Explainer: A year into Ukraine war, how has China stood by 'no limits' partner Russia?

Putin and Xi hold talks via videolink
Russia's President Vladimir Putin holds talks with China's President Xi Jinping via a video link from Moscow, Russia, December 30, 2022. Sputnik/Mikhail Kuravlev/Kremlin via REUTERS

BEIJING, Feb 21 (Reuters) - Nearly a year has passed since Russia invaded Ukraine, which came just weeks after Beijing and Moscow had declared a "no limits" partnership that sparked anxiety in the West.

Here are the implications for China as the war approaches its one-year anniversary on Feb. 24.


Beijing has provided diplomatic cover for Moscow, refraining from condemning its conduct or calling it an "invasion" - in line with the Kremlin, which describes the war as a "special military operation" designed to protect Russia's own security.

While China has repeatedly called for peace, President Xi Jinping has stood by his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, resisting Western pressure to isolate Moscow.

China has also stepped up trade with Russia, and in particular has been a willing buyer of Russian energy exports, providing a lifeline to Russia's sanctions-battered economy.


China's support for Russia has deeply damaged goodwill with the West, hampering Beijing's efforts to drive a wedge between Brussels and Washington, analysts have said.

Russia's move on Ukraine initially appears to have caught China on the back foot, with Putin not warning Xi of his invasion plans when he visited Beijing at the start of the Winter Olympics last year, diplomats have said.

The war has also put China in an awkward position since respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries is a key plank of Beijing's foreign policy.


The war has intensified Russia's dependence on China, increasingly making Moscow the junior partner and strengthening Beijing's leadership among emerging countries in opposition to the U.S.-led post-World War Two order, analysts have said.

"China is in it for self-interest, period. A weaker Russia is probably a Russia that can do more that serves their interests," said Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

China has also lapped up imports of Russian crude oil priced below the global benchmark, with average daily crude oil imports from Russia increasing by about 45% by value from the post-invasion period to December, Refinitiv data showed.

Beijing is concerned about an expansion of the U.S. security presence in the South China Sea. By objecting to NATO expansion into what Russia considers its backyard, it sets the stage to object to further U.S. activity in China's neighbourhood.


China has sought to avoid providing support to Russia that would invite sanctions upon itself, including refraining from providing weapons. It has reacted angrily to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken's warning not to provide weapons to Russia.

Beijing has also sought to put some rhetorical distance between itself and Moscow to avoid irreparable damage to relations with the West, and used its influence with Moscow to urge Putin not to use nuclear weapons.


China is playing a more active public role after months of advocating peace talks without taking direct action.

Xi is expected to deliver a "peace speech" on Friday, the anniversary of the invasion, and China will publish a position paper on the Ukraine conflict outlining its stance.

"With Russia's failure on the battlefield, the chance is ripening for talks, in China's view," said Yun Sun, senior fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.

"The appearance of shuttle diplomacy by Wang Yi, and the upcoming speech by Xi on this topic, alludes to this direction," she said, referring to the visit this week to Moscow by China's top diplomat after he met Blinken and other western officials during an ongoing trip to Europe.


Beijing has repeatedly opposed any linkage between the Ukraine war and its intentions to "reunify" with the self-ruled island that it claims as its territory.

Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang on Tuesday urged "some countries" to "stop hyping up 'today Ukraine, tomorrow Taiwan'," in an apparent dig at the United States.

But many experts have said that China is no doubt taking into account Russia's military setbacks in Ukraine, as well as the response of other countries, as it weighs its long-term thinking towards democratically ruled Taiwan, which it has vowed to take control of, by force if necessary.

"The result and the cost of the war show the Chinese that an invasion is Taiwan may not be prudent," said Sun. "It doesn't mean they will refrain from it if Taiwan declares independence. But the chance of them taking the initiative is smaller."

Reporting by Laurie Chen; Editing by Tony Munroe and Alex Richardson

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Laurie Chen is a China Correspondent at Reuters' Beijing bureau, covering politics and general news. Before joining Reuters, she reported on China for six years at Agence France-Presse and the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. She speaks fluent Mandarin.