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Blinken warns China over support for Russia’s war efforts


U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People, April 26, 2024, in Beijing.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People, April 26, 2024, in Beijing.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed "serious concern" about China's support for Russia's defense industry on Friday, warning Chinese leaders that Washington could impose sanctions over the matter.

Blinken's comments came in Beijing, shortly after he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other senior Chinese leaders during meetings that covered a wide range of disputes between the two powers.

Near the top of Blinken's agenda, U.S. officials said, was China's provision of items such as microchips, machine tools, and other items Russia is using to create weapons for use in its war against Ukraine.

"I told Xi, if China does not address this problem, we will," said Blinken.

For weeks, U.S. officials have hinted at further sanctions meant to deter China's provision of so-called dual-use items to Russia, which Washington says has been crucial to Moscow's war on Ukraine. It is not clear how far Washington will go, however, since cutting off major Chinese banks from the U.S. financial system also could hurt the U.S. and global economy.

At a press conference in Beijing, Blinken did not reveal details about any possible measures, stating only that the United States has already imposed sanctions on more than 100 Chinese entities. "We're fully prepared to act, take additional measures, and I made that very clear in my meetings today," he noted.

China has defended its approach to Russia, saying it is only engaged in normal economic exchanges with a major trading partner. In his public remarks Friday, Xi did not mention the Russia-Ukraine issue. Instead, he focused on the necessity for U.S.-China ties to improve.

"China and the United States should be partners rather than rivals; help each other succeed rather than hurt each other; seek common ground and reserve differences, rather than engage in vicious competition," Xi said.

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Blinken's meeting with Xi had not been previously announced but was widely expected.

U.S.-China relations stabilized last year, after Xi met U.S. President Joe Biden in California. At that summit, the two sides agreed to reopen military-to-military communication and take steps to reduce the flow of fentanyl, a dangerous narcotic responsible for tens of thousands of drug overdoses in the United States each year.

Blinken cited "important progress" on the fentanyl issue, even while insisting China needs to do more, including prosecute those who sell chemicals and equipment used to make fentanyl. Blinken also announced that both sides agreed to hold their first talks related to concerns over artificial intelligence.

Even as communications lines remain open, the United States and China continue to spar over a broad range of issues, including trade policies and territorial disputes.

The Biden administration is concerned about cheap Chinese exports, including heavily subsidized green technology products they say are undercutting U.S. companies.

During a five-and-a-half hour meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Friday, Blinken raised concerns, including the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, Chinese activities in the disputed South China Sea, and the need to avoid further escalation in the Middle East and on the Korean Peninsula, according to a U.S. readout.

China accuses the United States of inappropriately trying to contain its economic and military power. Following his meeting with Blinken, Wang said China-U.S. ties are "beginning to stabilize" but asserted that negative factors are "increasing and building," warning that the relationship faces "all kinds of disruptions."

"Should China and the United States keep to the right direction of moving forward with stability or return to a downward spiral?" Wang asked. "This is a major question before our two countries."

Big challenges

Analysts say any U.S. decision to impose sanctions over China’s provision of dual-use equipment to Russia would face significant challenges.

If the Biden administration were to cut off major Chinese banks’ access to the U.S. dollar, the move could disrupt U.S.-China trade, said Ian Chong, an international relations expert at the National University of Singapore.

Instead, the U.S. may decide to put limits on specific transactions or target smaller banks that have a more direct interest in Russia, Chong said.

Another challenge: dual-use items are notoriously difficult to track, since they often appear to be exported for non-military reasons with legitimate business partners.

“Those business partners can then sell those items to third parties, who can then continue selling those items down the chain until we get to the Russian military industrial complex,” Chong said.

Some patterns are easier to identify than others.

Last year, China’s export to Kyrgyzstan of ball bearings, which among other things can be used in the production of tanks, increased by more than 2,000%, according to Natasha Kuhrt, who specializes in China-Russia ties at King’s College London.

“There’s no problem in moving anything from Kyrgyzstan to Russia,” she added, noting that such transactions appear to be a form of sanctions evasion.

But as the United States ramps up pressure on China, few expect Beijing to make major concessions.

“It may actually make China closer to Russia,” said Artyom Lukin, a professor at Russia’s Far Eastern Federal University.

While China may be concerned about the economic impact of U.S. sanctions, there are also important psychological factors at play, he said.

“To me, it’s very much a question of pride, of China’s national pride. It’s not only about economic calculations,” Lukin added. “And if China submits to U.S. demands now, it will be a major precedent.”

However, many analysts note that China has made small concessions related to Russia, apparently because of U.S. and Western pressure.

“Already certain Chinese banks have stopped cooperating with Russian banks for fear of secondary sanctions,” Kuhrt said. “So, the U.S. can have an effect in that sense.”

But, she added, the broader China-Russia relationship will likely continue to thrive, given the common interests and worldviews of Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I think we have to really just put away any thought of being able to drive a wedge between the two,” she said.