China’s Balancing Act With Russia Over Ukraine Will Have Global Implications – On Friday morning, President Joe Biden spoke for nearly two hours on the phone with Chinese President Xi Jinping and warned the emerging superpower of “implications and consequences”, if Beijing gives material aid to Russia in its war in Ukraine. The two leaders also spoke about the situation in Taiwan.
The president, according to sources inside the White House who told the media, spoke about the sanctions that the US and other Western nations imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and that those could be levied on China if it lends material support for Russia. But he also made clear that a diplomatic resolution to the crisis was necessary while denouncing Russia’s disinformation campaign especially concerning biological weapons that Moscow claims that the US and Ukrainians are producing.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told the media, later Friday afternoon that, “He (Biden) made clear what the implications and consequences would be if China provides material support to Russia as it conducts brutal attacks against Ukrainian cities and civilians.”
“Sanctions are certainly one tool in the box,” Psaki added.
Xi continued with the Chinese and Russian accusations that the US was the cause of the war and that it was up to Washington to decide what was next. Xi used an old Chinese proverb to drive home his point. Xi also refused to characterize the situation in Ukraine as a “war” or describe Russia’s actions as an invasion, in keeping with the Russian point of view.
“He who tied the bell to the tiger must take it off,” Xi said, according to an official Chinese government readout.
Both Sides Stepped Up the Hyperbole Prior to the Call:
Both Washington and Beijing were engaging in the normal combative language that has marked US-China relations for several years.
Psaki stated that China’s failure to denounce Russia’s invasion was an example of “rhetorical support” that Beijing has given Putin and Moscow during this crisis. Since assuming the presidency, President Biden has seen the US relationship with China fall to new depths as the US has been calling out Beijing over its increasingly aggressive actions in the South China Sea, especially around Taiwan, human rights abuses against ethnic Uighur minorities, and violent crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying chastised the Biden administration as “overbearing” for suggesting China risks falling on the wrong side of history. Another Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, pushed back when asked about the toll on civilians in Ukraine. He said, “As the culprit of the Ukraine crisis, why does the U.S. keep smearing China instead of reflecting on the security predicament in Europe caused by the eastward expansion of U.S.-led NATO?”
But each side toned down their statements, at least for the time being after the virtual conference. Psaki said, “China has to make a decision for themselves, about where they want to stand and how they want the history books to look at them and view their actions.”
Hua Chunying posted on Twitter, “The #Ukrainecrisis is not something we want to see. The events again show countries should not come to the point of meeting on the battlefield. Conflict & confrontation are not in anyone’s interest. Peace & security are what the international community should treasure the most.”
“As permanent members of the #UN Security Council and the world’s two leading economies, China & the US must not only guide the China-US relations forward along the right track, but also shoulder our share of international responsibilities and work for world peace and tranquility.”
What’s Next For the Chinese – Russian Relationship?
Now all eyes will be on China and to see if they answer the call from Moscow to provide support for the Ukrainian “special military operation”. Washington saw signs that the Chinese are sitting on the fence and while Chinese state-owned banks were appearing to pull back from financing Russian activities, the statements from Chinese leaders show no sign of pulling back from Russia as a strategic partner.
This led to concern in Washington that Beijing would try to appease both sides, publicly urging diplomacy while quietly fueling the Russian effort and continuing their “no limits” friendship with Putin and Russia.
Any hope of the Ukraine war fracturing the close ties that Moscow and Beijing have built up through years of close interaction between Putin and Xi is not going to happen. They share a common goal of reducing the US influence worldwide.
But Chinese intelligence officials are surprised by Russia’s struggles against an overmatched but resolute Ukrainian military. China denied as Russia had, that an invasion was even going to take place. Coupled with the casualties that Russia has suffered along with the destruction they’ve caused on the Ukrainian civilian populace, many analysts believe that Beijing’s abstention from the UN calls for denouncing Russia’s invasion as a way of distancing itself from this. Both Putin and Xi head authoritarian regimes and don’t want liberal democracy anywhere near their respective spheres of influence.
But China has to tread carefully. If the US and many other Western, as well as Asian allies, impose economic sanctions on China for supporting Russia, it would be a big blow to China’s economy. And many Western nations are viewing China with added suspicion since the start of the conflict.
Russia’s small market isn’t going to support China’s economy, like the European Union would, where China has $800 billion dollars of trade each year. The Chinese had $750 billion of trade with the US last year. Risking those kinds of dollars is a tightrope that Xi and the PRC will have to weigh.
For now, Chinese officials believe that Western unity will splinter as the war drags on as the costs for consumers continues to rise. They’re running their own disinformation operation that Washington is trying to assert its power in Europe at the expense of Europeans. It will bear watching in the coming days or weeks.
Steve Balestrieri is a 1945 National Security Columnist. He has served as a US Army Special Forces NCO and Warrant Officer before injuries forced his early separation. In addition to writing for 19fortyfive.com, he has covered the NFL for PatsFans.com for more than 10 years and his work was regularly featured in the Millbury-Sutton Chronicle and Grafton News newspapers in Massachusetts.