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Why the U.S. thinks China’s muted response to Russia’s invasion is a bad sign

China’s muted response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has hardened views within the Biden administration that President Xi Jinping may be moving closer to supporting Moscow as the conflict continues, according to several people familiar with the matter.

Even as the Chinese government publicly voices some support for the Ukrainian people and calls for a peaceful solution, top American officials see signs that China is seeking ways to soften the blow of sanctions imposed on Russia by the U.S. and its allies, according to the people, who say they have knowledge of deliberations in Beijing.

The people, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter, did not offer details on how China might be able to offset the economic consequences of the sanctions. They also declined to elaborate on U.S. sources of information about China’s government and its interactions with the Kremlin. Some of the people said China is also considering supplying Russia with weapons such as armed drones.

Beijing denies that it has tacitly backed the invasion and Chinese officials have rejected U.S. reports that Russia asked China for financial and military assistance shortly after touching off the war, labeling them disinformation.

President Joe Biden is set to speak by phone with Xi on Friday at 9 a.m. in Washington, with U.S. misgivings about China’s stance over Ukraine high on the agenda.

“We’re concerned that they’re considering directly assisting Russia with military assistance to use in Ukraine,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday.

In his call with Xi, Biden is expected to try to persuade his Chinese counterpart to back away from any support for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his war. The stakes are potentially ground-shifting, after a six-hour meeting on Monday in Rome in which White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan warned China’s top diplomat, Politburo member Yang Jiechi, of serious consequences should Beijing support Russia through its banks or on the battlefield.

“The fact that China has not denounced what Russia is doing in and of itself speaks volumes,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a briefing on Thursday. Biden’s call with Xi, she said, is “an opportunity for him to speak directly, leader to leader, about a range of issues. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will be a part of that. And what role or how President Xi sees the role of China in that conflict, will be a part of that.”Play Video

Asked for comment on this story, a representative from the Chinese embassy in Washington referred to remarks Tuesday from Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, who accused the U.S. of “creating and spreading false information.” 

Chinese officials have said they seek to foster a diplomatic solution to the crisis. On Thursday, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing endorsed comments from its ambassador to Ukraine vowing to “never attack” the country and praising the strength and unity of the Ukrainian people.

The Russian embassy didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Pentagon Assessment

The true nature of China’s relationship with Russia in light of the war in Ukraine was tackled in an assessment of global threats released Thursday by the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency. It found that “China is closely managing its messaging on the conflict, generally backing Russia’s characterization as a conflict ultimately caused by U.S.-driven NATO expansion and disregard for Russia’s security interests.”

However, it also said that “Beijing is likely reluctant to fully back Russia in order to preserve its own economic relations with Europe and the U.S. No doubt, China is also keenly observing how the Russian campaign is conducted and how combat against determined resistance unfolds.”

Before the Rome meeting, there had been a fluid debate within the administration over whether to use the crisis in Ukraine to try to drive a wedge between China and Russia, who together declared shortly before the invasion that there were “no forbidden areas” in their friendship. 

U.S. officials have expressed dismay that China has amplified some Russian disinformation, including claims that the Ukrainians were developing biological weapons with American assistance — statements regarded by the White House and NATO as a Kremlin attempt to create a pretext for a possible chemical or biological attack of its own.

Chinese officials, in turn, have dismissed U.S. allegations that Russia sought military assistance from Beijing, including armed drones, shortly after the invasion began. Both the Kremlin and China have denied that any such request was made. 

Interpreting Beijing

It would be uncharacteristic of China to respond to a Russian request for weapons with an outright “no,” complicating interpretations of Beijing’s intentions, according to a European intelligence official with knowledge of the U.S. assessment. That official said it would make little sense for China to provide significant weaponry.

But U.S. officials currently don’t know China’s true intentions toward Russia and Ukraine, according to diplomatic correspondence seen by Bloomberg. China could regard the war as an opportunity to exploit Russia’s growing economic dependence, such as by buying up strategic assets or making other efforts to damage the West’s leverage. Beijing’s position is ambiguous and contradictory, and recent exchanges with U.S. officials — including Yang’s Rome meeting with Sullivan — have produced little clarity, according to the correspondence.

The Biden administration has also warned Chinese firms not to try to get around Russian trade restrictions the U.S. has imposed on key technologies. Still, it’s not clear exactly what type of China-Russia economic activity would prompt the U.S. to impose sanctions on Beijing.

China also represents a potential financial lifeline for Russia’s government and its banks — many of which now operate under Western sanctions, virtually cutting them off from the dollar. After Visa Inc. and Mastercard Inc. suspended operations in the country, some Russian lenders sought to use China’s UnionPay system, which could allow for continued overseas payments.

Biden’s aides have long said that in general, the best way to clear up U.S. confusion about China’s intentions is for Biden and Xi to speak directly. China has its own strategic priorities, including keeping its domestic economy stable ahead of the Communist Party Congress later this year. 

The relationship between the world’s two economic titans is fraught, and the Ukraine crisis has highlighted the mistrust between them. The U.S. and China now find themselves drawn into a conflict provoked by a country, Russia, that once was so close to the Western world as to host the Group of Eight, but that has for years been drifting into Beijing’s orbit. 

China’s role in spreading the Russian disinformation on Ukrainian biolabs, plus unspecified intelligence that Beijing is weighing Moscow’s request for arms, has helped tilt the internal administration debate toward the position of officials at Sullivan’s National Security Council, who have favored a more hawkish approach toward Beijing. China is currently undergoing its worst COVID outbreak since the initial outbreak of the pandemic, and has an incentive to point the finger after the U.S. sought a probe on the origins of COVID-19 — including whether it leaked out of a laboratory in Wuhan. 

Officials at the State Department had previously seen more opportunity to split Beijing and Moscow over the war, arguing that Beijing’s equivocal statements on the crisis pointed to discomfort at Moscow’s actions. Sullivan publicly speculated in a CNN interview on Sunday that Putin “lied” to China’s leaders and they may not have understood the full extent of his plans in Ukraine.

The Biden administration’s high-level engagement with Beijing has been limited. An early meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, started with Yang — China’s top diplomat — lecturing Sullivan and other American officials over what he said were human rights violations in the U.S., as well as rejecting “interference” on Beijing’s claims to Taiwan. China sailed an aircraft carrier Friday through the Taiwan Strait shadowed by U.S. and Taiwanese warships, Reuters reported, a fairly regular occurrence that nonetheless shows the simmering tensions ahead of the Biden-Xi call.

Biden and Xi last spoke in November, when they met virtually for nearly four hours — a videoconference that officials said covered the breadth of issues between the countries but resulted in no real breakthroughs. 

The White House has yet to articulate a promised strategy toward China and has put on hold a number of economic actions it planned to take against Beijing, in part due to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, according to people familiar with internal deliberations.

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