Blunt US rhetoric heading into President Joe Biden’s call with Chinese President Xi Jinping suggests that a meeting of the minds on Russia’s brutality in Ukraine is unlikely, and reflects the current bitter tensions between Washington and Beijing.
Biden and Xi are due to speak at 9 a.m. ET Friday, with the US setting the stage for a stern warning that Chinese firms would pay a serious price if the Beijing government heeds Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pleas for military and economic aid.
The call will find the US surmounting one of its deepest-set foreign policy fears — risking an open clash with China while simultaneously facing down Russia — in another extraordinary geopolitical shuffle triggered by the Ukraine war.
It also puts Biden in the odd position of seeking the tacit cooperation of the nation seen as America’s most powerful rising foe to suppress its historic Cold War rival of the second half of the 20th century.
Given that China is known for ruthlessly pursuing its own interests and has no interest in shoring up the Western-led world order that Putin is seeking to buckle, it seems fanciful that Xi will choose what the US sees as the right side of history on the Ukraine conflict — at least until its own economic self-interest dictates a change of course.
And US-China relations are so toxic that many analysts had been predicting a new Cold War in the Pacific between the rivals, before the original version reignited in Europe with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine at the end of last month.
The theatrics of a call that will be closely watched around the world cannot be dismissed. Just by holding the conversation, and publicizing it heavily beforehand, Biden is sending a signal to Putin that his “no limits” friendship forged with Xi in Beijing shortly before the invasion may not be as significant as the Russian leader had hoped. The conversation also fosters an impression that Washington sees China as the key global power other than itself — instead of Moscow.
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