U.S. President Joe Biden and his European allies are worried China is making inroads into Ukraine’s defense industry by buying up companies, an effort officials believe Beijing is using to establish a beachhead to extend its influence into Eastern Europe.
Since former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, U.S. officials have urged their Ukrainian counterparts to halt sales of defense companies to China, including Motor Sich, an aerospace engineering company that designs engines for helicopters and larger aircraft, and Trident Defense, a manufacturer of .50-caliber machine guns. The acquisition of Motor Sich is currently being challenged in Ukrainian courts.
“The Ukrainians have a world-class military and security apparatus,” said one former U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s a ripe target for the Chinese to try and go in and garner control of.” China is also looking into purchasing a handful of lower-level Ukrainian defense logistics companies, U.S. officials said.
“It’s more malleable; they have more leverage in that area,” the former defense official said of Chinese efforts in Ukraine. “Establishing a beachhead there is important to them.”
Since the Obama administration, the Motor Sich purchase has been challenged on the U.S. side, one former official said, and the Biden administration has continued high-level warnings also sounded during the Trump years. But the issue is again coming into focus as top Ukrainian officials, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, used the NATO summit in Brussels this week to push for their inclusion into the 30-nation bloc, sending a tweet indicating the alliance’s leaders “confirmed” Ukraine would join.
Biden and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg downplayed those remarks, saying there was an “open door” for Ukrainian membership but not until it completes defense sector reforms. And the Chinese purchases are likely to raise eyebrows within the alliance as it begins to take a harder tack on Beijing’s assertive foreign policy that presents “systemic challenges to the rules-based international order,” NATO leaders said in a joint communique this week.