese Communist Party officials regarding China’s support for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

By refusing to condemn the Ukrainian invasion and by agreeing to purchase natural gas and oil from Russia to blunt the economic sanctions imposed by the West, China is providing Russia with a desperately needed economic lifeline. China is the world’s largest importer of natural gas and oil and is buying as much as it can from Russia at reduced rates.

However, despite President Xi’s public support for Putin and declared “neutrality” over the conflict, Chinese scholars and former CCP leaders are now questioning China’s backing of Russia for several reasons.

First, the Chinese people like all people want to be on the right side of history or at least be on the winning side. Many Chinese citizens admire the bravery and will to fight of Ukrainian President Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people against the larger, Russian invaders.

Second, China is now the leading trading partner with both the U.S. and the European Union (EU) and has been expanding economic partnerships with the EU to offset trade disputes with the U.S. and United Kingdom. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is disrupting current economic agreements and on-going trade between China with the EU. In addition, the Chinese economy is contracting with economic growth falling from 7% to roughly 4% per year, which still seems strong but is clouded by the fact that many state-owned enterprises are losing billions of dollars each year by simply keeping people employed, and a hyper-inflated real-estate market that is starting to show signs of a downward adjustment or “crash.”

Added trade disputes with the U.S., EU, and UK over Putin’s war in Ukraine will only amplify China’s economic woes and may threaten what Chinese leaders crave most – political stability at home.

To date, most of the public discourse between China, the EU, and the U.S. has been criticism of Chinese President Xi’s decision not to publicly condemn Vladimir Putin for his war in Ukraine, and China’s decision to purchase greater amounts of natural gas and oil from Russia.

We need to try a different approach now. If we want to end the bloodshed in Ukraine, we need to split the China-Russia partnership. The key question is this, what can the U.S. and the EU do to dissuade China from providing military equipment to Russia that Putin is now asking for? For starters, by privately reminding President Xi and other CCP officials that it is in China’s long-term political and economic interests to maintain and strengthen trade partnerships with both the U.S. and the EU, vice Russia. China still has an export driven economy and even without the trade sanctions imposed by the West, Russian imports alone could never replace the dollar amount of trade China relies on with the U.S. and the EU. China’s President Xi knows this and so far, has refrained from sending military equipment and supplies to Russia.

During the past three years, China has become Ukraine’s largest trading partner and views Ukraine as a “strategic location” to make economic inroads into all of Europe as part of its 4 trillion dollar “Belt and Road Initiative.” However, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s refusal to condemn Russia, has not only alienated Ukraine, but also nearly every member nation in the EU, and the U.S.

The longer the war in Ukraine goes on, the harder it will be for China’s President Xi and the CCP to remain officially neutral, especially with the discovery of mass graves around Kiev, and as the Russian military continues attacking innocent Ukrainian civilians either trapped in or attempting to flee major cities, such as Mariupol and Kharkiv.

If President Xi really desires a peaceful, negotiated settlement to end the war between Russia and Ukraine, he can take a critical first step by assuring the EU, U.S., and Ukraine that China will never provide Russia with military equipment and supplies required to sustain Putin’s war machine.

Afterall, China’s long-term economic and security interests are far more dependent on stable relations with both the U.S. and EU, than they are with an isolated Russia and the pariah regime of Vladimir Putin.

Editor’s note: Steve Nystrom is a lifelong resident of Marquette. He enrolled in Northern Michigan University’s ROTC Program, received a Master of Arts Degree in Defense Administration and was commissioned as an Armor officer in 1986. He was later transferred to the Army’s Military Intelligence Branch. He left the Army and joined the Defense Intelligence Agency in 1992 and went to work for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in 1996. His career included multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He retired in 2017 as a senior analyst with NGA.


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