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In Call, Biden Assesses Where China's Xi Stands on Ukraine

U.S. President Joe Biden holds virtual talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Situation Room at the White House in Washington, March 18, 2022. (The White House/Handout via Reuters).
U.S. President Joe Biden holds virtual talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Situation Room at the White House in Washington, March 18, 2022. (The White House/Handout via Reuters).

U.S. President Joe Biden spoke to Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday, a day after Biden’s top diplomat acknowledged that Washington believed Beijing is willing to provide military support to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

According to the White House, the call – the first conversation between the two leaders since the invasion – lasted almost two hours.

On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed media reports earlier this week that China may move to help Russia.

“We’re concerned that they are considering directly assisting Russia with military equipment to use in Ukraine,” Blinken said in a briefing. He did not provide evidence of the allegation, which Moscow and Beijing have denied.

Reiterating what other officials have stated, Blinken warned Beijing it would face dire consequences should it support Putin’s war without detailing what those might be.

Meanwhile according to a summary of the call released by Beijing, Xi assured Biden that his country didn’t want a war in Ukraine.

“President Xi pointed out that China does not want to see the situation in Ukraine to come to this,” the statement said. “All sides need to jointly support Russia and Ukraine in having dialogue.”

Beijing had previously said that claims alleging it is supporting Moscow are designed to shift blame.

“Assertions that China knew about, acquiesced to or tacitly supported this war are purely disinformation,” Qin Gang, Chinese ambassador in the U.S., stated in an opinion piece published in The Washington Post earlier this week.

China’s official position on Moscow’s invasion has been to straddle both sides, neither fully supportive nor directly opposed. Beijing says it recognizes Ukraine’s sovereignty, while acknowledging that NATO’s expansion has raised “legitimate” security concerns for Russia.

The White House would not confirm whether the U.S. is prepared to offer anything to entice Beijing to not assist Russia, including reduction of tariffs against Chinese goods that were placed by the Trump administration.

“This is a conversation about where President Xi stands. It’s up to the Chinese to decide where they want to stand, where they want to be as the history books are written,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told VOA Thursday.

What can China do?

Aside from providing military or economic support for Russia’s invasion, observers say China may become a backdoor for sanctions against Moscow or become a channel to smuggle goods to get around any Western export restrictions.

“China is a big question mark here,” adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Heidi Crebo-Rediker told VOA.

If that’s the case, Washington will likely move to punish Beijing. Officials have previously hinted that Beijing can be exposed to secondary sanctions. For example, the U.S. can prevent a Chinese semiconductor company from accessing American equipment and software if Washington discovered the company is violating U.S. export controls by selling chips to Russia.

However, any meaningful sanctions on China would also harm Western economic interests already under pressure from the current global supply chain crisis.

The administration would rather not have to take that step, said Stacie Goddard, Mildred Lane Kemper professor of Political Science at Wellesley College. “They would rather convince China, if not to back off completely but at least to not aid Russia in any sort of significant way that allows Putin to escape the punch of the sanctions,” Goddard told VOA.

China has criticized Western sanctions put in place by the U.S., the European Union, and other allies, saying it creates new problems and interferes with the political settlement of conflicts.

Eye on Taiwan

In a show of force, hours before the Biden and Xi call, the Chinese aircraft carrier Shandong sailed through the Taiwan Strait, close to the Taiwan-controlled island of Kinmen, according to Taiwan's Defense Ministry as reported by Reuters.

The USS Ralph Johnson, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, shadowed the carrier partly on its route, said Reuters’ source.

Last month, days after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the USS Ralph Johnson briefly crossed the strait’s median line. Beijing was irked by the move, which the U.S. 7th Fleet called a “routine Taiwan Strait transit.”

Chinese government media alleged that the U.S. move was designed to reassure Taiwanese “separatists” that Washington is committed to the island’s security. Beijing considers the democratically governed island of Taiwan as a breakaway province.

Power moves aside, observers say Beijing has been surprised at the speed with which not only European allies, but also U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific including Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Japan, Australia and even Singapore have imposed sanctions on Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine.

These countries in the region in many ways balance their interests between Washington and Beijing. Observers say that by sanctioning Moscow so quickly, these U.S. allies are sending a clear signal to Beijing that it should expect a unified and swift response to any Chinese incursion toward Taiwan or the South China Sea.

“It might be one thing for China to expand its interest, but if it begins to show signs that it's not going to actually respect sovereign territoriality in the region, these states are going to very quickly act to band together to push back against China,” Goddard said.

Global rivalry

Observers say that both the U.S. and China to varying degrees are looking at the Ukraine crisis in the framework of global rivalry between two superpowers in the long term.

“China has viewed this entirely from the point of view of Cold War-style U.S.-China competition,” said Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “The United States is mostly concerned about Russia and Ukraine itself, but it has clearly been taking great pains to make sure that China is associated with Russia and tarred with the same brush,” he told VOA.

Noting the current tensions between Washington and Beijing, observers are pessimistic the two powers can achieve an agreement on Ukraine. The two largest economies have failed to work together on global issues including combating COVID and climate change and alleviating the global supply chain crisis.

“They are failing again and again and again,” Daly said, underscoring that constant communication must be maintained for the two to understand where they can and cannot cooperate.

“We are not going to be able to work out a manageable U.S.-China relationship if we only speak to each other when there are crises,” he said.