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White House seeks softer tone on China ahead of Putin-Xi meeting

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The White House has sought in recent weeks to stifle its rhetoric that China may be providing Russia with lethal aid for use in Ukraine, an effort to reduce heightened tensions, particularly ahead of Chinese President Xi’s next meeting. Jinping with Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to four current administration officials and three former officials.

One of the concerns behind the softer tone is that harsher rhetoric towards China on this issue at this time could backfire on Xi by pushing Xi into a corner where he feels compelled to send aid. lethal to Russia, rather than deterring it from taking the action, officials said. .

“We don’t want to lock down China,” an administration official said.

A month after it was first publicly revealed that US intelligence showed China was considering sending weapons to Russia, the White House says the US has seen no indication that China has decided to do. But there is also no indication that Xi took the idea off the table, according to the White House.

Next Thursday’s meeting between Putin and Xi in Moscow has raised fears within the Biden administration that it could lead China to make a move towards arms aid to Russia, if not by sending specific weapons, then supplying Russia with much-needed parts to revive its military industrial base, officials say.

Russia mines household items such as breast pumps and washing machines for the microchips it needs for tanks and precision-guided weapons.

Administration officials are sufficiently concerned that China might provide Russia with assistance like these chips they discussed the kinds of sanctions the United States might adopt against China in response, officials say. Multiple options are being discussed on how to structure such sanctions, officials said, given that the harsher they are, the more likely they are to negatively impact the US economy.

Part of the White House’s strategy of trying to tone down rhetoric about China’s review of weapons for Russia includes a decision by senior officials – after internal debate – not to publicly release intelligence whose United States say they must substantiate that claim, officials said. They said the administration may decide to declassify and release the intelligence later, but for now the focus is on a more private attempt to persuade China not to provide Russia with lethal aid.

“There is a feeling that going public is going to corner Xi in a corner, and he will end up providing the guns just so he doesn’t look weak,” said a former senior administration official.

After initially issuing stark warnings to China against providing lethal aid to Russia, including threatening to retaliate with economic sanctions, senior administration officials are now adopting a more measured public tactic. This callback approach includes officials noting that the administration does not believe it is in China’s interest to provide the weapons and declining to go into specifics about how the United States would react if that were to happen. was producing.

Last month, for example, John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council, responded to questions about the possibility of China supplying arms to Russia by saying “there would be consequences” and imploring Beijing not to act like that.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken struck a similar tone and promised a strong response from the United States.

“We will not hesitate, for example, to target Chinese companies or individuals who violate our sanctions or otherwise engage in support of the Russian war effort,” Blinken said.

Yet when asked more recently about a possible US response if China supplies Russia with arms for Ukraine, Kirby said: “I just don’t think it’s useful at this time to speculate on the consequences which may result therefrom”.

He noted that Blinken “talked about the fact that there would be ramifications” and added, “I think it’s probably best if we leave it at that.”

The change in tone follows weeks of growing hostility between the United States and China after President Joe Biden tried to mend frayed relations by meeting with Xi last November.

Tensions began to escalate significantly, however, when China flew a spy balloon across the United States early last month, prompting Blinken to cancel a planned trip to Beijing just when he was due to leave. , and culminated two weeks later with the public indictment of the White House. that China is planning to provide lethal aid to Russia for use in Ukraine.

The officials said the administration still hopes to mend months of deeply strained relations, which hit new lows last month with China flying a spy balloon across the United States, and the United States then blaming the China to consider sending arms to Russia.

“We want to try to find a better basis for this relationship,” said a second administration official.

If China were to provide Russia with lethal aid, it’s hard to see how relations could improve anytime soon, officials said.

A spokesperson for the National Security Council responded to a request for comment by highlighting Kirby’s comments to reporters on Friday when he reiterated that the administration remained concerned that China might supply arms to Russia but saw no indication that a decision had been made.

Kirby also said ahead of Putin and Xi’s meeting that any Chinese proposal to end the war in Ukraine that comes out of those talks should be met with skepticism, calling the 12-point plan Beijing recently presented “one-sided.” “in the sense that it benefits Moscow.

Xi’s meeting with Putin next week comes as Biden’s plans to hold a phone call with the Chinese leader have failed to materialize.

It’s been more than a month since Biden said he expected to speak with Xi and that they would “get to the bottom” of the spy balloon incident. But Kirby, the spokesman for the National Security Council, said Friday that no appeal was planned and that efforts to establish one are not yet underway but could be in the coming days.

The call would cap a week-long exchange of strong public barbs between China and the United States

Biden accused China of violating US sovereignty with the spy balloon, and Blinken warned China that the US would hit Beijing with sanctions if Xi sent weapons to Russia.

On the spy balloon, Beijing accused the Biden administration of overreacting. And Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning said the US was spreading ‘disinformation’ by accusing China of considering sending arms to Russia and called it a hypocrite given the Biden administration’s military support for Ukraine.

Just this week, China said the US was on ‘danger’ path by presenting a multi-billion dollar nuclear submarine deal with Australia and the UK as part of a effort to control China’s aggression in the Indo-Pacific.

Even Xi himself delivered a rare public and direct criticism of the United States last week. “Western countries led by the United States have implemented a complete containment, encirclement and suppression of China,” he said.

Still, toning down the rhetoric may not have much impact on Xi, said Victor Cha, senior vice president for Asia and Korea at the Washington, DC-based think tank Center for Strategic and International. Studies.

“Regardless of what the United States says, Xi will do whatever he wants after this meeting next week,” Cha said.


Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.