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China’s Economic Role Amid the Prolonged War in Ukraine

China’s Economic Role Amid the Prolonged War in Ukraine

The Geopolitical Context 

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, China’s position on the war has been a topic of discussion. Unlike Western countries’ consistent condemnation of Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine, China’s attitude has been inconsistent. At the beginning of the war, the spokesperson of Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hua Chunying, challenged the Western media’s use of the word “invasion” and called Russia’s activity a “special military operation.” [1]

While refusing to condemn Russia, China also withheld strong backing for its former communist ally.[2] Although China abstained from several votes at the United Nations that opposed Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine, it did not join Russia in voting against a UN Human Rights Council resolution that condemned Moscow either.[3] In addition, China affirmed its support for the territorial integrity of sovereign states, including Ukraine, and called for the Minsk Agreement”[4] to be implemented to resolve the war.[5] Nevertheless, China continued to hold military exercises with Russia while President Biden was visiting the region in May 2022. [6]

In brief, China has shown some forms of support for Russia during the Ukraine crisis but the support has been inconsistent, likely reflecting uncertainty among China’s leadership on how to proceed.

How do we explain China’s “swing positions” regarding the war in Ukraine?

China and Russia are not formal treaty allies: they have no obligations to come to each other’s defense.[7] They are bound in common opposition to the U.S. and its vision for the international order but there are fundamental differences in their foreign policies. While Russia’s foreign policy was redirected to East European regions in which it had a defined security interest after the collapse of the Soviet Union,[8] China’s foreign policy has been rooted in the national quest for economic modernization.[9]

China’s leadership sees several reasons to provide limited support to Russia. First, it perceives that no matter how much it criticized Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine, the US is unlikely to soften its confrontational strategy toward China.[10] Chinese leaders also believe the US is on course for an irreversible process of decline. Hence, they want to avoid doing anything that might interrupt the process of US decline.[11] The US’ share in global GDP has declined from 30 percent in 2000 to 24 percent in 2019. Putin’s attack on Ukraine could have contributed to China’s belief in US weakening power presence due to the US indecision in the beginning of the war and the fragility of its alliances in preventing Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine.[12]

Chinese leaders are most concerned with how to best use Russia to their advantage against the U.S., in some ways that mirror opposite of the trilateral dynamic during the Cold War. Tensions between China and Russia in the 1960s and 1970s provided an impetus for the US-China reconciliation under President Richard Nixon.

However, the geopolitical situation today has change dramatically. Once-contentious border disputes between China and Russia have been at least temporarily resolved. From China’s perspective, Russia today is weak while the U.S. poses the greatest threat to Chinese ambitions. Russia’s economy is expected to shrink even more after the Ukraine war, making it even more dependent on China and even less of a threat. Beijing sees a friendly, dependent, resource-rich Russia as a valuable partner in its long-term competition and confrontation with the US.

Nevertheless, these geopolitical considerations cannot negate its immediate economic interests, which require cooperation with the U.S. and access to its technology and markets.[13] China is also cognizant that it is not just the U.S. that opposes the war in Ukraine but Europe and other US allies in Asia as well (such as Singapore, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan).[14] As such, China is cautiously trying to avoid Western sanctions.[15] 

Limited Impact of the Ukraine War on China’s Economy 

According to the World Bank, the global economy has suffered from the Ukraine war in two ways: higher commodities prices and energy prices, which led to a higher global inflation rate accompanied by tepid economic growth.[16] However, the direct impact of the war on China’s economy is not evident so far.

Economic activities in China have decelerated in recent years due mainly to the repeated Covid-19 outbreaks and strict lockdown in several important cities. The pandemic-derived economic slowdown started in 2020, resulting in a sharp decline to 2% annual growth in 2020, from 6% in previous years. The economy rebounded to 8% growth in 2021 but it is expected to have decelerated to 4% in 2022 according to the World Bank’s forecast (Chart 1).

The lingering effect of the pandemic is the main reason for the pessimistic outlook. China’s “Zero-Covid policy”, emphasizing strict pandemic controls, has depressed household spending and private business activity in the country (n.ed. the policy was rescinded in late 2022).[17]Apart from the domestic constraints, the softer global demand, surging inflation rate, and higher interest rates among several developed economies are likely to further weigh on China’s economic prospects.

