1. Calling the critical moment of the Russian-Ukrainian war
“We are concerned that they are considering directly assisting Russia with military equipment for use in Ukraine,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said on Thursday, confirming what other U.S. officials have been warning about for days.
The United States has communicated to some NATO allies that it believes China is willing to support Russia, although Moscow has denied the request and Beijing has said it has offered no help.
U.S. officials said they believed Xi was disturbed by the Russian invasion and the performance of the Russian military, which has experienced logistical and strategic setbacks since the invasion began more than two weeks ago.
As Beijing watched, Xi was caught off guard and his own intelligence could not have predicted what would happen, officials said, even though the U.S. had warned of an incursion for weeks.
2. China can provide a range of support to Russia
U.S. officials do not believe that China is willing to provide Russia with large offensive equipment such as tanks or jets. Instead, officials said they believed China was more likely to send smaller items such as food, ammunition, spare parts or surveillance equipment — if they sent anything.
It is still possible that China could help Russia mitigate the impact of Western sanctions through financial support, although it is unlikely that the country will fully weaken the impact of U.S. and European measures, officials said.
During the call, Biden wanted to articulate to Xi the downsides of assisting the Russian war with military or financial aid. He will “make it clear that China will take responsibility for any actions it takes to support Russian aggression, and we will not hesitate to pay the price,” Blinken said.
3. The US must manage the ‘cold-blooded’ partnership between Russia and China
The two leaders declared their relationship “without limits” in a lengthy document in February, when Putin visited Beijing for talks and the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics. The document sees China’s support for Russia’s core needs of the West, with both sides “opposing further expansion of NATO.”
Since then, that unrestricted partnership has been tested as Xi weighs how to deal with Russia’s war in Ukraine. Beijing’s changing response — from denying that an invasion will take place to trying to avoid Western condemnation by showing its willingness to mediate — has been closely watched by the White House.
U.S. officials have seen mixed signals. When China abstained in the UN vote against Russia, it was seen as a sign that Beijing was alienating itself. A senior Chinese official said last month that Ukraine’s sovereignty must be respected.
But other signs point to a more lenient stance, including China amplifying Russian disinformation. Senior U.S. officials say the lack of condemnation is enough to show where China’s allegiance lies.
“We believe that China has a particular responsibility to use its leverage over President Putin and to defend the international rules and principles it claims to support,” Blinken said on Thursday. “Instead, China appears to be moving in the opposite direction, refusing to condemn such aggression while trying to portray itself as a neutral arbiter.”
4. U.S. allies in Asia are closely watching China’s response to the Ukraine war
Beijing has recently stepped up military flights close to the island and has warned against U.S. support. Early in the conflict in Ukraine, there were fears that a Russian invasion could herald a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, although it did not appear to be imminent.
U.S. officials have since played down the similarities, saying a joint response to Russia, if any, could lead China to reconsider any plans it has for Taiwan. The Russian incursion has angered not only the West and NATO, but also countries in the Asia-Pacific – where US intelligence believes Xi is unprepared and instead believes that economic interests will prevent countries there from imposing tough sanctions.
Even some in Biden’s own national security team were surprised how quickly some of America’s allies in Asia, including Japan and Australia, were willing to impose sanctions on Russia following the Russian invasion.
5. Biden and Xi have long histories — and very different worldviews
Biden likes to cite his long work as vice president with Xi Jinping. He claims to have spent more time with Xi Jinping than any other world leader.
However, they have not met since Biden took office, and Xi Jinping has not left China during the coronavirus pandemic. That has forced them to meet at online conferences or talk on the phone, which a buoyant Biden said he didn’t find ideal.
He and his team work to develop policies for managed competition with China. They have kept tariffs imposed by former President Donald Trump and criticized China for failing to honor its commitments to Trump-era trade deals.
Before the Ukraine conflict, Biden appeared intent on refocusing U.S. foreign policy toward Asia, where he saw the rivalry between the U.S. and China as the defining challenge of the next century.
While the Ukraine crisis has gripped the White House in recent weeks, officials insist they can still maintain their overarching vision.