Joe Biden and Xi Jinping concluded a call of nearly two hours during which the US president was expected to warn China’s leader that America was prepared to retaliate if Beijing actively supported Russia.
The call — a potentially pivotal moment in the diplomacy surrounding the war — ended shortly before 11am Washington time on Friday and came as the Biden administration grows increasingly concerned about China’s possible willingness to assist President Vladimir Putin’s invasion.
Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, said before the call started that Biden would “make clear that China will bear responsibility for any actions it takes to support Russia’s aggression, and we will not hesitate to impose costs”. Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, told reporters the call was a chance for Biden to see “where President Xi stands”.
As the two leaders spoke, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continued on its 23rd day and Putin attended a massive rally in a Moscow stadium in support of the war.
He vowed that Russia would “realise all the plans we have set for ourselves” as he addressed a crowd that state media said exceeded 200,000 in the venue that hosted the 2018 World Cup. He said Russia had invaded Ukraine to protect Russian speakers from “genocide” and quoted scripture as he declared “we have not been this united for some time”.
In a call with German chancellor Olaf Scholz on Friday the Russian president accused Ukraine of “trying to drag out” settlement talks with “new unrealistic proposals”.
While Beijing publicly claims to have a neutral stance, the US is concerned the country is moving closer to supporting Russia with military equipment. China has also avoided describing the war as an “invasion”, referring instead to the Ukraine “issue” or “crisis”.
China said it would “never accept US threats and coercion” and warned the Biden administration over supporting Taiwan, state media reported.
“Unsurprisingly, some senior US officials over the past two days have repeatedly . . . smeared China regarding the Ukraine situation,” a government official said, according to the official China Daily newspaper.
Any intervention by China to provide military support for Russia would mark a significant turning point in the war, leaving Ukraine as the theatre for a conflict indirectly involving all five nuclear powers on the UN Security Council.
Putin has shown little sign of letting up military pressure. Russia’s assault on Ukraine reached the outskirts of Lviv, according to local authorities, in an attack that signalled Moscow’s willingness to expand its bombardment to the country’s west.
Andriy Sadovyy, the city’s mayor, said the missiles struck an area near the airport but that no casualties were reported. The Ukrainian air force said Russia had fired six cruise missiles at the area from the Black Sea, two of which were destroyed by anti-aircraft missiles.
Western officials say Putin’s forces have made little progress in capturing territory this week, as troops have been diverted to defend strained supply lines from what UK intelligence services described as “incessant Ukrainian counter-attacks”.
With Ukraine’s biggest cities still out of Russian control, Putin’s forces have increasingly relied on heavy weapons and missile attacks to grind down resistance, destroying swaths of civilian infrastructure. About 3.2mn Ukrainians have fled the country, representing roughly 7 per cent of the population.
Blinken has warned there are no signs Putin is “prepared to stop” and has reiterated concerns Russia is “setting the stage to use a chemical weapon” and falsely blame Ukraine for the attack.
As Russia has sought to bolster its campaign, the Financial Times reported this week that Moscow had requested several categories of weapons, including drones, from Beijing. Blinken confirmed that Washington was worried China was “considering directly assisting Russia with military equipment” for use in Ukraine.
The Biden administration is paying close attention to whether China helps Russia circumvent the sanctions the west has imposed on Putin and his regime.
Xi and Putin issued a statement last month in which the leaders described their growing partnership as having “no limits”.
China has called for talks between Kyiv and Moscow, and Dmytro Kuleba, Ukrainian foreign minister, signalled in early March that Beijing could play a role as a mediator after speaking with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi.
But Beijing has opposed sanctions and consistently blamed Nato and the EU for pressuring Putin ahead of the war. Chinese diplomats and state media have also repeated Russia’s disinformation reports that the US was using Ukraine to research dangerous biological weapons.
Zhao Lijian, an official from China’s foreign ministry, told reporters on Thursday that the country’s “clear” aim was to work for de-escalation and end the conflict as soon as possible.
The call will be only the fourth interaction between Biden and Xi and follows a virtual meeting in November.
The White House said last autumn that it was important for Biden to speak directly to Xi because of concerns that messages to his top officials were not being properly relayed to the Chinese president.
Additional reporting by William Langley in Hong Kong and James Politi in Washington
Source: Financial Times