Within one week of White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s seven-hour meeting with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi, President Joe Biden has set up a call with People’s Republic of China (PRC) President Xi Jinping. But with a history of mixed messaging and “helpful clarifications,” the expected outcomes of this conversation remain a bone of contention.
According to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, the Friday afternoon call presents “an opportunity for President Biden to assess where President Xi stands.” Chinese state media, however, has been somewhat more combative. The People’s Daily suggested that ahead of the call, America’s persistence in “double standards” will only bankrupt U.S. credibility.
Setting the Stage
There are a variety of interpretations on how well Sullivan’s meeting went toward getting Beijing to understand the message that the US doesn’t want the PRC aiding and abetting Russia’s unprovoked invasion. The party line from the White House following the Sullivan-Yang meeting was terse. “Mr. Sullivan raised a range of issues in US-China relations, with substantial discussion of Russia’s war against Ukraine. They also underscored the importance of maintaining open lines of communications between the United States and China,” was the Biden administration’s “readout” of the meeting.
“The national security advisor and our delegation raised directly and very clearly our concerns about the PRC’s support to Russia in the wake of the invasion, and the implications that any such support would have for the PRC’s relationship not only with us but for its relationships around the world, including our allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters following the conference. Nonetheless, little mention was made on that subject according to Beijing’s account of the discussion. On the contrary, “The key issue of this meeting is to implement the important consensus reached by the Chinese and US heads of state in their virtual summit in November last year,” was the focus of the discussions as the PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian’s official statement reads.
Additional reports from Beijing came in two tranches. The first “devoted an entire paragraph to chastising the United States for its approach to Taiwan, which Yang said was ‘obviously inconsistent with Washington’s stated commitment to the one-China policy,” according to The Diplomat correspondent Shannon Tiezzi. The second and shorter account of the meeting by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) foreign ministry was restating and “clarifying” the CCP position on the “Ukraine situation,” along with again explaining “China does not like to see the situation in Ukraine come to this point,” Tiezzi reported.
So, it’s probably safe to say the US desire to see China decline to provide Russia aid in its war on Ukraine was not advanced much in the meeting between Sullivan and his CCP opposite. Therefore, it’s time to send in the heavy hitters.
As a rule, a pre-meeting sets the stage for the ultimate decision-makers in foreign policy negotiations. In this case, it’s unclear whether Sullivan teed up successfully the US concerns about China backstopping Russia’s need for economic support and possibly military aid. A White House announcement on Thursday (March 17) described the upcoming call somewhat cryptically as “managing our countries as well as Russia’s war against Ukraine and other issues of mutual concern.”
Whatever direction the conversation between Biden and Xi takes, it would be helpful for Ukraine and peace in Europe if the PRC president could be persuaded to talk with Vladimir Putin about finding an offramp for the Kremlin that would end the killing of Ukrainians and re-establish Ukraine’s sovereignty. Moreover, since China has so publicly and fervently announced the relationship between Moscow and Beijing is an “unbreakable friendship,” that bond might allow for some counseling on how the Russian president might save face. “Pressure has built on Beijing to cut ties with Moscow in the wake of its invasion, and some US officials believe Xi is one of the few voices who might carry some influence with Putin,” Politico wrote.
The disaster unfolding in Ukraine does not in any way enhance the interests of Xi, but rather as each day goes by, increases the buyer’s remorse potential for building a relationship with Putin, who is presently a geopolitical liability. President Biden may well try to take advantage of this occasion to convince China’s leader of his opportunity to be a peacemaker.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
~ Read more from Dave Patterson.