China secretly sends enough gear to Russia to equip an army

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The pictures posted on the Chinese company’s website show a tall, Caucasian man with a crew cut and flattened nose inspecting body armor at its factory.

“This spring, one of our customers came to our company to confirm the style and quantity of bulletproof vests, and carefully tested the quality of our vests,” Shanghai H Win, a manufacturer of military-grade protective gear, proudly reported on its website in March. The customer “immediately directly confirmed the order quantity of bulletproof vests and subsequent purchase intention.”

The identity of the smiling customer isn’t clear, but there’s a fair chance he was Russian: According to customs records obtained by POLITICO, Russian buyers have declared orders for hundreds of thousands of bulletproof vests and helmets made by Shanghai H Win — the items listed in the documents match those in the company’s online catalog.

Evidence of this kind shows that China, despite Beijing’s calls for peace, is pushing right up to a red line in delivering enough nonlethal, but militarily useful, equipment to Russia to have a material impact on President Vladimir Putin’s 17-month-old war on Ukraine. The protective gear would be sufficient to equip many of the men mobilized by Russia since the invasion. Then there are drones that can be used to direct artillery fire or drop grenades, and thermal optical sights to target the enemy at night.

These shipments point to a China-sized loophole in the West’s attempts to hobble Putin’s war machine. The sale of so-called dual-use technology that can have both civilian and military uses leaves just enough deniability for Western authorities looking for reasons not to confront a huge economic power like Beijing.

The wartime strength of China’s exports of dual-use products to Russia is confirmed by customs data. And, while Ukraine is a customer of China too, its imports of most of the equipment covered in this story have fallen sharply, the figures show.

Russia has imported more than $100 million-worth of drones from China so far this year — 30 times more than Ukraine. And Chinese exports of ceramics, a component used in body armor, increased by 69 percent to Russia to more than $225 million, while dropping by 61 percent to Ukraine to a mere $5 million, Chinese and Ukrainian customs data show.

“What is very clear is that China, for all its claims that it is a neutral actor, is in fact supporting Russia’s positions in this war,” said Helena Legarda, a lead analyst specializing in Chinese defense and foreign policy at the Mercator Institute for China Studies, a Berlin think tank.

Were China to cross the red line and sell weapons or military equipment to Russia, Legarda said she would expect the EU to enforce secondary sanctions targeting enablers of Putin’s war of aggression.

But, she added, equipment like body armor, thermal imaging, and even commercial drones that can be used in offensive frontline operations are unlikely to trigger a response.

“Then there’s this situation that we’re in at the moment — all these dual-use components or equipment and how you handle those,” Legarda explained. “I would not expect the EU to be able to agree to sanctions on that.”

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