President Joe Biden took office framing this moment in geopolitics as a battle between autocracy and democracy – casting China as the chief authoritarian threat on the world stage.
Nearly a year later, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has magnified the looming question of China’s role in the world and it has worsened tensions between Washington and Beijing.
The chilly U.S.-China relationship may face its biggest test as the U.S. turns up pressure on China to take a stand against Russia in the largest land conflict in Europe since World War II.
Biden spoke to Chinese President Xi Jinping Friday following what administration officials described as “intense” seven-hour talks between U.S. and Chinese officials earlier this week. The call, which lasted nearly two hours, came after Beijing denied reports that Moscow had asked for military support for its war in Ukraine, which has triggered severe global sanctions that have tanked Russia’s economy.
Analysts say Beijing’s decision – whether to overtly support Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war or to distance itself from the Kremlin’s military assault on Ukraine – is shaping up to be an inflection point in the U.S.-China relationship.
“China is at a major strategic crossroads here,” said Hal Brands of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “If China decides to more openly and fulsomely support Russia in this conflict, it’s embracing a whole new level of risk not only in its relations with the West but also in its relations with the United States.”
So far, Beijing has tried to walk a geopolitical tightrope, offering tacit support of Russia, a major ally, while trying not to aggravate the West.
Supporting Putin could undercut Beijing’s credibility on the global stage and expose China to U.S. sanctions, according to Brands.
With civilian casualties mounting in Ukraine, the White House is pressing Beijing to join the global condemnation of Moscow’s invasion and prevent Ukraine from becoming a wider proxy war that could reshape the international order forged over the last century.
Should Xi decide to put more material or military support behind Putin’s war, that would “fast-forward the trajectory towards something that looks or rhymes with a Cold War,” said Jude Blanchette, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
A contentious relationship made shakier
Monday’s meeting between National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, came after the Washington Post and other news outlets reported Russia has asked China for military equipment to help its war effort and economic assistance to cushion the blow of sanctions, an allegation both countries deny.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters Thursday that China has a particular responsibility to use its influence on Russia. But rather than defending the international rules it professes to support, Blinken said, China is instead moving in the opposite direction by refusing to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine while portraying itself as a neutral arbiter.
Blinken said Biden will make clear in Friday’s call that China will bear responsibility for any actions it takes to support Russia’s aggression.
“We will not hesitate to impose costs,” Blinken warned.
The U.S.-China relationship has deteriorated dramatically in recent years as former President Donald Trump launched a trade war against Beijing and lashed out at the country for its role in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite reversing several of Trump’s policies, Biden has continued to take an aggressive stance on China, leaving in place tariffs on more than $350 billion worth of Chinese goods, for instance.
The president has sought to counter China by reviving the Asia-Pacific security partnership between the U.S, Australia, Japan and India, known as the “Quad.” He drew Beijing’s ire after securing a deal last year with the U.K. to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. And Congress is working to reconcile a House-passed bill and a separate Senate measure aimed at shoring up domestic supply chains and scientific research to give the U.S. a more competitive edge over China.
Though it’s still too early to tell which way Beijing will move, the war in Ukraine adds a new dimension to the U.S.-China relationship, according to Blanchette.
While the two countries may try to find consensus on certain issues like technology and trade, any Chinese support for Russia could blunt chances of broader cooperation and potential realignment of the relationship, he said.
“It will put the trajectory of the relationship more firmly on a path of intense rivalry,” Blanchette said.
Putin’s assault has also stoked fears that Xi could act on his desire to take over Taiwan, an independent nation that Beijing sees as a renegade province. The White House signaled its support for Taipei by sending a high-level delegation to the island nation earlier this month, a stern reminder for Beijing of U.S. support of the island democracy.
Xi’s ‘massive gamble’ on Putin
China has grown increasingly close with Russia in recent years, an alliance that’s become deeply personalized by Xi and Putin’s friendship. The pair declared a “no limits” friendship and closer cooperation to counter American influence in a meeting ahead of the 2022 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony on Feb. 4.
But China has sought to play both sides in the weeks since the invasion, declining to condemn Russia for the ongoing assault and instead shifting the focus on its support for “sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, including Ukraine,” as Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to the U.S., wrote in a
“Xi Jinping may have decided that he simply has too much invested in the relationship with Vladimir Putin to back away now and that he doesn’t want to see Putin lose his war in Ukraine,” Brands said. “But he’s taking a massive gamble if he increases Chinese support at this moment.”
Aside from damaging the U.S. relationship, Xi risks tarnishing his credibility in Europe, which could be beneficial for a White House looking to counter China’s rise on the global stage, according to Brands.
More: Some countries wanted to stay neutral: How Russia’s invasion has quickly reshaped Europe
In the past few weeks, China abstained from a United Nations Security Council vote to condemn the invasion, as well as a resolution in the UN General Assembly calling on Russia to withdraw its troops.
“I think that this war has certainly given the Chinese a black eye in Europe because the Chinese seem to be complicit in Russian aggression that’s threatening to export instability and insecurity throughout much of eastern Europe,” Brands said. “One of the upshots of this crisis may be actually to increase the antibodies to Chinese power in the international system.”
For China, the world’s second-largest economy and a dominant player in global supply chains, the cost of supporting Putin may be too high, according to Andrew Scobell, a distinguished fellow for China at the U.S. Institute for Peace.
“War is bad for Chinese business so there’s no advantage to China for this to drag on and yet that’s what’s happening,” he said. “The economy is paramount and China has a lot more to lose on this than Russia.”
China’s top diplomat said as much earlier this week.
“China is not a party to the (Ukraine) crisis, nor does it want to be affected by the sanctions,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Spanish counterpart Jose Manuel Albares in a Tuesday phone call, according to China’s state news agency Xinhua.
More: Where US, allies have targeted the dozens of sanctions against Russia
China’s economic might on the world stage, however, may pose a bigger challenge for the Biden administration. It may be more difficult for the U.S. to convince Western allies to sanction Chinese businesses over possible support of the Ukrainian war.
But White House officials insist the U.S. and partners in Europe and Asia remain unified on a response to any Chinese support for Putin.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki downplayed China’s economic dominance, pointing out they make up 15 to 20 percent of the world’s economy compared to the block of G-7 countries, which makes up more than 50 percent.
“So there are a range of tools at our disposal in coordination with our European partners should we need to use them,” she said.
Keith Darden, associate professor at American University’s School of International Service, sees Ukraine as “a very risky moment for China.”
The Chinese leader “wants to see the U.S., and to some extent Europe, marginalized,” he said. “But he runs the risk of being marginalized himself.”