“They claim neutrality, they claim they stand by principle, but everything they say about the causes is against the US, blaming NATO and taking the Russian line,” said Evan Medeiros, a professor at Georgetown University and Senior Asia Director in the White House National Security Council in the Obama administration. “The question is: How sustainable is that as an attitude? How much does it damage your relations with the US and with Europe?”
The Biden administration’s diplomatic contact with China to try to avert war began after President Biden and Mr. Xi held a video summit on Nov. 15. In the call, the two leaders acknowledged challenges in relations between their nations, which are at the lowest point in decades, but agreed to try to work together on issues of common interest, including health security, climate change and nuclear proliferation, they said White House officials at the time.
Understand Russia’s attack on Ukraine
What is the root of this invasion? Russia sees Ukraine as its natural sphere of influence and is unsettled by Ukraine’s proximity to the West and the prospect of the country joining NATO or the European Union. Despite not belonging to either, Ukraine receives financial and military aid from the United States and Europe.
After the meeting, American officials decided that Russian troop buildup around Ukraine was the most immediate problem that China and the United States could work together to defuse. Some officials felt the outcome of the video summit suggested there was potential for US-China relations to improve. Others were more skeptical but felt it was important to leave no stone unturned to prevent a Russian attack, an official said.
Days later, White House officials met with Ambassador Qin Gang at the Chinese embassy. They informed the ambassador what US intelligence had discovered: a gradual encirclement of Ukraine by Russian forces, including armored units. William J. Burns, the CIA director, had flown to Moscow on November 2 to confront the Russians with the same information, and on November 17 American intelligence officials shared their findings with NATO.
In the Chinese embassy, Russian aggression was the first topic in a discussion lasting more than an hour and a half. In addition to disclosing the intelligence information, White House officials told the ambassador that in the event of an invasion, the United States would impose tough sanctions on Russian companies, officials, and businesspeople that would go well beyond the sanctions announced by the Obama administration after Russia had conquered Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
US officials said the sanctions would also hurt China over time due to its trade ties.
They also indicated that they knew how China had helped Russia circumvent some of the 2014 sanctions and warned Beijing against such future aid. And they argued that China’s global image could suffer if Putin invaded, as it was widely seen as Russia’s partner.