President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping plan to speak as Washington works to dissuade Beijing from throwing Russia a lifeline in its war against Ukraine.
The call, scheduled for Friday morning, comes as China attempts to cast itself as a neutral party to the conflict and as U.S. officials raise concerns about Beijing’s ability to supply Moscow with military support.
Biden is expected to address the topic directly with Xi, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken telling reporters Thursday that the United States believes that China “has a responsibility to use its influence with President Putin and to defend the international rules and principles that it professes to support.”
He added that the U.S. is concerned that China is “considering directly assisting Russia with military equipment to use in Ukraine.”
On the call, Biden “will make clear that China will bear responsibility for any actions it takes to support Russia’s aggression, and we will not hesitate to impose costs,” Blinken said.
The message echoes national security adviser Jake Sullivan’s warning to his Chinese counterpart this week of the “potential implications and consequences” for China if it moves to bolster Moscow. U.S. officials described an intense seven-hour meeting in Rome with Yang Jiechi, Xi’s top foreign affairs aide, appearing to set the framework for Biden’s call. Yang is a Chinese Communist Party Politburo member and director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission.
“We do have deep concerns about China’s alignment with Russia at this time,” the official told reporters this week.
Beijing has attempted to walk a tightrope as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war machine attempts to crush its western neighbor. Shortly before the talks, U.S. officials disclosed Russia’s requests, raising the temperature on Beijing.
The senior official declined to comment on the nature of the request, but later reports said it included armed drones. A U.S. official told Bloomberg that it came early in the conflict.
A lifeline from Beijing could extend the conflict and also hamper U.S. efforts to isolate and punish Russia for the war. So far, the U.S. has declined to detail publicly the penalties Beijing would face for cooperating with its neighbor.
“There are some serious concerns right now about what role China has been or could play in supporting Russia at this very critical juncture,” said Emily Kilcrease, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
Biden’s press secretary reiterated the White House’s position in remarks at the White House this week and said it would watch China’s actions “closely.”
“What was conveyed by our national security adviser in this meeting is that should they provide military or other assistance that, of course, violates sanctions or supports the war effort, that there will be significant consequences,” Jen Psaki said.
Sullivan’s talks with Yang were described as “constructive,” planned originally as a follow-up to the president’s video summit with Xi in November of last year. A readout from the White House says the officials “also underscored the importance of maintaining open lines of communication between the United States and China.”
However, in a moment of possible tension, Yang reiterated China’s call for “all parties” in Ukraine to refrain from attacking civilians, according to a Chinese ministry readout. Further, Beijing was concerned about information that could “distort” or “smear” its role.
“China is committed to promoting peace talks,” Yang said. “And the international community should jointly support the Russia-Ukraine peace talks to achieve substantive results as soon as possible and push the situation to cool down as soon as possible.”
Xi has forged close ties with Putin — a bond that now faces intense scrutiny amid Moscow’s bombardment of Ukrainian cities. But Biden may try to pry the two countries apart.
“This is an opportunity for President Biden to assess where President Xi stands,” Psaki said Thursday. “The fact that China has not denounced what Russia is doing in and of itself speaks volumes.”