Bristling against U.S. claims that Beijing may be poised to send “lethal support” to help Russia’s war in Ukraine, China accused the Biden administration on Monday of spreading lies and defended its close partnership with Russia. Later the same day, China’s most senior foreign policy official arrived in Moscow for talks, according to Russian state media.
The remarks, by a spokesman from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, were part of a series of moves by China as the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, tries to keep Russia close — but also repair ties with Western powers. He has sought to preserve relations with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia while casting Beijing as a blameless onlooker in his invasion of Ukraine, trying only to coax Moscow and Kyiv into peace talks.
Over the weekend, the U.S. secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, indicated that he had evidence that, behind the scenes, Beijing was tilting toward stronger support for Mr. Putin and “considering providing lethal support to Russia in its aggression against Ukraine.”
Such a step would be a major shift for China, which has defended its broader economic, energy and political ties with Moscow but not supplied it with weapons, ammunition or other battlefield equipment for the invasion. Mr. Blinken said he had warned his Chinese counterpart that there would be serious consequences were that to occur.
Asked about the accusations from Mr. Blinken and other U.S. officials, Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, suggested that, on the contrary, it was the United States that was implicated in bloodshed in Ukraine.
“It’s the U.S., and not China, that has been incessantly supplying weapons to the battlefield, and the U.S. is not qualified to issue any orders to China,” Mr. Wang told a news conference in Beijing. Washington, Mr. Wang added, should “stop shirking responsibility and disseminating fake news. China will continue firmly standing on the side of dialogue and the side of peace.”
Mr. Wang was asked about reports that Wang Yi — China’s most senior foreign policy official — was due to arrive in Moscow. Mr. Wang, the top official, had attended the Munich Security Conference, where he met with Mr. Blinken and gave a speech defending China’s position on Russia and the war in Ukraine. TASS, the Russian state news agency, later reported that Mr. Wang had arrived in Moscow. Mr. Putin may meet with him while he is there, according to Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman.
U.S. officials are watching Mr. Wang’s trip closely, which comes after the Chinese official spoke in Munich in defense of Beijing’s straddling position on Russia and the war in Ukraine.
“We are deeply concerned by the expanded and extended crisis,” Mr. Wang, the top official, said when asked about the war during a question-and-answer session in Munich. He also hinted that he thought the United States had a geopolitical interest in perpetuating the fighting in Ukraine.
“Some forces may not want to see peace talks materialize,” Mr. Wang said. “They don’t care about the life and death of the Ukrainians, nor the harm to Europe. They may have strategic goals larger than Ukraine itself.”
China and Mr. Xi have been entangled in tensions between the United States and Russia since early last year, even before Russian troops poured into Ukraine.
Back then, Mr. Xi hosted Mr. Putin in Beijing for the opening of the Winter Olympics, and the two authoritarian leaders declared a friendship with “no limits” between their countries. Mr. Xi also endorsed Mr. Putin’s grievances against NATO, opposing its possible eastward expansion. Less than three weeks after that, Mr. Putin launched his sweeping attack on Ukraine.
Since then, officials in Beijing have defended their alignment with Russia, while insisting that they want peace in Ukraine and respect its sovereignty. In the eyes of Chinese leaders, their relationship with Russia is an essential counterweight against American power, said Alexander Korolev, a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Australia who studies Chinese-Russian relations.
“For China, Russia is a potential ally for its confrontation with the United States, and Xi Jinping will cash his check if there is a conflict between China and the U.S.,” Mr. Korolev said in a telephone interview. “I don’t think Beijing is happy about what Russia is doing, but it cannot afford to lose its only great power strategic partner.”
Even so, if China were to send weapons or any other form of “lethal support” to Russia for the war, that would likely deeply alarm Washington as well as European leaders, jeopardizing Mr. Xi’s efforts to rebuild his country’s connections with the world after three years of pandemic-induced isolation. Since late last year, he has been trying to draw closer to Germany, France and other European countries. He attempted to cool tensions with Washington, until a quarrel this month over a Chinese surveillance balloon shot down over the United States put that effort on hold.
Although the Chinese government has sought to promote negotiations rather than war in Ukraine, Beijing has not taken big diplomatic gambles to try to bring talks about.
Mr. Wang, the senior diplomat, said Beijing would soon issue a position paper detailing a plan for peace. But the paper is likely to affirm Beijing’s longstanding views, rather than offer a new approach, to judge from Mr. Wang’s comments.
“We will reiterate the propositions made by President Xi Jinping,” Mr. Wang told the audience in Munich. “We will also reiterate that nuclear wars must not be fought and will not be won.”
During their meeting in Munich, Mr. Blinken told Mr. Wang, the senior diplomat, about “a growing concern on our part that China is considering providing lethal support to Russia in its aggression against Ukraine,” Mr. Blinken later said in an interview with ABC’s “This Week.”
Mr. Blinken said, “I made clear, as President Biden has — almost from day one with President Xi — that that would have serious consequences in our own relationship.”
Mr. Blinken said the aid would consist of weapons and ammunition, but he did not offer specifics, nor did he describe the intelligence that the Biden administration presumably acquired to arrive at this conclusion.
Without more details to go by, it is difficult to judge what “lethal support” the Biden administration believes Beijing might consider providing, several experts said.
One possible concern to Washington may be Chinese-made drones, said Mr. Korolev, the expert on Russia’s relations with China. Beijing’s deepening military ties with Russia, including regular joint exercises and Chinese copies of Russian weaponry meant Chinese suppliers could be familiar with other military technology.
But, Mr. Korolev said, China may see little benefit from wading into the fighting when neither Ukraine nor Russia appears likely to collapse, or emerge as victor, anytime soon.
“China can keep sitting on the fence,” he said. “Even if China decides to support Russia, everything will be done to hide that.”
Drew Thompson, formerly responsible for relations with China under the U.S. Secretary of Defense, said that U.S. officials may have caught wind of Chinese military officials or arms makers discussing possible exports to Russia, and Chinese diplomats may not be aware of those discussions. He noted that he was no longer privy to U.S. government internal discussions.
“There does not appear to be a functioning policy coordination process in China,” said Mr. Thompson, now a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.
Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting.