China has already decided to provide Russia with economic and financial support during its war on Ukraine and is contemplating sending military supplies such as armed drones, US officials fear.
The US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, laid out the US case against Russia’s invasion in an “intense” seven-hour meeting in Rome with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, pointing out that Moscow had feigned interest in diplomacy while preparing for invasion, and also that the Russian military was clearly showing signs of frailty.
The US delegation in Rome had not expected the Chinese diplomats to negotiate, seeing them as message deliverers to Beijing.
“It was an intense seven-hour session, reflecting the gravity of the moment, as well as our commitment to maintaining open lines of communication,” a senior administration official said. “This meeting was not about negotiating specific issues or outcomes, but about a candid, direct exchange of views.”
Asked if it had been successful, the official replied: “I suppose it depends on how you define success, but we believe that it is important to keep open lines of communication between the United States and China, especially on areas where we disagree.”
However, the Americans walked away from the Rome meeting pessimistic that the Chinese government would change its minds about backing Moscow.
“The key here is first to get China to recalculate and re-evaluate their position. We see no sign of that re-evaluation,” said another US official familiar with the discussions. “They’ve already decided that they’re going to provide economic and financial support, and they underscored that today. The question really is whether they will go further.”
Top of the Russian military shopping list in China are armed drones and various forms of ammunition, but any military transfers would not be straightforward.
“Both sides understand that they don’t share common systems, and so that makes it problematic,” the official said. CNN reported that the Russian military is also asking for ration packs, underlining its severe logistical problems in a more prolonged and tougher conflict than it anticipated.
Russia needs economic and financial aid most urgently, in the face of devastating sanctions imposed by the US and its allies since the 24 February invasion. The country is danger of default on its debt payments, with two interest payments due on Wednesday, though it will have a 30-day grace period.
Moscow is unable to access nearly all of its $640bn in gold and foreign exchange reserves, but still holds part of those reserves in yuan, so Beijing will be able to step in to provide immediate assistance.
There is pessimism in Washington about the possibility of steering China away from throwing in its lot with Russia, largely because it sees the partnership as being driven from the top.
“It really is a project of Xi Jinping. He is totally, fundamentally behind this closer partnership with Russia,” the US official said. There is more scepticism lower down the ranks, but Xi and Putin have bonded over their shared view of the US as being heavy- and high-handed, and determined to end the period of US global dominance.
If China does back Russia in its showdown with the west, the Biden administration will shift its focus to persuading allies, in Europe particularly, to rethink their relationships with Beijing. Sullivan is due in Paris on Tuesday for discussions with the French government.
“The United States believes that the key here is a careful process of dialogue and discussion with Europe about what China is revealing about its global policies and priorities,” the US official said. “Our goal basically is to carefully engage China, letting the Europeans know [what we are doing] all along, but if it becomes clear that [China] is moving in another direction, so be it.”