US Wants to Challenge China, Now Biden Needs Xi's Help to End Russia's War

As Russia's war in Ukraine rages into a fourth week, one of the most consequential moments to come from the crisis may be U.S. President Joe Biden's phone call Friday with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.

The Biden administration set out to make a foreign policy priority out of countering Beijing's rise, but the urgency through which Washington has turned to its top competitor in an attempt to prevent and now help defuse the crisis in Europe speaks to a dire need to improve ties for the sake of geopolitical stability.

And as the United States tries to draw China away from its "comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for the new era" with Russia and even renounce its official neutrality to take action against Moscow, Beijing is approaching the overture with deep skepticism given Biden's long-term goals.

"The notion that China has resisted calls from the U.S. to align with the West on the war in Ukraine due to America's relatively more hostile posture towards it over the last several years certainly plays an influential role in President Xi's calculations on how to proceed," Matthew Geraci, research associate and program officer at the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington, told Newsweek.

"On top of this, the United States recognizes China's unique position and potential to play a significant mediating role should it choose to do so," he added. "At this point, China has attempted to appear neutral on the world stage despite each side vying for its support."

This neutrality is not new. It has roots in the very formation of the foreign policy of the People's Republic, dating back to the first premier under Communist rule, Zhou Enlai, who initially outlined China's international affairs principles of "mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity," "nonaggression," "non-interference in each other's internal affairs" and "equality and mutual benefit" in April 1955.

Today, this position has run afoul of the U.S. as it attempts to build a unanimous global coalition against Russian President Vladimir Putin's attack on Ukraine. It also plays into growing sensitives in Washington as to how the growing alignment of its top two rivals affects the U.S. position on the world stage.

But just as Beijing has amplified Moscow's concerns over NATO's eastward expansion, global U.S. military activities and even claims of dangerous biological research being conducted in Ukraine and beyond, notes of balance could be read in recent interactions.

Chinese ambassador to Ukraine Fan Xianrong emphasized Beijing's own "strategic partnership" with Kyiv by reiterating support for "the path chosen by Ukrainians because this is the sovereign right of every nation."

Chinese state media has also played a hand in this parallel approach, with outlets both broadcasting commentaries that blame the U.S. for stoking the crisis while at the same time airing allegations and graphic footage purporting to show the killing of Ukrainian civilians by Russian soldiers.

"On the one hand, China has voiced grievances that both it and Russia similarly have with NATO, particularly as it worries about the future evolution of the Quad [the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States] and what that could mean for its claims in the South China Sea and Taiwan," Geraci said. "It has gone so far as to align some of its language with Russia by blaming the U.S. for instigating the conflict."

"Yet, on the other hand, China has publicly announced it desires a ceasefire and an end to the destruction, that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine be respected, and has even provided humanitarian support to Ukrainian citizens," he said.

"As a result, neither Russia nor the West has been satisfied with China's actions and inactions," Geraci added.

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U.S. President Joe Biden looks down as he meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., November 15, 2021. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

And while the stakes may be higher for Russia given the prospects of international isolation should China publicly denounce Putin's "special military operation" in Ukraine, the gap between China and the U.S. has played out most publicly.

The distance between Beijing and Washington's priorities were on full display after a seven-hour series of talks led by Chinese Central Foreign Affairs Commission Director Yang Jiechi and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan in Rome on Monday, as Newsweek reported at the time.

After the discussions wrapped up, a senior Biden administration told reporters that Sullivan laid out the U.S. position on Ukraine, and said that that U.S. officials "do have deep concerns about China's alignment with Russia at this time, and the national security adviser was direct about those concerns and the potential implications and consequences of certain actions."

A short readout released by the White House said the two men "raised a range of issues in U.S.-China relations, with substantial discussion of Russia's war against Ukraine." The Chinese Foreign Ministry, for its part, released a far lengthier account comprising two separate readouts.

The first dealt largely with the issue of the self-ruling island of Taiwan, claimed by Beijing but backed by Washington, and also covered other "core interests" of China such as Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong. These topics represent the most serious obstacles to stabilizing U.S.-China relations, another main feature of the Chinese readout, as Washington has expanded support for Taipei and intensified accusations against Beijing of human rights abuses and repression in the three Chinese regions in recent years.

The second readout from the Chinese side dealt with Ukraine, and here too Yang was said to have underscored Beijing's interest in a peaceful resolution as well as its opposition to "any words and deeds that spread disinformation and distort and smear China's position."

This line, in particular, appeared to reference accusations from U.S. officials that China may be planning to support Russia's war economically and militarily, and even that Beijing may of known of Moscow's plans ahead of time.

Given the disparity in the two narratives that have emerged from the likely consequential discussions in the Italian capital, Geraci said Washington's ability to influence Beijing may be limited unless the U.S. is willing to make serious concessions.

"The Biden administration recognizes it will be able to, and in some cases need to, work with China, but the U.S. can only do so in the areas where those interests intersect, Geraci said. "Anything more than that will require significant negotiation and potential concessions to be made if China is going to be convinced to act outside of its self-interest."

And with the particular emphasis in China's readout on Taiwan, as well as Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, he noted there are other issues that could be at play in any dialogue.

"It is clear where China's interests are and where requests for concessions might be made for its support in the Ukraine issue," Geraci said, "or for other areas of international importance like the North Korean nuclear issue, the Iranian nuclear issue, and Afghanistan."

