Joe Biden has warned Xi Jinping of “consequences” if China provides military or economic support to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as the U.S. tries to head off a growing alliance between the world’s two largest authoritarian countries.
The U.S. and Chinese presidents spoke for an hour and 50 minutes by video link Friday amid reports that Russia has asked China for weapons to bolster the Kremlin’s attack on Ukraine.
China has carefully avoided taking an explicit public position on the invasion. But it has amplified Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda by trying to pin blame for the war on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
“The President detailed what the implications and consequences would be if China provides material support to Russia as it conducts brutal attacks against Ukrainian cities and civilians,” Jen Psaki, Mr. Biden’s spokeswoman, said at the White House. “The world will be watching.”
Ms. Psaki said the U.S. would not disclose the exact consequences, but suggested they would include economic sanctions.
During the call, Mr. Xi, for his part, raised Taiwan, a U.S. administration official said in a background briefing. Mr. Biden called China’s actions in the Taiwan Strait coercive and provocative, the official said, and reiterated that the U.S. would oppose unilateral changes to Taiwan’s status. The Globe and Mail is not disclosing the official’s identity as a condition of participating in the briefing.
China has repeatedly flown war planes into Taiwan’s air defence zone, including on Monday. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised fears that an emboldened China might try something similar with Taiwan, which is de facto an independent democracy but which Beijing views as a renegade province.
A summary of the conversation published by Chinese state media made no reference to Russia’s actions and did not say anything about a role for Beijing in stopping the war.
Instead, Mr. Xi told Mr. Biden, it was up to the U.S. and NATO to “conduct dialogue with Russia” and resolve its “security concerns,” an apparent nod to Moscow’s contention that the invasion was necessary to protect itself from an expansion of the military alliance.
The Chinese President also criticized economic sanctions, which the West has imposed on Russia at an unprecedented scale, as hurting regular people and risking a global economic crisis.
The summary, issued by Beijing before the call had concluded, did not directly address whether China would help Russia militarily. It did say Mr. Xi emphasized the need for international peace.
“The crisis in Ukraine is something we do not want to see,” the Chinese leader was quoted as saying, adding that “conflict and confrontation serve no one’s interests.”
On Taiwan, Mr. Xi told Mr. Biden that “some people in the United States are sending the wrong signals to the ‘Taiwan independence’ forces, which is very dangerous.”
Mary Gallagher, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan, said Mr. Xi’s position at least in part is motivated by a desire to cause problems for the U.S. at a low ebb in the two countries’ relationship.
“Anything that complicates the United States’ position is to the benefit of China,” she said. “The conflict over whether or not the U.S. should intervene, or whether NATO should intervene, and the debates that are happening across the U.S. and European Union, the Chinese government probably sees as something in the end they will benefit from.”
Domestic politics also play a part, Prof. Gallagher said: Condemning Mr. Putin could make Mr. Xi look weak by admitting he’d made a mistake in building closer ties with Russia. This is particularly significant given that Mr. Xi faces a party congress later this year at which he will work to hold on to power.
“China was caught a little flat-footed with Putin’s invasion. I don’t think they knew about it,” she said. “It’s been hard for them to recover from that. For Xi to signal that he made a mistake is a very dangerous thing for him to do when he’s seeking an unprecedented third term.”
U.S. officials have previously said that Russia briefed China on its invasion plans ahead of time, and more recently asked Beijing to send weapons as the attack has stalled. China has denied that either of these things happened.
Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin met in Beijing in early February ahead of the Winter Olympics, when there were already tens of thousands of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border. The two men released a joint statement that said the partnership between China and Russia has “no limits,” and condemned NATO expansion. Mr. Putin launched his full-scale invasion almost immediately after the Olympics concluded.
Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi held their first meeting, by video, in November. The U.S. President has kept in place the tariffs on Chinese goods imposed by his predecessor, Donald Trump, and frequently describes contemporary geopolitics as a battle between democracies and authoritarian states.
The U.S. has said it told China about the impending invasion. Despite this, China did not evacuate its citizens and officials openly mocked U.S. warnings until almost the eve of the war.
Since the Russian invasion began, Chinese officials have sometimes struggled to define their message.
Last week, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said his country’s relationship with Russia was “rock solid” no matter “how precarious and challenging the international situation.”
Writing in The Washington Post this week, Ambassador Qin Gang said that China had no idea the invasion was about to happen, even as Mr. Putin massed his military on Ukraine’s borders.
“Conflict between Russia and Ukraine does no good for China. Had China known about the imminent crisis, we would have tried our best to prevent it,” Mr. Qin wrote.
But in a series of tweets, ahead of Friday’s summit, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the U.S. was “on the wrong side of history” over Ukraine.
“If the U.S. had honoured its assurances, refrained from repeatedly expanding NATO and pledged that NATO would not admit Ukraine, and had not fanned the flames by supplying weapons and ammunition to Ukraine, the situation would have been very different,” she wrote.
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