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Biden warns Xi against helping Russia as US-China relations face 'crossroads' over Ukraine invasion

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 3/21/2022 Courtney Subramanian, USA TODAY
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WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden took office framing this moment in geopolitics as a battle between autocracy and democracy – casting China as the chief authoritarian threat on the world stage. 

More than a year later, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has magnified the question of China's role in the world, and it has worsened tensions between Washington and Beijing.

The chilly U.S.-Chinese relationship may face its biggest test as the United States turns up pressure on China to take a stand against Russia in the largest land conflict in Europe since World War II.

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Biden warned Chinese President Xi Jinping of the "consequences if China provides material support to Russia" in its unprovoked attack on Ukraine during a nearly two-hour video call Friday, according to the White House. 

The Biden-Xi conversation, their first since November, was "direct," "substantive" and "detailed," a senior administration official said on condition of anonymity to discuss the conversation. 

Analysts said Beijing's decision – whether to overtly support Russian President Vladimir Putin's war or to distance itself from the Kremlin's military assault on Ukraine – is shaping up to be an inflection point in the U.S.-Chinese relationship. 

"China is at a major strategic crossroads here," said Hal Brands of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "If China decides to more openly and fulsomely support Russia in this conflict, it's embracing a whole new level of risk, not only in its relations with the West but also in its relations with the United States."

Beijing has tried to walk a geopolitical tightrope, offering tacit support of Russia, a major ally, while trying not to aggravate the West.

Supporting Putin could undercut Beijing's credibility on the global stage and expose China to U.S. sanctions, according to Brands.

Xi told Biden "China does not want to see the situation in Ukraine come to this" and called on all sides to "jointly support Russia and Ukraine in having dialogue and negotiation that will produce results and lead to peace," according to a summary of the call from the Chinese Embassy.

Chinese officials described the call as "constructive" and said both leaders agreed to "make respective efforts for the proper settlement of the Ukraine crisis."

As civilian casualties mount in Ukraine, the White House presses Beijing to join the global condemnation of Moscow's invasion and prevent Ukraine from becoming a wider proxy war that could reshape the international order forged over the past century. 

Should Xi decide to put more material or military support behind Putin's war, that would "fast-forward the trajectory towards something that looks or rhymes with a Cold War," said Jude Blanchette, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

A 'cold-blooded' alliance? China could be a pivotal force in Russia's war against Ukraine

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A contentious relationship made shakier 

Biden's call with Xi came after what administration officials described as "intense" seven-hour talks between U.S. and Chinese officials this week.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan met with Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi on March 14 after The Washington Post and other news outlets reported Russia asked China for military equipment to help its war effort and economic assistance to cushion the blow of sanctions, an allegation both countries deny. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday that China has a responsibility to use its influence on Russia. Rather than defending the international rules it professes to support, Blinken said, China is moving in the opposite direction by refusing to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine while portraying itself as a neutral arbiter.

“We will not hesitate to impose costs," Blinken warned.

The U.S.-Chinese relationship deteriorated as President Donald Trump launched a trade war against Beijing and lashed out at the country for its role in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite reversing several of Trump's policies, Biden has taken an aggressive stance on China, leaving in place tariffs on more than $350 billion worth of Chinese goods, for instance

More: As Russian troops close in on major cities in Ukraine, anti-tank weapons can make a major difference

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The president has sought to counter China by reviving the Asia-Pacific security partnership between the United States, Australia, Japan and India, known as the "Quad." He drew Beijing's ire after securing a deal last year with the U.K. to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. Congress is working to reconcile a House-passed bill and a separate Senate measure aimed at shoring up domestic supply chains and scientific research to give the USA a more competitive edge over China. 

Though it's too early to tell which way Beijing will move, the war in Ukraine adds a dimension to the U.S.-Chinese relationship, according to Blanchette.

As the two countries try to find consensus on certain issues such as technology and trade, any Chinese support for Russia could blunt chances of broader cooperation and potential realignment of the relationship, he said. 

"It will put the trajectory of the relationship more firmly on a path of intense rivalry," Blanchette said. 

