The White House has tried in recent weeks to tone down its rhetoric about the possibility of China providing Russia with lethal aid to use in Ukraine, an effort aimed at defusing 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 towards China on this issue at this time could backfire by pushing Xi into a corner where he feels compelled to send lethal aid to Russia, rather than dissuading him from doing so. take that step, officials said. .
“We don’t want to lock down China,” said an administration official.
A month after first publicly revealing that US intelligence showed China is considering sending weapons to Russia, the White House says, the US has seen no indication that China has decided to do so. But there is also no indication that Xi has taken the idea off the table, according to the White House.
Next Thursday’s meeting between Putin and Xi in Moscow has raised concerns in the Biden administration that it could result in China taking a step to help arm Russia, if not by sending targeted weapons, then by supplying Russia with much-needed parts. to speed up its military industrial base, according to officials.
Russia has been mining household items like breast pumps and washing machines for the microchips it needs for tanks and precision-guided weapons.
Administration officials are concerned enough that China could provide Russia with assistance like those chips that they have been discussing what kinds of sanctions the United States might take against China in response, according to the officials. Multiple options are being discussed on how to structure such sanctions, the officials said, given that the harsher they are, the more likely they are to negatively affect the US economy.
Part of the White House’s strategy of trying to tone down rhetoric about China’s consideration of weapons for Russia includes a decision by senior officials, after internal debate, not to publicly release intelligence the United States says it has. To back up that claim, officials. saying. They said the administration could decide to declassify and release the intelligence at a later time, but for now the focus is on trying more privately to persuade China not to provide lethal aid to Russia.
“There is a feeling that going public will drive Xi into a corner, and he will end up supplying the weapons simply not to appear weak,” said a former senior administration official.
After initially issuing stern warnings to China against providing lethal aid to Russia, including threatening to retaliate with economic sanctions, senior administration officials are now adopting a more measured public tack. That pushback approach includes officials saying the administration doesn’t think it’s in China’s interest to supply the weapons and refusing to go into detail about how the United States would respond if that happened.
Last month, for example, John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, responded to questions about China’s possible arms supply to Russia by making it clear that «there would be consequences» and imploring Beijing not to make such a move.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken took a similar tone, promising a tough American response.
“We will not hesitate, for example, to target Chinese companies or individuals who violate our sanctions or are otherwise involved in supporting the Russian war effort,” Blinken said.
However, when asked more recently about a possible US response if China supplies Russia with weapons for Ukraine, Kirby said: «I just don’t think it’s helpful at this point to hypothesize what consequences might result.»
He noted that Blinken «has talked about the fact that there would be ramifications» and added: «I think it’s probably best if we just leave it at that.»
The change in tone follows weeks of escalating hostility between the US and China after President Joe Biden tried to mend frayed relations by meeting Xi last November.
However, tensions began to escalate significantly when China flew a spy balloon across the US early last month, prompting Blinken to cancel a planned trip to Beijing just as he was scheduled to leave, culminating in two weeks later with the public indictment from the White House. that China is considering supplying lethal aid to Russia for use in Ukraine.
The officials said the administration is still hoping to mend months of deeply strained relations, which hit new lows last month when China flew a spy balloon across the US and the US later accused China of considering sending weapons to Russia.
“We want to try to find a better foundation for this relationship,” said a second administration official.
If China were to provide lethal aid to Russia, it is hard to see how relations could improve anytime soon, the officials said.
A spokesman for the National Security Council responded to a request for comment by noting Kirby’s comments to reporters on Friday when he reiterated that the administration remains concerned that China may supply Russia with weapons, but has seen no indication that any action has been taken. a decision.
Kirby also said ahead of the Putin-Xi meeting that any Chinese proposal to end the Ukraine war emerging from those talks should be greeted with skepticism, calling the 12-point plan Beijing recently laid out «one-sided» in the sense that it benefits Moscow.
Xi’s meeting with Putin next week comes as Biden’s plans to have a phone call with the Chinese leader have not materialized.
It has been more than a month since Biden said he hoped 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 Friday that no call has been scheduled and that efforts to set one up are not yet underway, but could be in the coming days.
The call would cap a week-long exchange of strong public criticism between China and the US.
Biden accused China of violating US sovereignty with the spy balloon, and Blinken warned China that the US would impose sanctions on Beijing if Xi sent weapons to Russia.
In the spy balloon, Beijing accused the Biden administration of overreacting. And Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning said the US was spreading «disinformation» by accusing China of considering sending weapons to Russia and called it hypocritical given the Biden administration’s military support for Ukraine.
China this week said the United States is on a «dangerous» path by unveiling a multi-billion dollar nuclear-powered submarine deal with Australia and the United Kingdom as part of an effort to check Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific.
Even Xi himself delivered a rare direct public criticism of the US last week. “The US-led Western countries have implemented comprehensive containment, encirclement and suppression of China,” he said.
Still, toning down the rhetoric may not have much impact on Xi, said Victor Cha, senior vice president for Asia and Korea at the Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
«Regardless of what the US says, Xi will do whatever he wants after this meeting next week,» Cha said.