The White House has sought in recent weeks to tamp down its rhetoric about China possibly providing Russia with lethal aid for use in Ukraine, an effort aimed at reducing heightened tensions particularly ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s upcoming meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to four current administration officials and three former officials.
One of the concerns driving the softer tone is that sharper rhetoric toward China on this issue at this moment could backfire by pushing Xi into a corner where he feels compelled to send lethal aid to Russia, rather than deterring him from taking that step, officials said.
"We don't want to box China in," one administration official said.
A month after first disclosing publicly that U.S. intelligence showed China is considering sending weapons to Russia, the White House says, the U.S. hasn’t seen any indications that China has decided to do so. But there are also no indications Xi has taken the idea off the table, according to the White House.
The meeting next Thursday between Putin and Xi in Moscow has raised concerns in the Biden administration that it could result in China taking a step toward helping arm Russia, if not by sending specific weapons then by supplying Russia with much-needed parts to rev up its 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.
Administration officials are concerned enough that China could provide Russia with assistance like those chips that they have been discussing what types of sanctions the U.S. might adopt on China in response, according to officials. There are multiple options under discussion for how to structure any such sanctions, officials said, given the tougher they are the more likely they would adversely impact the U.S. economy.
Part of the White House’s strategy of trying to tone down the rhetoric about China’s consideration of weapons for Russia includes a decision by senior officials — after some internal debate — not to publicly disclose the intelligence the U.S. says it has to back up that claim, officials said. They said the administration could decide to declassify and release the intelligence at a later time, but for now the focus is on more privately trying to persuade China not to supply Russia with lethal aid.
"There is a sense that making it public is going to back Xi into a corner, and he will end up supplying the weapons simply so he does not look weak," a former senior administration official said.
After initially issuing stern warnings to China against supplying Russia with lethal aid, including threatening to retaliate with economic sanctions, senior administration officials now take a more measured public tactic. That dialed-back approach includes officials noting that the administration doesn’t believe it’s in China’s interest to supply the weapons and declining to go into detail about how the U.S. would respond if that happened.
Last month, for instance, John Kirby, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, responded to questions about China potentially supplying weapons to Russia by making clear “there would be consequences” and imploring upon Beijing not to make such a move.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken struck a similar tone and vowed a stiff U.S. response.
“We will not hesitate, for example, to target Chinese companies or individuals who violate our sanctions or otherwise engage in supporting the Russian war effort,” Blinken said.
Yet when asked more recently about a possible U.S. response if China supplies Russia with weapons for Ukraine, Kirby said: “I just don’t think it’s helpful right now to hypothesize about what consequences might result.”
He noted that Blinken “has talked about the fact that there would be ramifications” and added: “I think that’s probably better if we just leave it at that.”
The shift in tone follows weeks of rising hostility between the U.S. and China after President Joe Biden attempted to mend frayed relations by meeting with Xi this past November.
Tensions began to significantly escalate, however, when China flew a spy balloon across the U.S. early last month, prompting Blinken to cancel a planned trip to Beijing just as he was scheduled to depart, and they culminated two weeks later with the White House’s public accusation that China is considering supplying lethal aid to Russia for use in Ukraine.
Officials said the administration still hopes to repair months of deeply strained relations, which reached further lows last month with China flying a spy balloon across the U.S., and the U.S. then accusing China of considering sending weapons to Russia.
“We want to try to find a better footing for this relationship,” a second administration official said.
If China were to supply Russia with lethal aid, it’s difficult to see how relations could improve any time soon, officials said.
A spokesperson for the National Security Council responded to a request for comment by pointing to Kirby’s comments to reporters on Friday when he reiterated the administration remains concerned that China could supply weapons to Russia but hasn’t seen any indications that a decision has been made.
Kirby also said in advance of Putin and Xi’s meeting that any proposal from China for ending the Ukraine war that comes out of those talks should be met with skepticism, calling the 12-point plan Beijing recently put forward "one sided" in that it benefits Moscow.
Xi’s meeting with Putin next week comes as Biden’s plans to hold a phone call with the Chinese leader have not materialized.
It’s been more than a month since Biden said he expected to speak with Xi and that they would “get to the bottom of” the spy balloon incident. But Kirby, the spokesperson for the National Security Council, said on Friday no call has been scheduled, and efforts to set one up are not yet underway but could be in coming days.
The call would cap a weekslong exchange of sharp public barbs between China and the U.S.
Biden accused China of violating U.S. sovereignty with the spy balloon, and Blinken warned China that the U.S. would hit Beijing with sanctions if Xi sends weapons to Russia.
On the spy balloon, Beijing accused the Biden administration of overreacting. And Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said the U.S. was spreading “disinformation” by accusing China of considering sending weapons to Russia and called it hypocritical given the Biden administration’s military support for Ukraine.
Just this week, China said the U.S. is on a path of “danger” by showcasing a multi-billion-dollar nuclear-powered submarine deal with Australia and the U.K. as part of an effort to check China’s aggression in the Indo-Pacific.
Even Xi himself delivered a rare public, direct criticism of the U.S. last week. “Western countries led by the United States have implemented all-round containment, encirclement and suppression of China,” he said.
Still, toning down the rhetoric may not have much of an impact on Xi, said Victor Cha, senior vice president for Asia and Korea at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Regardless of whatever the U.S. says, Xi is going to do whatever he wants to do after this meeting next week,” Cha said.