The United States will try to persuade China not to supply arms to Russia at a high-level meeting in Rome which the White House sees as critically important not just for the war in Ukraine but also for the future of the global balance of power.
Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, will meet his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, in the Italian capital amid reports that Russia has asked China for weapons to bolster its faltering invasion of Ukraine.
Sullivan will point out that the US briefed Beijing on Vladimir Putin’s intentions months ahead of the invasion, but that the Chinese leadership ignored those warnings, mistakenly believing that Putin was bluffing to gain leverage, according to sources familiar with plans for the Rome meeting. Sullivan will also argue that if China supplies weapons to Moscow it will be a further, historic mistake, and a turning point in global politics.
China has so far not condemned the Russian invasion or the mass killings of civilians in bombardments of Ukrainian towns, and has abstained on resolutions deploring the attack at the UN security council and general assembly. Xi last week called for “maximum restraint” in Ukraine after a virtual meeting with German chancellor Olaf Scholz and French president Emmanuel Macron, and said he was “pained to see the flames of war reignited in Europe”.
Xi also expressed concern about the impact of sanctions on the global economy, and the limitation that western sanctions are imposing on China’s ability to buy Russian oil.
Hass, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said he did not expect to see any immediate breakthroughs at the Rome meeting.
“The results may take weeks or longer to come into focus,” he said. “Neither side likely to provide other with satisfaction. Outcomes may need to be measured in degrees, not black-white binaries.”
The Biden White House is anxious to prevent the Ukraine war further cementing a division of the world into two opposing blocs.
Sullivan and Yang will also follow up on agreements Joe Biden and Xi Jinping made in a virtual summit in November, to improve crisis communications between the two nuclear powers.
“We also are watching closely to see the extent to which China actually does provide any form of support – material support or economic support – to Russia,” Sullivan told CNN. “It is a concern of ours. And we have communicated to Beijing that we will not stand by and allow any country to compensate Russia for its losses from the economic sanctions.
Sullivan said the US had made clear to Beijing that there would “absolutely be consequences” for “large-scale” efforts to help Russia sidestep sanctions.
Russia has also asked China for economic help as it faces severe western sanctions, but Sullivan told CNN the US was “communicating directly, privately to Beijing that there will absolutely be consequences” if China helps Russia evade sanctions.
The Financial Times, New York Times and Washington Post reported on Sunday about the Russian request for weapons, amid claims from US officials that the Russian military was running short on certain kinds of armaments.
The spokesperson for the US embassy in Washington, Liu Pengyu, told CNN he had “never heard” of the Russian arms requests.
“The current situation in Ukraine is indeed disconcerting,” he said in a statement. “The high priority now is to prevent the tense situation from escalating or even getting out of control.”
“It feels like the US-China relationship is moving toward a pretty significant fork,” Ryan Hass, former China director at the US national security council, said on Twitter. “If China materially contributes to Russia’s war machine in Ukraine through provision of materiel or significant backfilling, then China’s actions will accelerate the cleavage of the world in direction of adversarial blocs.
“It’s wise for the US to speak directly and privately with the Chinese at an authoritative level now to clarify the lasting strategic ramifications of China’s decisions in this moment.”