The US could enact strict economic sanctions against China should it support Russia’s war in Ukraine with weapons and ammunition.
Washington has already issued several warnings to deter Beijing from taking the course.
The Pentagon, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield all warned of consequences should China supply Russia with arms, but they have not made clear what the retaliatory action would be.
given China’s role in the global economy, sanctions are likely to start.
Maia Nikoladze, the assistant director of the GeoEconomics Center at the Atlantic Council, said the US would likely start with sanctions. China would have to decide whether supporting Russia is worth alienating itself in the global economy.
“China is a lot more intertwined with the world economy than Russia is,” she said. “I do not think that China would go so far as to take Russia’s side. They’re just trying to be neutral [but] only so far as it does not cause punitive economic measures.”
Blinken warnings, Chinese denial
Blinken first sounded the alarm last weekend when he said China has already provided nonlethal assistance to Russia and was considering a shift in its aid.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin on Monday denied allegations that Beijing is considering sending lethal aid and instead accused the US of escalating the war in Ukraine by “pouring weapons into the battlefield.”
Friday a Thursday interview with The Atlantic, Blinken added that the US has “picked up information” in the last couple of months indicating that China is considering the possibility of escalating the level of aid it provides to Russia, but said it might not follow through.st
“I’m hopeful but in a very clear-eyed way that China will get that message, because it’s not only coming from us, it’s coming from many other countries who do not want to see China aiding and abetting in a material way Russia’s war effort in Ukraine,” Blinken said.
The US on Friday will sanction Chinese companies determined to be in violation of export control measures placed on Russia in order to deprive Moscow of materials for its military, according to Victoria Nuland, the under secretary of state for political affairs.
Nuland also told Washington Post Live on Thursday the administration is “watching very, very carefully” and warning Beijing against delivering lethal assistance to Russia.
“This is not something that can be done under the carpet while China professes to be neutral,” Nuland said. “What we’re trying to do here is to ensure that the Chinese understand that this would be a complete step change — not only in how they are viewed globally and their claims of neutrality — but also in our relationship with China.”
Jason Li, a research associate with the East Asia program at the nonpartisan think tank Stimson Center, said the possibility of China providing lethal assistance is “quite low.”
China would not be able to change the course of the war in terms of material support, Li estimated, and Beijing is better situated by economically propping up Russia.
“China is trying to walk the line on its position in Ukraine,” Li said, noting that Chinese officials are seeking a peace solution for the war. “It’s great [unlikely] for China to be both fueling a war by selling arms, but also politically saying that they want an end to the war. That would look hypocritical for the Chinese.”
What US sanctions could look like
In the event that China supplies lethal aid, the US may start sanctioning some Chinese companies in the military industrial complex. It could expand that list if the support continues.
Further action could result in secondary penalties placed on China, which would sanction other countries and entities outside of China who do business with Beijing.
A more drastic possibility would be the US imposing export controls similar to an October rule that restricted semiconductor chips made with American tools from being sent to China. Should those rules extend to more products that China needs to source from abroad, including parts in the aviation sector, China’s economy could be seriously damaged.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have long been allies, and both leaders announced a “no limits” partnership shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine last year.
Trade has boomed between both countries, soaring to record levels last year. And China, Russia and South Africa are holding joint military drills this weekend.
The US and China are already competitors in virtually every sector. Washington has sanctioned several Chinese companies, including the tech company Huawei, over national security concerns. Other entities have been sanctioned for alleged human rights abuses in the region of Xinjiang and the self-governing city of Hong Kong.
The US has also sanctioned Chinese companies allegedly supporting Russia’s war in Ukraine, including Spacety China, a satellite manufacturer accused of providing satellite imagery to Moscow.
Laura Kelly contributed.