China is wildcard in Russia-Ukraine war 

Washington is focused on Chinese President Xi Jinping as President Biden grapples with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s violent military campaign against Ukraine.  

Biden administration officials are calling on Xi and his government to join other nations in condemning Russia, while warning China of consequences if it tries to evade export controls on Moscow. 

China is viewed as a key player because of its influence with Russia, which is expected to grow as Moscow finds itself further isolated by Western sanctions. 

“If there’s anybody that could make a difference, it’s Xi Jinping,” said Charles Kupchan, who served as senior director for European affairs at the National Security Council in the Obama White House. “China is Russia’s lifeline right now, and if the Chinese discover the gumption to tell Putin that it’s enough, I think the impact would be very considerable.” 

“I do not yet see any signs that China is going to head down the road,” he added.  

CIA Director William Burns told Senate lawmakers on Thursday that Xi has been “unsettled” by the war playing out in Ukraine and the unity it has inspired in the West. Burns assessed that the Chinese leader is worried about global economic consequences as well as damage to his reputation from being associated with the “ugliness” of Russia’s war.  

“I think the Chinese leadership, President Xi, has invested a lot in partnership with President Putin and Russia. I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon. It’s for a lot of very cold-blooded reasons. I do, however, think that President Xi is unsettled by what he has seen transpire in the last 15 days in Ukraine,” Burns told the Senate Intelligence Committee.  

“That’s raised some question marks in the minds of Chinese leadership as they look at what is going to be an enduring partnership but maybe with a few more concerns than they had 16 days ago,” he said.  

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday pointed to a handful of actions China has taken that were viewed positively by the West, including Beijing’s decision to abstain from voting on a U.N. security council resolution condemning the Ukraine invasion. Some believed China would vote against it in a nod to Russia. 

Psaki also said that China has “largely” abided by sanctions the administration has imposed on Russia thus far. 

“I would note, though, that if any country tries to evade or work around our economic measures, they will experience the consequences of those actions,” Psaki said. 

“Our assessment right now is that they’re abiding by the requirements that have been put in place, but we would continue to encourage any country to think a lot about what role they want to play in history as we all look back,” she said. 

The administration has stepped up its rhetoric with China in recent days. 

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told the New York Times in an interview published Tuesday that the U.S. would penalize Chinese firms that violate U.S. export controls imposed on Russia by preventing them from using American software. 

“They have their own self-interest to not supply this stuff to Russia. So they’re not doing it out of the goodness of their heart. It would be devastating to China’s ability to produce these chips,” Raimondo told the Times

Days earlier, Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged China to use its voice to condemn Russian aggression during a call with his Chinese counterpart.  

“They have an opportunity for leadership here and we are all urging them to take it,” Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday.  

The White House failed to convince China to avert a Russian invasion of Ukraine before it happened.  

Xi and Putin celebrated their close relationship in an in-person meeting ahead of the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Beijing. The two sides released a joint statement declaring the China-Russia relationship had “no limits.”   

Burns on Thursday described that as the “most sweeping expression of their commitment to partnership” that the U.S. has seen but noted that the war has since unsettled Beijing. At one point during his testimony, Burns said China’s own intelligence didn’t appear to foresee Putin’s attack. 

The U.S. is also watching China closely over concerns that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will embolden Xi to launch a military takeover of Taiwan, the self-governed democratic island that Beijing views as a rogue territory.  

The administration in early March sent a high-level, non-governmental delegation to Taiwan in a show of American solidarity. The United States is required by law to provide Taipei with the military means and assistance necessary to repel a possible Chinese invasion. 

It’s unclear whether Biden will seek a call with Xi about Ukraine. The two leaders last spoke one-on-one during a virtual meeting in November. The White House made clear after Russia began its invasion that Biden was open to a call with Xi.  

“China is not going to reassess its view on the China-Russia relationship fundamentally on this alone,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “But we can make it more painful for China.”  

O’Hanlon noted that China would be key to putting pressure on Russia to agree to some kind of diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine. 

The Chinese leader earlier this week spoke jointly with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. In its readout of that call, China said that Xi expressed support for peace talks between Ukraine and Russia and warned that sanctions were not in the global community’s interest.  

The relationship between the U.S. and China has grown more confrontational in recent years, as former President Trump waged a trade war with Beijing. Biden has since made competition with China a centerpiece of his domestic economic agenda.  

Still, China maintains robust trade relations with the West and Europe in particular. A close association with Putin threatens to disrupt that.  

“They still find the international system useful to them. They are not risk takers the way that Vladimir Putin is,” Evelyn Farkas, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, said of the Chinese. “If they stand with Russia, the world will condemn them.”  

Laura Kelly contributed.  

Tags Antony Blinken China Donald Trump Emmanuel Macron Gina Raimondo Jen Psaki Joe Biden Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin William Burns

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