US tactic with China in Ukraine crisis raises tensions with Beijing

WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) – The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden made a carefully orchestrated gamble this week, issuing a series of public and private threats to Beijing that it will face consequences if it supports Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The strategy was capped off by a tense seven-hour meeting in Rome on Monday between Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, and China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi.

But after hurling loud diplomatic reservations at Beijing, Biden officials are still debating the next steps to take to ensure China does not help Russia evade Western sanctions or supply Moscow with weapons as casualties mount in Ukraine.

An immediate result of the Rome meeting was an angry Beijing that was combative in the negotiations, people familiar with the interactions said. A US-based person briefed on the meeting described the Chinese authorities’ response as “harsh” and “offensive”. Another said simply that the negotiations did not go well.

Washington is now looking at a number of unanswered questions, including what level China would need to cross a “red line” towards Ukraine to trigger a US response and what exactly that response would be, administration officials say.

The Biden administration is waiting to see what China does before deciding on a course of action. “We will be watching closely,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Monday. A senior US official said they would look into what military, economic or other support is being provided to Russia.

The United States on Monday told allies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Western military alliance and several Asian countries that China had signaled its willingness to provide Russia with military and economic aid to support its war in Ukraine.

Sullivan warned ahead of the talks that China would face consequences if it helped Moscow avoid sweeping sanctions imposed over Ukraine.

China, which announced a “no-holds-barred” strategic partnership with Russia in February, may find it difficult to change course and back down after a threat became public, said Kevin Gallagher, who leads the Global Development Project at Boston University.

“This was not a good strategic move,” he declared. “Like the US, China has a domestic constituency.”

He Weiwen, a senior fellow at the Chongyang Institute of Financial Studies at Beijing Renmin University, said: “The US is intent on cracking down on China, and the Russia-Ukraine conflict provides a reason for that.” He described the US warnings as “blackmail”.

Biden administration sources and diplomats in Washington and Europe say Western countries sent private warnings to Beijing about China’s support for Russian President Vladimir Putin weeks before the meeting in Rome.

Russia has denied asking China for military aid, and China this week warned of “false information” in an apparent reference to US statements.

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