"And for Ukraine," he added, "it is up to Biden to determine whether the costs of increased alignment with the West's interests are worth securing China's potential ability to rein in Putin and bring him to the negotiating table in a meaningful way to end the bloodshed."

China is also well aware of these limits, and experts see a lack of meaningful gestures on the part of the U.S.

Huiyao Wang, founder and president of the Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization, pointed out that the U.S. has now designated nearly 700 Chinese companies on trade restrictions lists.

"The trade tariff is still hanging over the Chinese head," Wang told Newsweek. "China has been pushed to Russia by the U.S. We need to really wonder who has lost China. It is not just the Chinese to be blamed; it takes two to tango."

But despite this bad blood between the two top powers, or perhaps even because of it, he said it was important for Washington to now approach Beijing in good faith.

"I think China is in a unique position, as it is the only major power in the world that is caught in the unexpected war between Russia and the West," Wang said. "It is important to engage China and increase the likelihood of a diplomatic peace solution to stop this crisis. China and the U.S., as the two largest economies in the world, have obligations as the major stakeholders to see an agreed plan to end this war."

Such a position may only be tenable, however, if Washington avoids trying to overtly to tear Beijing away from Moscow, a strategy to which both China and Russia are sensitive, given the Cold War history of the Sino-Soviet split and then-U.S. President Richard Nixon's iconic visit to China that took place 50 years ago last month.

At that time, the U.S. moved to capitalize on the rift between China and Russia, but in recent years Beijing and Moscow have forged a common vision on international affairs, and it remains to be seen whether the war in Ukraine will fundamentally shift this entente.

But Wang is certain that Beijing will continue to forgo the kind of alliances built by major powers in centuries prior.

"China has always played a balanced and non-alliance diplomacy," Wang said. "China wants to maintain good relations with all countries, and wants to see the world in peace and have a shared future."

"The Beijing Winter Olympics game motto is 'One family and shared future,'" he added. "I think the major powers have to work together to get us out of this crisis. China has too much at stake in this, as China is the largest trading partner with 130 countries."

While the international sporting event drew athletes and mostly virtual audiences from across the globe, the geopolitical nature of the event loomed over the U.S, as it commenced with a high-profile summit between Putin and Xi, and ended just a day before Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine.

The two men vowed further coordination in various fields, including foreign policy. But as Russia launched the conflict in Ukraine and fighting between the two sides worsened, China has sought to emphasize its a more neutral position.

"China has taken an impartial stance in this conflict," Andy Mok, who serves as senior research fellow at the Center for China and Globalization, told Newsweek, "which is the most effective way to contribute to a peaceful resolution."

And as the U.S. continues to back Ukraine militarily, he said it was Xi who should deliver a message to Biden when the two leaders held their highly-anticipated conversation on Friday.

"China needs to send a clear and resolute message to the U.S. that efforts undermine the security of other countries whether in Europe or in Asia will not be tolerated," Mok said. "Hopefully, this will lead the U.S. to play a constructive role in bringing about an end to conflict in Ukraine."

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) pose during their meeting in Beijing, on February 4. ALEXEI DRUZHININ/SPUTNIK/AFP/Getty Images

But whether Washington is willing or even able to come to the necessary terms with Beijing to make a difference on Ukraine remains to be seen, especially as long as Taiwan remains at the center of the U.S.-China feud, a point of consistency since former President Donald Trump succeeded former President Barack Obama, whom Biden served as vice president at a time of relatively warmer ties between Washington and Beijing.

"If the U.S. presidents after Obama could be criticized for inconsistency in foreign policy, with Trump denouncing many things which were later reestablished by Biden," Danil Bochkov, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow, told Newsweek, "what is absolutely coherent and inherited is U.S. Asia-Pacific focus and increasing attention to Taiwan."

While Chinese officials have repeatedly rejected any comparisons of Russia's position on Ukraine and China's own stance on Taiwan, a territory that Xi has vowed to retake by diplomacy or force, fears have arisen across the island that it too may face attack as the U.S. became entangled in Europe.

Against the backdrop of these concerns, the U.S. recently approved yet another arms sale to Taiwan, and even sent a delegation of former officials, including Trump's top diplomat, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, there in a series of actions that drew further outrage from China.

Early Friday, just hours before Biden and Xi were set to speak, Reuters reported that People's Liberation Army Navy Type 002 aircraft carrier Shandong sailed through the Taiwan Strait just as the Taiwan Defense Ministry reported that two J-11 fighter jets and one Z-9 helicopter flew through the island's self-proclaimed Air Defense Identification Zone as part of a long-running series of moves seen as a test to Taiwan's claims to sovereignty.

So while China has expressed deep concern over the violence and unrest surrounding Russia's war in Ukraine, Bochkov said Beijing's ties with Moscow, exemplified by their latest leaders' summit, are viewed as "a structural shift of global order paradigm, and it is hundred times more important to China than today's Ukraine crisis, because it speaks of the world system in which Russia and China want to prevail over the 'U.S.-corrupted world system.'"

By pursuing a policy of "containing China," Bochkov said the U.S. "has actually lost touch with Beijing, and now as we can see with the multitude of its futile attempts, could not find common ground either with regard to Russia or any other global issue."

"Washington only now has recognized that it lost China, and actually never considered it as a potential partner in dealing with Russia," he added. "I guess that the U.S. had been so preoccupied with China as a challenging power that it could never think of it as an ad hoc ally for such crises like the one unfolding right now."

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Ukrainian servicemen stands in front of a burning warehouse after shelling in Kyiv on March 17. ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images