Chinese leader Xi Jinping said war is “in no one’s interest” during a phone call Friday with President Joe Biden, but he showed no sign of giving in to US pressure to join Western condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
State broadcaster CCTV reported that Xi said during the call that “state-to-state relations cannot go to the stage of military hostilities.”
And in a longer readout published by the Chinese foreign ministry, Xi said “all sides” need to support “dialogue” between Russia and Ukraine.
He also appeared to put some responsibility for Russia’s invasion of its neighbor on the West, saying “the US and NATO should also have dialogue with Russia to address the crux of the Ukraine crisis and ease security concerns of both Russia and Ukraine,” the foreign ministry noted.
The phone call, which lasted one hour and 50 minutes, ended at 10:53 am in Washington (1453 GMT), the White House said.
Three hours later, the US side had not yet published its account of the call, in which Biden hoped at minimum to persuade Xi to give up any idea of countering Western sanctions and bailing out Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government.
China should “understand that their future is with the United States, with Europe, with other developed and developing countries around the world. Their future is not to stand with Vladimir Putin,” Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told CNN earlier Friday.
Beijing has consistently refused to condemn its fellow authoritarian ally and Washington fears China could now deliver financial and military support for Russia, transforming an already explosive transatlantic standoff into a global dispute.
If that happened, not only could Beijing help Putin to weather sanctions and continue his war, but Western governments would face the painful decision of how to strike back at the world’s second-biggest economy, likely prompting turmoil on international markets.
The White House was tight-lipped on whether Biden would threaten China with economic sanctions during his call, but some sort of response was on the table.
Biden “will 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,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said ahead of the call.
Blinken urged China to use its “leverage” on Moscow.
– China ‘balancing competing priorities’ –
The Biden-Xi call came after US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Yang Jiechi, the Chinese Communist Party’s chief diplomat, held what the White House called a “substantial” seven-hour meeting in Rome this week.
Against a backdrop of already intense US-Chinese tensions over Taiwan and trade disputes, the ability or failure of Biden and Xi to come to an understanding on the unfolding mayhem in Europe will reverberate widely.
Xi and Putin symbolically sealed their close partnership when they met at the February Winter Olympics in Beijing — just before Putin launched his onslaught on Ukraine.
Since then, Beijing has stood out by refusing to join international outcry over the invasion, while taking the Russian line in blaming the United States and NATO for European tensions.
Chinese authorities even refuse to refer to the invasion as a “war,” again in keeping with Kremlin talking points.
But China has also tried to remain somewhat ambiguous, declaring support for Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Brookings Institution fellow Ryan Hass, a former advisor on China to president Barack Obama, said Beijing has to sort through its clashing priorities.
Despite the coziness with Moscow, China — the world’s biggest exporter — is tightly bound to the United States and other Western economies. It also wants to play a leadership role in the world.
“China’s and Russia’s interests are not in alignment. Putin is an arsonist of the international system and President Xi sees himself as an architect for remaking and improving the international system,” Hass said.
“President Xi is trying to balance competing priorities. He really places a lot of value in China’s partnership with Russia but at the same time he does not want to undermine China’s relations in the West.”