Given that China is known for ruthlessly pursuing its own interests and has no interest in bolstering the Western-led world order that Putin is seeking to close down, it seems fanciful that Xi would choose what the US sees as silver lining on the Ukraine Conflict – at least until its own economic self-interest dictates a change of course. And US-China relations are so toxic that many analysts predicted a new cold war in the Pacific between the rivals, before the original version was reignited in Europe with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine at the end of the last month.
The theatrics of a call that has been closely watched around the world cannot be dismissed. Just by holding the conversation and making it widely known beforehand, Biden sent a signal to Putin that his ‘boundless’ friendship forged with Xi in Beijing shortly before the invasion might not be as important as the Russian leader. had hoped. The conversation also gives the impression that Washington sees China as the main world power other than itself – instead of Moscow.
It comes as a surprisingly swift and effective Western and international front has imposed a devastating economic, banking, cultural, sporting and diplomatic boycott on Russia. Any significant help from China for Russia could therefore be extremely valuable to Putin, perhaps allowing him to offset some of his country’s isolation and economic blight and sustain his brutal war in Ukraine longer.
Any promise by Xi not to breach international sanctions against Russia would be seen as a major victory for Biden, although the Chinese may demand concessions from the US for such a move – possibly on tariffs. of the Trump era.
A stark warning for China
Secretary of State Antony Blinken offered a solid outline of the appeal on Thursday, saying that “China will take responsibility for any action it takes in support of Russia’s aggression,” and that the United States ” will not hesitate to impose costs” on China if it does. so.
His comments were a thinly disguised hint that Chinese companies could face secondary sanctions if the government in Beijing offers aid to Moscow. That would be a concern for Xi’s government given the current slowdown in China’s traditionally high growth rates and the economic fallout from the latest Covid-19 surge. The US president could have some influence since Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares on Monday that China was not a party to the conflict and “wanted even less to be affected by the sanctions “, according to the official Xinhua News agency. Agency.
Xi’s government has tried to strike a delicate balance throughout the Ukraine crisis.
He has a clear stake in Putin’s attempt to use the conflict to weaken democracy, the West and the rule of international law. And if the United States gets bogged down for years in Europe, it could frustrate Washington’s goal of pivoting military, intelligence and diplomatic resources to Asia to deal with the wider consequences of the buildup. from China.
But China’s long-term economic interests are also at risk if the war in Ukraine overthrows the global economy. Beijing has therefore sought to create diplomatic common ground, refraining from criticizing Putin but seeking to avoid going to a point of no return with the United States – and its main trading partners in the European Union.
Although China did not formally condemn the invasion, Xi stressed that the situation was “worrying”, that China was “deeply grieved” by the war and would “actively work” to support a peaceful settlement. The comments came during a video call with French and German leaders last week, Xinhua reported.
Beijing also endorsed comments by its ambassador to Ukraine, Fan Xianrong, which were quoted in a press release from the Lviv regional government. “China will never attack Ukraine. We will help it, especially economically,” Fan said in comments that seem inconsistent with possible Chinese military aid to Putin’s war effort.
Biden’s call on Friday was expected to be equally candid.
“This is an opportunity for President Biden to assess President Xi’s position,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Thursday, promising that her boss would be “outspoken” and “direct.” ” during the call.
What could change China’s mind?
The robust rhetoric from the United States until the phone call, which almost borders on a reprimand from China, would not seem likely to improve the chances of a successful conversation. Xi, who has taken an increasingly nationalistic and belligerent tone in foreign policy, is unlikely to want to appear to bow to US pressure. The US rhetoric could also reflect the tense nature of most contact between the Biden administration and China so far during the US president’s tenure. And that may be indicative of the White House’s low expectations for success on the call following Sullivan’s reception in Rome.
Beijing shows every sign of trying to keep its options open and avoid engaging beyond its own area of interests.
“I think there’s a disconnect in views on what optics are,” said Scott Kennedy, chairman of the board of directors for Chinese business and economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in China. Washington. “Either you’re with Russia or you’re with Ukraine and the rest of the world” is one point of view, Scott said, but “I think China’s point of view is that there is a third way, an unaligned way”.
Yet the longer the war drags on, the more difficult China’s choices could become and it could be forced to take a tougher stance on Moscow – a stance that could make Xi’s newfound friendship with Putin look like a mistake. strategic.
In the long term, China has little to gain from a protracted economic crisis caused by the war. Although it has a strong trade relationship with Russia, the value of its exports to the United States and the European Union is worth much more in dollars. And China’s growth prospects are intertwined with the US and European economies in a way that gives the West leverage if it were to sanction China for aiding Moscow’s war effort.
Years of rising crude prices could also hurt China’s oil-thirsty manufacturing sector. And the current year is also important for Xi, who is expected to secure a third term in the National Community Party Congress in the fall, cementing his status as one of his country’s most historic leaders alongside Mao Zedong. .
Ukraine’s economic disruptions that are worsening the ripple effects of a new wave of Covid-19, which has seen restrictions imposed in the crucial southern trading city of Shenzhen, could also disrupt Xi’s hopes for a year. smooth politics.
Kennedy suggested several possibilities that could cause Xi to reconsider his current course on Russia. First, if the war starts to go even worse for Putin and threatens his own regime. “They don’t want to back a loser,” Kennedy said of the Chinese. Then, if the hitherto unified Western front against Russia holds — and could backfire on China if it seeks to breach the sanctions barricade against Moscow — Xi could avoid a serious confrontation.
Dramatic course changes were unlikely after the roll call. But if the president is able to push China away from Putin a bit — or make Russia feel like he has — he may be able to claim progress.
CNN’s Arlette Saenz contributed to this report.