In one of its most explicit statements yet, China pledged to set boundaries on its increasingly-close relationship with Russia, vowing not to sell weapons to either side of the war in Ukraine.
During a Friday news conference, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang said, “China will not provide weapons to relevant parties of the conflict, and manage and control the exports of dual-use items in accordance with laws and regulations.”
Qin’s remarks come amid Western fears that Beijing could deliver military aid to Moscow despite China’s insistence that it is remaining neutral in the conflict.
Russian intelligence documents intercepted by the U.S. have shown that China had approved “provision of lethal aid” to Russia earlier this year, with plans to disguise the equipment as civilian items. The intercept was among a trove of classified documents that were found leaked on a Discord chatroom last month.
According to those documents, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service reported that China’s Central Military Commission had “approved the incremental provision” of weapons, although no source for the intel was cited.
Timothy Heath, a senior international defense researcher at the RAND Cooperation, told Newsweek that it’s likely China will do good on its vows against delivering arms given the level of scrutiny and attention on Beijing right now.
“It’s too risky,” Heath said. “There is currently too much scrutiny for arms sales to Russia to be worth the potential backlash from the United States and Europe, which remain China’s most important markets.”
However, he said China could shift its position once the international attention fades, selling munitions and items, like artillery rounds, that would be hard to identify as Chinese in origin.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken cautioned Beijing back in February that the provision of arms and ammunition to Russia would be a “serious problem”—a warning that has been echoed by European leaders in recent days.
European Union’s Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell told China last week that as a permanent member of the United Nation’s Security Council it “cannot be siding with the aggressor,” as it would be a “blatant violation” of its commitments.
Russia has become increasingly dependent on China since the war in Ukraine began and much of the West isolated Moscow as an international pariah. And Beijing has appeared to remain committed to being an economic lifeline for Russia despite boating neutrality. Last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping traveled to the Kremlin just days after an arrest warrant was issued by the International Criminal Court for Russian President Vladimir Putin.