Despite higher commodity and energy prices to the war in Ukraine, China’s inflation rate has remained flat: 1% in the first quarter of 2022, much lower than 8% in the US, 6% in India, and 4% in South Korea during the same period.[18] Weak domestic demand due to strict Covid rules have largely offset rising commodities prices. Also, unlike the US, China relies less on imported manufactured goods. As such, it was less affected by the higher production cost overseas, derived from the higher energy prices.[19]

There are other reasons the Chinese economy has weathered the storm of the Ukraine war better than others. The size of China’s economy is one factor. The GDP of Russia and Ukraine combined (US$1,639 billion) is comparable to the GDP of Guangdong province (US$1,854 billion), or about 11% of China’s total GDP in 2021.[20]

Second, the two countries are also relatively unimportant trade partners for China. Russia and Ukraine accounted for only 2% and 0.3% of China’s total external trade respectively in 2021.[21] The relatively insignificant trade exchanges mean that the impact of the trade disruption with the two countries on China’s overall trade has been relatively insignificant.

Third, Russia and Ukraine are not important sources of China’s agricultural products, so the disruptions in their exports have not adversely impacted China. Brazil and the US accounted for a respective 50% and 35% of China’s total agriculture imports in 2021. In comparison, Russia and Ukraine accounted for a respective 4% and 0.4% of China’s total agricultural imports in the same year.[22] Where necessary, China has increased imports from other sources, including importing more sunflower oil from Kazakhstan and more corn from the US in the first half of 2022.[23]

Fourth, China relies on energy imports from Russia, but Western sanctions have not impacted Russian oil and gas exports to China.[24] As the market for Russian energy exports is closing in the West, China has benefited from the cheaper energy supplies from Russia, which has also helped to combat inflation.[25]

Despite increasing energy imports from Russia, China is trying to avoid Western sanctions. For example, Chinese banks are no longer offering letters of credit for trade with Russia after the outbreak of the war.[26] Chinese energy companies, such as Sinopec, have frozen projects with their Russian counterparts.[27] China’s credit card processor, UnionPay, refused to work with Russian banks after Visa and MasterCard stopped serving them.[28] Even the black-listed Chinese tech giant, Huawei, has scaled back its operation in Russia to avoid being sanctioned.[29]

Despite the limited impact of the Ukraine war on China’s economy, the lingering effect of Covid-19 has complicated how China can further assist Russia. Due to the weak household consumption, China is in imperative need of foreign investment and exports to boost its economy. However, the unpredictable damage of the “Zero-Covid policy” to the economy and China’s relatively close ties with Russia have led Western companies to shy away from China’s capital market to avoid potential risks.[30] 

China’s Economic Support to Russia through Trade and Renminbi 

Russia has faced several waves of international sanctions in response to its invasion of Ukraine. Measures include removing Russia from the international financial messaging system, SWIFT, a US ban on Russian oil and gas imports, the EU’s ban the oil imports by sea from Russia in the end of 2022 and bans on exports of dual-use goods to Russia.[31] Meanwhile, the exit of foreign oil companies from Russia’s market is likely to have a lasting impact on the country’s crude oil and natural gas production over the long term, diminishing investment and access to foreign technology.[32] According to the World Bank, Russia’s economy has already plunged into a deep recession with output projected to contract by 11.2% in 2022.[33]

China, Russia’s largest trade partner and the second largest economy in the world, has extended support to the Russian economy through growing energy imports and the use of renminbi in bilateral trade transactions. Trade figures show that China’s imports from Russia have increased, mainly driven by higher energy imports. Its exports to Russia plummeted after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine but increased after June (Chart 1). 

Chart 1. China’s Trade with Russia Dec. 2021 - Dec. 2022

Source: Trade Data Monitor. 

China’s largest export items to Russia, including nuclear reactors, appliances, electrical machinery and equipment, have fallen significantly since March (Chart 2), indicating Russia’s domestic production capacity has been greatly impacted by the war.[34] China’s exports of machinery and electrical machinery equipment have picked up in June and accelerated in July and August, indicating that China could have started to support Russia’s domestic manufacturing production, for both military and commercial usage. Meanwhile, there has been a significant surge in Chinese energy imports from Russia (Chart 3). 

