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U.S.-China Talks In Rome Put Beijing's Support For Russia In The Crosshairs

Troops disembark from a Chinese military helicopter during joint war games held in northwestern China in August 2021.
Troops disembark from a Chinese military helicopter during joint war games held in northwestern China in August 2021.

Reports that Moscow has asked China for military equipment have raised fresh questions about how far Beijing is willing to go in backing Russia as it faces cutting sanctions and mounting international pressure over its war in Ukraine.

The Russian call for help -- which was reported by the Financial Times and several other major newspapers on March 13, citing U.S. officials -- consists of requests for military hardware and other forms of assistance and has raised concerns that China may help the Kremlin undermine European and Asian efforts to punish it for its February 24 invasion of Ukraine and curb its war against Ukraine.

The officials did not detail the specific equipment that Moscow had requested or the Chinese response, but assistance from Beijing would mark a significant development signaling ardent ties between China and Russia in the face of international condemnation of the Kremlin's invasion and its targeting of civilian areas in Ukraine with rockets and artillery.

The revelations -- which both China and Russia have said are untrue -- come against the backdrop of a series of leaked U.S. intelligence reports surrounding Beijing's relationship with Moscow and in the run-up to Russia's invasion, including that Russian President Vladimir Putin informed Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in early February about his war plans.

Was Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) any more truthful to Chinese President Xi Jinping about his invasion plans during their meeting in Beijing on February 4?
Was Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) any more truthful to Chinese President Xi Jinping about his invasion plans during their meeting in Beijing on February 4?

The leaked intelligence reports are part of a strategy by Washington to dissuade Beijing from increasing its support of the Kremlin by laying out political, economic, and reputational consequences that China could suffer for backing Moscow more strongly.

"We don't know exactly what Moscow asked for, but this is consistent with a pattern of leaks the U.S. intel community has done over the course of this crisis and those leaks have proven to be credible so far," Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Moscow Carnegie Center, told RFE/RL. "This is aimed at putting pressure on China to say publicly that it won't sell arms or dual-use technology to Russia."

Yang Jiechi (file photo)
Yang Jiechi (file photo)

The reports also come as U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan met in Rome with Yang Jiechi, China's top foreign policy official, on March 14. The talks are part of a follow-up conversation to U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi's virtual meeting in November but will also focus on China's support of Moscow and its position toward the war.

How Far Will Beijing Go?

China has tried to portray itself as an impartial actor in the Ukraine crisis and repeatedly called for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. European and Ukrainian officials have also called for Beijing to play a role in pressing Putin to negotiate, with China even being mentioned as a potential mediator.

But China has so far refused to condemn Russia for invading Ukraine and shown few signs that it is willing to abandon the tight cooperation it has built with Moscow in recent years in the face of Western pressure.

While looking to create some official diplomatic distance between it and Russia recently, Beijing has backed Moscow's narrative of the war through its state-controlled domestic media coverage and promoted Russian disinformation campaigns abroad, including a debunked claim that the United States is developing biological weapons in Ukraine.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said on March 14 that reports that Moscow had asked for military equipment for its campaign in Ukraine were "disinformation" and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also denied them, saying Russia had the "self-sufficient potential to continue the [military] operation."

Andrew Small, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, says that given the extent of China-Russia ties, it's plausible for Beijing to assist Moscow with such a request, but a lot depends on how much of a cost China is willing to pay for such support and what kind of "collateral damage to its reputation" such a move could bring.

"The [United States] is saying with these leaks that they are watching closely and will expose any moves [from Beijing to Moscow] and attach a cost to them," Small told RFE/RL. "That's not something the Chinese have had to deal with before and it's creating more pressure."

During comments to the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee on March 8, CIA Director William Burns hinted at how increasingly brutal tactics against Ukraine have created new tensions within the China-Russia relationship.

"I think [Beijing is] unsettled by the reputational damage that can come with their close association with President Putin," Burns said. "I think they're a little unsettled about the impact [the war has] on the global economy. I think they're a little bit unsettled by the way in which [Putin] has driven the Europeans and the Americans much closer together."

Jake Sullivan (file photo)
Jake Sullivan (file photo)

Sullivan has also pointed toward some potential areas of strain between Beijing and Moscow, when discussing earlier leaked reports that Xi was briefed on Russia's plans for Ukraine, although perhaps not informed about the wider scope of the invasion.

"China, in fact, was aware before the invasion took place that [Putin] was planning something, [but] they may not have understood the full extent of it," Sullivan told CNN on March 13. "Because it's very possible that Putin lied to them the same way that he lied to Europeans and others."

Complicated Ties

The U.S.-China talks in Rome are unlikely to yield anything concrete and it's uncertain if the Americans' pressure campaign will succeed in limiting Chinese support for Russia as its economy is in free fall and its military assault has faced stiff Ukrainian resistance.

"What benefit does China have at the moment to throw the Russians under the bus?" Raffaello Pantucci of London's Royal United Services Institute told RFE/RL. "Moscow may not look as strong as it did before the invasion, but it's still on China's side and a powerful actor. Given the more hostile mood in the West towards Beijing, there's little upside right now for China to abandon Russia."

In Rome, Sullivan intends to warn Yang about any future efforts from China to bolster Moscow's war or undercut Ukraine, the United States, and their partners. "We will not allow that to go forward and allow there to be a lifeline to Russia from these economic sanctions from any country, anywhere in the world," he said in the CNN interview.

Beyond the reported request for military equipment, China could also offer some form of economic relief to Russia.

Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said on March 13 that sanctions had deprived Moscow of access to $300 billion of its $640 billion in gold and foreign-exchange reserves. He added that there was international pressure on Beijing -- predominantly from its largest trading partner, the United States -- to shut off more.

While Xi has expressed concern and frustration about the impact of sanctions on global finance and the Chinese economy, Beijing is treading cautiously and so far is respecting sanctions against Russia.

But the Carnegie Center's Gabuev says to expect Beijing to be as active in the Russian economy as it can be while still respecting the sanctions regime.

The oil and gas sector, which so far has not been hit, is an area of interest for China, but Beijing will likely wait for the Russian economy to continue to decline and then make deals that "serve China's economic interests and frame them as assistance."

"Once the Russian economy finds its bottom and it's clear what is permissible and what is not, China is likely to search for more commercial opportunities [in Russia]," Gabuev said.

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

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China In Eurasia
Reid Standish

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