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

The White House has tried in recent weeks to tone down its rhetoric about China offering Russia potentially deadly aid for use in Ukraine, a bid to ease heightened tensions, particularly ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s upcoming meeting. with Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to four current administration officials and three former officials.

One of the concerns driving the softer tone is that sharper rhetoric on the issue right now could backfire by pushing Xi into a corner where he feels compelled to send deadly aid to Russia, rather than him. from taking that step, officials said. .

“We don’t want to pigeonhole China,” said a government official.

A month after the US first publicly announced that China is considering sending weapons to Russia, the White House says, the US has not yet seen any indication that China has decided to do so. But there is also no evidence that Xi has taken the idea off the table, the White House said.

Thursday’s meeting between Putin and Xi in Moscow has raised concerns in the Biden administration that it could lead to China taking a step to help arm Russia, if not by sending specific weapons, then by supplying Russia. of much-needed parts to its military industrial base, according to officials.

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

Government officials are sufficiently concerned that China could provide Russia with aid such as those chips they’ve been talking about about the types of sanctions the U.S. could take on China in response, officials said. There are multiple options being discussed for structuring such sanctions, officials said, as the stricter they are, the more likely they are to negatively impact the U.S. economy.

Part of the White House’s strategy to try to tone down the rhetoric about China’s arms considerations for Russia includes a decision by senior officials – after some internal debate – to use the intelligence the US says it has to support that claim. bars, not to be publicly disclosed. said. They said the government could decide to release and release the intelligence at a later date, but for now the focus is more privately on trying to convince China not to provide deadly aid to Russia.

“There is a feeling that going public will corner Xi, and he will eventually provide the weapons so as not to appear weak,” said a former senior government official.

After initially issuing stern warnings to China against providing lethal aid to Russia, including threatening economic sanctions, senior government officials are now taking a more measured public tactic. That callback approach includes officials noting that the government does not believe it is in China’s best interest to provide the weapons and refusing to go into detail about how the US would respond if that happened.

Last month, for example, John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, responded to questions about China possibly supplying arms to Russia by making it clear that “there would be consequences” and begged Beijing not to take such a step.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken struck a similar tone and vowed a tough American response.

“For example, we will not hesitate to target Chinese companies or individuals who violate our sanctions or are otherwise involved in supporting Russia’s war effort,” Blinken said.

But when asked more recently about a possible US response if China supplies Russia with weapons for Ukraine, Kirby said: “I don’t think it is useful at this point to hypothesize what consequences this might have.”

He noted that Blinken “has talked about there being consequences” and added, “I think that’s probably better if we leave it at that.”

The shift in tone follows weeks of mounting animosity between the US and China after President Joe Biden attempted to mend frayed relations last November by meeting with Xi.

However, tensions began to escalate significantly when China flew a spy balloon over the US early last month, prompting Blinken to cancel a planned trip to Beijing just as he was due to leave, culminating two weeks later in the public accusation of the White House. that China is considering supplying deadly aid to Russia for use in Ukraine.

Officials said the government still hopes to mend months of highly tense relations, which reached an all-time low last month when China flew a spy balloon over the US and the US accused China of considering sending weapons to Russia.

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

If China delivered lethal aid to Russia, it is hard to see how relations could improve any time soon, officials said.

A spokesperson for the National Security Council responded to a request for comment by pointing to Kirby’s comments to reporters on Friday, when he reiterated that the government remains concerned that China could supply arms to Russia but has seen no indication that a decision has been made. taken.

Kirby also said ahead of the Putin-Xi meeting that any proposal by China to end the war in Ukraine that emerges from those talks should be met with skepticism, calling Beijing’s 12-point plan recently put forward “unilateral” because it benefits Moscow.

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

It has 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 on Friday that no call has been scheduled and no efforts have been made to set one up yet, but that could happen in the coming days.

The call would cover a weeks-long exchange of sharp public barbs between China and the US

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 China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning said the US was spreading “disinformation” by accusing China of sending weapons to Russia and called it hypocritical given the Biden administration’s military support for Ukraine.

Just this week, China said the US is on the path of “danger” by presenting a multibillion-dollar nuclear-powered submarine deal with Australia and the UK as part of an effort to stem China’s aggression in the Indo-Pacific. fuses.

Even Xi himself delivered a rare public, direct critique of the US last week. “Western countries under the leadership of the United States have implemented a comprehensive containment, encirclement and suppression of China,” he said.

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

“No matter what the US says, Xi will do whatever he wants after this meeting next week,” Cha said.

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