U.S. President Joe Biden warned Chinese President Xi Jinping in a video conference on Friday of “implications and consequences” should China support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while Xi assured Biden that his country didn’t want the war.
The highly anticipated call was the first conversation between the two men since Russia’s invasion last month.
“President Biden detailed our efforts to prevent and then respond to the invasion, including by imposing costs on Russia,” the White House said in a statement. “He described the implications and consequences if China provides material support to Russia as it conducts brutal attacks against Ukrainian cities and civilians.”
The brief White House statement described the conversation as “focused” on Ukraine. But much lengthier summaries released by the China side portrayed a more wide-ranging discussion, including “the situation in Ukraine,” and said that the U.S. had requested the call.
Xi told Biden that the invasion “is not something we want to see,” according to the Chinese summaries, and that “the events again show that countries should not come to the point of meeting on the battlefield.”
The video conference began shortly after 9 a.m. Washington time and ended just before 11 a.m. It was an opportunity for Biden to assess where Beijing stands on the war and how Xi views his country’s role, after some Chinese officials issued conflicting statements on their support for Ukraine and Russia.
Biden pointed out to Xi in detail the response to Russia’s invasion from governments around the world as well as the private sector, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters after the call on condition of anonymity. Many international companies have withdrawn from Russia’s market, including Visa Inc., Mastercard Inc., McDonald’s Corp. and Starbucks Corp.
Biden made clear to Xi that there likely would be consequences for anyone who supports Russia, the official said.
“While we have not asked companies to take specific steps, you look at Russia and what’s happened there, and what the implications have been for the Russian economy of companies pulling out, and that’s certainly something for every country to watch as they’re making decisions about which side of this conflict they’re going to stand on,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a briefing after the call.
She said the “vast majority” of the call concerned Ukraine.
Biden also stressed U.S. concerns that Russia is spreading disinformation about a purported Ukrainian biological weapons program as a pretext for using chemical or biological weapons itself, the official said. He underscored to Xi U.S. concerns about echoing those claims.
American officials have previously criticized China for helping to promote the Russian allegations of a Ukrainian bioweapons program.
Psaki said the U.S. will now watch for Beijing’s reaction. “Actions are a key part of what we’ll be watching,” she said. “What we would project or convey to any leader around the world is that the rest of the world is watching where you’re going to stand as it relates to this conflict.”
She has previously noted, in pointed terms, that China has not publicly condemned the Russian invasion. The summaries of the call that Xi’s government issued did not mention any condemnation or criticism of Putin or the Kremlin.
Instead, Xi lamented the state of the world, according to his government’s statement, observing that “the prevailing trend of peace and development is facing serious challenges” and “the world is neither tranquil nor stable.”
And he criticized Western sanctions against Russia, saying that “the ordinary people are the ones who suffer,” according the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
“If further escalated, it will also trigger a serious crisis in global trade and economy, finance, energy, food, industrial supply chain, etc., which will add to the already difficult world economy and cause irreparable damage,” he added.
He said that the U.S. and NATO should engage in dialogue with Russia to “address the crux of the Ukraine crisis and ease the security concerns of both Russian and Ukraine.”
And he warned Biden on Taiwan, saying the U.S. “has misread and misjudged China’s strategic intentions.”
“If the Taiwan question is not handled properly, it will have a subversive impact on the relationship between the two countries,” he said.
Biden “reiterated that U.S. policy on Taiwan has not changed, and emphasized that the United States continues to oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo,” according to the White House statement.
Ahead of the call, a Chinese aircraft carrier sailed through the sensitive Taiwan Strait on Friday. The USS Ralph Johnson, an Arleigh Burke guided-missile destroyer, shadowed the carrier at least partly on its route.
Biden held the video conference in private from the White House’s secure Situation Room.
U.S. officials have warned China of serious consequences should they decide to provide Russia with any military or financial assistance for the invasion.
“We are ready to impose costs on China,” Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told MSNBC before the call on Friday, urging Beijing to instead stand with Ukraine.
The war has left Xi walking a diplomatic tightrope. China has sought to maintain unity with its Russian ally — which is under heavy pressure from U.S. and European sanctions — without itself becoming the target of such financial penalties, at a time when the Chinese economy is already struggling with new COVID-19 outbreaks and a real-estate crisis.
Earlier, the Chinese dismissed the suggestion that they have chosen the wrong side in the war.
“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,” Hua Chunying, China’s assistant foreign minister said in a tweet.
The White House has called out Beijing for efforts to portray itself as a neutral arbiter, while U.S. intelligence suggests China is open to supplying Russia with military and financial aid — a request the U.S. has said was made by Moscow shortly after the invasion.
It’s not clear if China has decided to provide material support for Russia. China and Russia have denied such requests were made.
The Ukraine crisis has increased the pressure on a relationship already strained on a variety of fronts, including from trade disputes and U.S. support for the democratically elected government on Taiwan.
While China has refrained from criticizing the invasion and voiced support for Russia’s “legitimate strategic concerns,” it has also urged peace talks and the protection of civilians. China’s ambassador to the U.S., Qin Gang, has rejected speculation that Xi had advance knowledge of Putin’s plan as “disinformation,” saying China would’ve tried to stop the conflict.
The call is also part of the U.S.’s ongoing efforts to maintain open lines of communication between the two countries even as tensions run high.
It follows a six-hour meeting earlier this week in Rome between Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, which the White House described as an intense back-and-forth.
Brookings Institution fellow Ryan Hass, a former adviser on China to President Barack Obama, said Beijing has to sort through its clashing priorities.
Despite the coziness with Moscow, China — the world’s biggest exporter — is tightly bound to the United States and other Western economies. It also wants to play a leadership role in the world.
“China’s and Russia’s interests are not in alignment. Putin is an arsonist of the international system and President Xi sees himself as an architect for remaking and improving the international system,” Hass said.
“President Xi is trying to balance competing priorities. He really places a lot of value in China’s partnership with Russia but at the same time he does not want to undermine China’s relations in the West.”
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