President Biden, in a nearly two-hour video call Friday, warned China’s leader, Xi Jinping, that his country would face significant repercussions if it provided aid to Russia at a time when Moscow is pressing ahead with a devastating invasion of Ukraine that has been met with global condemnation.
The call was part of an urgent U.S. effort to head off any Chinese moves to provide economic or military help to Russia as America and its allies try to shut down Moscow’s financial lifelines. At a time when many Western countries have imposed tough sanctions on Russia, China remains one of its few potentially powerful sources of support.
The two leaders engaged in what both sides described as a “candid” and detailed discussion as their countries navigate an array of thorny political and economic differences. The call between Biden and Xi was their first since November and was arranged at a meeting on Monday in Rome between U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi.
There was little indication Friday that Xi was receptive to Biden’s entreaties that his country not come to Russia’s aid, however. In a long statement issued by its Foreign Ministry after the call, China was sharply critical of sanctions, presumably including any the United States might impose on Beijing for helping Russia.
“Implementing all-round and indiscriminate sanctions, it is the common people who suffer,” the statement said. If more sanctions come, the statement added, “it will also trigger serious crises in the global economy, trade, finance, energy, food, industrial chain and supply chain, making the already difficult world economy even worse and causing irreparable losses.”
Administration officials would not say whether Biden explicitly outlined the types of consequences Beijing might face if it should aid Russia in its war on Ukraine.
“The president described the implications if China provides material support, but I’m not going to publicly lay out our options here,” a senior administration official said on a press call, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House.
Most of the discussion between the two leaders was devoted to the Ukraine crisis, the official said. Biden did not make any “specific requests” during the conversation, the official said. “He was laying out his assessment of the situation, what he thinks makes sense and the implications of certain actions.”
The official added, “Our view is that China will make its own decisions.”
The conversation was latest chapter in an extraordinary interplay between three global powers. As the United States has rallied its allies to oppose Russia’s efforts to expand its sphere of control, China has sought to remain neutral, helping Moscow without alienating the West in an effort to maintain cordial ties with both.
The Biden administration, in essence, is warning China that this won’t work.
Before Russia’s invasion, Moscow and Beijing were drawing closer, and U.S. officials believe that Xi has a unique ability to influence the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“We believe China in particular has a responsibility to use its influence with President Putin and to defend the international rules and principles that it professes to support,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday.
After Friday’s call, the senior administration official said that Biden had made his case “in substantial detail, with a lot of facts and a lot of really walking President Xi through the situation, making very, very clear our views, the views of others … and the actions we’re taking now.”
The president, the official added, was candid in telling Xi “what would be necessary in order to find a diplomatic resolution to the crisis.”
If the Biden administration decided to sanction China for aiding Russia, it would be a major step with geopolitical as well as economic repercussions. Danny Russel, former assistant secretary of state for East Asia in the Obama administration, said the White House is “acutely aware” of the risks that sanctioning China could pose to the global economy.
“At the same time, they are equally conscious of the leverage that sanctions represent at a time when the Chinese economy is already struggling,” Russel said.
Warnings of possible sanctions against China are meant as deterrent, “a bit like nuclear weapons that nobody wants to use,” said Russel, now vice president for international security at the Asia Society Policy Institute. “But China won’t be able to hide behind the specter of supply chain disruption to avoid sanctions if it directly and [materially] aids Putin’s war effort.”
The call between the leaders is only one of several efforts the United States has made in recent weeks to get that message across to China. The Biden administration has made clear to Beijing its “deep concerns” about any alignment with Russia, Psaki said earlier this week.
China’s statement issued after the call did not appear to signal a shift in stance.
Though it called on the United States and NATO to engage in dialogue with Russia to “solve the crux of the Ukraine crisis,” it made no mention of what efforts Beijing might take to achieve peace in Ukraine. It decried “the Ukraine crisis” but avoided the words “war” and “invasion.” It suggested that both Russia and Ukraine have legitimate security concerns. It said China is willing to provide further humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.
“Xi Jinping pointed out that the situation in Ukraine has developed to such a point that China does not want to see it,” the statement said. “China has always advocated peace and opposed war, which is a Chinese historical and cultural tradition.”
Experts were doubtful that Beijing would signal a major shift anytime soon.
“The call is unlikely to produce any substantive changes to China’s position,” said Amanda Hsiao, senior China analyst at the International Crisis Group. “Beijing likely calculates that its relationship with Washington will not improve even if it does so.”
With the invasion moving into its fourth week, China’s effort to displease neither Russia nor the West is looking increasingly untenable, some experts say, as pressure mounts on Beijing to use its influence over Putin and China’s economic ties with Russia to force a cease-fire.
Beijing is already in a challenging position. Its stock market slumped to a 21-month low this week, gas prices are soaring, and coronavirus cases are spurring new lockdowns across the country.
“This war is a massive disruption at a terrible time for China,” said David Shullman, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub. “Beijing doesn’t know how this will end. … They don’t see an opportunity right now — they’re in a bind and trying to find their way through it.”
The groundwork for the call was laid in Sullivan’s meeting with Yang in Rome, in which he outlined the potential consequences of any assistance that Beijing might provide Moscow.
“We’re concerned,” Blinken said Thursday, “that they are considering directly assisting Russia with military equipment to use in Ukraine.” He issued an explicit warning to China, saying “we will not hesitate to impose costs” if Beijing supports Russia’s aggression.
Blinken said it appears that China is refusing to condemn Moscow’s aggression while “seeking to portray itself as a neutral arbiter.”
Said Russel: “They are hiding behind a smokescreen of platitudes about peace and restraint. But they’re not doing anything to stop the war. They’re talking about the need for dialogue to avoid civilian casualties, but where’s their dialogue with Vladimir Putin? Because he’s the one causing the civilian casualties.”
China has struggled to balance its “no limits” strategic alliance with Russia — as both sides described the partnership in February — with an effort to maintain its relationship with Western countries. Beijing’s silence amid overwhelming international condemnation of the invasion has prompted critics to call China an accomplice in the Kremlin’s actions.
Referring to China’s behavior since the conflict began, Psaki pointed to the country’s abstention in U.N. Security Council votes on the war and its echoing of unsubstantiated claims of American biochemical labs in Ukraine. “It’s a question of where you want to be as the history books are written,” she said this week, prompting Chinese officials to swiftly hit back.
“The claim that China is on the wrong side of history is overbearing. It is the U.S. that is on the wrong side of history,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying tweeted.
Besides Ukraine, Biden and Xi on Friday also discussed Taiwan. Some diplomats believe that China has been reluctant to criticize Russia’s incursion into Ukraine in part because it wants to preserve its options for moving into Taiwan at some point.
Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said Friday that the Chinese aircraft carrier Shandong had sailed through the Taiwan Strait, a potentially provocative move, just before the leaders’ call.
Beijing claims that democratic Taiwan, a partner of the United States that has been on heightened alert since the Ukraine crisis, is part of its territory and has promised to take it over by force if necessary.
Eva Dou, Cate Cadell and Reis Thebault in Washington contributed to this report.