Biden’s Call With China’s President Xi Doesn’t Appear to Have Changed Anything

Chinese media began posting details of the call hours ago, while it was in progress, a tactic they’ve taken lately in hopes of shaping public perceptions before the White House issues its own readout of what was said.

That readout is now available. It’s not super encouraging.

I suppose it was naive to expect a breakthrough today in which Xi formally put some distance between China and Russia on Ukraine, never mind the sudden turn against Russia in Chinese media. The call was advertised beforehand as an opportunity for Biden to threaten Xi with sanctions if China granted Russia’s request for military and economic aid. Under those circumstances, it was unrealistic to expect Xi to make any sudden concessions. To do so would have looked weak.

Maybe he’ll make those concessions quietly in the weeks ahead? A boy can dream.

China’s readout of the call focuses on Taiwan before shifting to Ukraine. The key bit comes at the end, warning the U.S. that slapping sanctions on China for helping Russia will hurt the U.S. economy too:

President Xi stressed that with the need to fight COVID-19 on the one hand and protect the economy and people’s livelihood on the other, things are already very difficult for countries around the world. As leaders of major countries, we need to think about how to properly address global hotspot issues and, more importantly, keep in mind global stability and the work and life of billions of people. Sweeping and indiscriminate sanctions would only make the people suffer. If further escalated, they could trigger serious crises in global economy and trade, finance, energy, food, and industrial and supply chains, crippling the already languishing world economy and causing irrevocable losses. The more complex the situation, the greater the need to remain cool-headed and rational.

A Times reporter read through these Chinese readout and concluded that if the White House was hoping Beijing will lean on Putin to wrap things up in Ukraine, those hopes have been dashed:

Another analyst also saw nothing in the readout signaling a change of China’s posture towards the war:

Is this noteworthy?

It doesn’t seem noteworthy to me. If China is quietly providing material support to a pariah state for an unpopular war, it naturally won’t advertise that fact. Whereas it would, of course, eagerly advertise humanitarian support for Ukraine.

This broadside posted last night by a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman also doesn’t scream “ready to assist!”

“The call is unlikely to produce any substantive changes to China’s position,” said one Chinese analyst to WaPo. “It will not pressure Moscow into a settlement or openly support sanctions because Beijing likely calculates that its relationship with Washington will not improve even if it does so.” According to one U.S. official, China has already responded to Russia’s request for help but the U.S. hasn’t revealed what that response was.

I suppose we can guess:

Rubio’s a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee so he really might know. There wouldn’t have been a call today or a warning from Jake Sullivan to the Chinese in Rome on Monday if the U.S. had reason to believe that China had turned Putin down, right?

Maybe China is calculating that the Russian offensive won’t last much longer even if it receives Chinese help, as it’s too logistically broken to continue. In that case, it might be worth giving Putin some token assistance as a gesture of goodwill and gamble that the U.S. won’t react with harsh sanctions, not wanting to risk even higher inflation at a moment of already sharp economic pain. Essentially it’ll be the same calculation NATO has made with respect to Ukraine, believing that it can provide some assistance to Zelensky without drawing retaliation from Russia so long as it doesn’t provide too much, whatever “too much” might mean. China may pursue the same course with Russia vis-a-vis the U.S., albeit while maintaining more of a position of overt neutrality about the war than the U.S. and European powers have.

Here’s Jen Psaki’s spin on what went down between Biden and Xi.

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