The consequences are almost beyond imagination. Everything about Vladimir Putin‘s insane invasion of Ukraine has been unthinkable — but if China weighs in with open support for the Russian dictator’s beleaguered army, then our whole way of life could be threatened.
President Xi Jinping‘s government is already bankrolling the Kremlin, underwriting the war by boosting imports of Russian oil, gas and agricultural goods shunned by the West. It is building a new gas pipeline to China from Russia and supplying ‘dual-use’ technology such as drones — supposedly for civilian use but used by Russia for reconnaissance.
But there’s a red line, one drawn in blood. The Chinese will cross it if they start supplying arms to Russia. Putin is pressing hard for that to happen and U.S. Intelligence has concluded that Xi Jinping may be preparing to provide ‘lethal support’.
Just yesterday, China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, met Putin in Moscow to reaffirm their ‘ongoing co-operation’. What else they discussed, we do not yet know.
But if the day comes when China starts openly providing weapons, it will redefine global politics in a way we haven’t seen since the Cold War.
President Xi Jinping’s government is already bankrolling the Kremlin, underwriting the war by boosting imports of Russian oil, gas and agricultural goods shunned by the West. Pictured: Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin in Beijing, China on February 4, 2022
Just yesterday, China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi (left), met Putin (right) in Moscow to reaffirm their ‘ongoing co-operation’
Even the darkest days of the simmering conflict between the USSR and Nato cannot compare to the cataclysm threatening to engulf us if China gives arms to Russia.
As a longtime foreign correspondent in Moscow, the Indo-Pacific and China, I am accustomed to dictators’ sabre-rattling. But Putin is now openly menacing Ukraine and all Europe with both implicit and explicit threats of its nuclear arsenal in a manner never seen before.
Meanwhile, China has quietly been growing its own nuclear strike force. By 2035 it is expected to have 1,500 warheads ready to fire — every one of them carrying a destructive power that dwarfs the bombs dropped in 1945 on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
We last faced a nuclear stand-off during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and that lasted only a few days. Should Xi and Putin combine forces, the threat to the world would be unimaginably worse.
To us in the democratic West, it seems deranged that any world leader could ever think of using this firepower for anything but a last-ditch defence. And, mercifully, I know many Chinese statesmen are wary of Putin’s nuclear rhetoric.
But Xi and Putin are tyrants, who are not bound by the same constraints as our leaders. That makes it much harder for our intelligence agencies to predict what might happen.
One thing we do know is that Xi and Putin underestimated the West’s involvement in the war thus far.
I am almost certain Xi knew in advance of Russian’s intention to invade Ukraine, but both assumed the democracies were too decadent and their economies too weak to impose meaningful sanctions, let alone to support President Volodymyr Zelensky’s impassioned resistance.
Xi and Putin are tyrants, who are not bound by the same constraints as our leaders
Putin is now openly menacing Ukraine and all Europe with both implicit and explicit threats of its nuclear arsenal in a manner never seen before. Pictured: Military medics carry a wounded soldier, Bakhmut, Ukraine, February 22, 2023
I am almost certain Xi knew in advance of Russian’s intention to invade Ukraine, but both assumed the democracies were too decadent and their economies too weak to impose meaningful sanctions
Putin and Xi have a personal chemistry and a common vision of the world. Both are steeped in resentment at perceived humiliations heaped upon their countries by the West and both dream of restoring the mythical greatness of their respective empires.
It suits Xi’s purpose to see the U.S. and Europe sucked into a conflict — but Beijing has also been shocked by the incompetence of the Russian military, particularly as China’s People’s Liberation Army shares many of its characteristics.
So now we have reached a critical juncture. If Xi becomes an open partner in Putin’s barbarity, the three-way relationship between the superpowers will be transformed. In essence, as in the Cold War, the world will be split between two blocs: free and not free.
Xi will be declaring China an implacable enemy of the democratic world, especially the U.S. — and the war in Ukraine will be indefinitely prolonged.
China is already the world’s fourth-largest exporter of arms, and its sophisticated weapons systems would bolster the faltering Russian forces. But the implications extend far beyond that.
The West would have to react, which could lead to severing our trade ties with the Chinese — an economic earthquake that would dwarf anything seen with Russia over Ukraine. We are hopelessly reliant on Chinese electronics, engineering and much else. There is barely a supply chain that does not run through China and we in the West have been too slow to reduce critical dependencies.
It is no exaggeration to say this has the potential to bring about at least a partial collapse of society.
To take just one example: despite shifting some of its production to India and Vietnam, Apple relies on China for 95 per cent of its iPhone output. The supply chain created to build these smartphones is more complex and highly tuned than any seen in any other industry.
Should Xi and Putin combine forces, the threat to the world would be unimaginably worse. Pictured: Putin attends a patriotic concert at the Luzhniki stadium, Moscow, February 22, 2023
One thing we do know is that Xi and Putin underestimated the West’s involvement in the war thus far. Pictured: Putin greets members of the military in Luzhniki Stadium, February 22, 2023
Shutting that down would deliver a body blow to Western culture, which has become utterly dependent on smartphones. One estimate predicts the price of new iPhones could increase fivefold by 2027, with new handsets costing £5,000. The black market in used phones would become both lucrative and cut-throat.
Even more disruptive would be the loss of raw materials on which the global market in electronics depends. These 17 minerals are known as ‘rare earths’ — and although their names are obscure (neodymium, dysprosium, yttrium, cerium), they are essential to modern life.
Rare earths are crucial to modern electronics, used in small amounts in everything from microchips, screens, medical devices, rechargeable batteries and magnets to missile guidance systems.
China currently mines as much as 63 per cent of the world’s rare earths and does around 85 per cent of the processing, which is expensive and messy. Without these materials, Western defence systems could be irreparable when they break down.
Equally catastrophic could be the damage to our economy. Last year, the Office for Budget Responsibility [OBR] calculated that military escalation by China would force Britain to increase our defence spending by £25 billion, more than 2 per cent of our gross domestic product [GDP].
The OBR also modelled the effects of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan: as well as causing the price of electronic goods to soar, this would force up our borrowing by £20 billion a year and wipe more than 5 per cent off our GDP within a decade, creating a £57 billion hole in government finances. That’s the equivalent of the entire defence budget.
That sounds like a doomsday scenario. But if Xi arms Russia and the West retaliates with sanctions against China, hardliners in Beijing will argue that now is the ideal time to annex Taiwan.
It sounds insane. But so, only a year ago, did the idea of invading Ukraine. Conciliatory voices in Britain and the States will argue that Xi won’t do it, because China’s economy has benefited so much from global trade.
Putin and Xi have a personal chemistry and a common vision of the world
If Xi becomes an open partner in Putin’s barbarity, the three-way relationship between the superpowers will be transformed
Last week, in an extraordinary article for Beijing’s Communist Party mouthpiece, China Daily, former Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond argued that current world events should be treated as ‘background noise’ and urged the UK and China ‘to return to business as usual’.
Such naivety would be laughable if it weren’t so frightening.
We must open our eyes to how closely the Russian and Chinese militaries work together.
This week they were engaged in a ten-day naval exercise in the Indian Ocean, alongside South African warships.
They have gone beyond symbolic shows of camaraderie and are co-ordinating their ability to fight together on the battlefield.
China is already supplying anti-aircraft missile radar parts to a sanctioned Russian defence firm, and allegedly providing satellite imagery to the mercenary Wagner Group to aid combat operations.
It’s only one small step to begin openly supplying armaments. When Xi Jinping crosses that red line, the world will change for ever.
- Ian Williams is the author of Fire Of The Dragon: China’s New Cold War, published by Birlinn.