Chart 2. China’s Machinery Exports to Russia Aug. 2021 - Aug. 2022

Source: Trade Data Monitor. 

Chart 3. China’s Main Sources of Energy Imports by Country Dec. 2021 – Dec. 2022

Source: Trade Data Monitor.

Note: The energy resource includes mineral fuels, mineral oils, and products of their distillation (HS code 27) 

Before the Ukraine War, nearly 50% of Russia’s crude oil was exported to Europe whereas 31% went to China. Europe accounted for 72% of Russia’s natural gas exports whereas China took only 5%.[35] Those figures are beginning to change dramatically. The European Commission announced an end to all energy imports from Russia by 2030.[36] The key question is whether increased Chinse demand can substitute Russia’s loss of market share in Europe.

While it may be capable of doing so, it is not necessarily in China’s interest to increase Russian energy imports that significantly. China’s imports of mineral fuel and oil from the rest of the world is $404 billion in 2021, which is slightly smaller than Europe’s mineral imports of $456 billion from Russia.[37] However, China will not want to sever energy ties with other suppliers completely and rely on Russia alone for its energy needs. Doing so would damage China’s ties with other important partners while increasing Russian leverage over China.

Despite China’s surging demand for energy, it is not easy for Russia to simply switch its gas exports from Europe to China. The new gas pipeline from the Yamal-Nenets region via Mongolia to China (Sila Sibiri 2) is not expected to come online before 2030.[38]

The other important form of Chinese economic support to Russia is through the greater use of renminbi in bilateral trade transactions. Russia started to accelerate its de-dollarization efforts after the US imposition of sanctions due to its invasion of Crimea in 2014. Nonetheless, about half of Russia’s total trade transaction was still invoiced in USD until 2021. [39] A large portion of that trade was switched from USD to Euros over the past few years, however that did not insulate Moscow from Western sanctions.[40]

According to SWIFT data, Russia’s use of the renminbi and renminbi deposits in Hong Kong have spiked since February 2022.[41] In April 2022, Russia broke into the top 15 renminbi trading economies for the first time.[42] However, there may be limits, as the renminbi remains non-convertible and the greater the share of renminbi in its trade, the more economically isolated it could become from the rest of the world market. [43] Meanwhile, China’s dependence on trade with the U.S. will restrain its capacity to truly “de-dollarize” while Russia’s increase in renminbi transactions has had only a marginal impact given Russia’s small share of China’s total external trade. 

Economic Lessons for China from the War in Ukraine 

China’s economic ties with the U.S. and the West have been critical to China’s economic success over the past few decades and it remains reliant on foreign technology. Today, the US remains China’s leading export destination despite the imposition of higher tariffs on Chinese goods in 2018. US allies such as the EU, Japan, and South Korea also account for a greater share of China’s export than Russia does (Table 1). China’s import structure also shows a greater reliance on the US and US allies than on Russia (Table 1). In 2021, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and the US were China’s largest import sources of electrical machinery, which includes semiconductor chips.

China remains reliant on foreign markets for exports as its domestic consumption remains weak. Like other Asian economies, Chinese consumers tend to save, rather than spend. China’s gross domestic savings as a percentage of GDP is 45% in 2020, far more than US’ 18% and the EU’s 26%, according to the World Bank.[44] As such, China is still far from being a consumption-based economy.

Apart from trade, the US and its allies are also key sources of China’s inward foreign direct investment (FDI) and main destinations of outward foreign direct investment (OFDI). FDI is an important bridge for China’s close trade linkage with the global economy. Restrictions on inbound and outbound FDI could significantly hinder China’s economic growth.

The Western countries’ shift away from trade and investment with Russia in the aftermath of the Ukraine war raises the prospect they might try do the same to China if tensions escalate. Some believe the size of China’s economy would insulate it against Western sanctions.[45] However, Western countries and companies can more easily find substitutes for Chinese exports and manufacturing (such as India, Vietnam, and other developing countries) whereas China cannot easily find replacements for exports or new sources of advanced technology. Meanwhile, a stark economic downturn could threaten the Chinese Communist Party’s authority and legitimacy.

Whereas Russia has been gradually isolating its economy from the West, China still seeks (and like needs) greater integration with the world economy and with Europe.[46] Beijing has joined the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and signaled willingness to participate in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). 

