China shipping drones for Russia’s war effort: report

Russia is reportedly importing Chinese dual-use drones for use in the Ukraine war despite Beijing’s persistent denials it is supplying war materials to Moscow, according to a Nikkei Asia investigation.  Russian companies imported between December 2022 and April 2023 at least 37 Chinese drones worth US$103,000 that were designated in customs clearance papers for its “special military operation,” the Russian government’s official term for the Ukraine war, the Nikkei investigation reported. The investigation also claims Russian firms paid Chinese companies $1.2 million for devices that detect and jam drones and $36,077 for ten rugged personal computers with paperwork designating all of the items for use in the “special military operation” to expedite customs procedures. The Nikkei report also claims that China exported over 30,000 drones to Russia from March 2022 to May 2023 worth over $2 million, with Russian import records not using the phrase “special military operation” until December 2022, shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his government to increase the provision of war supplies.  China continues to deny that its drones are being used on the battlefields of Ukraine, which if confirmed could trigger Western sanctions.  “China calls on all relevant parties to work together to strengthen controls, prevent all types of drones being used on the battlefield in conflict areas, and jointly promote international peace and regional stability,” said a China Ministry of Commerce spokesman quoted by Nikkei.  In May 2022, Asia Times reported that Chinese drone manufacturer DJI, the world’s largest, had suspended its operations in Russia and Ukraine. DJI released several statements reiterating its position, saying it suspended its businesses pending an internal review of compliance requirements in various regions.  China’s DJI is the world’s largest commercial drone manufacturer by market share, with global operations spanning the Americas, Europe and Asia. Photo: Handout The company said that, as a matter of policy, it does not sell products to customers who plan to use them for military purposes or to cause harm. DJI also condemned the unauthorized use of its drones in the Ukraine war, stating that such use goes against its corporate principles and that it would suspend sales in Russia and Ukraine to ensure its drones are not used in combat.  While DJI’s main products are small drones used for aerial filming and photography, the drones are known to be used by Russia and Ukraine for reconnaissance, artillery spotting, sniping and ambushes. Larger drones weighing more than 25 kilograms can be modified for attack purposes. China has reportedly sent other military aid to assist Russia’s struggling war effort in Ukraine, although the extent of its assistance remains unclear.  In a February 2023 Q&A for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Paul Haenle claimed that Chinese state-owned defense companies have shipped navigation equipment, jamming technology and jet fighter parts to Russian government-owned defense companies.  Haenle also reiterated the Biden administration’s position that there would be consequences for China if it is caught flouting international sanctions and sending arms to Russia, noting that some Chinese companies have already been hit by US sanctions for sending dual-use technology to Russia. However, Alexander Gabuev has said the items Haenle identifies were ordered before the Ukraine war, with both Chinese and Russian defense companies involved being on the US Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List (SDN List) well before the conflict.  Gabuev mentions it is hard to imagine what the US can do to curtail transborder rail shipments between the sanctioned Chinese and Russian organizations. He notes that the US may respond by sanctioning other sectors of the Chinese economy, which Beijing may perceive as the US using the Ukraine war as a pretense for imposing punitive policies aimed at stunting a near-peer adversary.  Li Mingjiang, assistant professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, says that the Chinese government and Chinese companies have been very cautious about doing business with Russia since the start of the Ukraine war.  Still, Li notes that small Chinese companies may be tempted use loopholes to take risks by selling to Russia. However, he says that at the official level China does not want to get involved nor be accused of selling military equipment to Russia for use in Ukraine.  China’s Ukraine war balancing act between Russia and the West is complex and delicate, wherein it cannot afford for either side to win too easily or lose too badly.  A decisive Russian defeat is the last thing China wants as it would likely encourage the US and its allies to take a tougher stance on China over Taiwan, including through the supply

China shipping drones for Russia’s war effort: report

Russia is reportedly importing Chinese dual-use drones for use in the Ukraine war despite Beijing’s persistent denials it is supplying war materials to Moscow, according to a Nikkei Asia investigation. 

Russian companies imported between December 2022 and April 2023 at least 37 Chinese drones worth US$103,000 that were designated in customs clearance papers for its “special military operation,” the Russian government’s official term for the Ukraine war, the Nikkei investigation reported.

The investigation also claims Russian firms paid Chinese companies $1.2 million for devices that detect and jam drones and $36,077 for ten rugged personal computers with paperwork designating all of the items for use in the “special military operation” to expedite customs procedures.

