President Biden’s visit to kyiv on Monday was an important symbolic show of US support for Ukraine and recognition of him for traveling to a war zone. But the biggest news from Ukraine in recent days may be the public alarm coming from US officials that China may soon provide military aid to Russia.
“The concern that we have now is, based on the information that we have, that they are considering providing lethal support,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CBS News on Sunday. “And we’ve made it very clear to them that that would cause a serious problem for us and our relationship.” US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield went further on CNN, saying Chinese military aid “would be a red line.”
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Concern is mounting after what appears to have been a contentious meeting between Blinken and China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference over the weekend. The United States pursued China for the meeting, hoping to restore relations after the spy balloon episode.
Mr. Wang eventually conceded the meeting, but China boasted in a subsequent public reading that the US had sought the bilateral session. The implication of the United States as supplicant was clear. Blinken later said China had not apologized for sending the balloon over US airspace and military sites.
Mr Wang reinforced the point in his public comments in Munich, chiding the US for what he called an “absurd and hysterical” response to the balloon. He also blamed the United States for being an obstacle to peace in Ukraine. Mr. Wang was heading to Moscow after Munich even as Mr. Biden was heading to kyiv.
The United States says China has provided Russia with technical and financial support for the war, but so far no weapons. Blinken’s alarm about the prospect is justified because it would exacerbate the conflict, increase bloodshed and make it more difficult for Ukraine to recapture occupied territory. It would also extend the war, further depleting the West’s arms reserves already stretched to the limit after a year of backing Ukraine.
To put it bluntly, arming Russia would be a new and explicit demonstration of China’s hostile intentions toward the United States and the West. It would certainly erase Beijing’s apparent desire since Biden’s meeting with President Xi Jinping in Bali late last year to improve US-China relations. It would also require a strong response from the US, which should include further economic decoupling.
But Xi and his war hawks may be willing to take that risk if they want to avoid a Russian defeat in Ukraine. China may want to bleed the West of its weapons and see if Russia can survive political support in Washington and European capitals for Ukraine. This would be silly and bad for China and the world, but the possibility is a more urgent reason for members of both parties in Congress to get serious about rebuilding America’s defenses.
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It appeared in the February 21, 2023 print issue as ‘China, Russia and the US ‘Red Line’.’