Ukraine throws wrench in warming US-China ties 

blinkenantony jinengchen uschina 042524 AP

Recent breakthroughs in U.S.-China ties are already starting to fray over Beijing’s support for Russia in Ukraine.

Despite renewed communications between Washington and Beijing, championed since late last year, the U.S. is angry about China’s growing role in the Russia-Ukraine war, specifically its commercial support of Moscow’s military production.

The Biden administration is now looking to use new sanctions as diplomatic leverage to stop China from giving Russia drone and missile technology, satellite imagery and machine tools — aid that bolsters the Kremlin’s war machine more than two years after its invasion. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in the midst of a three-day diplomatic trip to Beijing, set to wrap up Friday, where he was expected to deliver a staunch message to the world superpower: Cut ties with the Kremlin or be prepared to suffer the consequences.

“Given the Chinese Communist Party’s extensive support for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin before and after his invasion of Ukraine, including their direct help in reconstituting Russia’s military industrial base, U.S. diplomatic channels must be used to apply much-needed pressure on Beijing,” said Jonathan Ward, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute think tank in Washington, D.C. 

“We’re going to need to apply significant economic pressure on China, and if his counterparts in Beijing need to hear this first, then Secretary Blinken needs to deliver that message,” he added.

Blinken’s visit follows a November meeting between President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Woodside, Calif., where the two committed to communicate more regularly — between each other and between their senior officials. The two also spoke over the phone earlier this month.  

That new line of dialogue was on display last week when Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with his Chinese counterpart, the first such top-level military communications between Washington and Beijing in nearly two years. A senior Defense official told reporters the call was meant to ensure competition with China “doesn’t veer into conflict.” 

That followed a visit to Beijing in early April 24, 2024, by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who led an economic delegation that was lauded by Chinese state media.

But the administration earlier this month began calling out China’s exports of military equipment to Russia, making clear that aiding Putin’s war in Ukraine is a red line for the U.S., akin to how China feels about Taiwan, an independent island that Beijing views as its own territory.   

“We’ve told China directly, if this continues, it will have an impact on the U.S.-China relationship. We will not sit by and say everything is fine if Russia’s offensives continue and they gain territory in Ukraine,” Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said during a town hall hosted by the National Committee on U.S-China Relations earlier in April.

While there’s not yet evidence of China providing weapons to Russia, Beijing’s support for Moscow includes nonlethal equipment such as drone technology and supplies including gunpowder ingredients, machine tools, microelectronics and nitrocellulose, which can be used as a propellant, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith told Politico.

Such “dual-use” technology can be applied in both civilian and military arenas and is helping Putin’s army, she said.

China so far has claimed its exports are in accordance with international laws and regulations.  Chinese Embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu told The Hill that China’s right to conduct normal trade and economic exchanges “should not be interfered with or disrupted.” 

“China is neither the creator of the Ukraine crisis nor a party to it. We never fan the flames or seek selfish gains, and we will certainly not accept being the scapegoat,” Liu said in a statement. “The United States keeps making groundless accusations over the normal trade and economic exchanges between China and Russia, while passing a bill providing a large amount of aid for Ukraine. China firmly rejects this.”

Ahead of his trip, Blinken previewed his talks with China, telling reporters that when it comes to Russia’s military industrial base, “the primary contributor in this moment to that is China.”

“If China purports on the one hand to want good relations with Europe and other countries, it can’t on the other hand be fueling what is the biggest threat to European security since the end of the Cold War,” Blinken said after a meeting of leading world economies in Italy.

U.S. officials have also warned of crippling sanctions on Chinese companies should they keep sending the nonlethal supplies to Russia.

Blinken last visited China in June, following nearly a year of silence between U.S. and Chinese officials that began when former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) visited Taiwan in August 2022. Blinken had intended to make the trip earlier, but it was canceled when a Chinese spy balloon floated across the United States days ahead of his departure, once again upending dialogue between the two nations.

The relationship has since grown more stable in the five months since Biden and Xi met, with China dialing down military drills around Taiwan.

Ward said Washington must back up its threats if it wants to see China change its behavior toward Russia. 

“Insofar as there is going to be a dialogue, it cannot shy away from the real-world issues of U.S.- China global competition, not least of which is the need to explain to them and to be able to deliver real effects if they continue to support Putin, which they almost certainly will,” Ward said.

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