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Experts believe China would back Russia diplomatically and maybe economically if it invaded Ukraine, exacerbating Beijing’s already poor relations with the West, but would refrain from offering military assistance. 

President Joe Biden warned on Friday that Russia’s Vladimir Putin has chosen to attack Ukraine within days, which Russia disputes. 

China’s foreign ministry has frequently chastised the US for “spreading misleading information” and inciting tensions, pushing it to respect and resolve Russia’s security assurances needs.

In a show of unity, Putin traveled to Beijing for the Olympics’ opening ceremony on February 4, pledging a strengthening “no boundaries” strategic cooperation with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. According to Chinese official media, the two countries are “shoulder to shoulder in protecting global justice.” 

A Russian invasion of Ukraine would put China’s commitment to put such encouraging words into action to the test, particularly considering China’s frequently declared foreign policy ideal of non-interference. 

According to those acquainted with Beijing’s views, China would almost probably not want to be engaged militarily.

Although China and Russia have moved beyond “marriage of convenience” to a quasi-alliance, the massive neighbors’ ties remain far from a formal alliance requiring one to commit troops if the other faces threats, according to Shi Yinhong, an international affairs professor at Renmin University. 

China has repeatedly urged a peaceful resolution to the Ukraine situation through diplomacy. 

“Just as China does not expect Russia to assist it militarily in the event of a war over Taiwan, Russia does not expect China to assist it militarily in the event of a war over Ukraine, nor does it require such assistance,” said Li Mingjiang, associate professor at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Instead, if Russia invades Ukraine, China will demonstrate that it is a trustworthy ally by refusing to join the worldwide chorus of denunciation. 

China was the sole country to vote with Russia last month in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the 15-member United Nations Security Council from meeting on Russia’s army buildup on Ukraine’s borders, at the request of the United States. 

This went even farther than in 2014, when China abstained from voting on a Security Council resolution written by the United States encouraging countries not to recognize Russia’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea region. 

Experts also believe that China may deepen economic relations with Russia, which would mitigate the impact of sanctions imposed by the West in the event of an invasion.

Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, numerous Chinese state banks, notably the China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China, made loans to Russian state-owned institutions sanctioned by the West. 

China would prefer that Russia refrain from invading Ukraine. 

“With the international community so polarized,” Shi added, “it’s feasible that the United States and the West would be united in isolating or penalizing China alongside Russia.” 

Earlier this month, US State Department spokesman Ned Price stated that if Chinese firms attempted to circumvent any export curbs placed on Moscow in the case of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, they would suffer repercussions.

According to a source familiar with US thinking, the technology-related restrictions and export limits that Washington is considering with allies are beyond China’s capacity to backfill. 

“We are prepared to take action against any foreign country or business that seeks to evade those,” the individual added. 

Beijing also does not want the hassle of the economic impact from a Russian invasion of Ukraine, especially in a year when Xi is likely to achieve an unprecedented third term in power, with stability as a top priority. 

An invasion would also demonstrate that China’s repeated efforts for all parties, including Russia, to handle the Ukraine situation peacefully have fallen on deaf ears, casting doubt on the country’s usefulness as a mediator, according to Shi.

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