The Nikkei report also claims that China exported over 30,000 drones to Russia from March 2022 to May 2023 worth over $2 million, with Russian import records not using the phrase “special military operation” until December 2022, shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his government to increase the provision of war supplies. 

China continues to deny that its drones are being used on the battlefields of Ukraine, which if confirmed could trigger Western sanctions. 

“China calls on all relevant parties to work together to strengthen controls, prevent all types of drones being used on the battlefield in conflict areas, and jointly promote international peace and regional stability,” said a China Ministry of Commerce spokesman quoted by Nikkei. 

In May 2022, Asia Times reported that Chinese drone manufacturer DJI, the world’s largest, had suspended its operations in Russia and Ukraine. DJI released several statements reiterating its position, saying it suspended its businesses pending an internal review of compliance requirements in various regions. 

China’s DJI is the world’s largest commercial drone manufacturer by market share, with global operations spanning the Americas, Europe and Asia. Photo: Handout

The company said that, as a matter of policy, it does not sell products to customers who plan to use them for military purposes or to cause harm.

DJI also condemned the unauthorized use of its drones in the Ukraine war, stating that such use goes against its corporate principles and that it would suspend sales in Russia and Ukraine to ensure its drones are not used in combat. 

While DJI’s main products are small drones used for aerial filming and photography, the drones are known to be used by Russia and Ukraine for reconnaissance, artillery spotting, sniping and ambushes. Larger drones weighing more than 25 kilograms can be modified for attack purposes.

China has reportedly sent other military aid to assist Russia’s struggling war effort in Ukraine, although the extent of its assistance remains unclear. 

In a February 2023 Q&A for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Paul Haenle claimed that Chinese state-owned defense companies have shipped navigation equipment, jamming technology and jet fighter parts to Russian government-owned defense companies. 

Haenle also reiterated the Biden administration’s position that there would be consequences for China if it is caught flouting international sanctions and sending arms to Russia, noting that some Chinese companies have already been hit by US sanctions for sending dual-use technology to Russia.

However, Alexander Gabuev has said the items Haenle identifies were ordered before the Ukraine war, with both Chinese and Russian defense companies involved being on the US Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List (SDN List) well before the conflict. 

Gabuev mentions it is hard to imagine what the US can do to curtail transborder rail shipments between the sanctioned Chinese and Russian organizations. He notes that the US may respond by sanctioning other sectors of the Chinese economy, which Beijing may perceive as the US using the Ukraine war as a pretense for imposing punitive policies aimed at stunting a near-peer adversary. 

Li Mingjiang, assistant professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, says that the Chinese government and Chinese companies have been very cautious about doing business with Russia since the start of the Ukraine war. 

Still, Li notes that small Chinese companies may be tempted use loopholes to take risks by selling to Russia. However, he says that at the official level China does not want to get involved nor be accused of selling military equipment to Russia for use in Ukraine. 

China’s Ukraine war balancing act between Russia and the West is complex and delicate, wherein it cannot afford for either side to win too easily or lose too badly. 

A decisive Russian defeat is the last thing China wants as it would likely encourage the US and its allies to take a tougher stance on China over Taiwan, including through the supply of more advanced weapons to the self-governing island.

It is thus in China’s broad interest to help Russia stay in the fight in Ukraine. However, China may be walking a tightrope between assisting Russia and triggering Western sanctions on its companies and officials.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have a common New Cold War vision, for now. Image: Twitter

Conversely, a Russian victory may not be wholly in China’s interest. In that scenario, Ukraine suffers huge military losses, Western governments yield to growing social and economic unrest stemming from high global energy prices, and Western support for Ukraine buckles. 

Subsequent peace negotiations likely involve restoring economic and energy ties between Russia and Europe, upending Russia’s current increasing dependence on China and keeping Russia as China’s great power competitor in Eurasia.

A stalemate wherein neither side strikes a decisive blow may benefit China in the long run. A Korean War-style armistice could bring an inconclusive pause to the conflict. 

In that scenario, a heavily sanctioned and diplomatically isolated Russia will increasingly depend on China as an economic and diplomatic lifeline, giving Beijing leverage over the pricing of Russia’s energy and raw material exports, lingering bilateral border disputes in the Far East and military-technology cooperation. 

That situation would make Russia a junior, rather than equal, partner of China in the emerging new Cold War with the West.