United States President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, have begun their first direct talks since November, amid growing US concern over Beijing’s relationship with Russia and its stance on the increasingly brutal war in Ukraine.
Biden and Xi began speaking at 13:00 GMT on Friday, the White House said, amid warnings from Washington that China may be considering providing military support to Russia.
In a briefing earlier, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Biden would use the call to “make clear that China will bear responsibility for any actions it takes to support Russia’s aggression”, and there would be “costs” to such actions.
China “in particular has a responsibility to use its influence with President Putin and to defend the international rules and principles that it professes to support”, he said.
While Western countries and allies have moved to impose tough sanctions on Russia over the invasion and condemned its aggression, China, which has a close relationship with Kyiv as well as with Moscow, has not.
Walking a diplomatic tightrope, it has stressed Ukraine’s sovereignty while strenuously avoiding any direct criticism of Russia and calling for peace negotiations.
It has also insisted that Russia has legitimate security concerns that need to be addressed and echoed Russian claims the US has been secretly working on biological weapons in Ukraine. The allegations have been rejected by the US and the United Nations.
“Since the beginning of the invasion, China has tried, I think, very awkwardly, to play a neutral role,” said Katrina Yu, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Bejing. “It’s refused to take sides, saying that it’s got good relations with both Kyiv and Moscow. It says that it’s a neutral player and just wants to encourage dialogue. But at the same time, Beijing has made it very clear that it intends to preserve its friendship with Russia, which it has called ‘limitless’ [and] ‘rock solid’.”
At a regular briefing of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Thursday, spokesman Zhao Lijian insisted China’s position was consistent and rounded on those who suggested any incongruity.
“It is those countries that delude themselves into thinking that they can lord it over the world after winning the Cold War, those that keep driving NATO’s eastward expansion five times in disregard of other countries’ security concerns, and those that wage wars across the globe while accusing other countries of being belligerent, that should really feel ‘uncomfortable’,” he told reporters.
China and Russia have grown increasingly close in recent years, although Beijing has never recognised Russia’s claim over Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014.
The two countries conducted joint military and naval exercises at the end of last year and issued a lengthy 5,000-word statement on February 4 against the expansion of NATO, calling the security bloc a relic of the Cold War.
Putin, who appears to have developed a close bond with Xi, was in Beijing shortly before the invasion for the opening of the Winter Olympic Games. The two have met more than 30 times since 2013.
Samir Puri, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the call between Biden and Xi came as a “really important moment”, with the US engaging in something of “a diplomatic offensive to try to call out, and even to shame, China for its somewhat neutral stance” over Ukraine.
“In particular, the intelligence the US publicised about the Russian request for the provision of Chinese military assistance will almost certainly be a feature of how Biden approaches this call – presumably to berate Xi Jinping for even entertaining this and berating China for not turning their back on Russia during the Russian invasion.”
Puri, however, stressed that it is highly unlikely “China is going to walk away” from its ambitious goal of boosting its already deep economic ties with Russia.
“Because China trades with Russia openly – it buys its crude oil, gas among other things – it is indirectly supporting Russia and I think it’s flight of fancy to think that China would turn its back on its economic relationship with Russia, even if it steps back” from providing fresh military support and equipment.
The call between Xi and Biden also comes after a marathon meeting on Monday between Yang Jiechi, director of China’s Central Foreign Affairs Commission, and US NSA Jake Sullivan in Rome.
China said those talks were “frank, in-depth and constructive” and included a discussion on Taiwan.
Yu says the self-ruled island, which China claims as its own, was also likely to be on the agenda of the Biden-Xi call.
Beijing was furious after former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Taiwan earlier this month and said the US should recognise it as a “free and sovereign” nation.
The US, which maintains formal diplomatic relations with Beijing, has a policy of “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan.
Under 1979’s Taiwan Relations Act, the US government is mandated to “preserve and promote extensive, close and friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people of Taiwan”.
In recent years, amid concerns about the threat posed by Beijing, it has also stepped up arms sales to the island.