Chinese Views on the War in Ukraine and Lethal Aid at the One-Year Mark
One year into the war in Ukraine, Chinese adults are divided on whether their country has benefited from the conflict.
As Beijing considers upping its involvement in the conflict, a near majority of Chinese adults (49%) want their country to retain its neutral stance, while only 12% want China to play peacemaker or, conversely, provocateur.
When asked about their views on providing various types of aid to Russia, nearly a quarter of Chinese adults want Beijing to take no further action, the second most popular option after increasing bilateral trade.
When asked specifically about the prospect of China providing lethal aid to Russia, 9% said they support supplying strategic intelligence, while 7% support sending weapons and only 5% support sending troops. The shares backing each measure have declined over the last four months.
Businesses concerned about sanctions being imposed if China were to provide lethal aid to Russia should remain attentive to these dynamics, but they don’t need to throw in the towel just yet.
China’s Ukraine dilemma
Amid the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China appears to be considering an expanded role. At the recent Munich Security Conference, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi announced that China would unveil a peace plan for the war. Reflecting China’s self-avowed neutrality, the plan is expected to stake out a middle ground that simultaneously supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity — a key concern for Kyiv — and Russia’s security interests. Despite its official stance, China’s credibility as a neutral actor and potentially impartial peace broker remains debatable in the West. At the same conference, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken alleged that Beijing is considering expanding its role in other ways, specifically by providing “lethal aid” to Russia. Beijing has denied any such intentions.
The limits of “no limits”
Chinese public opinion largely aligns with the government’s official stance on both wartime neutrality and the provision of lethal aid to Russia, suggesting there are in fact limits to the two countries’ oft-touted “no limits” friendship, as others have argued.
A Near Majority of Chinese Adults Want China to Take a Neutral Stance in the Ukraine Conflict
On the neutrality front, a near majority of Chinese adults (49%) believe that Beijing should stay on the sidelines of the conflict. Just 12% say that China should use its influence to persuade or compel Russia to end its operations in Ukraine, while an equally limited share favor supporting Russia’s military aims. Young Chinese adults exhibit outsize uncertainty on the matter, driving the overall share of adults who are unsure how China should respond to roughly 1 in 4.
Surveyed over the course of four months on potential aid provision, Chinese adults accordingly expressed limited enthusiasm for assisting Russia in various ways. Support for options that might constitute direct or indirect military involvement and could fall under the umbrella of lethal aid — including the provision of troops, weapons or strategic intelligence to Russia — consistently ranked at or near the bottom of the list.
Enthusiasm for all three measures also saw a small but noteworthy decline between November 2022 and February 2023. The share of Chinese adults who favor providing Russia with strategic intelligence declined 6 percentage points to just 9%, while the shares that support sending weapons and troops dropped from 11% to 7% and from 10% to 5%, respectively. Across almost all measures, the youngest Chinese adults expressed the least interest in lending support to Russia.
U.S. officials have described the provision of lethal aid to Russia as a “red line.” Our data suggests few Chinese are eager to see it crossed.
Chinese Adults Show Limited Support for Military Involvement in Ukraine
When it comes to the war, less is more
Chinese adults also show limited appetite for providing nonlethal aid to Russia. Just 1 in 5 Chinese adults favor increased diplomatic support, while half as many favor increased financial support, following a small but consistent decline of 6 percentage points over the past four months. And nearly a quarter (24%) prefer to take no additional action at all, up 10 points since November.
The sole measure that became more popular over this time frame is one of indirect, albeit strategically consequential, support: 29% of adults favor increased bilateral trade, up 2 percentage points from November. China is Russia’s largest trading partner, and the two countries’ economic relationship has deepened since the conflict began, offering Russia a lifeline amid far-reaching sanctions imposed by the West. China, meanwhile, has benefited from access to discounted Russian energy. But even here, the share in favor of providing aid falls well below a majority.
Self-interest is driving Chinese opinion
After several years of difficult pandemic-related lockdowns, China is facing economic headwinds as it reopens and attempts to revive flagging growth. These dynamics may explain the Chinese public’s limited appetite for involvement in a war that is not seen as beneficial to them, economically or otherwise. Many are likely worried that direct involvement in the war in support of Russia could lead to Western sanctions on China and increase its economic isolation at a time when Beijing is hoping to rejuvenate the country’s prospects as a destination for foreign investment.
Opinions on whether the war has benefited China are mixed
Our data on Chinese views of the pros and cons of engagement in Russia’s war effort reflects this public unease. While Chinese adults are inclined to view the conflict as a net positive for China on various fronts — including economically — the margins are nevertheless slim, and many Chinese remain uncertain about whether their country has benefited, potentially explaining why many Chinese adults don’t want their country to take additional action to aid Russia’s war effort. The youngest generation of Chinese adults, emerging from a bruising and disorienting year marked by historic levels of youth unemployment and widespread protests, are especially uncertain, driving the overall share of adults without an opinion about the war’s benefits to China up to between a quarter and a third across all measures. The fact that public opinion on the conflict’s overall economic benefits for China remains mixed despite Beijing’s access to cheap petroleum imports over the past year is telling.
Chinese Public Opinion Is Split Over the War’s Benefits, With Many Uncertain
A critical decision looms for Beijing
If China were to send lethal aid to Russia, it would likely drive Beijing’s relations with the West to their lowest point in years, if not decades. Potentially disastrous consequences would ensue for businesses with China exposure, as well as for the Chinese and global economies more broadly. Public support for the provision of lethal aid is limited, however, with many Chinese preferring to maintain a neutral position and engage with Russia through trade.
Moreover, while senior U.S. diplomats suspect that China has been planning to increase its involvement in support of Russia, panicked investors should read this as a warning intended to head off disastrous outcomes as much as a prediction. Beijing rarely allows Washington to dictate terms, but it remains a pragmatic actor. Our view is that China is attempting to creep up to the red line of lethal aid provision without actually crossing it, potentially creating a no-cost concession without sacrificing its economic interests. Such a play could ultimately benefit any ambitions China has for brokering peace. On the other hand, Beijing’s position as a nominally neutral arbiter would be utterly compromised by a decision to enter the fray more directly on Russia’s behalf.
Businesses with China exposure should remain attentive to these dynamics and continue their contingency planning: There’s no need to hit the eject button just yet. Conversely, despite recent optimism about China’s reopening, those considering market re-entry should pause their plans until there is further clarity on the lethal aid standoff.
Scott Moskowitz is senior analyst for the Asia-Pacific region at Morning Consult, where he leads geopolitical analysis of China and broader regional issues. Scott holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Princeton University and has years of experience working in and conducting Mandarin-language research on China, with an emphasis on the politics of economic development and consumerism. Follow him on Twitter @ScottyMoskowitz. Interested in connecting with Scott to discuss his analysis or for a media engagement or speaking opportunity? Email [email protected].