Chinese President Xi Jinping is being tested by the Russian invasion of Ukraine as the Communist Party chief seeks to support Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime in the face of crippling Western sanctions and the prospect that those sanctions will hit China for any stepped-up support of the Kremlin in the intensifying regional war.
China’s main concern is not with the unfolding humanitarian disaster produced by the conflict, but with its own interests, analysts say.
CIA Director William J. Burns said last week that the Chinese Communist Party leader has invested heavily in a partnership with Russia.
“I don’t expect that to change anytime soon,” he told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “I do, however, believe that the Chinese leadership, President Xi in particular, is unsettled by what he’s seen, partly, because his own intelligence doesn’t appear to have told him what was going to happen.”
Russian and Chinese expectations of a rapid advance and takeover of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, followed by the installation of a puppet Russian government, have yet to be realized. Nearly three weeks into the fighting, none of Ukraine’s major cities is fully in Russian control.
The CIA director made the comments prior to recent U.S. reports that Moscow had asked China to provide military equipment and economic support in the aftermath of the invasion and the imposition of harsh Western sanctions that threaten to cripple large swaths of Russia’s industrial and financial base.
White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met for seven hours Monday in Rome with Yang Jiechi, a senior Chinese Communist Party official. During part of that previously scheduled meeting, Mr. Sullivan conveyed the Biden administration’s concerns about possible Chinese military and economic support for Russia in its Ukraine war.
On Sunday, Mr. Sullivan said in a television interview that there appeared to have been some coordination between China and Russia on the invasion planning.
“We also are watching closely to see the extent to which China actually does provide any form of support, material support or economic support, to Russia,” Mr. Sullivan said on CNN. “It is a concern of ours.”
The national security adviser said Beijing has been notified “that we will not stand by and allow any country to compensate Russia for its losses from the economic sanctions.”
He declined to comment when asked whether China is facing U.S. sanctions if the Chinese help Moscow circumvent U.S. and European sanctions.
A senior Biden administration official who briefed reporters on the lengthy Sullivan-Yang meeting in Rome also declined to discuss Russian requests for Chinese support.
“But what I would just say, in general, is that we 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,” the senior official said.
Chinese state media said only in passing that the Ukraine conflict had been discussed in reporting on the meeting between Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Yang, focusing more coverage on Chinese complaints about U.S. overtures toward Taiwan.
However, the Communist Party-affiliated People’s Daily quoted Mr. Yang as telling Mr. Sullivan that President Biden, in a bid to ease bilateral strains, had promised Mr. Xi that the United States was not seeking a new cold war and would not seek to change China’s communist system.
Mr. Burns, the CIA director, said China fears “reputational damage” from its alignment with Moscow and tacit backing for the Russian military aggression, which has included attacks on civilians.
Mr. Xi fears China’s economy, while large, will take a hit as a result of the Western sanctions on Russia, compounding Beijing’s lower than expected economic growth rates this year, Mr. Burns said.
Another setback for the Chinese leader is the renewed closeness between the United States and Europe that have joined forces economically to punish Russia. China’s two-way trade with the European Union, which has opposed Russia’s war in Ukraine, is far larger than Chinese bilateral trade with Moscow.
Beijing has been attempting to divide Europe from the Americans in a bid to expand its influence on the continent.
Mr. Xi also is troubled that Mr. Putin “has driven Americans and Europeans more closely together and strengthened the trans-Atlantic alliance in ways that would have been a little bit hard to imagine before the invasion began,” Mr. Burns said.
China has been seeking an independent relationship with European states and has been looking for ways to drive wedges between the United States and its NATO allies.
“What President Putin has so successfully done is to make that much less likely,” Mr. Burns said.
Chinese Communist Party leaders are set to hold a major conclave in November and want to have stability and predictability in the global economy.
The Russian invasion has upset global markets that have affected China.
“That’s raised some question marks in the minds of the Chinese leadership as they look at what is going to be an enduring partnership, but maybe with a few more concerns than they had 16 days ago,” Mr. Burns said.