Table 1. China’s Main Export destinations and sources of import

As % China’s exports and imports

Source: Trade Data Monitor. 

While the global economy has been volatile due to the Ukraine War, the impact of the war on China’s economy has been limited so far. China’s size, relatively insignificant trade ties with Russia and Ukraine, and Chinese companies’ compliance with international sanctions policy has minimized the impact. China is less concerned about the outcome of the war than it is about the impact on its relationship with the West and the economic consequences that could follow.

China has nevertheless offered support to Russia through increased energy imports and the growing use of renminbi in bilateral trade transactions. These two types of assistance have provided Russia a vital lifeline while avoiding international sanctions. However, there are limits to how much Russian energy China is willing to import as its not prepared to rely on Russia as its sole energy provider. Meanwhile, the greater use of renminbi in bilateral trade will not help China internationalize its currency given the relatively small trade volumes between the two. Hence, China’s support to Russia has not materially improved its economic position.

Overall, given Russia and Ukraine’s relatively insignificant weight in China’s economy, the real danger for China is not the Ukraine Ear itself. Rather, it is whether the worsening political relations with the US and the US allies, triggered by the Ukraine war, will pull China further away from the global economic system and impact on its future economic development, thus making its “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” unattainable. 

Photo source: [1] PxHere & [2] PxHere. 


[1]“Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference on February 24, 2022”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, February 24, 2022, (accessed June 29, 2022).

[2] China abstained from UN Security Council resolution on ending the Ukraine Crisis on Feb 26, UN General Assembly for a non-binding resolution condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and demanding an immediate withdrawal on March 2, 2022.

[3] “China’s Position on Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine”, US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, June 8, 2022, (accessed June 29, 2022).

[4] The Minsk Agreement was signed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine after the outbreak of civil war in Ukraine in 2015. The agreement was later endorsed by the U.N. Security Council (UNSC). According to the provisions of the agreement, apart from establishing an immediate ceasefire in the Donbass region, the government in Ukraine agreed to make provisions for greater autonomy to Donetsk and Lugansk Oblasts (Regions). It was a necessary condition for them to remain within Ukraine and for Russia to hand over border control to the Ukrainian government. Abdul Rahman, “What is the Minsk Agreement, and What’s Its Role in the Russia-Ukraine Crisis?” People’s World, February 23, 2022, (accessed July 5, 2022).

[5] “China Urges Effective Implementation of Minsk Agreements at UN Meeting on Ukraine”, China Global Television Netowrk GTA, February 18, 2022, (accessed July 5 2022).

[6] Edward Wong, “Russia and China Held Military Exercise in East Asia as Biden Visited”, The New York Times,

[7] Lindsay Maizland, “China and Russia: Exploring Ties between Two Authoritarian Powers”, Council on Foreign Relations, June 14, 2022, June 29, 2022).

[8] Jeanne L. Wilson, Strategic Partners: Russian-Chinese Relations in the Post-Soviet Era, M.E Sharpe, Inc., New York, p.183.

[9] Jeanne L. Wilson, Strategic Partners: Russian-Chinese Relations in the Post-Soviet Era, M.E.Sharpe, New York, 2004, p.199.

[10] Yan Xuetong, “China’s Ukraine Conundrum: Why the War Necessitates a Balancing Act”, Foreign Affairs, May 2, 2022, (accessed July 5, 2022).

[11] Andrew J. Nathan, “Why China Threads the Needles on Ukraine”, Foreign Policy, June 4, 2022, (accessed July 5, 2022).

[12] Andrew J. Nathan, “Why China Trends the Needle on Ukraine”, Foreign Policy, June 4, 2022 <> (accessed September 12, 2022).

[13] Jeanne Whalen, “Exports to Russia from China Plummet, study shows”, The Washington Post, June 27, 2022, (accessed July 5, 2022).

[14] Shalini Yog Shah and Jost Pachaly, “The Ukraine War: Perspectives and Reactions in Asia”, Heinrich Böll Foundation, 19 May, 2022, (accessed July 14, 2022).

[15] Yun Sun, “Major Policy Shifts are Unlikely”, Foreign Policy, April 7, 2022, (accessed July 5, 2022).

[16] Global Economic Prospect, The World Bank, June 2022, p.8, (accessed June 29, 2022).

