Ukraine war: Biden adviser Jake Sullivan to meet senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi amid tensions over Russia

March 13, 2022 GMT

China and the United States announced Sunday that senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan would meet Monday in Rome to discuss the crisis in Ukraine.

In separate statements released simultaneously Sunday morning, Washington and Beijing said that Chinese Communist Party Politburo member and Foreign Affairs Commission director Yang would meet Sullivan in Italy on Monday to exchange views on “regional” issues and to keep the lines of communication open.

The sides will “discuss the impact of Russia’s war against Ukraine on regional and global security”, the US National Security Council said in its slightly more detailed statement, attributed to spokeswoman Emily Horne, while Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian cited “international and regional issues of common concern” without mentioning Ukraine by name.

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This came as Russia said on Sunday it was counting on China to help it withstand the pain of Western sanctions, even as the White House warned Beijing it would face severe “consequences” if it helped Russia evade them.

On Sunday, the Financial Times and Washington Post reported that Russia has also asked China for military equipment and other assistance to support its Ukraine invasion, without detailing the type of equipment, citing US official sources.

The White House did not immediately respond. Liu Pengyu, Chinese embassy spokesman in Washington, said he was not aware of such a request, adding that all efforts must be made for a peaceful resolution.

“The high priority now is to prevent the tense situation from escalating or even getting out of control,” Liu said.

Punishing economic measures levelled at Russia by the US and over two dozen allies target its banks, tech industry, oligarchs, central bank, major exports and Russian President Vladimir Putin himself.

Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said in an interview on Russian state television on Sunday that sanctions had deprived Moscow of access to some US$300 billion of its US$640 billion in gold and foreign exchange reserves, adding that Beijing was under pressure to shut off more.

“We have part of our gold and foreign exchange reserves in the Chinese currency, in yuan. And we see what pressure is being exerted by Western countries on China in order to limit mutual trade with China,” Siluanov said. “But I think that our partnership with China will still allow us to maintain the cooperation that we have achieved, and not only maintain, but also increase it.”

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Foreign Minister Wang Yi said last week at the National People’s Congress that China’s friendship with Russia remains “rock solid”, describing their ties as “the world’s most crucial bilateral relationship” and “conducive to world peace, stability and development”.

Some 5,000 miles (8,300km) away, Sullivan told CNN’s State of the Union programme on Sunday that Washington was “watching closely” to see if China provides material or economic support to Russia aimed at circumventing the Western economic pressure campaign.

“It is a concern of ours, and we have communicated to Beijing that we will not stand by and allow any country to compensate Russia for its losses from the economic sanctions,” he said.

Sullivan added that he did not wish to “brandish threats” against economic rival China, but “we are communicating directly, privately to Beijing that there will absolutely be consequences for large-scale sanctions-evasion efforts.”

Analysts said Monday’s meeting is likely to see the US continue efforts to enlist China’s help in interceding with Russia.

“Ukraine will be a major focus--trying to urge the Chinese to tell the Russians to agree to a cease fire,” said Bonnie Glaser, Asia programme director at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “North Korea may also be on the agenda. Undoubtedly, Yang will voice Chinese complaints about US policy toward Taiwan.”

Both sides framed Monday’s meeting in the context of efforts to improve the troubled US-China relationship, a theme discussed in broad terms during a mid-November video call between President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping that has not seen much progress.

Yang and Sullivan will discuss “ongoing efforts to manage the competition between our two countries”, the NSC said without elaborating.

A senior administration official said the Rome meeting was planned for a while following the November Xi-Biden call given the importance of “managing strategic risks and keeping lines of communication open”. But this comes as Beijing has “aligned itself with Russia to advance their own vision of the world order” and the US side will “raise that very clearly”.

“But I won’t get ahead of what those conversations look like until they happen,” the official added. “This meeting is not about negotiating any specific issues or outcomes.”

The coordinated statements on the Yang-Sullivan sit down included few specifics, a pattern often seen before high-level conclaves to avoid raising expectations, as the global community struggles to find some way to de-escalate the crisis.

European Union foreign policy head Josep Borrell, among others, have touted China as a possible intermediary as the Russia-Ukraine war drags on, given Xi’s partnership with Putin and China’s extensive economic ties in Ukraine.

On February 4, in a choreographed display of solidarity on the eve of the Beijing Winter Olympics, Xi and Putin released a 5,300-word joint statement opposing Nato expansion and touting their “no limits” friendship.

But Putin may not have fully shared his plans with Xi, the state of Russia’s military or any intelligence it had on the strength of Ukrainian resistance, say US officials and spy agency chiefs.

China likely knew Putin “was planning something” before the Ukraine invasion, Sullivan told CNN on Sunday, but Beijing may not have understood the full extent of it because “it’s very possible that Putin lied to them the same way that he lied to Europeans and others.”

Sullivan also warned on NBC’s Meet the Press that whenever Russian starts accusing other countries of preparing to launch biological or chemical attacks, “it’s a good tell that they may be on the cusp of doing it themselves.”

In an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on Friday, Russian UN envoy Vasily Nebenzya alleged an extravagant biological weapons conspiracy between the US and Ukraine, including a plot to weaponise migratory birds and spread pathogens around the world and an “emergency clean-up” by Kyiv of a military biological programme conducted by Ukraine with Washington’s support.

US-China tensions have mounted over the issue after Chinese UN envoy Zhang Jun said Friday that Beijing had “noted with concern” Russia’s information and said it should be “properly addressed”.

The South China Morning Post was unable to verify the claims, which the US and Ukrainian governments have vehemently denied. On Friday, the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu, said the UN was “not aware of any biological weapons programmes” in Ukraine.

This followed Senate testimony this week by CIA Director William Burns that the Russian accusations may be part of a false flag operation. “This is something, as all of you know very well, is very much a part of Russia’s playbook,” he said. “They’ve used these weapons against their own citizens, they’ve at least encouraged the use in Syria and elsewhere, so it’s something we take very seriously.”

Beijing has abstained on UN votes censuring Russia and decried Western economic sanctions against Moscow even as it has called for peace talks. Chinese officials have also said Washington has little ground to stand on given its 2003 invasion of Iraq when it claimed that then-leader Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction although none was ever found.

Efforts to ease tensions, halt the fighting and mediate between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenshy in Ukraine, involving Israel, France, Germany and others, have so far proven unsuccessful.

These have dovetailed with several rounds of in-person talks between Moscow and Kyiv in Belarus.

The NSC also said that Sullivan would meet with Luigi Mattiolo, diplomatic adviser to Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, while in Rome to “continue coordinating a strong, united international response to President Putin’s war of choice”.

Sullivan and Yang last met face-to-face in an airport hotel in Switzerland in early October ahead of the Xi-Biden virtual meeting.

At that time, Sullivan raised Biden administration concern over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and provocative Chinese actions near Taiwan. And Yang told Sullivan not to “interfere in China’s internal affairs” and to respect China’s “sovereignty, security and development interests”, according to a Foreign Ministry readout.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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