1. The call comes at a critical moment in the Russia-Ukraine war
“We’re concerned that they’re considering directly assisting Russia with military equipment to use in Ukraine,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday, confirming what other US officials had been warning for days.
Already, the United States has conveyed to some NATO allies it believes China has some willingness to support Russia, though Moscow denies asking for it and Beijing says it’s not providing any help.
American officials say they believe Xi has been unsettled by Russia’s invasion and the performance of Russia’s military, which has experienced logistical and strategic setbacks since the invasion began more than two weeks ago.
Watching from Beijing, Xi was caught off-guard that his own intelligence had not been able to predict what would happen, even though the United States had been warning of an invasion for weeks, the officials said.
2. China could provide Russia with a range of support
US officials don’t believe China would be willing to provide Russia with large offensive equipment like tanks or jets. Instead, officials said they believed it more likely China would send smaller items like meals, ammunition, spare parts or surveillance equipment — if they send anything at all.
Officials said it was still possible China helps Russia alleviate the effect of withering Western sanctions through financial support, though it’s unlikely the country would be able to completely blunt the effects of the US and European measures.
On their phone call, Biden hopes to make clear to Xi the downsides of assisting Russia’s war, either through military or financial assistance. He 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.
3. US must manage a ‘cold-blooded’ partnership between Russia and China
The two leaders declared their relationship had “no limits” in a lengthy document in February, when Putin visited Beijing for talks and to attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics. The document saw China back Russia’s central demand to the West, with both sides “opposing further enlargement of NATO.”
Since then, the partnership without limits has been tested as Xi weighs how to respond to Russia’s war in Ukraine. Beijing’s evolving response — from denying an invasion would happen to attempting to avoid Western condemnation by presenting itself as willing to participate in mediation — has been closely monitored by the White House.
US officials have seen mixed signals. When China abstained from a United Nations reprimand vote against Russia, it was viewed as a sign of Beijing distancing itself. And a top Chinese official said last month that Ukraine’s sovereignty must be respected.
But other signs have pointed toward a more accommodating stance, including China’s amplification of Russian disinformation. And top US officials have said a lack of denunciation is enough indication of where China’s allegiance lies.
“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,” Blinken said Thursday. “Instead, it appears that China is moving in the opposite direction by refusing to condemn this aggression while seeking to portray itself as a neutral arbiter.”
4. American allies in Asia are watching China’s reaction to Ukraine war closely
Beijing has recently stepped-up military flights close to the island there and warned against American support. In the early days of the Ukraine conflict, there were fears Russia’s invasion could portend a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, even though it did not appear one was imminent.
American officials have since downplayed the parallels, saying if anything, the united response to Russia may cause China to rethink whatever plans it had for Taiwan. Russia’s invasion has galvanized not only the West and NATO but also countries in the Asia-Pacific — an outcome American intelligence believed Xi was unprepared for, supposing instead that economic interests would prevent countries there from imposing severe sanctions.
Even some on Biden’s own national security team were surprised at how quickly some US allies in Asia, including Japan and Australia, were willing to slap sanctions on Russia following its invasion.
5. Biden and Xi have a long history — and very different worldviews
Biden is fond of citing the long hours he spent with Xi when both were serving as their country’s vice president. He has claimed to have spent more time with Xi than any other world leader.
Yet they haven’t met face-to-face since Biden took office and Xi has not left China during the Covid pandemic. That has left them to meet in web conferences or speak on the phone, a dynamic Biden has said that he does not find ideal.
He and his team have worked to establish a policy of managed competition with China. They have left in place the tariffs imposed by former President Donald Trump and criticized China for not upholding its commitments from a Trump-era trade deal.
Before the conflict in Ukraine, Biden appeared intent on refocusing American foreign policy toward Asia, where he views the competition between the US and China as a defining challenge of the next century.
And while the Ukraine crisis has preoccupied the White House in recent weeks, officials insist they are still able to maintain their overriding vision.