[17] Global Economic Prospect, The World Bank, June 2022, p. 14. (accessed June 29, 2022).

[18] Data source: EIU.

[19] Frank Tang, “Why is China’s Inflation Rate Low Compared to the US, Europe and Britain?”, South Morning Post, June 17, 2022, (accessed June 30, 2022). In addition, the different ways of calculating inflation could have resulted in a statistical discrepancy between China and other countries. China gives more weight to food and clothes when calculating the inflation rate. In contrast, developed countries tend to place more emphasis on shelter and transport, both easily affected by global energy prices and domestic monetary conditions. Yi Wu, “How to Read China’s Latest Inflation Data and its Economic Implications”, China Briefing, June 28, 2022, (accessed June 30, 2022).

[20] Data source: China Data online.

[21] Data source: Trade Data Monitor.

[22] Data source: Trade Data Monitor.

[23] Data source: Trade Data Monitor.

[24] “What Are the Sanctions on Russia and Are They Hurting its Economy?”, BBC News, June 27, 2022, (accessed July 8, 2022).

[24] “Russia’s Economy is Weathering Sanctions, but Tough Times are Ahead”, NPR News, June 23, 2022, p.4, (accessed June 29, 2022).

[25] Thomas Duesterberg, “Historic Shift in Russian Energy Flows Bolstering China”, Forbes, July 7, 2022, (accessed July 17, 2022)

[26] “China State Banks Restrict Financing for Russian Commodities”, Bloomberg News, February 25, 2022, (accessed July 13, 2022).

[27] Chen Aizhu, Julie Zhu and Muyu Xu, “China’s Sinopect Pauses Russia Projects, Beijing Wary of Sanctions-Sources”, Reuters, March 28, 2022, (accessed July 13, 2022).

[28] Joe McDonale, “China’s Russia Dealings Irk US but Don’t Breach Sanctions”, Associated Press, June 1, 2022 (accessed June 30, 2022).

[29] Weilun Soon, “A Chinese Telecom Giant has Suspended Russian Operations and Furloughed Employees as Sanctionis Bite: Report”, Business Insider, April 13, 2022, (accessed July 13, 2022).

[30] Sofia Horta e Costa, “China Is Pariah for Cglobal Investors as Xi’s Policies Backfire”, Bloomberg, July 17, 2022, (accessed July 18, 2022).

[31] “What Are the Sanctions on Russia and Are They Hurting its Economy?”, BBC News, June 27, 2022, (accessed July 8, 2022).

[32] Global Economic Prospect, The World Bank, June 2022, p. 10. (accessed June 29, 2022).

[33] Russian Invasion to Shrink Ukraine Economy by 45% this Year, Press release, The World Bank, April 10, 2022, (accessed July 13, 2022).

[34] “China-Russia Relations: Chinese Producers Lament Loss of Once-lucrative Russian Deals”, Yahoo News, May 21, 2022, (accessed July 8, 2022).

[35] Country Analysis Executive Summary: Russia, U.S. Energy Information Administration, March 14, 2022, July 8, 2022).

[36] “Joint European Action for More Affordable, Secure and Sustainable Energy”, European Commission, 8 March, 2022, (accessed July 8, 2022).

[37] Data source: Trade Data Monitor.

[38] Vladlmir Afanasiev and Xu Ylhe, :Gazprom readies new gas supplies for China via Sila Sibiri 1”, Upstream, September 21, 2022, <> (accessed October 12, 2022).

[39] “De-Dollarization Efforts in China and Russia”, Congressional Research Services, July 23, 2021, chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/ (accessed July 14, 2022).

[40] Vita Spivak, “Can the Yuan Ever Replace the Dollar for Russia”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 8, 2021, (accessed July 14, 2022).


[42] RMB Tracker, The Global Provider of Secure Financial Messaging Services, May 2022, (accessed July 14, 2022).


[44] “Gross Domestic Savings (%of GDP)-China”, The World Bank, (accessed July 13, 2022).

[45] “Could the West Punish China the Way its Has Punished Russia”, The Economist, April 23, 2022, (accessed July 21, 2022).

[46] Lingling Wei, Laurence Norman and Daniel Michaels, “China Looks to Salvage Relationship with Europe”, The Wall Street Journal, March 25, 2022, <> (accessed August 11, 2022).



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