White House seeks softer tone on China ahead of Putin-Xi meeting

The White House has in recent weeks attempted to quash its rhetoric that China could potentially send lethal aid to Russia for deployment in Ukraine, an effort aimed at defusing heightened tensions especially ahead of Chinese President Xi’s upcoming meeting Jinping with Russian President Vladimir Putin to dismantle four current administrative officials and three former officials.

One of the concerns driving the softer tone is that harsher rhetoric towards China at this moment could backfire, pushing Xi into a corner where he feels compelled to send deadly aid to Russia rather than him from taking that step, officials said.

“We don’t want to lock down China,” said a government official.

A month after the first public announcement that US intelligence showed China was considering sending arms to Russia, the White House says the US has seen no signs that China has made up its mind. But there’s also no sign that Xi has taken the idea off the table, according to the White House.

Next Thursday’s meeting between Putin and Xi in Moscow has raised concerns in the Biden administration that it could result in China making a move to help arm Russia, if not by shipping specific weapons then by supplying Russia with much-needed parts to get it back on track as a military-industrial base, according to officials.

Russia has been mining household items like breast pumps and washing machines for microchips it needs for tanks and precision-guided weapons.

Government officials are concerned enough that China could provide Russia with support like these chips, which they have been using to discuss what types of sanctions the US might impose in response, officials said. Several options are being discussed for how such sanctions could be structured, officials said, as the harsher they are, the more likely they would be to negatively impact the U.S. economy.

Part of the White House’s strategy to tone down rhetoric about China’s consideration of arms for Russia includes a decision by senior officials – after some internal debate – not to make public the intelligence information the US says needs to support this claim , called officials. They said the government may decide to release and release the information at a later date, but for now the focus is on trying more privately to persuade China not to provide lethal aid to Russia.

“There is a feeling that the release will corner Xi, and he will end up supplying the weapons just so he doesn’t look weak,” said a former senior government official.

After initially sternly warning China not to provide deadly aid to Russia, including threats of retaliatory economic sanctions, senior government officials are now adopting more measured public tactics. That recalled approach includes officials noting that the government does not believe it is in China’s interest to supply the weapons and refusing to detail how the US would respond if it did.

Last month, for example, John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, responded to questions about China’s possible arms sales to Russia by making it clear “there would be consequences” and begging Beijing not to take such a step.

Foreign Secretary Antony Blinken struck a similar tone, promising a strong US response.

“For example, we will not hesitate to target Chinese companies or individuals violating our sanctions or otherwise engaged in supporting the Russian war effort,” Blinken said.

But when asked recently about a possible US reaction to China supplying arms to Russia for Ukraine, Kirby said, “I just don’t think it’s helpful to hypothesize right now what the consequences might be.”

Noting that Blinken “spoke about there would be consequences,” he added, “I think that’s probably better if we just leave it at that.”

The change of tone follows weeks of mounting hostility between the US and China after President Joe Biden attempted to mend torn ties by meeting with Xi last November.

However, tensions began to escalate significantly when China flew a spy balloon over the US earlier last month, prompting Blinken to cancel a planned trip to Beijing right on his scheduled departure, and culminating in the public indictment of the White House two weeks later that China is considering supplying lethal aid to Russia for deployment in Ukraine.

Officials said the government is still hoping to mend months of deeply strained relations that hit another low last month when China flew a spy balloon over the US and the US then accused China of sending arms to Russia.

“We want to try to find a better basis for this relationship,” said a second government official.

If China were to provide lethal aid to Russia, it’s hard to imagine how relations could improve anytime soon, officials said.

A spokesman for the National Security Council responded to a request for comment by referring to Kirby’s comments to reporters on Friday when he reiterated that the government remained concerned that China could supply arms to Russia but had seen no signs that a decision had been made.

Kirby also said ahead of the Putin-Xi meeting that any proposal by China to end the Ukraine war emerging from these talks should be viewed with skepticism, calling the 12-point plan Beijing recently put forward “one-sided.” “, since he benefits Moscow.

Xi’s meeting with Putin next week comes as Biden’s plans to hold a phone call with the Chinese leader fell through.

It has been more than a month since Biden said he expected to speak to Xi and that they were “getting to the bottom of” the spy balloon incident. But Kirby, the spokesman for the National Security Council, said Friday no call is planned and efforts to call one are not yet underway but could be made in the coming days.

The call would end a week-long exchange of sharp public barbs between China and the US

Biden accused China of violating US sovereignty with the spy balloon, and Blinken warned China that the US would hit Beijing with sanctions if Xi sent weapons to Russia.

Beijing accused the Biden government of overreacting to the spy balloon. And Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning said the US was spreading “disinformation” by accusing China of sending arms to Russia and calling it hypocritical given the Biden administration’s military support for Ukraine.

Just this week China said the US is on the path of “danger” by unveiling a multi-billion dollar nuclear submarine deal with Australia and Britain as part of efforts to stem China’s aggression in the Indo-Pacific.

Even Xi himself delivered a rare public, direct criticism of the US last week. “Western countries, led by the United States, have carried out an all-out containment, encirclement and suppression of China,” he said.

Still, the softening of rhetoric may not have a major impact on Xi, said Victor Cha, senior vice president for Asia and Korea at the Washington, DC-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Regardless of what the US says, Xi will do as he pleases after this meeting next week,” Cha said.

Source : www.nbcnews.com

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