United States President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, are due to hold their first direct talks since November, amid growing US concern over Beijing’s relationship with Russia and its stance on the increasingly brutal war in Ukraine.
Biden and Xi will speak on the phone at 13:00 GMT on Friday, the White House said, amid warnings from Washington that China may be considering providing military support to Russia.
In a briefing earlier, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Biden would use the call to “make clear that China will bear responsibility for any actions it takes to support Russia’s aggression”, and there would be “costs” to such actions.
China “in particular has a responsibility to use its influence with President Putin and to defend the international rules and principles that it professes to support”, he said.
While Western countries and allies have moved to impose tough sanctions on Russia over the invasion and condemned its aggression, China, which has a close relationship with Kyiv as well as with Moscow, has not.
Walking a diplomatic tightrope, it has stressed Ukraine’s sovereignty while strenuously avoiding any direct criticism of Russia and calling for peace negotiations.
It has also insisted that Russia has legitimate security concerns that need to be addressed and echoed Russian claims the US has been secretly working on biological weapons in Ukraine. The allegations have been rejected by the US and the United Nations.
“Since the beginning of the invasion, China has tried, I think, very awkwardly, to play a neutral role,” said Katrina Yu, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Bejing. “It’s refused to take sides, saying that it’s got good relations with both Kyiv and Moscow. It says that it’s a neutral player and just wants to encourage dialogue. But at the same time, Beijing has made it very clear that it intends to preserve its friendship with Russia, which it has called ‘limitless’ [and] ‘rock solid’.”
At a regular briefing of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Thursday, spokesman Zhao Lijian insisted China’s position was consistent and rounded on those who suggested any incongruity.
“It is those countries that delude themselves into thinking that they can lord it over the world after winning the Cold War, those that keep driving NATO’s eastward expansion five times in disregard of other countries’ security concerns, and those that wage wars across the globe while accusing other countries of being belligerent, that should really feel ‘uncomfortable’,” he told reporters.
China and Russia have grown increasingly close in recent years, although Beijing has never recognised Russia’s claim over Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014.
The two countries conducted joint military and naval exercises at the end of last year and issued a lengthy 5,000-word statement on February 4 against the expansion of NATO, calling the security bloc a relic of the Cold War.
Putin, who appears to have developed a close bond with Xi, was in Beijing shortly before the invasion for the opening of the Winter Olympic Games. The two have met more than 30 times since 2013.