Putin's assault has stoked fears that Xi could act on his desire to take over Taiwan, an independent nation that Beijing sees as a renegade province. The White House signaled its support for Taipei by sending a high-level delegation to the island nation this month, a stern reminder for Beijing of U.S. support of the democracy. 

The White House said Xi raised Taiwan in Friday's call. Biden reiterated that there has been no change to the U.S. policy of "strategic ambiguity" on whether it would intervene militarily in the event of a Chinese attack.

More: US-China tensions flare over Taiwan as some fear a cold war – or worse

President Joe Biden meets virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Nov. 15, 2021. © Susan Walsh, AP President Joe Biden meets virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Nov. 15, 2021.

Xi's 'massive gamble' on Putin

China has grown closer to Russia in recent years, an alliance  that's become deeply personalized by Xi and Putin's friendship. The pair declared a "no limits" friendship and cooperation to counter American influence in a meeting before the 2022 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony Feb. 4. 

China has sought to play both sides in the weeks since the invasion, declining to condemn Russia for the assault and instead shifting the focus to its support for "sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, including Ukraine," as Qin Gang, China's ambassador to the United States, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed Tuesday.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Beijing on Feb. 4. On March 3, China denounced a report that it asked Russia to delay invading Ukraine until after the Beijing Winter Olympics as "fake news" and a "very despicable" attempt to divert attention and shift blame over the conflict. © The Associated Press Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Beijing on Feb. 4. On March 3, China denounced a report that it asked Russia to delay invading Ukraine until after the Beijing Winter Olympics as "fake news" and a "very despicable" attempt to divert attention and shift blame over the conflict.

"Xi Jinping may have decided that he simply has too much invested in the relationship with Vladimir Putin to back away now and that he doesn't want to see Putin lose his war in Ukraine," Brands said. "But he's taking a massive gamble if he increases Chinese support at this moment."

Aside from damaging the U.S. relationship, Xi risks tarnishing his credibility in Europe, which could be beneficial for a White House looking to counter China's rise on the global stage, according to Brands. 

Some countries wanted to stay neutral: How Russia's invasion has quickly reshaped Europe

In the past few weeks, China abstained from a United Nations Security Council vote to condemn the invasion, as well as a resolution in the U.N. General Assembly calling on Russia to withdraw its troops.

"I think that this war has certainly given the Chinese a black eye in Europe because the Chinese seem to be complicit in Russian aggression that's threatening to export instability and insecurity throughout much of Eastern Europe," Brands said. "One of the upshots of this crisis may be actually to increase the antibodies to Chinese power in the international system."

More: Mapping and tracking Russia's invasion of Ukraine

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For China, the world's second-largest economy and a dominant player in global supply chains, the cost of supporting Putin may be too high, according to Andrew Scobell, a distinguished fellow for China at the U.S. Institute for Peace.

"War is bad for Chinese business, so there's no advantage to China for this to drag on, and yet that's what's happening," he said. "The economy is paramount, and China has a lot more to lose on this than Russia." 

China's foreign minister said as much this week

"China is not a party to the (Ukraine) crisis, nor does it want to be affected by the sanctions," Wang Yi told his Spanish counterpart, Jose Manuel Albares, on Tuesday in a phone call, according to China's state news agency, Xinhua.

More: Where US, allies have targeted the dozens of sanctions against Russia

China's economic might on the world stage may pose a bigger challenge for the Biden administration. It may be difficult for the United States to convince Western allies to sanction Chinese businesses over possible support of the Ukrainian war. 

White House officials insisted the United States and its partners in Europe and Asia remain unified on a response to any Chinese support for Putin.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki downplayed China's economic dominance, pointing out it makes up 15%-20% of the world's economy compared with the Group of Seven leading industrial countries, which makes up more than 50%. 

“So there are a range of tools at our disposal in coordination with our European partners should we need to use them," she said. 

Keith Darden, associate professor at American University's School of International Service, sees Ukraine as "a very risky moment for China." 

The Chinese leader "wants to see the U.S., and to some extent Europe, marginalized," he said. "But he runs the risk of being marginalized himself."

Contributing: Maureen Groppe

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden warns Xi against helping Russia as US-China relations face 'crossroads' over Ukraine invasion

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