American warnings that China may be on the cusp of supplying lethal aid to Russian troops in the Ukraine war will have sent a shiver up the spine of Kiwi politicians and exporters. Sam Sachdeva looks at what such an escalation would mean for New Zealand, as well as the reasons why it is unlikely but not impossible.

Analysis: When drawing up a list of likely US-China flashpoints in 2023, it would be fair to say the flight path of a Chinese balloon would not have featured too highly.

But while the spy balloon saga came out of left field, it is the more predictable matter of the two countries’ differing views on the Russian invasion of Ukraine that represents the latest threat to the bilateral relationship – and, through potential ripple effects, to New Zealand’s own foreign policy.

This week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that Beijing was currently weighing up whether to provide “lethal support” to Moscow for its war – a move he said “would have serious consequences in our relationship”.

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“There’s a whole gamut of things that that fit in that category, everything from ammunition to the weapons themselves,” Blinken told CBS when asked what would qualify as lethal aid, adding that Chinese companies were already providing non-lethal support to the Russians.

The claims have been categorically denied by China, with a foreign ministry spokesman saying it was “the US, not China, that has been pouring weapons into the battlefield”.

“The US is in no position to tell China what to do. We would never stand for finger-pointing, or even coercion and pressurising from the US on our relations with Russia,” the spokesman said.

Such a forceful denial is understandable, given a move by China to arm Russia would represent a significant escalation of the two sides’ cooperation on Ukraine.

While Chinese president Xi Jinping and Russian leader Vladimir Putin declared the countries had a “no limits” friendship in February 2022 – just before Putin launched his invasion – Beijing has been relatively circumspect in relation to Ukraine, blaming Nato expansion and American interventionism for the conflict without fully backing Russia’s side of the war.

Robert Ayson, a professor of strategic studies at Victoria University of Wellington, told Newsroom that Blinken’s remarks appeared to be about sending a public warning to China about red lines that could not be crossed in its relationship with Russia.

China was weighing different interests when it came to Ukraine, Ayson said, with its discomfort over Russian actions offset by its desire to avoid a complete defeat of Putin’s regime given their shared desire for a world not dominated by American leadership.

“Russia can be a liability to China, but Russia can also be a bit of an asset.”

Choose to sanction China, and some form of retaliatory action would be all but inevitable; opt against taking any action, and New Zealand could face cries of cowardice. 

With China also keen to avoid an unnecessary escalation of its tensions with the US, Beijing’s preferred solution could be “some sort of messy compromise” where both Moscow and Kyiv made unpalatable concessions.

In fact, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi has teased the unveiling of a grand peace plan on the first anniversary of the invasion later this week.

Ayson said there was little reason to think that Beijing could achieve a breakthrough in the stalemate, particularly given it had sided so closely with Moscow to date so would struggle to be seen as a neutral mediator.

New Zealand and others may be hoping against hope for such a peace deal, particularly given the nightmarish issues posed by a scenario in which China was to provide lethal aid to Russia.

Through the Russia Sanctions Act, the Government has taken action against a suite of Russian and Belarusian figures and entities – but also Iran for providing drones and other weaponry to the Russian war effort.

Such decisions are relatively easy to make, given the limited trade and economic ties between those countries and New Zealand.

Imposing sanctions on China, our country’s largest trading partner by a long way, would be another matter altogether: there is a reason why exporters taking part in a foreign affairs briefing on the war last year seemed most concerned about what the Government would do if the US chose to sanction China for any support it provided.

Choose to sanction China, and some form of retaliatory action would be all but inevitable; opt against taking any action, and New Zealand could face cries of cowardice. 

Given the high stakes of such a scenario, and the uncertainty over whether it will actually come to pass, politicians were quick to avoid specific answers about any implications for New Zealand.

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta says she doesn’t want to engage in hypotheticals when it comes to reports of China considering lethal aid to Russia. Photo: Marc Daalder

“I don’t want to deal with hypotheticals – we’ll deal with the facts in front of us right now,” said Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta when asked whether the Government would be willing to sanction China as it had other nations who had supplied arms to Russia.

Mahuta said New Zealand had shared its views about Russia’s “unprovoked and illegal actions against Ukraine” during conversations with Chinese counterparts, and would continue to provide proactive support to Ukraine.

“That [China’s potential arming of Russia] is a decision, should they make it, that will lead to a whole other set of considerations: right now, we continue to support Ukraine to defend itself.”

National Party foreign affairs spokesman Gerry Brownlee was similarly cautious, saying he could not comment on Blinken’s claims and the potential consequences for New Zealand were “not worth speculating about at this point”.

Brownlee said he was keen to see Beijing’s peace plan for the conflict, adding: “In the meantime, it’s important that all countries in the world recognise that the aggression of Russia is a threat to the security of all of our national borders.”

Ayson said other countries would be in a similarly awkward position to New Zealand, and it was unlikely that ‘like-minded countries’ would so swiftly agree to act in unison on China as they had with Russia and others.

The US had also shown a willingness to take a pragmatic view when it came to the actions of some partners which had maintained links with Russia, such as India, and could take a similarly low-key approach to China given the strong trade between the countries outside of a few sectors with sanctions.

“In some ways, the US may feel they’ve made their point very clear, China will feel they’ve made their point clear, and this may be for now about as far as things go,” Ayson said.

But with no certainties when it comes to the shape of the war, New Zealand may be hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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