Just as they have recovered from the bizarre incident of using a jet fighter to down an alleged Chinese spy balloon over the Atlantic after it had flown over US territory a few weeks ago, top US officials including the secretary of state, the national security adviser, and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have now publicly floated “intelligence” saying that the Chinese leadership is “considering” providing weapons to Russia in support of its war against Ukraine.
US President Joe Biden, accused by the Republicans of being soft on China a year ahead of the cycle of the 2024 presidential elections, and his top officials have all noted that they have no information that the weapons have been delivered or that the plan was even close to be carried out.
Yet, as CIA Director William Burns put it, such a public warning of serious consequences if China were to provide weapons to Russia will help in deterring Beijing from looking into this option.
“We’re confident that the Chinese leadership is considering the provision of lethal equipment. We also don’t see that a final decision has been made yet, and we don’t see evidence of actual shipments of lethal equipment,” Burns told the US network CBS’s “Face the Nation” TV programme on Sunday.
On a different Sunday talk show, CNN’s “State of the Union,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said that “Beijing will have to make its own decisions about how it proceeds, whether it provides military assistance – but if it goes down that road it will come at real costs to China.”
Playing the same tune, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday said China has been providing non-lethal assistance to Russia through its companies.
A year after publicly citing intelligence information to predict Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the US is apparently now using the same technique to dissuade China in advance from cementing further its already strong ties with Russia.
While it is not common for top US officials to reveal intelligence information, the Biden administration believes this tactic was important to rally European support to back Ukraine in the ongoing stalled war with Russia.
In China’s case, Burns said the aim was to “deter” China “because it would be a very risky and unwise bet.”
When asked if the CIA knew where Chinese leader Xi Jinping stands on the issue, Burns said that “I think the Chinese are also trying to weigh the consequences of what the concerns we’ve expressed are about providing lethal equipment…Where’s the point at which, you know, they would run into some pretty serious consequences. And that’s what we’ve tried to make clear.”
US officials are aware of Beijing’s complicated stand in dealing with the war between Russia and Ukraine. On the one hand, Beijing has a strategic alliance with Moscow, and the leaders of both countries, Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, have openly criticised what they see as US hegemony over the international order and insisted on the need to build a new “multipolar world order.”
In the latest UN General Assembly Resolution calling upon Russia to pull out its troops from Ukraine and marking the first anniversary of the war on 24 February, China abstained from voting.
Yet, the US and its European allies were not satisfied that China refused to describe the Russian war against Ukraine as an “invasion,” being unhappy at its repeatedly blaming the West for fuelling the conflict by providing weapons to Ukraine and supporting its efforts to join NATO.
On the other hand, China, the world’s second-largest economy, has huge business interests with Europe at a time of deteriorating world economic conditions and great uncertainty.
After a costly three years of closure to halt the spread of the Covid-19 virus, and then finally taking the decision to open up, China definitely would not like to see those interests harmed if US intelligence on its intentions to provide weapons to Russia turns out to be true.
Chinese officials have strongly denied the allegations by top US officials that it has any plans to take a direct part in the Russia-Ukraine war, and it has pointed instead to the 12-point peace plan that Beijing has released on the occasion of the first year of the war.
In a “position paper” announced on Friday, China’s Foreign Ministry called for a resumption of peace talks, an end to unilateral sanctions, and stressed its opposition to the use of nuclear weapons.
The document reiterates many of China’s standard talking points, which include urging both sides to resume peace talks. “Dialogue and negotiation are the only viable solution to the Ukraine crisis,” it said, adding that China will play a “constructive role,” without offering details.
Despite claiming that the “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries must be effectively upheld,” the document fails to make clear whether it considers the Russian attack against Ukraine as a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, as Ukraine and its Western allies insist.
Much of the language used in the document appears to be targeted at the West. In a thinly veiled criticism of the US, the paper says that the “Cold War mentality” should be abandoned.
“The security of a region should not be achieved by strengthening or expanding military blocs. The legitimate security interests and concerns of all countries must be taken seriously and addressed properly,” it says, apparently echoing Moscow’s view that the West provoked the war through the expansion of NATO.
It also appears to criticise the wide-ranging economic sanctions imposed by the US and other Western countries against Russia. “Unilateral sanctions and maximum pressure cannot solve the issue; they only create new problems,” it said. “The relevant countries should stop abusing unilateral sanctions and ‘long-arm jurisdiction’ against other countries, so as to do their share in deescalating the Ukraine crisis.”
The paper was swiftly criticised by US National Security Adviser Sullivan. He said the war “could end tomorrow if Russia stopped attacking Ukraine and withdrew its forces.”
“My first reaction to it is that it could stop at point one, which is to respect the sovereignty of all nations,” Sullivan told CNN. “Ukraine wasn’t attacking Russia. NATO wasn’t attacking Russia. The United States wasn’t attacking Russia. This was a war of choice waged by Putin.”
The Chinese position paper was first discussed last week by top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi at a Security Conference in Munich, as he attempted to cast Beijing as a responsible negotiator for peace during a diplomatic charm offensive in Europe.
Wang visited Moscow on the final stop of his European tour and met with Putin on Wednesday. This raised expectations that a similar visit might be made soon to Moscow by the Chinese president. Such expectations might be another reason why top US officials have decided to leak US intelligence on alleged Chinese plans to sell weapons to Russia.
In his interview on Sunday, Burns noted that Russia’s war against Ukraine, and the ensuing worldwide response, has been of particular interest to China’s president.
“There’s no foreign leader who’s watched more carefully Vladimir Putin’s experience in Ukraine, the evolution of the war, than Xi Jinping has,” Burns said. “I think, in many ways, he’s been unsettled and sobered by what he’s seen.’
Last month, Taiwan’s top envoy to the US said that the island nation is learning important lessons from Russia’s invasion. Burns said the CIA does not believe that Xi has yet made a decision on whether to invade Taiwan.
“I think we need to take very seriously Xi’s ambitions with regard to ultimately controlling Taiwan. That doesn’t, however, in our view, mean that a military conflict is inevitable,” Burns said.
“I think our judgement at least is that President Xi and his military leadership have doubts today about whether they could accomplish that invasion.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly