Xi Jinping’s meetings in Moscow with Vladimir Putin put the Biden administration in an uncomfortable position: on the sidelines as two adversaries discuss a Ukraine peace proposal that the US has deemed unacceptable.
US officials have publicly expressed deep scepticism about the Chinese idea, saying its call for a cease-fire would reward Moscow’s invasion by cementing its territorial gains. Privately, though, the meetings and the proposal have provoked a sense of unease within the administration, leading in turn to questions about the broader US approach to the two countries.
According to one administration official, who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations, the US is worried about being backed into a corner over the Chinese proposal. Regardless of the US reservations, dismissing it outright could let China argue to other nations that are weary of the war – and of the economic damage it’s wreaking – that Washington isn’t interested in peace.
If the US spurns the agreement, “China will likely ramp up messaging that the US is opposed to a cease-fire, that the US is opposed to the end of the war,” said Bonny Lin, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who once served at the Pentagon. “There will be lots of ways in which China will try to spin whatever comes from the China-Russia meeting in a way that seeks to portray the US in negative light.”
The debate over China’s version of a peace plan highlights just one of the many uncomfortable realities that were brought home by Xi’s three-day visit this week to Moscow, which saw the Chinese leader greeted warmly by Putin. The two countries pledged to deepen their partnership even further.
The Biden administration has tried to keep China on the sidelines since the start of the Ukraine invasion, but the opposite appears to have happened. Even as Xi and Putin grow closer, China is finding a receptive audience for its broader diplomatic push around the globe.
At a Senate hearing on Wednesday, Senator Jeff Merkley asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken to respond to what the Oregon Democrat called a “three-day bro-fest with Putin and Xi celebrating authoritarian power.” Blinken acknowledged it was a continuation of the two nations’ pledge right before the war of a “partnership with no limits.”
“This is no surprise – both countries have very different worldviews than our own,” Blinken said. “They may find common cause in opposing the worldview that we and so many other countries around the world seek to defend and advance.”
Blinken didn’t mention all the countries that have refused to take sides despite US urging.
China has shrugged off US sanctions over its companies’ partnership with Russia, bought oil from Iran’s regime in defiance of western demands and helped orchestrate a diplomatic detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Major global economies are refusing to choose between China and the West, arguing they don’t want a new Cold War.
And a week ago, Honduras began the process of giving up its diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favour of economic links with China.
The move was “a sign of my determination to fulfil the government plan and expand frontiers freely in harmony with the nations of the world,” President Xiomara Castro said in a tweet.
It’s all taking place as US ties to China, which began to fray with former President Donald Trump’s trade war, keep getting worse. That was underscored by the furore over the alleged Chinese spy balloon that provoked a national outcry in the US and angry recriminations between Washington and Beijing.
That episode eroded an attempt to stabilize the relationship late last year with an in-person summit between President Joe Biden and Xi in Indonesia. It led to a tense meeting between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in Munich, and Xi later warned of “comprehensive containment and suppression by Western countries led by the US.”
US officials argue that their sharp words for Beijing are having an impact. They say US public warnings that China might provide lethal assistance to Russia led Xi’s government to think twice about the idea. The US also continues to supply Ukraine with weapons – it announced $325 million in new munitions this week – in concert with European nations that are coming up with new supply plans of their own.
The Biden administration has tried to make China confront the Ukraine crisis on the US’s terms, but “Xi is now getting in on his terms,” said Christopher K. Johnson, president of China Strategies Group, a political risk consultancy. “And that, I think, is probably causing some consternation within the administration.”
With Washington constantly taking a hawkish hard line on China, some analysts believe that China may have effectively given up on a better relationship with the US anytime soon.
The less China sees an opportunity to work with the US, “the more likely they are to pursue those other avenues and options,” said Melanie Sisson, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution. “And in many ways and places, that will mean trying to fray US relationships with other countries.”