As Chinese President Xi Jinping prepares for a phone call with his US counterpart on Friday, the war in Ukraine looms large — with Beijing's position on Russia's invasion under increasing international scrutiny.
Russia-China friendship: Though not military allies, China and Russia have in recent years burnished their partnership in trade, technology and coordination of military exercises, while becoming increasingly vocal about what they view as Western interference into their domestic affairs -- pushing back on US-led sanctions and often voting as a bloc in the United Nations.
The war began just weeks after Beijing declared a limitless partnership with Moscow. In February, Xi met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing — the Chinese leader's first in-person summit with another head of state in nearly two years.
The meeting saw the two leaders sign a 5,000-word joint statement that included an expression of their shared disapproval of NATO expansion — an issue that's been key to Putin's rationale for his assault on Ukraine.
Days before the invasion, Beijing continued to publicly dismiss US intelligence that a Russian attack on its neighbor was imminent. Views diverge on how much Xi may have known about Putin's true plans.
Precarious position: Since the war began, China has tried to project a neutral stance. It has not condemned Russian actions, and has refused to label the attack an invasion. Chinese diplomats have criticized NATO expansion and accused the United States of fueling the conflict. But they have also called for a diplomatic solution.
As the war drags on, experts believe Beijing's position is growing increasingly untenable — for two main reasons:
- Economic threat: If China lends support to Russia, it could violate Western sanctions. Chinese enterprises involved could then be hit by secondary punitive measures — potentially signing their economic death on the global market.
- Diplomatic threat: Beijing's stance could sink relations between China and major Western trading partners. Trade between the European Union and China topped $800 billion last year and US-China trade was over $750 billion, according to China's official data, while its trade with Russia was just under $150 billion. Even before the war, the US-China relationship was deteriorating over issues like trade, Taiwan, and Beijing's human rights record — and there were signs Europe was also hardening its outlook on China.
Potential consequences: Russia has asked China for military and economic support, according to conversations CNN had with two US officials — and the US has intelligence suggesting Beijing has expressed some openness to this request, a Western official and a US diplomat told CNN.
It is not yet clear whether China intends to provide Russia with that help, US officials familiar with the intelligence tell CNN — but according to the White House, Biden will lay out the potential ramifications of such an action during the call with Xi.