Biden Warns Xi Against Support for Russia; China Sends Mixed Messages

On March 18, President Joe Biden spoke for almost two hours with President Xi Jinping in the leaders’ first virtual meeting since November. The call addressed the Sino-US relationship and, most prominently, China’s stance toward the Russian war against Ukraine. President Biden used the opportunity to warn the Chinese president against supporting the Russian invasion, while Xi reiterated Chinese official talking points deflecting responsibility for playing an active role in ending the war. Alex Leary and Lingling Wei from The Wall Street Journal described the main points Biden made during the call:

During a nearly two-hour-long videoconference Friday that centered on the Ukraine crisis, Mr. Biden outlined for Mr. Xi the unified allied response against Russia, the economic sanctions imposed, the global condemnation of the invasion and the withdrawal of many foreign businesses from the Russian market, a senior U.S. official said.

In describing that response, U.S. officials said, Mr. Biden tried to suggest the stakes for China.

“President Biden made clear the implication and consequences of China providing material support…to Russia as it prosecutes its brutal war in Ukraine, not just for China’s relationship with the United States, but for the wider world,” the official said. The official declined to say if specific threats were leveled or to characterize Mr. Xi’s response.

[…] Mr. Biden also voiced concern that the Chinese government is spreading disinformation by repeating what the U.S. says are false Russian assertions that the U.S. is supporting biological weapons research in Ukraine. [Source]

Officials from the Biden administration have made a concerted effort to press China on its position over the past few weeks. Citing intelligence reports, they told the press that senior Chinese officials had asked Russian counterparts to delay the invasion of Ukraine until after the Olympics. U.S. officials interviewed by the Financial Times said that Russia had requested military and other assistance from China since the start of the invasion, and that China had expressed willingness to provide such support. 

On March 14, U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan met Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi in Rome for an intense seven-hour meeting in preparation for the Xi-Biden call. During the meeting, Sullivan relayed his “deep concerns about China’s alignment with Russia” and warned of the “consequences of certain actions.” Similarly, during his call with Xi, Biden “described the implications and consequences if China provides material support to Russia.” American officials declined to state what specific measures might follow, but White House press secretary Jen Psaki stated that the U.S. had a “range of tools” at its disposal, and that possible responses would be discussed during Biden’s trip to Europe this week.

The Chinese government’s account of the Xi-Biden call played down confrontational dynamics between the two countries over Ukraine. The topic featured only near the end of the official readout from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which described China’s position as upholding international law and norms, adhering to the UN Charter, supporting peace, and advocating for US and NATO dialogue with Russia—without any condemnation of Russia’s invasion. Instead, President Xi cited a Chinese proverb to suggest that Biden was responsible for the crisis and for its resolution: “He who tied the bell to the tiger must take it off.”

As seen in the public statements regarding the Xi-Biden call, Chinese officials have employed different messaging for different audiences, but maintained a theme of deflecting responsibility onto the U.S. and NATO. Chris Cameron from The New York Times described how Chinese ambassador to the U.S. Qin Gang adopted a conciliatory tone for Western audiences:

Qin Gang, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, said on Sunday that China would not send weapons and ammunition to support Russia’s war in Ukraine and that Beijing would “do everything to de-escalate the crisis.”

Mr. Qin’s comments, which were aimed at an American audience, presented a softer tone than the one officials in Beijing have used when discussing the war, particularly in domestic settings.

The remarks came as higher-ranking Chinese officials continued to accuse the United States and Europe of instigating the conflict, and continued to amplify Russian disinformation that served as a rationale for the invasion. They also followed President Biden’s warning on Friday to President Xi Jinping that China would face “consequences” if Beijing gave material aid to Russia to support its war.

China’s rhetorical strategy — speaking of peace and de-escalation to an international audience while continuing to support Russia domestically — demonstrates the careful moves Beijing has made in staking out its position on Ukraine. [Source]

By contrast, Chinese vice foreign minister Le Yucheng took a sharper tone back in China. In a speech in Beijing at the International Forum on Security and Strategy, Le declared that “the root cause [of the war in Ukraine] lies in the Cold War mentality and power politics.” He blamed NATO, which he claimed should be disbanded, for pushing too far eastward and encroaching upon Russia: “Pushing a major country, especially a nuclear power, to the corner would entail repercussions too dreadful to contemplate.” Pointedly, the four main lessons of the Ukraine conflict that Le cited were highly critical of NATO and made no reference to any acts of aggression by Russia. 

For Chinese audiences on Weibo, Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of nationalistic People’s Daily-affiliated tabloid Global Times, advocated fully supporting the “no limits” partnership between China and Russia:

Teddy Ng at the South China Morning Post described how Foreign Minister Wang Yi, tailoring his message for an African audience, criticized Western sanctions and defended China’s decision to abstain from a UN vote critical of the invasion:

In remarks after hosting his Algerian counterpart Ramtane Lamamra on Sunday, Wang said that war and sanctions were not the only way to resolve the crisis.

“Abstaining from voting is also an attitude. It is to give peace a chance,” Wang was quoted as saying by a Chinese foreign ministry statement. “It is not in favour of resolving disputes with war and sanctions. It is a responsible attitude.”

[…] Wang said after meeting with Lamamra that the causes of the Ukraine crisis were complicated and that there should be “deep reflection” about the eastward expansion of Nato – which was seen as a threat by Russia.

[…] “In the context of the impact of the epidemic, the escalating unilateral sanctions will cause the rupture of the global industrial chain and supply chain, which will impact the lives of people in various countries. The people of all countries should not be forced to pay the bills for geopolitical conflicts and great power games.” [Source]

In another vote, at the UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ), China went beyond abstention to outright defense of Russia. On March 16, the court issued a binding provisional order for Russia to immediately suspend all military operations in Ukraine, after it found no evidence supporting Russia’s justification for the war: Ukraine’s alleged genocide of Russian-speakers. Of the 15 ICJ judges, 13 voted in favor of the order, with only the judges from Russia and China voting against it. The dissent by Chinese judge Xue Hanqin argued that the order “prejudges the merits of the case.” Judge Xue supported Russia’s recent claim that it acted in self-defense, rather than to address the alleged genocide. She also argued that the case pertains to the legality of force under international law, which she claimed should be left to each country to resolve. 

China’s official messaging in online media has also leaned heavily toward Russia. Chinese state media outlets have reinforced Russian disinformation about the war, amplifying conspiracy theories from Russian state media about purported American biolabs in Ukraine. Meanwhile, official censorship directives from the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) ordered domestic commercial media to stick to news topics from Chinese state media and to strictly refrain from using content from foreign media reports. Earlier CAC censorship instructions directed online content producers to strictly control “incitement of Sino-Russian antagonism” or “viewpoints that support or adulate the United States.” 

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