President Joe Biden sought to use a 110-minute video call on Friday to dissuade his Chinese counterpart from assisting Russia in its war on Ukraine, a pivotal moment that could determine the trajectory of the bloody conflict.
President Xi Jinping told Biden that both the US and China have a responsibility for ensuring peace, according to state media, an oblique suggestion he is uninterested in escalating the conflict. Afterward, however, the White House said its concerns over Beijing’s possible intervention haven’t been assuaged.
“We have that concern,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “The President detailed what the implications and consequences would be if China provides material support to Russia as it conducts brutal attacks against Ukrainian cities and civilians. And that is something we’ll be watching and the world will be watching.”
Senior administration officials described the call as “direct,” “substantive” and “detailed,” but would not offer many details about the lengthy conversation. The bulk of the leaders’ discussion centered on the war in Ukraine and the implications the crisis would have for US-China relations and the “international order,” an official said. But the administration refused to publicly detail what those consequences would be.
Biden’s goal in speaking with Xi directly was partly to ascertain where exactly the Chinese President stood, and it remained unclear afterward whether he’d gained much clarity. He did not make any specific requests of Xi, the White House said, choosing instead to offer a broader view of the international situation.
“China has to make a decision for themselves on where they want to stand and how they want the history books to look at them and view their actions,” Psaki said. “That is a decision for President Xi to make.”
At the Presidents’ request, US and Chinese officials will continue discussions in the coming days, the White House said. And Biden plans to discuss China’s role with other Western leaders at a snap NATO summit next week in Brussels, Belgium.
China’s statements about the war in Ukraine have stopped short of denouncing the invasion but also not offered explicit support. Xi has offered nominal backing for mediation efforts between Russia and Ukraine, but China has also fanned Russian disinformation about the conflict.
That all left Xi in a murky position, which the United States hoped to clarify through Biden’s call.
Already, the US had warned European and Asian allies that China had expressed openness to providing Russia with military and financial assistance, which Moscow had requested as its halting invasion stretched into a third week. But officials said Beijing was still formulating how to respond, upping the stakes for Biden’s intervention Friday.
China began offering its own account of the video call moments after it began, describing Xi’s message to Biden on state television.
“We must not only lead the development of China-US relations down the correct path, but also shoulder our international responsibilities and make efforts for world peace and tranquility,” Xi said on the video call, according to CCTV.
“The world is neither peaceful nor tranquil,” Xi acknowledged. “The Ukraine crisis is something we don’t want to see.”
At the same time, the Chinese readout did not explicitly blame Russia for the conflict nor denounce Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions on the ground.
The United States has watched warily as Xi cultivates a close partnership with Putin, believing the alliance of authoritarian leaders is positioning itself to oppose the United States militarily and economically. During high-profile talks in Beijing last month, Xi and Putin sealed their affiliation, declaring in a lengthy statement the relationship was limitless.
Yet Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has unsettled Chinese leaders, in part because the Russian military has suffered surprising losses and advanced more slowly than many expected. US officials have also said Xi was surprised by unity among Western and Asian nations in imposing punishing sanctions on Russia.
That combination of factors could lead China to reevaluate its potential involvement in the Ukraine war, US officials have said. That made the timing of Biden’s call with Xi critical as the US works to contain the bloodshed in Ukraine.
Ahead of time, American officials declined to say what specific threats Biden might make to convince Xi to withhold support for Russia. There have been ongoing discussions within the administration about potential steps, including sanctions.
It is widely assumed Xi will secure a historic third term in power during the Communist Party’s 20th National Congress in Beijing this fall. During such an important year, western experts believe Xi will be particularly mindful of the economic risks posed by secondary sanctions.
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. At the same time, China’s economy is growing more slowly than it has in decades.
Ahead of their conversation, American officials made clear the stakes of the conversation.
“The ask is that China needs to stand on the right side of history,” deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman said on CNN.
This story has been updated with additional developments on Friday.