Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 14 March 2022



US urged China not to supply arms to Russia at ‘intense’ Rome meeting

China had denounced reports that Moscow asked for military equipment as ‘malicious disinformation’

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping

The United States has held “intense” high-level talks with China in an effort to try to dissuade Beijing from supplying arms to Russia, at a meeting in Rome which the White House sees as critically important not just for the war in Ukraine but also for the future of the global balance of power.

Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, met his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, for all-day talks in the Italian capital on Monday amid reports that Russia has asked China for weapons to bolster its faltering invasion of Ukraine.

“It was an intense seven-hour session, reflecting the gravity of the moment, as well as our commitment to maintaining open lines of communication,” a senior administration official said.

“This meeting was not about negotiating specific issues or outcomes, but about a candid direct exchange of views.”

Asked if it had been successful, the official replied: “I suppose it depends on how you define success, but we believe that it is important to keep open lines of communication between the United States and China, especially on areas where we disagree.”

The official would not describe the Chinese response to US arguments in Rome, nor comment on reports that the US had briefed allies on Monday, before the meeting, that Beijing had shown willingness to provide military assistance to Russia.

The Rome meeting had been planned since before the Russian invasion, and covered other topics, including North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and Taiwan.

China reacted angrily to the reports in multiple media outlets citing US officials. Its foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, said the US was spreading “malicious disinformation”, with “sinister intentions”, according to translations by journalists in the room.

“China’s position on the Ukraine issue is consistent and clear, and China has been playing a constructive role in promoting peace talks,” Zhao said. “It is imperative that all parties exercise restraint and cool down tensions, not add fuel to the fire.”

Sullivan had planned to point out in the Rome meeting that the US briefed Beijing on Vladimir Putin’s intentions months ahead of the invasion, but that the Chinese leadership ignored those warnings, mistakenly believing that Putin was bluffing to gain leverage, according to sources familiar with plans for the Rome meeting. Sullivan was also to argue that if China supplies weapons to Moscow it would be a further, historic mistake, and a turning point in global politics.

The Biden White House is anxious to prevent the Ukraine war further cementing a division of the world into two opposing blocs.

Sullivan and Yang had also been expected to follow up on agreements Joe Biden and Xi Jinping made in a virtual summit in November, to improve crisis communications between the two nuclear powers.

“We also are watching closely to see the extent to which China actually does provide any form of support – material support or economic support – to Russia,” Sullivan told CNN. “It is a concern of ours. And we have communicated to Beijing that we will not stand by and allow any country to compensate Russia for its losses from the economic sanctions.”

Sullivan said the US had made clear to Beijing that there would “absolutely be consequences” for “large-scale” efforts to help Russia sidestep sanctions.

Russia has also asked China for economic help as it faces severe western sanctions, but Sullivan told CNN the US was “communicating directly, privately to Beijing that there will absolutely be consequences” if China helps Russia evade sanctions.

The Financial TimesNew York Times and Washington Post reported on Sunday about the Russian request for weapons, amid claims from US officials that the Russian military was running short on certain kinds of armaments and had been seeking weapons from Beijing for some time.

The spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington, Liu Pengyu, told CNN he had “never heard” of the Russian arms requests.

“The current situation in Ukraine is indeed disconcerting,” he said in a statement. “The high priority now is to prevent the tense situation from escalating or even getting out of control.”

“It feels like the US-China relationship is moving toward a pretty significant fork,” Ryan Hass, former China director at the US national security council, said on Twitter. “If China materially contributes to Russia’s war machine in Ukraine through provision of materiel or significant backfilling, then China’s actions will accelerate the cleavage of the world in direction of adversarial blocs.

“It’s wise for the US to speak directly and privately with the Chinese at an authoritative level now to clarify the lasting strategic ramifications of China’s decisions in this moment.”

China has so far not condemned the Russian invasion or the mass killings of civilians in bombardments of Ukrainian towns, and has abstained on resolutions deploring the attack at the UN security council and general assembly. Xi last week called for “maximum restraint” in Ukraine after a virtual meeting with the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, and French president, Emmanuel Macron, and said he was “pained to see the flames of war reignited in Europe”.

Xi also expressed concern about the impact of sanctions on the global economy, and the limitation that western sanctions are imposing on China’s ability to buy Russian oil.

Hass, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said he did not expect to see any immediate breakthroughs at the Rome meeting. “The results may take weeks or longer to come into focus,” he said. “Neither side is likely to provide other with satisfaction. Outcomes may need to be measured in degrees, not black-white binaries.”

Wen-ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University, said he believed the chance that China would supply weapons to Russia was “small”.

“Doing it would be both too late to help the distant war in Ukraine, and would look very bad for Beijing. It’s not worth it,” he said.

However, Sung said the US’s public airing of Russia’s requests – which were still of real concern – also allowed it to pressure Beijing on its civilian trade with Russia, which could include non-military parts and components which could be used in weapons production.

“By flagging the possibility of Chinese providing military aid, Washington actually is laying down talking points to nudge China into limiting ‘civilian trading relationship’ with Russia and semi-joining (however partially) the international economic sanctions against Russia,” Sung said.

“If it works, it will reduce China-Russia trade and further weaken Russia; if it doesn’t, it will help shore up the ‘China is Russia’s enabler’ image, and claim moral high ground for the US vis-a-vis China.”

Professor Steve Tsang, director of the Soas China Institute, said Xi would not want to put China’s economy at risk during a year when his top priority is securing a third term.

“China under Xi will give whatever support it can to help Putin but it will not allow itself to suffer from secondary sanctions as it does so, despite the [agreement] of ‘rock solid’ support and a friendship ‘without limits’,” he said.

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