US President Joe Biden has informed Chinese President Xi Jinping of the “implications and consequences” should Beijing provide material support to Moscow in the war in Ukraine, the White House said, after the two leaders spoke in a video call.
Friday’s talks, which the US said lasted just under two hours and ended at 10:53am in Washington (1453 GMT), was months in the making and follows the first virtual meeting between Biden and Xi in November.
Biden “described the implications and consequences if China provides material support to Russia as it conducts brutal attacks against Ukrainian cities and civilians”, the White House said in a statement on the discussion. It did not elaborate on what those consequences would be.
The call came amid increasing US concerns that China may come to Russia’s aid – either by giving military equipment or bypassing Western sanctions – in its increasingly brutal offensive in Ukraine, which continues to test already shaky relations between Washington and Beijing.
Earlier on Friday, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported Xi as telling Biden that “state-to-state relations cannot go to the stage of military hostilities”. Xi also said: “Peace and security are the most valued treasures of the international community.”
Prior to the exchange on Friday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US president would make clear to Xi that China will bear responsibility if it supported Russia’s “aggression” and that Washington “will not hesitate to impose costs”.
He said the US administration was concerned China was considering directly assisting Russia with military equipment for use in Ukraine – something Beijing has denied despite reports that Moscow has formally lodged the request.
Beijing, for its part, maintains close economic ties to both Kyiv and Moscow and has stressed Ukraine’s sovereignty while avoiding direct condemnation of Russia.
However, Chinese officials also have insisted that Russia has legitimate security concerns that need to be addressed and echoed Russian claims the US has been secretly working on biological weapons in Ukraine, a claim that has been rejected by the US and the United Nations.
In a longer readout on Friday’s call published by the Chinese foreign ministry, Xi said “all sides” need to support “dialogue” between Russia and Ukraine. He also appeared to put some responsibility for Russia’s invasion of its neighbour on the West, saying “the US and NATO should also have dialogue with Russia to address the crux of the Ukraine crisis and ease security concerns of both Russia and Ukraine”, the ministry noted.
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Reporting from Washington, Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett said “the West, and the United States specifically, has had this sense that China has really been trying to play both sides with regard to this conflict”.
“The West is hoping that they can really encourage China to use its economic might over Russia, its influence to try and even bring about a ceasefire in this conflict,” she said.
Meanwhile, speaking to MSNBC on Friday shortly before the call, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman called on Xi to tell Russian President Vladimir Putin “to end this war of choice, this war of carnage” in Ukraine.
She also told CNN: “China needs to stand on the right side of history. It needs to ensure that it does not backfill, financially or in any other way, sanctions that have been imposed on Russia.”
But while China remains tightly bound to the US and other Western economies, it remains unclear what leverage Biden has to employ in his appeal to Xi, Ross Feingolf, an Asia political risk analyst, told Al Jazeera.
“Especially keeping in mind that [Washington] does want China to buy more from the United States as well and fulfill the terms of the phase one trade agreement,” he said. “This is a tough call literally and figuratively for Biden.”
The Biden-Xi call came after US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, held what the White House called a “substantial” seven-hour meeting in Rome this week.
Brookings Institution fellow Ryan Hass, a former adviser on China to US President Barack Obama, said Beijing has to sort through its clashing priorities. “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 told the AFP news agency.
“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.”
The war in Ukraine began on February 24 when Russia launched an all-out invasion of its neighbour. The Russian bombardment has killed hundreds of civilians, reduced city areas to rubble and sparked a humanitarian crisis as millions have been forced to flee the country.